The next morning dawned fine and sunny in Tar Valon, and the al’Smiths were packing for their camping trip.
It had become something of a tradition for them, in the many years since their marriage. They’d return to the place where they met, back during the Aiel War, and relive old experiences with the perspective of years. Jon would take the day off his duties as stock exchange crier at the local marketplace, Vera would tell her friends to cover for her at the needlework class, and they would take their little two-seater wagon up to the slopes of Dragonmount, where they would enjoy a day of complete abandon in the relative privacy of the seldom-visited mountain. On their first return to Dragonmount, at right about the moment of crisis, they had been interrupted by a gawping tour group from Cairhien. The al’Smiths still remembered the event with a rueful smile.
“Why not take a woodcut, it will last longer!” Jon had cried, and several of the tourists had. Cairhienin were absolutely shameless but, the al’Smiths had to admit, they had not been the ones lying naked on the slopes of Dragonmount, playing the game of Kinslayer’s Pink and Purple Dagger. Of course, back then they had been a lot younger and prettier, and Vera had been far hotter of blood. She had wanted to go after the Cairhienin and reclaim her honour, but Jon had talked her out of it. With everything else, the anger and bitterness had faded over the years, but their love remained strong.
It had been almost half a year since their last visit to the old getaway, and they were both very much looking forward to it. They packed the bottles of sweet berry wine and the provocatively-shaped vegetables with many a giggle and an amourous exchange, and when they were interrupted by a knock on the door, they burst out laughing.
“Perhaps the Cairhienin are taking bookings this time,” Vera suggested, and went on with her packing while Jon went to the front door. They lived in a pleasant little apartment with lovely views of the south face of the White Tower. At least, that was how it had been advertised, and the newlyweds hadn’t stopped to think that, down on the south side of Tar Valon, every little lean-to had views of the south face of the White Tower. The neighbourhood had improved a lot since then, of course, with new regulations dealing with homeless and unemployed people. And in recent months, things had improved still further. The new resolutions undertaken by the White Tower had improved standards of living no end, and even the dissidents and university student protesters were happy.
Jon al’Smith opened the door and smiled vaguely at the rather lovely young woman waiting there. She was pale, dark-haired and with glorious dark eyes. She was garbed all in white, with a narrow belt of silver around her waist. She was carrying a strange cylindrical object in her arms, that looked something like a small wine-cask made of crystal. It seemed to be filled with white wine, or perhaps honey-mead.
“Can I help you, young mistress?” he asked politely. Lovely though she was, she was young enough to be his daughter.
“I am looking for Jon and Vera al’Smith,” she said, and swept into the house. “You are Jon al’Smith, are you not?”
“Yes, yes I am,” he replied, and followed the strange girl into the kitchen, where Vera was packing extra butter with a wide smirk on her face. “What is this about?”
“You met during the Aiel War, where you fought on opposing sides but accidentally ended up together. You, Vera, allowed yourself to be touched but not wounded by Jon, and you named yourself gai’shain to him in breach of tradition. In time, you fell in love and decided to make a new life together, and you did so for many years without forming a family. You had thought it impossible. Six-and-a-half months ago, you were on Dragonmount,” she went on, placing the glass cask on the kitchen bench and facing the two elderly people. Jon looked at it more closely, and saw an odd little symbol etched into the glass in the centre of the cylinder. Beneath it were the words ‘AGINOR BIO-WEAPONS CORPORATION’, and a couple of other gibberish phrases that he couldn’t make out. “You engaged in sexual intercourse,” she continued, “and you conceived a child.”
Jon and Vera exchanged a glance, wondering if this young lady was from the census bureau. She didn’t have an Aes Sedai face, but she might feasibly be an enthusiastic newly-raised.
“Yes,” Jon said. “It was like a gift from the Creator. We have always wanted a child, be it a boy or a girl.”
“It’s a boy,” Lanfear said, and embraced saidar. “It is Lews Therin Telamon Reborn. It is my eternal beloved, and I am here to take what is mine.”
She wrapped Jon in a net of Air, set it to constrict, and tied off the weave. While he screamed and gibbered and crunched, she turned her attention on the terrified Vera. This time the weaves were more complex, piercing her and severing parts of her body, vivisecting her without disrupting the vital systems within, holding the shuddering body still in its final throes of agonised death. She unscrewed the lid of the artificial incubator, raised the pulsing foetus in delicate flows of Air and Water, and dropped it into the rich, specially-designed nutrient-solution. She closed the lid, activated the regulating ter’angreal, and released the Source. The former-al’Smiths fell to the floor with a pair of liquid splatters.
Lanfear channeled one more time as she walked out through the front door, carrying her unborn husband with her. With an unnatural roar, flames leapt up and engulfed the lower level of the apartment.
Soon, the entire block was gone.
Muffin Vamps, or perhaps Puddin Taim, looked down from his high balcony at the city of Rhuidean. There were still puddles lying around from the deluge, and some of the buildings had been chipped by hailstones and flying debris. Down below, Aielmen struggled to load ter’angreal and other assorted ornaments into wagons. Every now and then, one of them would fall over and either impale himself, drop everything into an improbable pattern, or decide to marry the person closest to him. The inevitable result was a lot of fights, but inter-clan vendetta had so far been avoided. The work, on the other hand, could have been progressing faster.
As he watched, one of the wagons fell into a hole with a splash. The water-table under Rhuidean was uneven at best, and coupled with ta’veren shiftings, inexplicable earthquakes and cave-ins were becoming the norm. Fortunately, everything fell off the wagon at the same time, and nothing was lost or damaged.
With a sigh, the Car’a’carn turned back to his audience. Rhuarc of the Taardad, Bael of the Goshien, Jheran of the Shaarad, Han of the Tomanelle, Bruan of the Nakai, and Erim of the Chareen were arranged around the room, the weird dragons on their arms glittering in a complete and accusatory absence of googly-eyed Union Jackity. On a little couch in a far corner, the gleeman Jasin Natael plucked unenthusiastically on a makeshift lute.
“Who were you talking to, Car’a’carn?” Rhuarc asked, a puzzled expression on his face.
Vamps scratched at the back of his neck, and his fingers came away with clumps of skin and yellowish meat under the nails. He nibbled at it casually. “What was I saying?”
“Something about killing somebody and eating the body,” the enormous Bael said. “I was wondering if you meant one of us, or one of the Clan Chiefs who is absent, or somebody else.”
“He was talking about the Forseeken,” Debs and Janica strode into the room, trailed by a disgruntled-looking Moiraine. To say she looked disgruntled was something of a fallacy – the Aes Sedai looked as if she had never been within a thousand leagues of a gruntle in her entire life, and wouldn’t know a gruntle if it stepped on her foot. She’d probably plant her boot in its rear end, however, without difficulty. She was accompanied by Forsaken_1 in his colour-shifting Warder cloak. “The Car’a’carn has concerns that extend beyond the ken o’ mortal scunners.”
“What?” Erim said.
“Who is this Ken of whom you speak?” Jheran demanded.
“Puddin Taim has many concerns,” Janica said loudly, “and some of them are far beyond the abilities of lesser men to comprehend,” she couldn’t see, but she knew Vamps would be swelling with pride at the implication that he wasn’t a lesser man and may, in fact, have been a morer man. “He has enemies that span Ages.”
“And he’s mad as a hoomless heelander,” Debs muttered under her breath.
“And if any more of you giant muscleheads have any questions, you can direct them to the other side of this door,” Moiraine snapped, pointing a tiny, imperious finger. “Out. All of you. Now.”
“Not you, Vamps,” Janica said wearily.
“Yes, mistress Janica,” Puddin Taim said meekly, stopping halfway to the door three steps behind the Clan Chiefs. Once the room was cleared, Moiraine closed the door and stared at it intently. Vamps shivered and rubbed his upper arms briskly. “It’s cold in here.”
“Fuck,” Moiraine muttered, and turned to Debs. “Ward of secrecy, if it’s not too much Ghul-damned trouble. I can’t even block the keyhole.”
“Are you getting weaker?” Janica asked, and Vamps shivered again. Debs drew on the a’dam and wove something around the room that might have been a ward of secrecy, and might have been a wobbly box of Air with threads of Water through it that caused condensation to form on the walls. In the corner, Jasin Natael groaned and covered his eyes. “I thought we gave you another angreal.”
“What, that pair of chain-mail panties?”
“They were the only ones that worked for you,” Janica, who hadn’t liked it any more than Moiraine had, spoke up wearily. “All the others seemed to require too much channeling.”
“An’ ye coulda worn ’em on yer heed,” Debs added.
“I could eat out of the same horse-feeding trough as Cow and Bela, too, but it ain’t gonna happen.”
“She’s Welling,” Natael said suddenly.
Everybody looked down at Moiraine’s waistline.
“No I’m not,” the Aes Sedai snapped. “And anyway, I changed out of the fucking things as soon as I realised they were … causing cycle problems,” she cast Janica a dirty look that Janica was uniquely structured to ignore.
“No, it’s a malady that I, ah, read about while I was, um, earning my gleestaff,” Asmodean wiped his brow. “It mainly affects female channelers, but it’s not unheard-of in men. You know, of course, that a Well is a ter’angreal used in areas where the One Power is dampened. It stores up saidar or saidin and a channeler can use it.”
“Aye, but ye were’nae supposed tae mention ’em fer another four bukes,” Debs muttered. Janica elbowed her.
“Well, I was told this story once-”
“Just for the record, I don’t believe a Ghul-damned word you say when you go on about learning things for gleeman training and hearing stuff about all this in stories, and it makes me very suspicious and I’m not fooled for a second about where you really got this information and I know you’re some sort of Darkfriend,” Moiraine interrupted. “And also just for the record, fuck.”
“Yes, well, anyway,” Asmodean cleared his throat, “when a channeler is shielded for a long time – or maybe when he or she is severed I mean stilled, and then Healed, though I don’t know anything about that because it’s never been done before … sometimes when a channeler is restricted in their use of the One Power, then regain access, they will form a sort of Well inside themselves, and access that instead of the Source. Of course, they still can’t use it when they’re shielded or anything, but it’s a subconscious thing. When they think they’re accessing the Source, they are, but not fully. They’re really accessing their own little stockpile, and using that stockpile to do whatever they need. At the same time, they replenish the stockpile with saidar or saidin that they’re actually channeling, and this double-usage seriously depletes operational effectiveness. Not only that, but the stockpile grows gradually smaller and smaller, as access depletes it and the replenishing never quite tops it up.”
“Sort of like a rechargable battery,” Janica mused.
“Yeah, exactly, like whatever that thing you just said is. The net result is that the channeler seems to be getting increasingly weak, until the ability is literally extinguished. It’s a psychological problem, as I said, and I don’t know if there’s a cure. Then again, I didn’t know there was a cure for being severed either.”
“There isn’t a cure for stilling,” Moiraine snapped. “And I haven’t been stilled. Everybody always asks me how I ended up losing my ageless features and looking as though I was a young woman again, and I tell them to mind their damn business.”
“We told you about our Healing-” Janica protested.
“And it was horseshit! That’s why you’ve never demonstrated it since!”
“There wasn’t anybody else stilled!”
“Anyway, your Warder Foreskin told me about it,” Natael strummed quietly on his lute.
“My Warder Foreskin wouldn’t know if his cock was on fire.”
“Hey,” Forsaken_1 pouted. “I’m right here.”
“Anywee,” Janica said in her overruling voice, “we found this down in the square, and thought we should let you know,” she held up the black-and-white disc of another Seal to the Dark One’s prison. “It’s soft. You can scratch it with a knife.”
“It might be a fake,” Vamps suggested.
“Or the Seals might be weakening,” Moiraine snapped, “because that would make a fuckload more sense than people making fake cuendillar that could be scratched with a cunty little knife.”
“Hang on a minute,” Forsaken_1 raised a hand diffidently.
“I’m not taking it back,” Moiraine growled. “You really wouldn’t know if your cock was on fire. I’d probably know, because you’re bonded to me, but you wouldn’t. You’d say, ‘what’s that smell, it’s like bacon, but there’s a hint of burning hair to it’…”
“No, I was just thinking, why don’t we make a bunch of fake Seals and put them into circulation? Aren’t the bad guys after the Seals too? If they get them, they’re going to smash them, and we want to stop that, right? So we make a bunch of porcelain ones, and since the real Seals are getting breakable now, the bad guys won’t know which ones are real and which aren’t. So they’ll find a bunch, and smash them, and when they realise there are more than seven of them…” he trailed off. “I don’t know,” he concluded. “But it’d confuse them.”
“And in the meantime, we hang onto these real ones,” Janica said. “It doesn’t make our job much easier, but it would confuse them.”
“It’d confuse everybody,” Vamps said, touching his injured side tenderly.
“We’ll fine-tune it a bit,” Janica said. “In the meantime-”
“In the meantime, we need to think about what we’re going to do here, and what happens when Puddin takes the Aiel back across the Spine of the World,” Moiraine said. “The White Tower is still an enemy stronghold, and we need to work on getting it back. The combined tribes of the Aiel can’t go up against the Aes Sedai. Ignoring for a moment the fact that most Aiel won’t raise a hand against Aes Sedai, these Darkfriends will demolish ordinary fighting men like they were glass statues.”
“Why not make glass statues of Aiel, and send them across the Spine of the World?” Forsaken_1 suggested, since he was on a roll.