“Uh! Uh! Yeah! Yeah! Turbo-fuck! Woo!”
Shannon and Asmodean stood in one corner and looked at the Dragon Reborn as he humped the ornately-embroidered couch pillows which, while they were ornately-embroidered, will not be described in any more detail.
“You’re lucky I was watching you discretely and masturbating through that little curtained-off niche over there,” Asmodean said conversationally. “If you weren’t such a classically-proportioned woman with whom I always endeavour to be in the same room, unseen, while you’re naked, you might have had a nasty encounter.”
“I still did have a nasty encounter,” Shannon snapped, after staring at Asmodean for a moment in stunned silence. “With y’all! Why’d you have to go tell me somethin’ like that?”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Asmodean waved a hand airily, “I just felt that you ought to know, after these many weeks.”
“I felt obliged to thank you, for all the long, chilly evenings you have made a little warmer for me,” the Forsaken said, “the long evenings when I’m sitting in a quiet corner behind a little weave of secrecy, manipulating myself with flows of air and water and – yes – just a touch of fire, gritting my teeth and squinting my eyes at your-”
“I can’t,” Asmodean’s face was sweating. “You remind me of my mother – the sexual subservience of whom for which I cast in my lot with the Great Lord of the Dark, for all that I tell everybody it was about the music – and I like to think about using Compulsion on you to make you think you are a toilet, the way I did with her, and then spend a good hour sitting on your face, with my heels drumming your ample bosom and hips, reading the incoming dispatches…”
“What’s wrong with y’all?”
“…and of course once you’re out of the room I have to dig through your discarded clothes, many of which are still grimy and sweaty, and I pull on Great Lord help me it’s ta’veren I have to get out of this room a shift or a pair of stockings-”
“I don’t wear stockings!” Shannon roared. Vamps didn’t look up from his activities.
“Really? I do,” Asmodean confessed in a desperate babble. “In fact, I don’t just enjoy dressing as a woman, I want to actually be a woman. I’ve talked with Aginor, using a middleman of course, and only in the most roundabout of ways, and he thinks it might be possible to actually make a man into a woman, though it likely wouldn’t be possible for him to learn to channel using saidar but it really depends on the genetic markers and the hormone balance in question. Then there’s the alternative of allowing myself to die, and having the Great Lord resurrect me into the body of a woman. It is not, of course, a very workable plan, but I have entertained thoughts of making it your body into which I am reborn, on those frequent moments I find myself alone with you, watching you when you do not know you are being watched, seeing the exciting things a man could do to a woman’s body, had he but access to it…”
“And he always takes our watching-spot,” Quincey complained.
“Yeah,” Alexander agreed. “Not that he ever notices we’re in there with him.”
“…I have always wanted to tell you, and see if perhaps you could be convinced to … did somebody say something?”
“No,” Quincey said.
“Oh,” Jasin Natael scratched his head in puzzlement, then blinked and tried to return to his careening train of thought. At that moment, blessedly, Puddin Taim came to some sort of sudden and unspectacular climax.
“Well,” the Dragon smirked widely at the soggy pillow. “I never knew I had it in me.”
“A sentiment I’m sure a lot of women have shared, over the years,” Asmodean replied smoothly.
Vamps grinned. “Yeah!” he blinked, and scowled. “No!” he smirked. “I mean yeah.”
“I’m outta here,” Shannon turned to leave.
“I’ll follow you at a distance, breathing heavily,” Asmodean replied.
Shannon hurried from the room. The lace-ruffled gleeman followed, still babbling so hard about his shameful perversions and numerous grossly intimate violations of privacy that he barely paused to drag in a ragged breath every thirty seconds or before continuing. He was purple in the face and reeling on the verge of passing out. Quincey and Alexander exchanged a glance. Muffin Vamps stretched out on the pillows and picked at a sore on the back of his hand, giggling quietly.
“I’ve never been so glad to not be a gholam,” Alexander said.
“Fuckin’ A,” Quincey agreed. “That woman does the most outrageous things to the Pattern, and I’d much rather keep my breakfast where it is.”
“Your name’s Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith.”
The creature – for there was no other word for it – nodded its awful puckered coal-scuttle face. Its eyes gleamed.
“And you’re a … human, I suppose is what you’re going for?”
“I godda glan’j’lar problem.”
“Yeah you do.”
“D’jou call me a hick?”
There was silence. Even without making any noise, Mister C managed to express the essence of a snigger. Chucky turned and glared at him. Mister C slurped on his moonshine and hung casually against the bar with a jaunty expression on his face. There was no hope of assistance from that quarter. Chucky sighed, patted his pockets and cloak for weapons or a shiny thing to distract the monster that was meant to be a human, and began formulating a plan. It was essentially an ad-lib, into which Chucky hoped to fit a bagpipe solo, a bit of running, a Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith-shaped hole, and possibly a snack.
“Yeah,” he said, “yeah I called you a hick.”
“Maybe we’sh’d step oudzide.”
There was a little sighing sound of reverence from the crowd, and the Winespring Inn suddenly began to drain as people filed out by the enlarged door and through the windows. The general mood seemed to be one of a crowd about to witness a good jolly old-fashioned bit of wedding entertainment with lots of violence and crunchy bits, none of which would belong to them. There was animated conversation and jostling for position once the Inn was cleared, and Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith shouldered his way out through the door with a final piggy-eyed blink in Chucky’s direction. Chucky squared his shoulders, cracked his knuckles, and pulled his bagpipes into play-position.
“Right, you giant definitely-not-human motherfucker,” he said toughly. “Time to-”
His bagpipes went ‘whoo’.
He looked down at the bag under his arm, and saw that somebody had considerately stuck a barbecue fork through it on their way out the door. It would take three hours and half a sheep to fix. He hadn’t even had a chance to play them since the skanky fox people had repaired them the last time, and they were punctured already.
“Oh man,” Chucky lowered his head despondently. “I’m history.”
“Really?” Mister C of 9 was still tied to the bar. “You look more like cookery to me,” Chucky sighed again, and started for the door. “Do me a favour, Chuck?”
Surprised at the halfman’s audacity, and reflecting that maybe in the current situation a better term for the guy might be ‘quarterman’, Chucky turned back. “Hm?”
“Untie me and carry me out to Dina al’Fresco’s little sitting-outside-at-a-chair-under-an-umbrella-while-eating area? I’d like to watch.”
Chucky shook his head in disbelief, and walked out.
Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith was waiting outside, in the middle of a wide circle of onlooking villagers. It was unsure, on the information available, whether the circle was so large to allow everybody a good view, or because nobody wanted to be too close to the splatter. Chucky morosely assumed the latter, and shuffled out into the middle of the circle. Silence descended again, but this wasn’t the silence of horror, so much as the silence of three hundred people drawing breath for such howled phrases as, “good shot, Mister Smith!”, “ooooh, that’s gonna leave a mark!” and, “oh Light, his ribs are sticking out of his arsehole, that’s not normal!” Chucky furiously racked his brains for something to say in order to get out of dying. After a couple of seconds he racked his brains for something to say before going out in style, instead.
He hoped it would all be over quickly, and he’d wake up sitting at his computer. This was all only an artificial environment of some sort, after all. Sure, it smelled bad on the inside, and everything was very realistic – except for the seeming acceptance of Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith as a human being – but it wouldn’t extend to a drawn-out, clubbed-to-pulp and permanent death, would it?
Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith advanced slowly, raising an enormous twisted hand preparatory to destroying the gleeman forever, when inspiration struck.
“With me dies the greatest tale ever told!” he cried. The crowd looked at him without interest. Smith’s hand began to descend. Not fast, but like a tree. It didn’t need to be fast. “The tale of Lord Luc and how the Horn of Valere was lost and he found out where it was and how to use it!”
There was a general murmur of discontent, and mutters of, “we’ve heard all the Lord Luc stories already,” and Chucky dared to take another breath. And another. He dared to look down, and decided that in a little while he might dare to find himself a new pair of pants. Then he looked around to see who had spoken.
As he’d hoped, it was Lord Luc. Or Slayer. Or whoever the guy was meant to be. Chucky wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting, but Slayer wasn’t it. Sure, the guy was resplendent in his Lordly attire and swagger, but there was something just a little bit strange about him. Sometimes, from certain angles and when he was turned in a certain direction, he seemed to be black-and-white, or slightly under-exposed. At one point, he walked behind someone and came out the other side looking like an animation from an A-Ha music video.
Why this should be, Chucky wasn’t sure. He wished he’d paid more attention to the storyline featuring Slayer. In fact, the less likely it seemed that he was about to die and the more thought he gave the whole situation, the more Chucky wished there’d been a Slayer storyline, instead of a half-dozen throwaway paragraphs about the dork through the entire bastard novel series.
“Hello there,” Luc said, striking a pose in the centre of the circle and swishing his double cloaks. As Perrin had said earlier, Lord Luc was indeed posing as a gleeman. His fluttering patches were mainly silks, velvets, velours and gold-thread, and the overall effect was of a christmas tree after the tree had died, but he undeniably looked the part and made Chucky look rather country-poor in comparison. A glance around the audience confirmed Chucky’s suspicion that he had no chance of playing the country-poor card to his advantage. Of the onlookers, only Perrin Goldeneyes Aybara looked remotely sympathetic, and even that was a stretch given that he had apparently invented, and was eating, popcorn.
“Hi,” Chucky said. “You must be Slayer,” he waited a moment, for dramatic effect, and wasn’t let down. Lord Luc gasped and looked around guiltily, went monochrome again for a second, and began to stammer. “I mean, the famous slayer of the, um, Worm of Wherever,” he went on smoothly. “The gleeman Class of ’56 basically graduated on your stories. You’re a legend. But I wouldn’t want to bore you,” he went on meaingfully. “Not after you’ve chosen to bless this town with your presence. You, a great Lord and all,” he paused judiciously. “Wink wink.”
“I see you’re well-versed in the classics,” Slayer said, twirling his moustaches. Chucky tried to remember whether the guy had had moustaches a couple of minutes before, and as he thought about it, Slayer went completely out-of-focus and faded to a greyscale so faint he was almost invisible. For a second, he was actually a stick figure with a bunch of scribbled notes floating around his head. Nobody seemed to notice. “Maybe we should talk things over in private, before giving these people the show of their lives.”
“That’d be great,” Chucky said, blinking rapidly and shaking his head to clear it. Lord Luc’s clothes popped into sharp focus and glorious Technicolor and the weird Min-viewing note scraps vanished, but the man inside the clothes remained weirdly Take On Me-ey. “I was just, um, well,” he gestured upwards at the immense glowering shape of Billy Joe-Bob al’Peterson Meatballs Smith.
Lord Luc turned, looked, and smiled brightly. “Ah, you’d run afoul of my page-boy, Billy. He has a glandular disorder.”
“I noticed that almost immediately,” Chucky said, and several things suddenly snapped into place in his mind. “Page-boy, eh? Not bad work for a forger.”
“It’s an Aginor Bio-Weapons Corp. experiment in progress,” Slayer said in an undertone. “You must have been surprised to see one so far from Thakan’dar, eh?”
“Oh,” Chucky nodded. “Oh my stars, yes. Surprised,” he looked up at Smith with a tremulous smile. “No hard feelings, eh Billy?” Billy grunted, and Chucky continued hopefully. “That’s a nice necklace you’re wearing, now that I notice it. What’s it made of?”
“Acorns,” Smith replied with an evil little grin.
“Well then, no harm done,” Lord Slayer said, and faded into black-and-white for a moment while he turned to address Smith and the rest of the crowd. “Chucky’s our friend, there’ll be no gross slow-motion squashing and carcass-stomp today,” there was a general groan. “Let the wedding recommence,” he went on, turning back towards Chucky. “My fellow gleeman and I shall repair to the inn, to discuss our entertainment schedule. The greatest tale ever told, eh?” he clapped Chucky on the shoulder. “About me and the Horn of Valere, eh?”
“Yeah,” Chucky said weakly, as they headed back towards the Winespring’s expanded doorway. “yeah, alright.”
“And you knew the story of the Worm of Wherever, too,” Slayer marvelled, and faded almost into nonexistence for a split-second and the notes returned. ALSO LORD LUC, one read. SLAYER / HOPPER … LAN IN DISGUISE? read another. Then they were gone again. Chucky wondered, in a flash of insight, whether this was because the Slayer that had existed at this stage of the story had been a character completely unformed by the author and with no real definition or purpose. It would make sense. Actually, now he came to think about it, it was pretty obvious.
He became aware that Slayer had stopped talking. “Hmm?” he said, distracted.
“I said, I don’t even know that one.”
“I took an extension course in making up bullshit stories when I was in gleecollege,” Chucky explained, “you should hear my Yoru chronicles.”
“They were you?” Slayer exclaimed as they stepped inside. “There I was thinking he was actually a figure out of hist-”
They stopped and looked down.
Mister C of 9 had obviously decided to make a run for it while everybody was busy. Chucky would have liked to believe that his old partner in crime had been trying to get free so he could somehow rescue the gleeman from the ol’ gross slow-motion squashing and carcass-stomp, but on extremely brief reflection it didn’t seem likely. He was either headed for a window, or the back fields, or the river. He’d had great difficulty freeing himself from his helpful ropes of verticality +2, but had succeeded by some wiggling of his baby-hand and studious gnawing. His skinny body and dwindling supply of protruding extremities had also helped him.
Then, of course, he’d fallen down and been unable to get back up, because he had no hands or feet. So he’d slithered a little way along the bar, and that was about as far as he’d gotten. He looked up at the intruders with flat hate in his sunnies.
“Is that your halfman?” Slayer asked mildly.
“Yeah,” Chucky sighed. “He’s the groom.”
They stood looking down at Mister C for a while. Mister C wriggled and said a bad word.
“He’s super fucked up,” Slayer declared.
Upon returning from their little adventure at the evil menagerie elephant show of Valan Luca, Dr. Nick and his companions were amazed to find their campsite in such a state. Which is to say, the Ogier were amazed, Cyberwollf wasn’t, and Dr. Nick was irritated.
They’d taken the wagon and its slumbering contents with them, for fear of what people might think if they found three comatose women in the back of it. As it happened, they needn’t have worried so much about leaving them at the campfire, and perhaps a little more about what might have happened if Luca’s patrons had stumbled onto the little trove while they were filing bandy-legged out of the arena.
Anyway, the wagon was no longer quiet and unassuming and discreet. In fact, parts of it seemed to be on fire, and other parts … yes. Dr. Nick knew that texture effect. A lot of the wagon seemed to be liberally doused in ooie-blooey.
Nynaeve was sitting in a nearby shrub, crying bitterly. Min was wandering around with a glazed expression on her face, and the recently returned auditioners were horrified to see it wasn’t just a figure of speech, but that her face was coated in the same stuff that covered the rear end of the wagon. Elayne was sitting up in the shredded remains of the wagon-bed itself, holding Birgitte’s unconscious head in the crook of one arm, Gaidal Cain’s in the other, and the jizz-soaked mug of a third person nestled softly in her lap. She looked weary but determined.
“What’s happened here?” Dr. Nick asked, with a cold, heavy feeling of complete defeat in his soul.
Bit by bit, between Nynaeve’s hysterical blubbering and Min’s face-wiping, eye-scrubbing fit of hysterics, they managed to piece together exactly what had taken place.
As the drugged tea had started to wear off – Dr. Nick started to curse himself for neglecting to top the girls up before rushing them away to rescue the Ogier, then realised that he didn’t need to curse himself, he was already nicely cursed as it was – the three most irritating women in the universe had found themselves fading in and out of Tel’aran’rhiod, unable to control their stability, and had eventually ended up trapped there. Without knowing how much time was passing in the real world, they had wandered around aimlessly trying to figure things out.
Then something had happened. Nynaeve seemed to think they’d been attacked by one of the Forsaken in a nightmarish disguise. Min had thought it was something else, and that it had been disguised as something quite nice in comparison to what it really looked like. Whoever or whatever it had been, it had dived towards them screaming something, and they’d only managed to escape because Birgitte, Cain and the guy they had dubbed Peeseearr had jumped in at the last minute and carried them out of the way. They’d chased one another through the rooftops of some unknown town for a while, Nynaeve shooting fireballs and Birgitte shooting arrows and everybody screaming, when all of a sudden they’d been attacked from the opposite direction.
This time there was no disagreement whatsoever. It had been a giant flying penis, and it had bowled them all over and gone straight for the Forsaken, or the Tel’aran’rhiod monster, or whatever it was. There had been a brief, dark period about which nobody could – or would – remember anything, then an explosion, and they’d woken up to find the wagon on fire, their surroundings drenched in man-batter, and Birgitte, Gaidal Cain and Peeseearr torn out of the Dream and brought whole and dying into the real world. Elayne had promptly bonded all three of them as Warders, while Nynaeve and Min went even nuttier than they had been already.
“Well, that’s nice,” Dr. Nick said, mopping distastefully at a puddle of blooey with the sleeve of his cadin’sor. “So, wherever we’re headed, at least now Nynaeve’ll be a bit quieter and Elayne will have these guys to look after, and we’ll have a bit of expertise at the helm. It’s, like, three times better than just having Birgitte,” he glanced at the small, mousy, damp-looking comatose form of Peeseearr. “But what’s his story? He doesn’t look like much of a Hero of the Horn. What’s his name?”
“Oh, we just called him Peeseearr because it was easier to pronounce,” Elayne explained, her voice and manner still vague and disoriented from the drugs and the concussion. “I don’t know if he’s a great warrior or a strategic genius or anything like that, he just ran very fast and talked a lot, even while we were in disgusting peril.”
“Can you remember his actual name?” Dr. Nick asked, the sickly leaden feeling in his soul only increasing.
“What exactly are we looking at here?” Janica said, glaring around aimlessly.
The damane and her sul’dam were standing with a miserable-looking Dragon Reborn, several uneasy-looking Maidens of the Spear, a pissed-off-looking Nancy Sidesaddle, a pissed-off-enough-to-make-Nancy-look-cheerful-looking Moiraine, an absent-looking Forsaken_1 and an embarrassed-looking Jasin Natael, on top of the wooden tower they’d ordered built overlooking Cairhien. It wasn’t a well-built tower, because trees had been quite hard to come by, and people with the engineering skill to build a tower with were pretty scarce too, but it was good enough to give them optimal view with minimal seasickness. In the far corner, Kin Tovere and his two helpers, Jol and Cail, were fussing over a pair of telescopes. But they really weren’t necessary. Everything that anybody would ever want to see in and around Cairhien was already clearly visible.
“Ehmm…” Debs looked out over the greater Cairhienin metropolitan area, and tried out several versions of an answer to Janica’s question. None of them were really very appealing.
“Bloody, burning ashes and fuck,” Moiraine summarised succinctly.
Cairhien was gone. Most of its walls had been torn down, especially those facing onto the nearby river, which was now running thick and black under a sky leaden with pollution. The woods within a mile of the city were gone, feeding newly-made furnaces and cookpots, and most of the city’s houses had been pulled down and replaced with great fenced areas like paddocks. Only instead of sheep or cows, these paddocks contained people, obviously collected in the ‘Seanchan’ raids all the way through the Jangai pass and probably elsewhere as well. Giant grey shapes, visible even without the aid of the telescopes, moved slowly back and forth around the furnaces and forges, sometimes dragging the tiny struggling shapes of people, sometimes crossing to the river with an armload of spindly black swords, sometimes just standing at the fences and poking at the prisoners with mild, tireless curiosity. From some of the new structures, in a slow but constant flood, the unmistakable shapes of trollocs and myrddraal were filing into the city centre, where smithies were clearly producing more conventional weapons and armour.
“Lukes leek the Ferseeken’ve gotten here before us,” Debs settled on, but secretly thought Moiraine’s had been the better call.
“It’s Thakan’dar, y’all,” Shannon said, crossing to the engineers – giving Natael, Debs noticed, a wide berth in the process – and peering through the telescope as they made final adjustments to it. “They’ve done gone built theyselves a new war machine right here, an’ they’re already in production. And what do we got?” he glanced over his shoulder. “Apart from Scratchy, I mean.”
“I didn’t expect the Darkfriends to move this quickly,” the foppish gleeman said, looking down over the facilities with eyes Debs was sure were being enhanced with saidin. “Aginor’s obviously stepping up his plans, and the production lines around Shayol Ghul aren’t enough anymore. They’ve got friends helping with the work, too,” he pointed at the flying shapes in the air above. “Those Seanchan you’ve been talking about.”
Moiraine glared suspiciously at the poorly-disguised servant of the Great Lord of the Dark, and sighed aggressively. “I don’t suppose it will do me any good,” she gritted, “to ask you where you learned all this.”
“Common knowledge,” Asmodean said, examining his fingernails. “Aginor has a great deal of weapons and inventions for the war effort, and most of his plans have never so much derailed as been delayed. He’s obviously out and about and returning to business, business he left off at the Sealing of the Bore. If you look at those big smoke-producing buildings near the central business district, you’ll clearly see the Aginor Bio-Weapons Corporation logo on the chimneys.”
Janica peered into the second telescope, and sighed.
“This is hopeless,” she said. “Kin, do you think you could make some of these lenses – only make them smaller, and put them in a frame that I can wear?”
“Over your eyes?” Tovere smiled uncertainly. “I could never grind lenses so fine, it would take the use of the One…”
“Spackle?” Forsaken_1 finished hopefully.
“Power?” Janica corrected.
Tovere looked longingly over the side of the tower, as if contemplating a jump for freedom. “Maybe.”
“We can talk about it later,” Janica said, rolling up her sleeves. “I may not be able to see much, but unless I’m very much mistaken, they’re about to attack.”