The Wheel of time turns, and Ages come and pass, leaving memories that become legend. Legend fades to myth, and even myth is long forgotten when the Age that gave it birth comes again. In one Age, called the Third Age by some, an Age yet to come, an Age long past, a wind rose in the Borderlands, somewhere south of Fal Dara. The wind was not the beginning. There are neither beginnings nor endings to the turning of the Wheel of Time. But it was a beginning.
It blew through a sparse wood, through several clearings and ever northwards through the night, towards the reeking expanse of the Blight. It eddied around a rocky pool beneath a waterfall, where a small group of white-cloaked men were lying concealed, watching a gaunt, rubbery shape diving for fish. It blew onwards, through another stand of trees and into a small campsite where two men were sitting by a fire.
“Stupid wind makes my stump ache,” the thinner of the two said, pulling a drab black cloak tighter around his bony shoulders as best he could with just his left arm. The cloak did not move in the wind, but the silken garment underneath did. It was wildly garish, splashed with colour and not improved the slightest with layers of grit, dirt, and dried blood. “And it itches. Like there’s bugs crawling on it.”
“Let me see,” the other man said, and put down the two intriguing transparent swords. This was the man Carridin had been sent to keep an eye on, and so it was that he’d left his troop watching over the third member of the party, by far the oddest and most disturbing. Ba’alzamon had brought him and his men here unerringly, homing in on some sort of signal, and had placed them directly in the path of the travellers. It seemed odd that this Dragon, or perhaps False Dragon, was deferring to the one-armed man, but Carridin had long since stopped asking questions. He was more than happy to do his Great Lord’s bidding.
Logain had peeled away the knotted wrappings which seemed to be made out of more of the gaudily-coloured cloth. He stared at the wound for a long time, then murmured something. Carridin was too far away to hear it, or to see what the channeler was looking at.
“What do you mean, a new one?” the skinny man exclaimed, and tried to tilt his head and upper arm so he could see his severed elbow. “You mean it’s not bugs?”
“A tiny hand and forearm, Great Lord,” Logain said. “Look, its fingers move and everything.”
“Growing back,” the man snatched the strange dark lenses away from his face, and Carridin realised his error in judgement – it wasn’t a man, but a myrddraal. Now it was peering at its arm and grinning. “Look at that,” it said. “Growing back.”
“A true sign of your glory, Great Lord,” Logain breathed.
Now quite confused, Carridin shrugged to himself and stood. With a rustle of undergrowth, he stepped into the small circle of light cast by the fire, and raised his hands to show he carried no weapon.
“I come in peace,” he said. “My name is-”
“Fingtar, brother of Ingtar, right?” the myrddraal said, jumping nimbly to its feet and putting the strange eye-coverings back onto its face. It looked almost like a normal man, but thinner and freakier. “We’ve been waiting for you.”
This was a little outside his area of experience, but Carridin knew something was going on here that hadn’t been contemplated. It wasn’t unprecedented – the Nae’blis had made many changes in recent months, and the Darkfriends were getting better and better at moving with the sudden alterations in the script. Ba’alzamon, or Angamael as he preferred to be called, liked to keep everybody enthusiastic and on their toes, and this was likely another exercise. Use of initiative? Imagination? Some sort of drill? What would the Chosen wish him to do?
“I have been sent to find you,” he said to Logain, ignoring the halfman. “There is a third member to your party, is there not? A strange creature, the likes of which I have never seen before…”
“Oh yeah, he’s swimming in the pool and it’s death to trespassers and you want to shoot him,” the halfman was babbling. “Well, you can’t, because he’s part of our team and we need him. There’s good in him, I can feel it.”
Logain stepped between Carridin and the myrddraal. “What do you want, Whitecloak?”
“I was sent to find you,” the Darkfriend battled on. “It seems we follow the same power. I-”
“Aha! You want it, don’t you?” the halfman was backing away, a haunted look on its angular, white-skinned face. Carridin looked at Logain in absolute bafflement. Logain shrugged. “You would use it as a great weapon to destroy your enemies! To keep Gondor safe!”
Carridin glanced at the swords Logain carried. One of them, he knew, was Callandor, the Sword That Is Not A Sword, a great object of the One Power and a tool of Tar Valon witches. It would indeed have been a great weapon in the right hands. The two crystal swords looked identical, but one was obviously a forgery. His orders had not mentioned taking either one of the swords, but then, it had been a long time since he’d been updated. When Angamael had dropped him up here, it had been without a great deal of added instruction. He was to join the False Dragon, gain his confidence, and then await further orders. “I, um…”
“You can’t take it!” the myrddraal backed away further. “You would take it and use it out of the desire to do good, but the One Seal would use you to do great evil.”
“Fingtar, please. We take the Seal to Shayol Ghul to be destroyed. It’s the only way.”
The halfman sighed. “We might as well tell you the whole story. Then you can decide to let us go, without taking the Seal to use for your own glory.”
“I assure you, I had no intention of hindering-”
“At the dawn of time, the Seals were made, and given to all the peoples of the world,” the halfman stepped forward, groping in its cloak with its right hand. “But unbeknownst to everybody else, the Dark One made a Seal of His own, a ruling Seal, that would control and dominate all the others. One Seal to rule them all, one Seal to find them, one Seal to bring them all and in the darkness bind them,” it withdrew a bundle of knotted strings from around its neck, and clawed away the wrappings. He held up the hand-sized, black-and-white disc. “This Seal.”
Carridin stared. “This is the One Seal?” he hazarded. “I didn’t even know there was any such thing!”
“Now you know, Fingtar,” the myrddraal said. “That is why we are here. We head to Shayol Ghul, where we will throw the One Seal into the great fires, and destroy it forever.”
“And the other seals will be … released?”
The halfman nodded, and tucked the seal away. “So if you want to stop us, go ahead.”
“Oh no, I think perhaps some sort of armed escort…”
“We can’t do that,” Logain disagreed. “We have to get through the Blight, and approach Shayol Ghul itself. We have to do it quietly, and added men wouldn’t make it any easier. Not a hundred men, or a thousand, or a hundred thousand.”
“Who would try to stop you?” Carridin frowned. “Borderlanders?”
The halfman turned to Logain. “Would they?”
“But surely the Blight holds no fear for you,” Carridin persisted, “and the denizens of Thakan’dar would not hinder your quest. All you have to worry about is getting through Tarwin’s Gap without alerting the enemy at Fal Dara.”
“Oh yes. We have a plan about that. Getting through the, uh, Gap,” the myrddraal nodded. “Sméagol knows a secret way.”
Logain pointed. Carridin turned in time to see a creature as spare and limber as a halfman come trotting into the campsite, carrying several white bundles in one arm, and a small black barrel under the other. It smiled at him, showing a mouthful of needle-like teeth.
“I didn’t catch any fish,” it reported, “but then I found a nest of human beings. They were just lying around, so I killed them and took some of their clothes. They might help us get past the outposts,” he shook out a snowy white cloak with golden sunburst and several nasty brown-black stains on it. “We’ll need to wash them, of course,” he added. “I stabbed a couple of them with that dagger, and they all dissolved. It was pretty gross. I couldn’t even get blood out of them for my barrel.”
“Good work, Sméagol,” the halfman said. “Orc uniforms are just what we need. We could pass for little orcs, don’t you think?”
“Yeah, sure, whatever,” Sméagol replied. “What about this one?”
“What say you, Fingtar?” Logain said. “Will you let us continue?”
“Of course,” Carridin stammered. “That was never in question, not once I heard what you carried. But isn’t there anything I can do to help you in your quest?”
The three bizarre Darkfriends exchanged a glance.
Sméagol shook his barrel expressively.
The myrddraal nodded.
Two minutes and seventeen seconds later, Jaichim Carridin was dead.