They stood on the impressive but tactically unsound platform and watched the draghkar, raken and animated storm clouds gather in the air over Cairhien. Janica reflected vaguely that making a highly conspicuous shape against the skyline probably hadn’t been a great idea when dealing with an enemy that used the One Power.
“Natael’s right, there seem to be Shadowspawn among the enemy that I haven’t seen before,” Moiraine said, looking out at the hostile force with saidar-assisted vision and an occasional glance through the rudimentary telescopes made by Kin Tovere. Given the weakening state of her Power-wielding abilities, this was about the limits of what saidar could do for her with any reliability. After a quiet moment of contemplation, she turned to the others, and fixed Debs in particular with an unimpressed glare. “That is, I have seen them – they’re more of your bloody friends, just like the gleeman said.”
“Ach,” Debs muttered, upset at the sight of her apparent countrymen throwing in their lot with the enemy, even though it had been clear for some time that the Seanchan and the Darkfriends were in cahoots. “Mebbe they will’nae attack us ef they see me with ye.”
“That’s a good premise to pin our lives on,” Moiraine snorted, “or we could just get the Ghul out of here.”
“Yeah, what she said,” Forsaken_1, who had read the books and immediately forgotten almost everything in them, clearly recognised the new Cairhien skyline as something wholly wrong, and wanted no part of it. Down below, Someshta was already climbing back into the gaudy little Tinker’s wagon, and beginning the long and frustrating process of getting Contro to do the same. The army they’d led west over the Spine of the World had been decimated by the Green Man’s terrible attempts at reforming the Aiel nation, and most of them hadn’t seen the force arrayed against them, distracted as they were by all the amazing trees and rivers. Even though most of the former had been stripped or torn down, and most of the latter had been re-routed towards the distant enemy fortification, they were still astonishing to the Aiel. All in all, there were definitely better places to stage an assault, places with a far higher chance of success and far less risk of awful, awful things happening to them in the process. “Maybe we should liberate some other country first, and sort of work our way up to this one.”
“What do you lot know about all this?” Moiraine snapped, after looking into the telescope for a few fuming moments. “How did this happen?”
“Look, the Forsaken were always going to return, and build their armies and descend on you with Shadowspawn out of the Blight,” Janica attempted to defuse the situation. “This was a historical inevitability.”
“Gosh, is that what it is,” Moiraine growled, looking back into the telescope as if unable to believe what she’d seen in it last time. “A historical inevitability. And there I was just thinking it was my home town getting transformed into a Shadowspawn production line. Light, but I’ve learned a lot today.”
“Shall we leave?” Forsaken_1 asked plaintively.
“Or we could just wait for the Shadowspawn to come in range of Nancy Sidesaddle’s ta’veren effect,” Loial said, his fuzzy ears wibbling with anticipation and one giant hand already straying for his notebook. “They might well decide not to attack us after all.”
“Or they might accidentally kill every single one of us with a single arrow, and leave Nancy standing,” Janica replied.
“Suits me,” Shannon growled.
“My poo-hole itches,” Vamps remarked, and began to scratch and chuckle vigorously.
“Right,” Moiraine started for the ladder. “I’m out of here.”
Muttering and arguing amongst themselves, the retinue of the Dragon Reborn made their way back down to the ground and prepared to make a tactical withdrawal. Maidens of the Spear were sent out to spread the word to the rest of the Aiel, many of whom might be tempted to stay and fight this insurmountable foe in spite of the fact that it would be the death of them. Three of the Maidens fell down the same hole, each one breaking her neck but not dying, and Moiraine called Shannon a cunt. The nervous Tovere bustled around and ordered his assistants to pack up and make ready, using a turn of phrase that wouldn’t have seemed out of place in a conversation between Moiraine and a Wise One.
The Cairhienin refugees from whose number they’d plucked the lensmaker were still milling around looking stunned and dazed, and nobody could really blame them. From what little anybody had been able to gather, the Shadowspawn attack had ended about twenty minutes after it had begun, and most of the citizenry were now awaiting a nasty death in slave-pens along the banks of the river Alguenya, which was now a major halfsword manufactory.
Without any dissenting voices, the edges of this mob of refugees were already on the move, heading away from the city and back along the Aiel’s path towards the Spine of the World. The Green Man, it seemed, had finally resorted to just picking Contro up and putting him in the wagon, the happy Tinker’s babble not pausing for a moment. Cow and Bela were doing their best to pull in two different directions, perhaps planning on breaking the wagon traces and freeing them of their mind-warping master forever, but Loial moved carefully closer to them and did his best to make the unruly animals behave themselves.
“Where are we going to go now?” Someshta asked, from his accustomed place bundled up in the back of Contro’s wagon, looking for all the world like a weirdly-arranged pile of shrubbery.
“Away from those raken for a start,” Janica replied, glancing over at the long-dressed blurs that were the Wise Ones. They were easy enough to distinguish simply by the way they shouted. “We’ll dig doon and come up with some sort o’ plan.”
“We’ve got a decent head start on them, but it will still be difficult to outpace them for the time it will take us to find a defensible place,” one of the interchangeable clan chiefs – Janica thought it might have been Jurani, of the Red Shields, but she’d long since stopped caring and was in fact beginning to suspect that the Aiel swapped names and job descriptions at secret meetings, just to annoy her – pointed out grimly. “We should send a party to delay the enemy. The Car’a’carn must not be taken.”
“We’re not going to be able to do much about those och-begorrah-ing flying motherfuckers,” Moiraine remarked, snapping her fingers at Forsaken_1 and pointing to her saddlebags. The Warder dutifully picked them up and carried them off towards the Aes Sedai’s horse. “In fact, the whole thing’s a cluster-”
Moiraine’s profanity was cut short by the Cairhienin defence web, an experimental procedure designed to slow the enemy, cut off escape routes from the city and inflict the maximum of damage with the minimum of effort and expenditure.
All around them, mainly at chest-height but some as high as the sparse, burned-out treetops, little flashes of blue light began winking on and off. The effect was quite pretty, like party-lights. They would appear in a tiny vertical slash, spin into nothingness, and wink out in an identical stripe. It only took Debs and Shannon a moment to recognise the phenomenon as myriad tiny gateways opening and closing, and Moiraine was just a second behind them. The Aiel and assorted riders moved into the glittering nebula of gateways, which was pulsing and drifting gently with illusory movement across their intended escape route.
Seconds later, the screaming began. Branches began to tumble from the trees, horses flailed and fell with minuscule blades carving their way through flesh and bone, and all over the hillside, people began collapsing. Behind them, the tower gave an ominous clunk, and timbers began to groan towards collapse.
Kin Tovere screamed and clutched his upper arm as a tiny gateway slid open just under the skin and his movement tore it into a deep, surgical incision. Beside him, his assistant Jol wasn’t so lucky. His eyeball popped with a great splurt of blood and jelly, and as he fell the tiny revolving blue light carved upwards through his brain. He landed, thrashed, and his fingers flew across the clearing as his hand crossed the path of another gateway at ankle-height before he finally lay still. Still squealing, Kin fell to his knees.
“My glasses!” Janica cried, dragging Debs across to the inventor and grasping saidar without thought. Tovere gasped as the little damane weaved Healing by pure instinct, sealing up the severed arteries and the microns-thick slice in his shoulder-blade. Off to one side, Cail was running for safety, but stopped suddenly and clutched his arm, just moments before it dropped off at the elbow. “Stay still!” Janica cried. “Stay away from the lights!”
But they were everywhere. The bright wagon trundled past them, Cow and Bela not even trying to bite or trample the people they overtook, so great was their desire to vacate the premises. Cow had a stippling of little vertical cuts in his flank, Bela looked to have a split lip, and they were both looking just about ready to stampede. Loial was trundling rapidly alongside, wide-eyed and trying in vain to protect his pocketfuls of books with his massive hands. From inside the wagon, mild Old Tongue curses and the sound of violent pruning could be heard.
“Ha ha ha!!!” Contro exclaimed from the driver’s seat. The reins in his hands were no longer connected to the horses, and the colourful wood of the wagon was dotted with gashes and spirals of shaved-off paint. “Where are we going? What’s happening anyway?? Ha ha ha! Look, that fellow only has half a head!! You don’t often see a person with less than a whole head, and I think he’s gone to the toilet in his pants too! Funny that! The toilet part of his head must be in the missing part!!! Ha ha ha oi! My ear!”
At that moment, just a few feet from where Janica knelt beside Kin Tovere, a brilliant blue stripe about twenty feet in height sketched itself down through the air. It was, for anybody interested, very close to the world-record in terms of gateway size, the previous record being set by an Aes Sedai circle in the Age of Legends working for a corporation named Sharom Travel. Debs saw in an instant that its opening would probably cut the horses and Vamps in half, and while that wasn’t necessarily a total disaster, it would add more problems to their already loaded plate. Without stopping to think, she jumped to her feet and ran to the wagon, pulling Janica roughly along behind by the neck.
The vertical slash reached the ground, shuddered for a moment, and began to revolve. Debs pulled a waxy-looking statue of what looked a little bit like Elvis Presley out of their stash in the back of Contro’s wagon and, snarling, braced the cuendillar object hard up against the opening gateway. Her heels sunk into the ground, her biceps rippled … and the swivelling hole stopped in its tracks. The cuendillar grew cool under her fingers, and a soft whistling noise began to come from the towering slash.
Something went thwap.
In the heart of Cairhien, Angamael looked out at the testing grounds to the northwest with great interest. The site was several miles away from the city itself, and away from any important industry or trade routes, but they had quite a good view from the fabled topless towers. Thanks to the One Power, and a couple of useful weaves shown to him by the ever-helpful Chosen and Aes Sedai, the experimental defence web was quite clearly visible.
Assorted sources had informed him that enemies were closing in from the east, most probably the Dragon’s Aiel from the Spine of the World, but of course he’d been expecting that, and had already mobilised a large number of Darkfriends, Shadowspawn and Seanchan. There was no harm in also testing the new defence system’s capabilities at the same time, of course … but just in case the unforeseen should happen, he’d ordered his forces to mass and ready themselves at a safe distance, and not push the attack until the defence web’s effectiveness or otherwise was well established. Any accidents that occurred would, at worst, compromise the distant testing site, not the majority of his Cairhienin forces. That was just common sense. And placing the testing ground a long way from anywhere important was also smart. These girls were using gateways, albeit small ones. Opening gateways between enemy territory and the nerve-centre of one’s operations … that was just silly.
He could have held off on the experimental offensive weaves, of course, but it paid to encourage creativity in the troops, and they were currently eager and excited. Not even an accident would dampen this, while denying them the opportunity to try might have unpleasant consequences.
Their weaker channelers – novices, Accepted, and some of the more hopeless and annoying Aes Sedai – were formed up, each one performing the Travelling weave they’d recently been taught by the revered Chosen. None of them could do much in the way of offensive weaving. Fireballs and a bit of squeezing-in-bands-of-Air was about their limit, and most of them couldn’t open a gateway much more than a couple of inches across. But Angamael had had this idea.
It was amazing, a little bit of experimentation with captive Cairhienin showed, just what sort of damage a gateway the size of a pin-head could do if it was opened up in the centre of a running person’s skull. And it used so little Power, even an Aes Sedai novice could make fifty or a hundred of them while juggling light-balls simultaneously. They had a lot of slack-jawed drooling lobotomy-victims currently waiting for their chance to assist in the new weapons program now, but most of the test subjects had died. Eventually.
None of the novices down in the testing ground, Angamael was pleased to see, were currently juggling balls of light. So far as he knew, nobody had ever gotten anything useful done by juggling balls of light. But they were opening and closing gateways for all they were worth, oh yes. He’d considered getting one of his lieutenants to teach the weakest and most dispensable – who were, amusingly, the most eager-to-please thanks to the high command’s new policies of encouragement and teamwork – the art of unpicking weaves. If he could get a few of them to unweave gateways of this size, he’d have access to another very useful weapon. One with almost pinpoint accuracy. Still, that was a thought for another day. He looked down on the collection of channelers and their bright little accompanying swarm of blue lights with a proud smile.
A little to the rear of the Aes Sedai, a small group of immense, looming forgers stood and shuffled their unformed feet with bovine impatience. Aginor had altered a contingent of the massive entities for use in the new manufactories on the dirty black banks of the river Alguenya, and had made the welcome discovery that once established in a new forging routine much like their old task in Thakan’dar, the ‘longing’ did not affect them to any great extent. Even so, if they were taken away from the forges for any length of time, they would begin to degenerate. They’d lost contact with their first prototype, Smith, over in the Two Rivers, but weren’t sure why. Aginor had insisted mildly on a new test group, and the forgers he had subsequently altered were eager to head out and destroy the last Nym. They could smell its proximity, and it flung them into the sedate, slow-minded forger equivalent of a foaming rage.
The forgers weren’t exactly efficient, but Aginor enjoyed souping them up, and Angamael knew it was a good idea to keep your mad genii happy and, above all, busy. In the meantime, Aginor was also thinking up new things, and de-regionising forgers helped him concentrate. And the giant boys certainly packed a whallop. This team had been assembled to go through a single large gateway assembled by a makeshift circle of a couple of dozen Accepted, and four nervous Cairhienin men who had been identified by the Chosen as having a very weak spark. They’d been encouraged to learn, but Angamael hadn’t wasted time and effort and halfmen to convert them. They were just meat, for the time being, and added strength to the circle, allowing it to extend into larger numbers and therefore make a large enough gateway to admit the forgers. With any luck, the lumbering giants would help cut off the enemy’s retreat, and might even succeed in taking out the core group including Dragon, Green Man, and assorted channelers, in the process. Then the main body could come up from Cairhien and test their new trollocs and fades and swords. Aginor was still experimenting with new water, new settings, and new combinations of DNA, musculature and recombinant genes. The happy results were threefold – they were getting more powerful trollocs, they were getting more halfman-throwbacks as a result of the experiments, and the fades they were getting were also stronger.
Angamael’s smile widened into a great, gleaming mad grin. Even from this distance, he could see the tiny gateways opening and closing, winking in and out of existence in little squirts of blood, brains and foliage. And the group-hug of the big-gate circle was obviously warming up. Between the humans and the forgers, a huge shining blue line scrawled its way through the air.
A few seconds passed, and Angamael’s grin faltered. The channelers working on the main defence swarm were doing very well, but something really weird was happening at the big gateway. The forgers – all of whom were named Smith, just like their adventurous precursor, because it was just easier that way – were moving hesitantly forwards, but the bright vertical slash didn’t seem to be revolving out into a hole. Angamael wondered if maybe he was looking at it from the wrong angle.
Then he quite clearly heard something go thwap, although by the time the sound reached his saidin-enhanced ears, everything else had already happened. All the gateways in the testing ground blazed bright red for a split-second, then vanished simultaneously. An echoing shudder ran through Angamael as he felt the One Power surge impossibly through every living conduit across the length and breadth of what the Seanchan called Chaggabaggawoggaland – if not through every channeler on the face of the planet. He felt an immense boiling itch within his very cells, and knew that every channeler inside the testing site had been burned out. It wasn’t likely to worry them, though, because less than a second later the entire site was enveloped in a blazing white fireball. He could make out weaves in the flames, Earth and Spirit and great whorled knots of Fire, and the thwap that reached his ears at about that very moment was drowned almost immediately by the roar of the detonation and the tinkle of breaking glass across the northwest quarter of the city.
Angamael stared at the seething cauldron of red-hot slag that had once been the Cairhienin defence web.
“That’s … interesting,” he murmured.
“Reet,” Debs settled herself to the floor of the tent and folded her arms in a businesslike manner, making sure they were folded above her breasts. This hurt her shoulders a little, and made Forsaken_1’s eyes look as though they were about to pop out of his head, but it had the desired effect of distancing herself from the braid-gripping, sniffing, highly irritating women of Jordania. “Let’s review.”
“I still have an owwie,” the Dragon Reborn pointed out.
Vamps’s list of complaints had grown still longer in the strange attack, when he lost a fingertip and suffered brief internal bleeding due to an opening gateway in his thigh. Janica had grudgingly Healed him, but the inspiration of panic had left her, and the complicated process of Healing had become increasingly difficult. She’d finally linked with Moiraine and let the aggressive near-stilled Aes Sedai take the lead, and they’d spent the majority of their retreat-in-shambles dashing back and forth Healing the less devastatingly injured folk, while Someshta also did what he could. The Green Man had been trimmed neatly in several places, but was still in good health, and his own healing abilities were extraordinary. As for the worst cases, it was left to Loial, Mat, Lan and, in one unfortunate case, Cow, to put the brutally-injured people out of their misery. Luckily, the frightening attack had ceased as soon as the big gateway-line had gone red and then vanished, a phenomenon that had been followed by the sensation of drawing far too much saidar, a sensation felt by every woman in the group – and a similar feeling had been quietly reported by Vamps and Jasin Natael as well – and the sound of a distant explosion. A ragged black cloud of smoke had then risen to the east. They’d made good their escape, putting several more miles between themselves and Cairhien, and as far as anybody could tell, they hadn’t been pursued by the massing horde of Seanchan.
“Nobody gives a flying fuck in a hurricane whorehouse about you or your owwie,” Moiraine grunted.
Janica raised her voice and took up the chairwomaning where Debs had left off. Given time, the Aiel Wise Ones would begin taking the meeting into their own hands, and things would end with oosquai and bad language. “They’ve got most of the Seanchan and all their animals. They’ve got almost all the Aes Sedai out of Tar Valon, and the entire Blight and everything in it. Oh, and as of now they have Cairhien, and all the Forseeken are working taegether,” she looked around without seeing an awful lot. “Am I forgetting anything?”
“If you are, I don’t want to know about it,” Amys growled. She was still sitting in the far corner with her hair in pigtails, and as usual the rest of the Wise Ones ignored her. Her position was only slightly more exalted than Aviendha’s gai’shain servitude, after her unpleasant authority-clash with Janica several weeks previously.
Sorilea seemed to be of the same opinion, regardless of its original source, and she didn’t add anything to the list. The rest of the Wise Ones followed her lead, and nobody else in the tent really mattered.
“And what have we got?” Janica went on, although she didn’t particularly want to. “We’ve got a bunch of Aiel, many of whom the Green Man has turned to pacifism…”
“Sorry,” Someshta rustled from the doorway.
“Hey,” Forsaken_1 spoke up in the brief lull. “I just had an idea. Do you think we could do the opposite?” he looked around at the dubious female faces. “If we told the True Aiel Story to the Tinkers, do you think they’d go militant?”
“Fuck’s sake,” Moiraine snapped, “that’s the dumbest … fine, let’s try it.”
“Moiraine Sedai is right,” Loial rumbled from his position in another corner of the tent, of which he occupied a large fraction. “What is the worst it can do, after all? They are already completely non-violent.”
“The worst it can do is turn them violently against the Aiel and the Aes Sedai in a mad quest to regain their former glory,” Janica remarked, “and I wouldn’t go ruling it out just yet. The moment we think we know what the worst that can possibly happen is, something worse could happen. But we could try it, we need all the help we can get and if Aram can convert … never mind, Aram’s just a story I heard about once. So,” she went on quickly because she could feel Moiraine’s scowl, “what else do we have? We might have Tear, unless things have gone to Ghul there lately. We’ve got the Dragon, the Car’a’carn and, if we do it right, the Coramoor as well.”
“But we don’t need the Sea Folk,” Shannon added, “because Shadow Monkey has rendered them pretty much useless by using gateways. We might have been able to use them to cut off the larger part of the Seanchan invasion force, but he’s probably stopped them in their tracks and delivered them all safely to the coast by Travelling already. We could use the Sea Folk channelers, and that means Shadow Monkey probably wants them as well.”
They’d taken to talking about ‘Shadow Monkey’ since getting in contact with Cyberwollf via the Aiel Dreamwalkers and the Wolf Dream. They didn’t exactly have a perfect communications system ironed out, and Tel’aran’rhiod was “all fucky” lately, according to the Wise Ones, but they did the best they could. And it was as good a term as any for the mysterious spanner they’d found in the works, a spanner that was simultaneously wrecking their own plans while turning the Darkfriend war machine into a well-oiled engine of devastation.
“Thes theng tha’ jus’ happened wi’ the geetwee, though,” Debs said thoughtfully, “I danna knae eff-”
“Would somebody shut that fat slut up and put somebody who can speak properly back in the fucking chair?” Sorilea snapped. “For the Light’s sake, I’ve had a gutful.”
“Debs is right,” Janica said diplomatically, “this thing with the gateways – if it wasn’t a coincidence – might mean that Travelling is too risky now. So we’re back to other means of getting around. So the Sea Folk and their prophecies might still come in handy for us,” she raised her hand and ticked off another finger, while she was thinking about it. “We’ve got a powerful ta’veren to top off our Dragon ruse, but she could do as much harm to us as good.”
“He,” Shannon stressed, but nobody listened to him. “He could do harm. And really would like to right now.”
“We need to build an opposing force to equal the one our enemies have built up,” Janica went on, “and we need to make it up out of all the things that are left. And at the same time we need to stop Shadow Monkey from recruiting the same forces from underneath us,” she glanced at Vamps, who was easily recognisable by smell and movement if not wholly visible to her at the time. “And we have to do it all before Puddin Taim dissolves entirely. Is that about it?”
“What sort of forces do we have left?” Moiraine asked querulously. “There’s the Whitecloaks, who will never fight side-by-side with channelers even if they see what’s happened to Cairhien. There’s a lot of good mettle left in the Two Rivers – this new Manetheren we’ve heard so much about,” she added, glancing sourly at the sul’dam and damane, “and there might be another crop of channelers to be found in the Two Rivers too.”
“There’s also the Kin, if we can get to them before the Aes Sedai in Tar Valon do,” Janica said, ignoring Moiraine’s guilty little twitch. “And we have the wolves…” she hesitated. “But none of these will work together unless we push them, and get very lucky in the process. We need to think outside the lines. There’s Shadar Logoth,” she hazarded. “Maybe just as bad, but definitely against the Dark One.”
“And there’s Shara, and the Isle of Madmen…” Shannon added. “We could Travel there and build some forces.”
“And Tel’aran’rhiod…” Loial contributed.
“An’ Earth,” Debs added. “We’re gonna have tae cheat a wee bet.”
“Where’s Mat?” Forsaken_1 asked suddenly, the randomly crossing pathways of his brain accidentally resulting in another bit of on-topic information rising to the surface – the second in as many minutes. “Isn’t this about the time he was supposed to go off and become a general with a whole lot of military experience? We could use that right now.”
“He was supposed to be fighting Shaido,” Janica shook her head. “Against that lot in Cairhien, he’d just become a trolloc’s main course, with a lot of seasoning,” she took a sip from a handy wine-bag. “We can zap the Aes Sedai and return them to normal, if we can think of some way of delivering a static tickle-tum jolt to all of them, more or less simultaneously, without Shadow Monkey finding out about what we’re doing, and without their stupid rubber costumes messin’ things up.”
“Ha,” Forsaken_1 snorted, “in your dreams.”
The Wise Ones, sul’dam and damane stared at him.
Forsaken_1 preened, naturally assuming they were admiring his rugged good looks.