By some sort of Warder’s intuition, Forsaken_1 was riding between Moiraine and Janica as they made their way through the Jangai Pass, to stop them from coming to blows. Debs, on the far side of the little damane, periodically glowered at him. She seemed to blame him for Logain vanishing. He wondered bitterly if she would thank him for keeping Logain around, and perhaps revealing the False Dragon’s little secret.
Unappreciated in his own time, that was what Forsaken_1 was.
On the other side of Moiraine, Vamps rode extremely awkwardly, listening to Moiraine lecture him about politics. Or, possibly, simply concentrating on not falling off his horse. He seemed to be experiencing some awful sort of allergy, and possibly heatstroke as well. Sometimes he would stare into the distance, or at Shannon, who walked alongside looking extremely pissed off with his skirts in a bundle around his waist and sweat turning his shirt unappealingly transparent. Once upon a time Forsaken_1 might have been turned on by hairy cleavage, but that was before he met Shannon in, as it were, the flesh.
Moiraine hadn’t been sleeping well. Forsaken_1 knew that even without the bundle of weary, frayed nerves in the back of his head. Her eyelids drooped, she yawned a lot and she said “shitflap” a lot more regularly than usual. He knew it was because she’d been visiting Tel’aran’rhiod, using just about the last ter’angreal that worked for her, that she’d found in the great square in Rhuidean. Whatever was wrong with her channeling ability, it was getting worse. She’d told him that Siuan Sanche had been deposed and stilled, and that Elaida was now Amyrlin Seat. She said that the White Tower was now fully in the power of the converted, and that those still following the Light had been exiled. Forsaken_1 wasn’t sure why he was being told – he was mainly along to draw in the female readership – but he was happy to act as a sounding board for her ideas.
“You should not trust any Aes Sedai except for me, and Nynaeve and Elayne,” she was saying to Vamps, adding a grudging, “and that big shitflap and her skinny pillowfriend over there, I suppose.”
“Can I just…” Vamps leaned over and brushed something invisible off Moiraine’s shoulder. Forsaken_1 felt her horrified shudder through the bond. “You had a cockroach on you. There’s another one,” he flicked at her other shoulder, and then began patting her hair frantically.
Moiraine sat and put up with it for a while, then pulled the thick stone ring ter’angreal from her bodice and banged it on the side of the Car’a’carn‘s head. “Enough,” she said. “They’re my lucky pet cockroaches, alright? I like them fine where they are, so keep your shitflapping hands to yourself.”
They passed some ancient ruins and Forsaken_1 tried to ignore Moiraine’s explanations and history lessons. He had to save the room in his head for important things. It wouldn’t do to end up in an emergency where he needed to know Warder-stuff, only to find that the only things in his head were facts and figures about old kings and buildings and Ages of Legends and things. He’d look a bit stupid if that happened, he reflected with a smile. From the ruins they proceeded to the first town on the path through the Pass, Taien.
“Now you take the lead,” Moiraine said patiently to Vamps.
“I shouldn’t, Mistress,” the sudden appearance of Puddin Taim was disconcerting. “Maybe a lady should go first, and I will follow behind.”
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went behind a woman…” Vamps added, and waggled his eyebrows. “Behind. You know, behind. Sexually. With sex.”
“That’s it,” Moiraine raised the ter’angreal. Forsaken_1 wondered if that was the way she used it to get into the World of Dreams. Maybe she was too weak to channel into it, and so she had to bang herself in the head with it instead. She froze at the apex of her lunge, and quivered. “You cunts,” she growled, glaring at Debs and Janica. Debs was smiling serenely. “I wasn’t going to hit him hard.”
“Ah knoo,” Debs heeled her bandy-legged horse closer, dragging Janica and her little grey pony along with her, and plucked the stone ring out of Moiraine’s hand. Then she turned and applied it to Vamps’s forehead in a powerful backhand clout that almost threw the Dragon off the back of his saddle. “That’s wee I thought et’d be beast if I tuke aever.”
“Nothing,” Janica tugged a bit of slack into her a’dam, and leaned towards the glaze-eyed Vamps. “You have to go in front, because you’re the Car’a’carn,” she said firmly, addressing his cloak-buckle. “The Aiel at the back of the column behind the wagons can’t see you, but you can’t hide from everybody. The Maidens won’t allow it. You’ll go first, and Asmo-Jasin Natael will follow along with your banner, and everything will be okay.”
“Or ye c’n have a wee bit more o’ thess jobbeh,” Debs added, her accent thickening in her frustration.
“Can we get on?” a slurred, surly voice called from the nearby wagons. Contro’s gaudy Tinker wagon was there, and Fain’s scabby-looking thing. Cow and Bela respectively had been hooked up to the two wagons, since they seemed to have reached an understanding and something had happened to Fain’s horse. It seemed to have been eaten, or at least chewed on and left to decompose in a festering black puddle. That this incident coincided with the disappearance of ‘Isendre’ was another in the long list of things about which Forsaken_1 didn’t want to think. In any case, the voice had come from Contro’s wagon, where Lan was resting up after a big night of oosquai.
“Don’t make me come back there,” Moiraine warned.
“Ha ha ha! Honestly!!!!!!”
There was a groan from Lan. “Now you woke him up.”
“You look like you have a headache!! I know what’s good for headaches! I think!!! A hair of the dog that bit you! Or so I’ve heard!! Isn’t that a funny saying???!? Ha ha ha!! Well, it is! Oi! Cheeky!!”
Lan groaned again, and Forsaken_1 grinned.
“Why couldn’t he have been killed by those Darkhounds?” Moiraine muttered.
“Where are you taking me?”
It was cold. It was like the Ways, and a bit like New Year’s Eve in Finland, but not as pleasant as either sensation. And it was dark, except for the occasional thing that drifted past. They were a bit like phosphorescent soap bubbles, but they had things inside them. Growing things, like little foetal nightmares. Chucky had looked at one of them, and then closed his eyes every time he heard one coming. They were easy to pick – they were the only sound apart from his own voice. They made a noise like popcorn cooking.
He’d been on his way to Vamps’s headquarters when he’d been caught. He’d known that the Car’a’carn was preparing to leave the Waste along with Moiraine and the peddlers and Aiel and everybody, and he knew Debs and Janica would be close at hand to stop him from doing anything stupid like heading in the wrong direction. And he knew he’d left it far too long. Putting it off would only make it worse, and besides, his worry about Janica being mad had faded into the background, and he’d made his decision.
Then, just as he was approaching the building – from the far side, so as to avoid giving the impression that he’d just staggered out of a huge boozy Aiel party – he’d been swooped upon and lifted into…
Well, not into the air. He’d been grabbed and pulled in another direction entirely. A direction that was dark and cold and scattered with pulsating things he didn’t much like.
His captor hadn’t given him an answer so far, and it gave him none this time either. Chucky wondered if it was a draghkar, which had carried him into the weird shadow-place where halfmen could travel. Or maybe it was a Forsaken, or somebody else, and he’d been taken outside the Pattern, into a vacuole or something.
But he knew it wasn’t any of those things. It was Sheriam. He recognised the tatters of blanket hanging in front of his face, and the smell. It was neither a blanket nor a smell he had ever wanted to be this close to.
“So, where are we g-g-going?”
There was no answer. It felt as though they’d been floating for days. He was hungry, and his bagpipes were digging into his shoulder and back in a rather uncomfortable way owing to the manner in which he’d been grabbed. That he was hungry wasn’t much of a revelation, but the pipes were becoming a real problem.
“Can you hear me?”
No answer. But now something seemed to be happening. Chucky’s stomach was telling him that they were performing a long, slow sideways loop in the nothingness, which made a bit of a change from his stomach telling him that it was hungry. He saw bubbles swirling past from the corners of his eyes, and felt a faint wibbling as they drifted into their own slipstream. Then he looked ahead, and saw one of the glowing blobs growing closer. It was heading straight for them.
It swelled and expanded until it filled the entire darkness, and Chucky couldn’t avert his eyes anymore. He tried to close them, but they treacherously disobeyed. The shape in the bubble squirmed and bulged, pressing at the membrane as if it was trying to escape.
“Um, you’re pretty close to that thing, Shezza…”
Then a pair of long, pale hands extended from somewhere above and behind him. Except they weren’t really hands – they were too thin, too translucent, and had too many joints. He could see veins under the skin, or at least strange black threads that looked like veins and pulsed like veins. But mainly he saw what the hands were about to do.
The hands clenched in the bubble’s outer surface, puncturing it and ripping it. The popcorn-popping noise rose to a howl, the soapy surface snapped away, and the black stuff inside engulfed them both.
Chucky opened his eyes to find himself standing on a warm hillside. The sky above was a mild twilight and he couldn’t see the sun. The grass and flowers at his feet flickered and shifted endlessly, though there was no wind. He realised he was in Tel’aran’rhiod.
“Just a dream,” he said cautiously. “It was all just a dream.”
He turned and looked at Sheriam.
“Not a dream,” he acknowledged, and looked away up the slope of the hill. They were near the crest, and he could see a silent, deserted forest beyond it. “What are we doing here? What do you want with me?”
“You have a musical instrument,” Sheriam said quietly. “We will need it, where we are going.”
Chucky turned, and looked down the hill.
The Tower of Ghenjei gleamed enigmatically in the directionless light.
They neared Taien, stopping several times to allow Bela and Cow to fight or fornicate or something that was a deeply unpleasant combination of the two, and for assorted members of the team to spy out the land ahead.
“Look at that, hanging from the walls,” Jasin Natael, who had sharper eyes than the Aiel and even the bond-enhanced Warder, pointed ahead at the town. Forsaken_1 looked, determined not to be outdone by a gleeman in lace.
“Shop window mannequins,” he reported.
“They’re dead bodies,” Natael said.
“Oh yeah?” Forsaken_1 bristled. “How would you know? Seen a lot of dead bodies, have you?”
Natael looked at him. The look said that, not only had he seen a lot of dead bodies, but that he was looking at one at that very moment. At least insofar as time was an abstract concept and every moment was really taking place simultaneously, only to be interpreted by blinkered linear human consciousness. Forsaken_1 went back to looking at the mannequins that might feasibly be bodies.
“Was this the Shaido?” Debs murmured.
“Couldn’t’ve been,” Janica said. “They fell into line when Couladin was killed and then Sevanna suddenly decided to get married at Alcair Dal and Someshta talked to some of the others and they walked off into the desert. The Forsaken might still be trying to lead the leftovers into trouble though. Did anybody keep an eye on Sevanna and her lot?”
“I did,” Forsaken_1 said helpfully.
A towering Aielman stepped out of the rocks at the side of the path, and stopped in front of the horses. Jasin Natael pulled up sharply.
“I see you, Car’a’carn,” Rhuarc said.
“I saw you first,” Vamps remarked quickly, then looked a bit embarrassed as Puddin Taim reasserted himself for a brief moment. “Um, what do you have to report?”
“It was not the work of Shaido, although Shaido have come this way,” Rhuarc claimed. “I would say it was Shadowspawn, but if it was, then it was no Shadowspawn I have ever seen. They came on many of the treekillers outside the town, and there is sign of a fight, but no bodies that we can find. There is none of the dismemberment or evidence of feeding that would suggest trollocs, and no evidence of myrddraal. It seems, speaking for the town itself, that there was some resistance, and I have seen a body near the town gates like a giant three-eyed rock-toad. The attack was swift, and left the town mostly undamaged. The survivors may have more information. See, they come now.”
Debs and Janica exchanged a glance.
“Seanchan,” Janica muttered. “What are they up to?”
“Could be Darkfriend Seanchan,” Debs suggested. “Could be they’ve alleed themselves wi’ the Shaido.”
A small group of ‘treekillers’ came cautiously out of the gates. The man in the lead carried what might have been a white flag, and might otherwise have been the underpants he’d soiled when the grolm attacked.
“We haven’t been fighting,” he reported clearly to the spear-laden scouts, waving his underpants at Vamps and Moiraine. “We didn’t do that to your friends,” he pointed at the walls. “It wasn’t us. I’m a humble saddle-maker, my name is Tal Nethin and this is my sister and brother-in-law Aril and Ander Corl. We’re not warriors, and we’re not armed. And I know your people usually have a law against taking us treekillers,” he added wryly.
“These aren’t your people?” Rhuarc demanded before Vamps or Moiraine or Debs could say anything. Forsaken_1 looked once again at the things hanging from the walls. They still looked like mannequins to him, if slightly twisted and blackened ones. He was pretty sure he was right. They were mannequins. “Who are they?”
“Why, we thought they were your friends,” Tal said, clasping his grundies like a talisman. “They’re Aielmen.”
“Shaido,” Rhuarc said to Vamps, who nodded wisely. “What happened here?”
“You … they … they charged at the walls shortly before dawn, and were going to kill us or take us prisoner,” Tal reported, and the nearby Aiel muttered angrily at the unnatural idea. “They entered the town before we could close the gates, but then there were creatures flying out of the sky, and running along the ground out of nowhere, and they attacked the Aiel. They killed the ones that were outside, or captured them, I know not. They had great winged beasts with enormous baskets, and they herded men and women into them. Other beasts were carrying soldiers, and others still were simply running loose, killing and devouring,” he shuddered. “The Aiel in the town tried to hole up and defend themselves, but they were taken. It is some of the casualties you can see hanging from our walls. We have not been able to pull them down yet. We meant no disrespect,” he added quaveringly.
Rhuarc seemed not to listen to that.
“There were a lot of Shaido,” he said quietly. “Sevanna and her new husband commanded the loyalty of many. And you say they are all gone?”
“They were carried away by the great flying beasts,” Ander Corl volunteered. “And many of them were rounded up and pushed through holes in the air, which vanished behind them, leaving no trace.”
“You what?” Rhuarc snapped. “Don’t fuck with me.”
“Show me one of the places where the holes were,” Janica said, jumping down from her pony and swinging for a moment before Debs lowered her arm. Forsaken_1 noticed that the tips of her little grey shoes had been sliced off, so her grey damane-issue socks stuck through a tiny bit. “Glargh, thank you.”
Forsaken_1 followed Moiraine, who followed Janica and Debs, who were following the Taienites, across the wide space of trampled ground before the town walls. They stopped at an area more trammelled than most, the footprints and scuffmarks ending neatly at a wide stripe of rocks and pebbles which had been cut with razor precision right down the middle.
“Geetwee,” Debs muttered darkly. “They used a geetwee.”
“A what?” Tal asked.
Mordor was a strange and terrible place. It was difficult for Mister C of 9 to put his finger on it, but there was something very wrong about the land through which they walked. It wasn’t so much the grim, smoke-choked air, or the nasty grasping thorn bushes. It wasn’t so much the forbidding mountain towards which they stumbled, or the lack of food or water. It wasn’t even the sense of doom and impending danger that upset him.
It was something about the armed escort, and the cheering crowds of trollocs to either side of the path. Yes. It was definitely that.
“Well done, Frodo!” a burly Ko’bal bandsman grunted, waving a studded leather handkerchief.
“Give ’em Ghul, kiddo!”
“Three cheers for the halfman! Hip hip!”
He glanced at his trusty gardener, but found absolutely no explanation there. Logain was staring at the natives in amazement, and hadn’t stopped reaching for his swords even now. Their path to the mountain was strewn with little glinting scraps of metal, the Mordor equivalent of flower petals, and the trollocs and myrddraal and draghkar leading the way were making sure none of the rabble got too close, but it was difficult to trust them. Mister C understood that. He had been fingering Stormbringer Sting Snaga halfway across the country as well. They’d been on the road a long time, the One Seal was weighing down on him most cruelly, and it seemed like Mount Doom was only just now beginning to draw closer.
“Do you have any more lembas, Sam?” he whispered, and glared suspiciously and eyelessly at several trollocs who rushed forward to give him platters of meat and bread and all sorts of other things without lentils in them that he couldn’t digest. Another trolloc threw a garland of baby skulls over his head, which he thought was really quite lovely. He straightened it proudly.
Finally they reached the foot of the mountain. A huge myrddraal stood at the opening to a tunnel. It had a wide smile on its face and it stepped aside and ushered the hobbits inside.
“Welcome,” it said.
“The Witch King of Minas Morgul,” Mister C of 9 told Logain, then raised his voice. “Say hello to Éowyn for us, you fiend!”
“I sure will,” Shaidar Haran nodded. He’d been told by the Nae’blis to just agree with everything the halfman and his companion said, and that was what he intended to do. “And your gholam friend says hi too.”
“Gollum!” Sam hissed, but Mister C had been prepared for that, and just patted his friend encouragingly on the swords. They entered the tunnel, only to find it was cathedral-sized. The floor was smooth and level, the stalactite-hung ceiling so distant as to be almost invisible in the gloom. The walls to either side were likewise smooth, and the tunnel itself led upwards in easy stages. A warm red glow began to reflect from the walls, and shortly they came to an opening. Far below, the eternal fires of Mount Doom swirled and churned. Mister C of 9 cleared his throat, scratched idly at his budding arm, and prepared for his little performance.
“No, no, I don’t want to give it up, it’s mine,” he drawled. “My precious, mine.”
Logain looked at his Great Lord blankly. Unseen by either of them, Cooper Two oozed his way out of a crack in the wall, and stole forwards.
“You’re not going to destroy it, Mister Frodo?” he asked. “But I thought that was what we came all this way to do.”
“No, mine mine mine, I won’t destroy it, not ever,” Mister C unwrapped the bundle and held it lazily in his good hand, waiting for Gollum to come charging out of nowhere and struggle with him. He was supremely confident.
Coop saw the Seal, and realised the halfman was attempting to violate one of Aginor Bio-Weapons Corporation’s founding directives, only just in formation at the time of his cryo-stasis but nevertheless quite central to his being.
Destroy the Seals. Free the Dark One.
“You have to!” he yelled, and sprang forward. He pushed the channeler aside easily, swept up to the edge of the precipice, and grabbed the myrddraal by the hanging-still-lapels. He gave him a shake. “You’ve got to, it’s in your basic training, soldier!”
Logain drew Callandor, and then screamed and passed out from the pain of trying to channel so close to the Bore. It was probably just as well, because at the time Cooper Two had forgotten the human existed and being channeled at, although it wouldn’t have had any effect, probably would have reminded him.
“Mine!” Mister C said, putting a bit of heart into it. This was his big scene, after all.
“Dickhead!” Coop fumed, grabbed Mister C’s arm, and bit off his fully-grown hand just above the wrist. He stepped back, spitting black blood and prying the clutching fingers away from the One Seal. “Now let’s just-”
“You cunt!” Mister C snapped out of his utter shock, lunged forwards and kneed the gholam in the groin. Coop folded up, gasped once or twice, and tumbled backwards over the edge of the chasm.
“My testicles!” Gollum’s fading cry floated up as he fell.
When the bleeding hobbit crawled to the edge and looked over, there was no sight of him.