Shivering and feeling rank and mentally troubled, Puddin Taim rose from his sleep. He had been dreaming about his enemies, and thought he had formulated a plan for getting rid of all of them. The thing about his enemies was, he remembered reasoning in the dream, that there were so many of them and he didn’t even know which ones were which. In fact, his friends could also be enemies. Wasn’t it said that the friend of your friend was your enemy, or something like that? He’d recognised that line of reasoning as distinctly Controish, and settled on the sensible side of things. Even in his dreams, he was meticulous and intelligent and dashingly handsome.
He scratched his face and muttered under his breath, trying to remember the dream before it faded and the spiders came back out of the walls to distract him. The thing about his enemies was, most of them breathed air. So if he burned away the air, they’d all die at once even if he didn’t know which ones they were. How could he burn away the air? By bringing the whole world closer to the sun. Could he do that with bands of Air? Perhaps he could use Fire. He vaguely recalled something about the Dark One freezing the seasons and bringing about a long, hot summer in this part of Chaggabaggawoggaland. Could he maybe use that as a starting point, and heat the world up still further until the air and all his enemies were stripped away? Muffin Vamps thought he could. It was a work of genius.
His dream had been interrupted even as he was preparing to test the theory in a safe dream-environment, which was a shame. A giant pink thing with white slime splattered over its sides and a puckered mouth full of giant shiny teeth had flown at him, a pair of huge furry bulbs behind it whirring like propellers. It had given him a nasty sense of déjà vu, and he’d woken up in a wink.
And he knew he could fulfill his dream, with the ter’angreal Debs and Janica were holding onto. He could link with the Aes Sedai or something, and use the combined power to move the world. And then the possibly evil women would also be killed and he would be a hero. That would show the Maidens, in whose house he was now trying to sleep, to laugh at him and point at his genitals.
In the meantime, he had awakened feeling vaguely foul, and he didn’t know why. He walked to the door, opened it, and looked down at steely-but-misdirected-eyed Janica and then across at some part of Debs or other, possibly the western slope or some neighbouring region. He raised his eyes to her face, which was sleepy and tousled and quite pissed off.
“Darkhoonds,” she said quietly. “Upsteers.”
“I’ll burn away all their air and that’ll be the end of that,” Vamps flexed his hands experimentally. The burns on his palms made him wince and fold his arms, and that made the Union Jacks there tingle and sting. He whimpered. “I’ll show them.”
“We have to balefire them,” Janica said, turning and leading the way back down the corridor.
“Won’t Moiraine get angry?” Vamps ventured.
“What do you mean, get angry?” Janica snorted. “That’s a normal background state for her.”
“That’s not very nice,” Vamps suggested meekly. “She only ever tries to help.”
“I’d like to argue about this with you, Vamps, but I can’t right now,” Janica said.
“Unless I’m mistaken, there are three Darkhounds coming down those stairs towards us.”
Vamps looked. “My goodness,” he said. “That room up there is where Contro and Egwene were sleeping.”
They backed away from the advancing beasts.
“I don’t suppose I want to know why Contro was sleeping in here with the Maidens of the Spear?” Janica murmured.
“They called him a Lost One and he said, ‘what do you know? I am lost!’ and they thought it was really funny,” Vamps said. “I don’t think it was funny. Anyway, then they asked him if he’d ever played Maiden’s Kiss, and he said no, but he’d played Twister and he wondered if it was the same. Then he explained the rules and three hours later when he was still explaining them they just bundled him up and took him to the top floor, and Egwene went with him.”
“Are ye aboot ready tae beelfear these doggies?” Debs grunted. “Luke at what that one’s got in it’s mooth.”
Janica produced the ter’angreal statue and brandished it. “I would,” she said, “but I canna see a feckin’ thing, because I danna have my glassies. Remember?”
“It looks like a bit of Contro’s shirt,” Vamps said, embracing saidin with a shudder and peering at the flowing shadows with his enhanced vision. “His sleeve, I think. And it must have been pulled off … oh, at least half an hour ago.”
“How can you tell that much just from a scrap of cloth?” Janica demanded.
“The arm inside has rigor mortis,” Vamps pointed out. “But it looks as though it was bitten off right in the middle of attempting a tickle-tum. There are shadowy black hairs stuck to the blood that’s clotted all over the palms.”
“Right,” Janica said. “We’re going to need just enough balefire to get rid of these three Darkhounds…”
Not knowing precisely how balefire was supposed to work, Janica let saidar flood through the Choedan Kal and through the a’dam. Debs’s eyes widened, and her hair crackled. She opened her hands, and a massive cylinder of blue-white fire blasted all three dogs simultaneously. And the walls to either side. And the stairs behind them.
“…but not quite enough balefire to-”
“Ha ha ha! Well, I say, honestly, here’s a turn-up! Dear me! I try to get some sleep and they all want to keep playing Twister, and now I could have sworn I saw a couple of likely-looking dogs, but they’re gone! Funny that!”
Janica sighed. “Too much balefire.”
“Oh, hello! There you are! Ha ha ha!!! Do you want to come and play Twister too? I – oh no! There’s no stairs!”
Janica listened to the fading laughter, the swift series of thumps, and the distant splash with a slow, happy smile.
There for months she had dwelt, an evil thing in female form, even such as once of old had lived in the land of Saldaea in the West. How she came there, flying from Remen with abrasions in her forearms and splinters under her fingernails, no tale tells. But still she was there, and she served in the kitchen with great reluctance, filled with bitterness and anger at those who had bound her and left her for dead, left her to wander the world until her near-kindred in Shienar had found her. None of the people she hated so ever came close to her, only the unhappy Shienarans. Poor scapegoats and unwilling to listen long to her endless harangue. But she must scold, however busily they found reasons not to be in the kitchens or the scullery. However they took different routes from the pantries to the dooryard, ever she found some way to inconvenience them. But Faile lusted for revenge. And the gholam had brought it to her.
“Stupid halfmen,” he said often to himself, when the evil mood was on him, as he led the way along the Blightborder to the only place where there wasn’t some sort of running water blocking their way. “Making this more difficult than it should be, those stupid aquatic protocols Aginor Bio-weapons put in, he can walk through shadows but oh no, not water! ‘I could drown!’ Never mind that he could turn sideways and not get a drop on him! Well, serve him right if something does happen now, serve them both right.”
And as for Lord Agelmar, Lord of Fal Dara: he knew where she lurked, and always sent somebody else into the kitchens instead of going himself. It pleased him that she should dwell there in squalor and unabated in malice, because he had always been of the opinion that Saldaeans were too snotty by half, and she was quite good at that pasta stuff, into which she focussed all her hatred and anger, and bashed the dough violently with hammers and screamed. And servants, they were useful, but he had them in plenty. If now and again Faile caught them to sharpen her shrewish annoyingness, she was welcome: he could spare them. And sometimes as a man may cast a dainty to his cat, Agelmar would send her prisoners that he had no better uses for, or bondsmen who had displeased him: he would have them driven into the scullery, and report brought back to him of the arrogant browbeating she delivered before the hapless victims ended their own lives in despair.
So they both lived, delighting in their own devices, and feared no assault, nor wrath, nor any end of their respective pastimes. Never yet had any person she’d seen in Remen come to her, and the greater now was her rage and hunger.
Arguing bitterly, filthy from the road and from their own excrement which they used as makeshift food supply and as a weapon during their increasingly bitter disputes, the group of Borderlanders and Whitecloaks made their way across the poor unsuspecting landscape. Every so often the dwindling remains of once-disciplined soldiers would break into vicious, snarling acts of violence against one another, ripping and biting and screaming shrilly.
They had been under the influence of Padan Fain, and the twisted evil of Shadar Logoth, and now they were cut loose. They had been wandering for some time. After many a disagreement ending in death and consumption of corpses and additional consumption of not-corpses-yet-but-will-be-once-the-screaming-is-over, Masema and Uno and Liandrin had declared they were heading for the Borderlands. Whether to attack the Borderlanders there, or to take on the Dark One, they couldn’t say for sure.
As a result of this indecision and wrangling, the Logoth-tainted soldiers and their Black Ajah companion had actually wandered back and forth across the Blightborder several times, as they meandered their way slowly east leaving a trail of gnawed carcasses behind them. They finally made their way towards Fal Dara, from the wrong side, and stopped to take stock of the situation.
“Seems quiet enough,” Masema ventured. “Place got fixed up after those bloody bagpipes.”
“I can’t wait to find that goat-kissing gleeman and bloody feed him to the pansy boys,” Uno snarled.
Pansy boys was a term of endearment, if a somewhat meaningless one. The Whitecloaks who had been caught up in Fain’s web had long since soiled and shredded their uniforms, rendering their snowy whites down into filthy rags. But they were still casually derided by the Borderlanders, who considered the idea of ‘pants’ to be a bit lah-dee-dah. On the whole, however, the rivalry between the two groups had broken down into rivalry between everybody and everybody else, and now there wasn’t much of a class difference between the Whitecloaks and the Borderlanders in Masema’s company. The pansy boys were more liable to eat their healthy than the Borderlanders – another point against them in the namby-pamby file – which was why any moderately athletic (read: breathing and kicking and pleading that he has little ones at home, don’t orphan my babies oh Light please no I want to live) victim was turned over to them for dinner preparations.
“I’ll help baste the bastard,” Masema agreed, “but for now it looks nice and quiet,” he looked at the nearby walls, watched the smoke rising from the chimneys of his fortified hometown. “They still haven’t fixed that gate.”
As they stood and watched from their safe vantage point, the gate suddenly swung open and a figure came staggering out, waving what looked like a sword made of glass, and carrying a long bundle over his other shoulder. Distant shouting could be heard in the morning air. On closer inspection, the running figure was indeed brandishing a glass sword, and the bundle over his shoulder was another man, a skinny one wreathed in what looked like…
“Pasta?” Uno said, scowling at the figures with his one good eye. “Is he covered in pasta?”
It seemed he was. The strands were undoubtedly Saldaean-style ribbon pasta, wound around and around the body and hanging in steaming tatters as if the immobile man had been rescued from a trolloc cookpot. Despite his gaunt skinniness, he seemed to be quite heavy – the other man was barely able to support him. There was something familiar about the spaghetti-wrapped body.
Then the gate burst open again and a female figure came charging out. Even at the modest distance at which the Shadar Logothites stood, her voice was quite audible.
“Get back here! I didn’t dismiss you! I’m not finished! You’re taking me with you and there will be no more discussion on the matter! Did you hear me?!”
Masema and Uno exchanged a glance, and went back to their attentive onlooking.
The broader man turned, laid his burden gently on the ground a stone’s throw from the audience, and turned to face his attacker. He drew a dead black sword with his free hand and waved both weapons wildly.
“Gilthoniel A Elbereth!” he cried, and plunged the sword into the shrieking woman, still chanting in a weird foreign language.
She howled with rage. “What did you just call me?!”
The pierced woman, bleeding from nose and mouth, grabbed the hilt of the sword and the shoulder of the struggling man, and began clawing at him. She drew herself up and hurled herself against him, again and again, puncturing herself ever deeper, until her enemy’s knees buckled. She collapsed on top of him and the sword’s point emerged dripping from her back with a clear gristly noise and the pop-whistle of a punctured lung. She gurgled, and blood so dark it was almost black began to spout out around the blade. The Shadar Logothites saw that it was black – the evidently evil blade did its work swiftly and well. The man raised his other sword, and a bright white light came searing from it. Light brighter than stars. Brighter than the sun.
“Cop some Phial of Galadriel, bitch!” he yelled, and there was a sodden detonation.
Masema flicked a piece of charred flesh off his shoulder and watched with interest as the man staggered, clearly overcome with nausea or dizziness. As the last remaining bits of the woman pattered down around their heads and shoulders, the man with the swords fell down and did not stir.
Masema’s eyes went to the smaller figure, already handily wrapped in pasta.
“Dinner’s ready,” he said.
Sheriam had been biding her time, waiting in the secure bower of the wagon, steadily feeding on the dual evils of Shadar Logoth and Shayol Ghul, letting the link with Ordieth grow and fester even as the aborted umbilical of the Dark One’s touch festered in her. She fed upon herself, going deep inside and finding channels to powers nobody had ever imagined, breeding new species of evil like a master geneticist, moulding the pillows and blankets and pieces of dead bodies around herself in a foetid cocoon and letting herself grow.
Letting herself become.
The thing that had once been Mistress of Novices emerged from the foul-smelling wagon in a faint cloud of bacteria and swarming plague bugs. Nearby, but not too nearby, the Aiel were making merry in the streets of Rhuidean. Still closer at hand, if indeed one could call the things happening at the ends of Sheriam’s arms ‘hands’ anymore, a pair of Grey Men looked on without much interest. She had no trouble detecting and noting their presence, but didn’t approach them.
She moved through the city quietly, dragging pockets of evil up through the Pattern as she went, but they were for the most part tiny and fleeting things, and occurred where there were no eyes to see, nor voices to scream. Her impact on the Age Lace was lost in the thunderous whirlpool churn of the nearby ta’veren.
She passed the building that had been commandeered by the Maidens of the Spear, and smelled Darkhounds. Sent by Fain, surely – the sadly conflicted man would not give over the idea of killing the Dragon Reborn, and using Shadowspawn to do it. Even in the Aiel Waste, where Shadowspawn had a lifespan somewhat shorter than Semirhage’s temper, he couldn’t help using them. But she did not care. Padan Fain was almost a brother to her, sharing many of her characteristics, lacking only a degree of intensity. He was, in this breeding, what trolloc was to myrddraal.
The Dragon and his entourage were preparing to leave, and Rhuidean was to be rebuilt with Ogier from nearby stedding. The Aiel were once again preparing to cross the Spine of the World and enter the Wetlands, and Asmodean, Fain, and the others would surely go along. But it was not to be her path. Her path lay along a line only she could see, and only she could understand.
Sheriam had become a dark, beautiful butterfly, and it was time to spread her wings.
Grumbling, Dr. Nick followed Cyberwollf into Mardecin, the deafeningly-dressed Ogier following along behind trailing streamers of dyed cloth and adjusting their Ogier-costume costumes hastily. Cyberwollf herself was a blaze of colour, greens and blues and purples and reds from the dye the supergirls had liberally decorated her with. Her belly, the hope of the world, had been specially decorated by Dr. Nick – a time-consuming business, but he’d had plenty of time on his hands lately, given his new position in the adventure. Now, every time Cybes rolled over for a tickle-tum, a smudged approximation of the stars and stripes winked out at the tickler.
“This is a waste of time,” Dr. Nick said. “They want to go to the Tower anyway, and even if they are captured, they won’t thank us. They’ll pretend we blew everything by blundering into their covert operation and losing the network of White Tower spies and bungling their attempt to bring it all down from within. You’ll see.”
Cyberwollf didn’t comment, which was fairly normal. The Ogier made worried noises behind their semi-masks, which was also pretty standard. The giant rainbow-coloured wolf led them through the streets, attracting a fair bit of notice even though it was quite late at night by this stage, and finally stopped at a herb shop of some kind.
“Is this it?” Dr. Nick asked, looking at the plants and things in the window. He didn’t know pine from parsley, but they were following Cyberwollf’s nose, and that was good enough for him. “Right, shall we just go in and rescue them, or what?”
“Was it one for ‘yes’, or one for ‘no’?” the Aielman asked, then sighed. “Alright. Okay. Shit.”
He pulled out his spears and kicked the door.
Wyse stepped forward shortly afterwards and pushed the door – and a certain amount of the wall on either side – over with the flat of his palm. Then he stepped back and helped Dr. Nick hobble inside on his remaining good foot.
“The door always bursts open when the guy kicks it in the movies,” he complained. “I didn’t know it would be built out of solid-”
Cybes bounded for the stairs, and a second later there was a terrified scream. The rest of the Ogier bundled themselves inside with some difficulty, their huge feet grinding the rubble and the scattered bundles of herbs that had been hurled from shelves. Dr. Nick limped up the stairs, where Cybes was rumbling menacingly over a thin, dark-haired woman whose runny nose had been made worse by a sudden attack of hysteria. She was cowering in a corner, and Min, Nynaeve and Elayne were lying on a low bed, deeply drugged. A pot of tea was resting on a table beside the bed.
“Right,” Dr. Nick said. “That was easy. We should-”
“Nick!” Coarshus’s deep voice called up the stairs.
“What is it?”
“A lady just ran out through the kitchen door and out the back.”
Cyberwollf was already off, and Dr. Nick was just as happy to sit and rest his throbbing ankle, even though the very act of sitting irritated his earlier wounds, from Cyberwollf biting him in Tel’aran’rhiod. The skinny woman hadn’t stopped shaking with the giant wolf’s departure.
“You’re an Aielman, aren’t you?” she whispered, staring at his spears and veil and ears.
“You’re not going to ravish me, are you?”
“My name’s Luci.”
“I heard Aielmen had many wives.”
“Only the married ones,” Dr. Nick frowned. “And Aiel women can have many husbands too.”
“Actually I’m not sure. Seems only fair though.”
There was a gentle sigh, and Nynaeve began to stir. Her eyelids fluttered. Before he’d even had time to think Dr. Nick had leaned over, picked up the teapot with one hand and wedged her mouth open with the other, and poured a generous dose of drugged tea down her throat. She spluttered quietly, and sank back into a deep slumber.
Luci stared. “That was far too large a dose! She may not wake for days!”
That was the best news Dr. Nick had heard so far. As an afterthought, he gave similarly gigantic doses to Min and Elayne, and then poured the rest of the tea into Nynaeve. “Do you have a stock of this stuff?” Luci nodded, wide eyed, and rummaged under the bed. She came up with a squat blue pottery jar in her shaking hands. “How much do you want for it?” he asked.
There was a disturbance downstairs, and then a quavering voice shouted, “Okay, I am going! There is no need to bite!”
Dr. Nick grabbed the pot, limped to the stairs, and hobbled down. Cyberwollf had intercepted Ronde Macura, who was staring in terrified amazement at the Ogier and her ruined shop. She glared up at Dr. Nick, and her eyes widened when she saw the canister in his hands.
“You work for the Aes Sedai and there was a message to have these women brought back to the Tower and you already sent a pigeon to your contact,” he said to save time. “We already know. And they’re heading for the Tower anyway, so there’s no need for any of this. We’ll just take them and be on our way, and you can tell your superiors that the women will be in Tar Valon as soon as possible.”
“Are … are you working for the Tower?” Ronde demanded, reclaiming a bit of spirit. “But you’re an Aielman!”
“I wouldn’t worry about that too much,” Dr. Nick said, “we’ll just be taking over from here. Guys, why don’t you tie her up, and her assistant upstairs? No not you, Hoarni.”
“Are they trollocs?”
“We’re Ogier,” Wyse rumbled unhappily. “And we don’t usually tie women up.”
“I sometimes do,” Hoarni said.
It was past midnight by the time they were back at the camp. The sleeping women took up most of the space in the wagon, which meant that come morning, Dr. Nick would be walking on his bad ankle unless he could convince one of the Ogier to carry him. On the plus side, he had a large supply of sleeping tea, and now it looked like he would be calling the shots as to where they went. Which meant they didn’t have to head to Tar Valon at all if he didn’t want to.
In the morning, however, Cyberwollf set herself in front of the horse, glanced meaningfully at the males, and headed northeast towards the White Tower.
Grumbling, Dr. Nick followed.
Samwise Ablar, sorely confused and terribly afraid, followed the laughing brutes as discreetly as he could. They’d gathered up his master and hurried away towards the Blight, leaving him where he’d fallen after his fight with the awful creature of Fal Dara. Now it was obvious, even if these were like no trollocs he had ever seen, that his master’s captors intended to make a meal of the helpless Frodo, or Mister See of Mayene, or whatever he wanted to be called. Perhaps these were the ‘orcs’ that Logain-or-Sam kept hearing about.
He had sheathed the two gleaming transparent Callandors, but kept Stormbringer Sting Snaga ready to hand. He followed the crushed vegetation and fallen pasta quite easily, and he was spared having to hack his way through by the fact that the orcs had already done so. Of the treacherous gholam, there was no sign. He’d vanished long before they were attacked in the kitchen of Fal Dara, but Logain knew it had been Cooper Two’s doing. He’d raised the alarm, or something.
“Don’t give up, Sam,” he said, struggling with tears. “Mister Frodo of Mayene will need your help. He needs you now, and it’s up to you to save him,” without really thinking about it, he fingered the hanging bundle around his neck. He’d been forced to take the Seal from his master when the awful creature had hit him with a frying pan, and he’d been unable to bear the weight. Logainwise had to admit that the big tangle of string was very awkward, but the thing itself didn’t seem heavy, in spite of Frodo’s complaining.
“Of course, it wouldn’t be heavy yet, you great blockhead,” he muttered, thinking of the old gaffer back home and talking to himself the way he remembered the gaffer speaking to him in years past. That was strange, because he didn’t know anybody named Gaffer, or even what a gaffer was. But Mister See had often reminded Sam of the gaffer, and Sam felt obliged to follow his Great Lord’s advice and hints wherever possible. “Of course it won’t get heavy until it gets its hooks into you, the way it did with Mister Frodo. You don’t want it to do that, so you just get Mister Frodo free and give it right back to him so he can do what must be done.”
The orcs made their way to a camp, and Logain followed them easily. He stopped on the outskirts and hid in the shrubbery, and listened to the orcs arguing. Mister See’s helpless little body lay in the middle of the fearsome crowd, while they growled and hooted and snarled about him. One of them crouched down and started going through his pockets, and there was an uproar when the Horn of Valere was found. They tussled over it and it finally ended up in the hands of a bedraggled-looking orc who Sam realised was a woman-orc. She glared so angrily at the he-orcs around her that they backed away whimpering, and she tucked the Horn into her clothing quite … explicitly.
There was some more argument about Mister See of Bag End, but finally the orcs fell to fighting among themselves and Logain’s Great Lord was left lying beside the cauldron, still unconscious. The orcs watching him sat down and began playing an elaborate game where they would thrust their own hands and feet and faces into the fire and leave them there until they sizzled, then withdraw them, screaming with laughter and dripping burning fat over one another. The woman with the little braids in her hair and the Horn of Valere under her dress was nowhere to be seen.
Suddenly there was a flash of blue light in the nearby undergrowth, and several others farther away in the bushes. Vertical lines of light scrawled upwards and rotated into doorways, cutting branches and leaves and orcs apart where they stood. With loud howls, torrents of trollocs began to pour out of the holes, and they attacked the suddenly wide-awake orcs promptly and with great vigour.
“Now’s your chance, Sam,” Logain whispered to himself, tightening his grip on Stormbringer Sting Snaga. The mass of fighters charged back and forth through the trees, hacking at each other. The courageous hobbit risked a glance at one of the nearest gateways, and saw a tall man standing just inside it. He seemed to be standing in a large, brightly-lit stateroom, rather than in the middle of the pre-Blight. He had close-cropped white hair and when he looked at Logain he blinked, then smiled. It didn’t seem to be a very friendly smile. He wore a red coat with black stripes on its sleeves, and boots with swirls of silver on them. He winked.
“Go on,” he said, sounding strangely as if he were reciting his words from a script, “the trollocs aren’t for you. Free the myrddraal and get on with it.”
Baffled, Logain did just that. He scurried across to the now-deserted campsite, and cut through the cruel ropes and the remaining pasta with Stormbringer Sting Snaga. He shook Mister Frodo urgently, but he was still unconscious.
Samwise picked his lightweight master up, shouldered him easily, and headed away into the Blight.