Dr. Nick had the amazing bad luck to have gotten himself caught up in the most mind-numbingly boring plot-thread possible. And the worst thing was, it wasn’t even safe. He could have put up with spending month after month sitting in the mountains, or riding back and forth on a boat, if nothing attacked or threatened him in the process. But that was not to be.
No sooner had they arrived in Tanchico than the girls had taken control of the situation, and dragged him off looking for Darkfriends. The four Ogier, moaning and doing their gigantic best to cower behind the impressive-but-still-too-small figure of Cyberwollf, followed along meekly in spite of their affirmed terror. Out loud, they were intent on finding Loial and bringing him back to the stedding for his shotgun marriage to Erith, or whatever passed for a shotgun wedding in a world without greater firearms. Quietly, they had no such intentions, because they knew where Loial was and it was dangerous there so they were going somewhere else. If they had stepped into an even more dangerous place, at least they had lots of friends around to protect them. They were following along like puppy dogs, and Dr. Nick was forced to do the same.
He had to admit it was nice to be off the boat. His delight at his new post had lasted exactly seventeen minutes, when the youngest and most nubile Sea Folk girl had declared herself ‘all buttered up’ and departed, to be replaced by bilge-swabber Chorin ‘Knee-slap’ Del Gobai Six Sails, a weathered old veteran with breasts like a pair of Christmas stockings. A week before Christmas Eve.
If he’d taken the time to think about it before rolling up his sleeves and sitting down on the ‘butter-boy’ chair as quickly as his erection would allow, the whole concept would have become more clear to him. These were sailors. They spent the majority of their lives walking and climbing and bouncing around with no tops on. In the sun and the salt-spray. In the rigging. With ropes. And wind. And everything.
About the best thing you could say for any of them was that they had great skin. The problem was, most of them had way too much of it. And by the end of their first day at sea, Dr. Nick’s wrists and knuckles were swollen and he would never get the rank smell of guano-butter off his fingers.
To top it all off, Min had been reviewing her prophecy-visions, and specifically how they related to Elayne and some unknown other woman. Hoarni had reported with great wide-eyed glee that the two of them were ‘stumping’, which was evidently some sort of Ogier slang. Whatever ‘stumping’ really was, Dr. Nick had only heard an occasional low moan from the large rear cabins, and even that was drowned out by Knee-slap’s happy call, “I’m back, butter-boy, and I’ve got bilge-scrime all over my underflaps, so slippery yourself up to the elbows and dive in.”
The Aiel engineer shuddered. Oh yes, he was happy to be off the boat. He just wished he’d disembarked to somewhere better.
“So then I killed him, and people kept walking into the shop, so I killed them as well, until there was a pile of bodies at the door and they couldn’t come in through the door because there was only one door and there were bodies all over it.”
“Did I tell you about Gloff Bazfarrier?”
“Don’ fink zo, zuh.”
“Well, I killed him. I cut open this part of him across here, zzzwip, and then I slapped him in the kidneys and all of his entrails came out before he could move, and then I tied him up with his entrails before he could do anything, and when I pulled out enough of his gizzards his kidneys came out as well and I stuffed them into his mouth before he could scream. And then there was Eliana Jorelle. I killed her.”
“Zat zo, zuh?”
“Yeah it is. I killed her with a big long red-hot poker. But she wasn’t as fun as her son, a few years later when he’d learned the sword and decided to swear vengeance.”
“What happened’da him, zuh?”
Slayer was in absolute paradise. He had finally found the perfect audience. Smith never slept, never tired, never got bored and never complained. The giant forger had carried him most of the way across the country, and Slayer had told anecdotes all the way. And Smith still waited in seeming ignorance to hear the ending every time, even though the ending was always the same with minor squicky variations. And on their rare sojourns through Tel’aran’rhiod looking for signs of the Green Man, Slayer had been able to demonstrate some of his coolest moves, and Smith had been boundlessly impressed.
Or at least that was what Slayer chose to believe.
“We’ze almozzdt there, zuh.”
“Already?” Slayer climbed down from the forger’s broad back and looked out over the miniature landscape laid out before them. It was quaint, in a redneck hick country-fried sort of way. He shrugged to himself. He’d go wherever the Great Lord bid him, and this time it was here. “Can you sense the Green Man?”
“Oh well,” Slayer twinkled, and pulled on his floppy, feather-adorned Lord Luc-hat. “Let’s just go on down there, book ourselves a room, and have a hearty meal in the common room of the best inn. I’ll eat, and you can sit quietly. And remember. I’m a Hunter of the Horn, with many amazing stories to tell, and you’re my page-boy, and you have a glandular disorder.”
“You have a what?” Slayer prompted, his voice mild and friendly.
“Correct,” he grinned, patted the massive figure with a leather-gauntleted hand, and headed off towards Emond’s Field, working his way through several different types of swagger before finding the best one.
It was so nice to be back.
They’d been in the Cold Rocks Hold for a whole afternoon before the draghkar had swept down and done their crooning, pathetically effeminate best to kill the Dragon Reborn and his collection of little Maiden assistants. The draghkar lasted slightly longer than the trollocs and the halfman back at Imre Stand, mainly because they had flown into a narrow chasm and broken their wings, and nobody had found them until morning. Then they’d just walked up to the top of the chasm and dropped rocks onto the Shadowspawn until they stopped going ‘scree’ and started going ‘sgwish’.
Asmodean was rising to a slow boil.
“Didn’t you hear the Nae’blis? Were you in the room, or was that just your body sitting there nodding and smiling while your so-called mind went wandering around the Worlds of If? Did you actually listen when he told us not to use trollocs and fades and draghkar? You know he’s rallying the Blight for use elsewhere! You know there are other ways to deal with the Aiel! You knew that whole thing at Imre Stand was a waste of resources!”
“Yes, but I figured it couldn’t hurt,” Fain replied placidly. “I really would like to see a few more people die.”
Asmodean sat fingering his borrowed cloak for a moment, lost for words. “You crazy fuck,” he finally said. “You stupid crazy fuck, the Nae’blis told you not to use Shadowspawn out here! Where are they going to look for people to blame? You don’t seem to be aware that with the possible exception of that Tinker and his flesh-eating horse, we’re the most suspicious-looking group between here and the Spine of the World. Have you taken complete leave of your senses, or did they never check in in the first place?”
“Never mind,” Fain said firmly. “That’s enough of the criticism. Let’s just leave it at that. It’s happened, and now there aren’t any more draghkar so there’s no more trouble.”
“I wasn’t aware that our mission out here was to kill draghkar.”
“I thought our mission was to retrieve my dagger,” Fain replied ever so testily, “and it’s not even here. I could be out scourging the Two Rivers and enjoying myself, but I’m out here sweating and itching. And you know what else?” Fain twitched. “The Green Man is here. He makes my joints ache. And what makes it worse is, that awful forger is out there, scourging things I already bagsied, when he should be out here killing the Green Man. And I could get my dagger back. And you have the gall to tell me I’ve been messing up my orders?”
“Don’t criticise your betters, Fain,” Asmodean said slowly. “You really shouldn’t do that. You have no conception of the plans the Nae’blis has been laying all this time. And if you fool with them one more time, you mooncalf-”
“Bayle, kill him,” Fain said lazily.
Asmodean leapt to his feet. “Wait just a minute-”
“Oh boy oh boy,” the massive, wobbly shape of Keille Shaogi, through which patches of Domon had long since begun showing, lumbered to its feet. “I feel like all my birthdays have come at once, so I do.”
Forsaken_1 was almost asleep when the shriek rang out across Cold Rocks Hold. He leapt to his feet and was immediately swathed in tent. Swearing and muttering to himself, he pulled his colour-shifting cloak on, not bothering with the shirt and jeans. That was a mistake – it got cold in the Waste at night – but he was still slowly broiling from the previous day in the sun, so wanted to enjoy the cool while he could. He wondered, idly, if the white Questioner’s robe might be cooler in the sun. He reminded himself to ask Lan about it later, and then reminded himself not to be a dumbass. If he went near Lan, the former Warder would just throw another empty oosquai bottle at him.
Still muttering, Forsaken_1 stepped out into the cold. In the little silk tent next door to his, Moiraine slept soundly. He could tell from the comatose blob of emotions in his head that nothing short of a Chucky Bagpipe Intervention would wake his Aes Sedai that night. He would have taken some waking himself, were it not for the same bond feeding him strength and vitality beyond most normal men but not, he had to admit to himself, beyond him.
The scream had come from the peddler’s wagon. Several Aiel had already drifted over, and lanterns were coming on in the rocky houses down below. There was another scream, and the sides of Hadnan Kadere’s wagon billowed out as if afflicted with gas. There was a low-toned, crunchy, gobbly sort of noise.
The rear flaps of the wagon swept aside, and a figure stepped out.
Jasin Natael brushed thick, puffy grey dust off his hands and fluttery gleeman’s cloak.
“Hey,” Forsaken_1 said, hurrying over. “Are you okay?”
“I’m fine,” Natael said smoothly. “It was just … Keille.”
“What happened to her?” Forsaken_1 craned his neck, and looked through the little gap in the canvas. He saw a lot of dust, and Hadnan Kadere sitting with a completely gobsmacked expression on his face. He pulled his gaze from the scene, and saw the gleeman was smiling.
“Oh,” Natael said, “all her birthdays came at once.”
Debs and Janica sat uncomfortably close to the Car’a’carn. He was smiling, but the facial swagger was somewhat ruined by the miserable tears lurking beneath the brash surface. It was just about their first chance to be alone with the Dragon Reborn substitute since they’d begun their long trek across the Aiel Waste. Moiraine and the Wise Ones were all busily practicing their Healing arts on some twenty thousand wounded Aielmen, Aielwomen and Aielchildren who had been injured when a chasm had collapsed late the previous afternoon, burying part of the small city. Apparently the whole thing had started when a flock of draghkar had swept into the canyon, gotten themselves accidentally trapped, and then were bombarded by Aiel at the top of the cleft with stones. Then the whole thing, apparently sitting on a hidden faultline, had fallen in on itself in a great fanning cascade of stones and pulped bodies.
The cause of this disaster, Nancy “Shannon” Sidesaddle, was sitting cross-legged on the floor of Vamps’s tent in the bulky skirts of a Wise One, with a disgruntled expression on his face. He’d apparently been sent to watch the Car’a’carn for the Wise Ones, who were also teaching him to Dreamwalk in the absence of Aviendha and Egwene. This whole unfortunate series of events illustrated louder than words Shannon’s effect on the narrative pattern of the world in which they lived, which might just come in handy one day.
So they didn’t have Puddin Taim all to themselves, but it was the best they could ever expect.
Vamps himself was sitting as if on a throne, although it was a simple canvas-and-iron folding chair made by a local blacksmith of Cold Rocks Hold. He was doing his very best to look regal and very cool, but his eyes were shifting nervously, lingering on the corners and darting, wide and frightened, to the gently-waving roof of the tent. Every so often he would reach up and scratch the back of his neck vigorously. Whenever Moiraine could muster up the energy, she would attempt to Heal the angry boils and pimples that were exploding across the Dragon’s neck and shoulders, but her efforts never seemed to have much effect. Maybe because, as she so eloquently put it, even with an angreal she didn’t have enough strength in the One Power to light a fart.
“So,” Janica said, as patiently as she could, “the Car’a’carn is the son of a Maiden. Tell us about your mother.”
He twitched. “My mother? What about her?”
“I mean your mother, Puddin Taim’s mother,” the damane explained. “It’s important. You seem to have a more integrated character for some reason within the Adventure. You have relatives.”
“Or ye thenk ye do,” Debs muttered. There were two basic schools of thought concerning Muffin Vamps and Puddin Taim, and his strange immersion into the storyline. He seemed to be getting stuck in the prophecies. He had family members and an actual name. Other alt.fanatics around the place were embedded in similar ways, but not so much.
Janica thought it was a mistake in the Adventure. Debs thought it was because Vamps was compatible with the Adventure’s ‘bullshit matrix’, on account of his being so full of crap that it was a wonder he didn’t spill on the all-too-numerous occasions he opened his mouth.
“Well,” Vamps said, carefully, “mom’s pretty tough,” he twitched.
“Don’t scratch that,” Shannon said, in spite of himself.
“It’s just my balls. They’re part of my sexual organs. My sexual organs for sex.”
“Your mother,” Janica half-shouted as Shannon began to choke on the chewing-tobacco he’d been given by the peddlers. “Do you think she was a Maiden? If she wasn’t, we’ll have to go with Rand’s mother and father instead.”
“Well, she might not have been a maiden by the time Maizecake and I were born.”
“Maizecake? Oh, wait,” Janica sighed. “Mazrim’s real name, right?”
“Mom never called him Maizecake after the … well, after he left,” Puddin shifted in his seat, tried to scratch his testicles again and whimpered. He looked mournfully at his poor burned hands, poked briefly at his poor wounded side, looked with brief hopefulness at the tent door, then sighed bravely. “He changed his name, and she stuck with that. But as for being a maiden … well, she’d always hit us if we talked about sex. Not that I ever talk about sex. Always too busy doing it to talk about it, me. Ask me about Sailor Moon.”
“Some other time. Nancy – Shannon – will you please spit that out?”
“Shorry,” Shannon spat a long brown plume of juice onto the sandy floor. “So basically, we’ve got this guy whose mother might be a Maiden, and all the Aiel done gone believed he’s the Car’a’carn. We jus’ needs to make sure he does them thar thangs Rand was gonna done. And I cain’t remember what they were.”
“Die,” Vamps said miserably, then stuck out his chin. “Not that I’m afraid of dying, I’d do it every day if I had to, you know, that’s the sort of person I am.”
“Yes,” Janica sighed. “Anyway, we’re three or four days out of Alcair Dal, but we’re apparently not in any hurry because the rest of the clan chiefs are still on their way there … Debs, are you paying attention?”
“You’re not. You’re thinking about Logain. Or maybe Sean Bean. Or maybe…” she shuddered as ten Debsfuls of frisson slammed through her, “…yes. Both of them at once. Stop it.”
Janica looked around at the small collection of people upon whom the future of the narrative seemed to depend. It was just as well she couldn’t see them properly – that meant she could pretend they were halfway useful for anything.
“I was watchin’ Asmodean, if that’s who Jasin Natael is,” Shannon said in as businesslike a manner as his irretrievable redneckery would allow. “We all saw him kill that thar Darkfriend woman, and he’s been foolin’ around with the Shaido the way he’s s’posed ta accordin’ to the story. But the rest o’ that team just ain’t right. For a start, Kadere is Padan Fain. And I reckon that Shaogi woman was a man. Lanfear don’t seem to be here at all. An’ it was meant to be Keille Shaogi killin’ Kadere, but it went all different like.”
“I don’t think it’s a huge problem. We just have to hope the Aiel keep on accepting Vamps as the Car’a’carn,” Janica said, “and when we go back over the Spine of the World, we’ll have to think of something else.”
“Why not just tell the truth?” Vamps suddenly spoke up. Shannon spluttered.
“That probably will’nae work,” Janica managed to point out. She doubted any of the Tairen High Lords would accept the fact that they were NPCs in a live action role playing adventure of slightly more-than-usual realism. “We’ll have to keep our hopes pinned on Logain turning up, and try to convince everybody that the Dragon and the Car’a’carn prophecies are about two different people.”
“Why won’t the truth work?” Vamps tried to flare, but ended up just looking flushed and stupid as usual. “I always tell the truth except when I lie but I never lie, and it always works for me. Just say that Logain Ablar was a False Dragon, and that I’m the real Dragon if I have to be, and I’m going to save the world. Because nobody else can,” Vamps concluded with a timely chin-jut.
Janica was about to respond when here was a pattering noise from the front of the tent. It was a noise the little damane could recognise even without being able to see – the noise of somebody trying in vain to knock on a door that was made of canvas, and not quitting even when it turned out to be impossible.
“Come in, Eff,” she said.
The tent flaps opened and the Warder stepped in. He was, thankfully, wearing pants as well as his cloak today. Even Janica had been shocked at his appearance the night before. This had been shortly after the landslide that had killed all the draghkar and Aiel, and of course the Darkfriends in the peddler’s wagon had been responsible for it. But there were differences, and what else might have changed? Only one thing was certain. Forsaken_1 would not be able to help.
“Hi,” Forsaken_1 said. “I just thought you ladies would like to know-”
“I ain’t no lady,” Shannon growled.
“Me neither,” Vamps added.
“Keep kidding yourselves,” the colours of his cloak swirled as he shrugged. “Anyway, I thought I’d let you know that I’m still here, and still helping out, you know. Still around. Doing stuff.”
“Whut d’ye want?” Debs grunted.
“I thought you’d be interested in hearing that Chucky’s right here in Cold Rocks.”
“What?” Janica leapt to her feet, almost pulling Debs’s arm out of joint. “Here? How could you tell?”
“Rampagin’ faggot’s intuition?” Shannon muttered.
“I could just tell,” Forsaken_1 said loftily. “He’s hanging out with the peddlers. You know after the accident last night, when they pulled off the walls of the wagon and dusted everything to get the stuff out, and it was all through their clothes and everything?”
“And one of them kept growling and jumping at the dust bits, and ended up biting the wheel,” Janica nodded.
“An’ that horrible thing on the bed…” Debs added, sending a wave of revulsion through the a’dam.
“Right,” Forsaken_1 looked pleased with himself. At least, he puffed up and sounded pleased to Janica. “Anyway, they were pulling out their bags and beating the dust out of them, and I saw that one of the seats opens up, the cushion is on a hinge and the base of it is a box. And it moved. I think he’s inside there, or they put him in there while they were cleaning. Also, did you notice how Natael has a gleestaff?”
“It’s a stick,” Vamps said doubtfully, looking down at his hands mournfully.
“Right. Only one other gleeman I know had a gleestaff.”
“Chucky! Chucky must have told Natael that gleemen have gleestaffs, and of course Natael believed him because Natael is Asmodean and he’s been asleep for like a million years. Plus, I recognised the patched cloak.”
“But they’se all the same,” Shannon frowned. “Multicoloured fluttery patchy critters.”
“No, they’re subtly different,” Forsaken_1 disagreed. “I’ve seen one or two others in my time. Once, when we were in … oh, some town or other…” he trailed off. “Anyway, I know his cloak. Because he pulled off all the green patches and gave them to Mister C, er, Mister See of Mayene. He was going to make a hat.”
“How did you put all that together?” Janica said, grudgingly impressed.
“Homo power,” Shannon ventured. Forsaken_1 ignored him.
“We’ll go and find him,” Janica said, tugging the a’dam insistently. “And you,” she pointed in Vamps’s general direction, “you stay here and try to be the Car’a’carn a bit. If the Maidens come-”
“I could tell you about Maidens coming,” Muffin Vamps blurted, and then looked a little rueful. “Sorry.”
“If the Maidens come,” Janica raised her voice, “tell them that they carry your honour. And try not to be too much of an ass. Right, Eff, you’d better lead on.”