After the explosion at the Cairhien Defence Web testing site, the One Power was acting quite strangely in the general vicinity, and the Web itself was in outright shambles. The channelers involved had been stilled, gentled and then blown to their component atoms, so they’d been given the day off. The rest of the channelers in the city, composed of a few Aes Sedai Dreadladies and a handful of channelers found in the city itself, were resting up in preparation for another long day of rigorous training. The Forsaken were gathered in Tar Valon, except for Demandred, who was standing in for Sammael in Cairhien without being entirely sure why.
He was having a quiet snooze, and experiencing an extremely weird dream about a whole bunch of people scratching wolves’ bellies, followed by an even stranger dream about a large crowd of people and wolves wandering away one by one until just one young woman and a laughing upside-down Tinker were left, chasing each other around while the woman said awful swearwords, when the collection of loosely-woven wards he’d tired himself out creating started to kick up a loud and insistent tinkling.
He jumped to his feet, using some of the choicer words from the dream he’d been having. While the Nae’blis had been carefully cultivating an environment of zero overconfidence while at the same time encouraging positive thinking, Demandred had been quite sure that the enemy would be demoralised after their skirmish on the boundaries of Cairhien, and would not be attacking again so soon. Obviously, he’d been mistaken.
Grudgingly, Demandred admitted that Angamael had been right to insist on backup plans. He never would have thought of the question “what if the enemy do something else?”
“We’re under attack,” he reported to his messenger service, “enemies coming in from the east, as predicted. Wake the channelers, they have counterweaving to do.”
He put down the little golden thing that the Nae’blis insisted was a microphone but wasn’t really fooling any of the Chosen for a moment. They knew from experience that a lot of the ter’angreal makers of the so-called Age of Legends had been nutty little geeks who simply couldn’t get laid. It hadn’t been much of a life for an Aes Sedai, all in all, and the result had been a lot of quite rude objects of Power. The messenger ter’angreal spawned, with just the lightest channeling of Spirit and Air, any number of small golden penises that could be pinned on one’s shirt if one had absolutely no taste or shame, and they could be used easily to communicate with other penises anywhere else in the world. There were certain guidelines, of course, such as steddings and Shadar Logoth and, for some reason, within a ten-foot radius of a myrddraal, but by far the biggest problem was that nobody wanted to be seen talking into a small golden penis. The female channelers sniggered unpleasantly, and the male channelers refused to wear them.
Still, they worked, after a fashion. Or at least, they had until a moment ago.
“Go counterweave yourself, Darkfriend,” the voice that emerged from the bulbous ‘microphone’ was distant and tinny but nevertheless quite heartfelt.
“Ach, stick yer enemies up yer arrrse, ye beg jesseh,” a thickly-accented Seanchan voice agreed. Demandred took a moment to curse the Seanchan, most of whom were willing Friends of the Dark … but a lot of those sul’dam had been forced to undergo the treatment. “Ye’re on yer aen nae, hoots mon ef ye were annawheer near me reet noo ah’d gi’ ye the back o’ mah haend…”
Swearing, Demandred dropped the ter’angreal on the floor and ran from the bedchamber.
“Reet,” Debs said, rolling up her sleeves. “Let’s make some mess, then.”
The Dragon Reborn and some of the most powerful channelers available to the Chaggabaggawoggaland Narrative Coherence Preservation Society were gathered on the rickety viewing tower, which had collapsed and been reconstructed on its original site by bands of Air and a bit of one-part harmony singing from Someshta. Each of the channelers were nervously gripping a piece of what they fervently hoped was cuendillar, in expectation of another various gateway attack, though none of them thought it was very likely. Janica was holding the female Choedan Kal statuette, Vamps was – against several objections – holding the male one. Asmodean was standing by, nervously looking at Janica and ready to guide the Dragon through the weaves if needed.
Moiraine, Egwene and Aviendha were also present. Moiraine might not qualify as one of the most powerful channelers anymore, indeed she might have been in the running for position of absolute weakest, but nobody had had the heart – or assorted other organs – to tell her she couldn’t come. Aviendha had been of the opinion, and the Wise Ones agreed with her, that a gai’shain had no place fighting, let alone channeling in a battle situation, but Janica had managed to convince them that the Dark One didn’t take gai’shain and the rules didn’t apply when the universe was at stake anyway. She’d had Shannon standing by to offer and bit of Pattern-reorganisation, but it hadn’t proved necessary.
They watched the Aiel and the hastily-conscripted armyette of Cairhienin survivors as they moved steadily towards the Shadow-blighted city.
“Shouldn’t be too difficult to make a mess,” Moiraine muttered.
“My finger hurts,” Vamps whined.
“Which one?” Egwene asked. “I’m not much at Healing-”
“He doesn’t need Healing,” Janica said, “we Healed him already when he got the end of his finger cut off and there’s nothing more we can do and we have to conserve as much energy as we can for the battle.”
“This finger,” Vamps replied obliviously, holding up his left hand and wiggling the lower joint of his middle finger. “You wouldn’t believe some of the things I’ve done with this finger…”
“You’re right,” Janica snapped, “we wouldn’t. On my signal, we’ll start with strategic fireballing on the eastern…” she became gradually aware of an awed, frightened silence forming around her. “What? What am I missing? If it’s something Vamps did with his finger, leave me in suspense.”
“What,” Moiraine breathed, “the fuck are they?”
By then, however, even Janica could see the boiling lines of cloud that were pouring through the sky from the direction of Cairhien. They were like dark grey contrails, heavy with lightning, swirling threateningly outwards in perfect grid-lines. The few airborne raken and what might have been a draghkar swooped wildly between them, but Janica couldn’t see those, even when she embraced saidar.
“Oh,” Jasin Natael said idly, looking up at the clouds as they raced by overhead. “It looks as though somebody’s resurrected the old standing flows.”
“The whatting whats?” Janica snapped. She’d known that there was going to be lightning, but this hadn’t been in the plan at all.
“I … don’t know,” Asmodean admitted, his face confused. “I only just remembered it when I saw them, but a second ago I had no idea they ever existed, and now it’s like I’ve known about them all along. It just…” he snapped his fingers at temple-height. “Pop.”
“What are standing flows, Moiraine?” Janica asked.
“Oh, so now you want my I don’t know,” Moiraine adjusted her attitude mid-sentence. “I’ve never heard of them in my life. There’s a scroll I read once, talking about the Age of Legends and some of the wonders the Aes Sedai of those times could achieve, I remember some reference to ‘the flows that forever stand’ … but the next paragraph was talking about flying bathtubs and frankly I lost interest.”
“Nae,” Debs replied. “I have’nae heard o’ ’em.”
“Vamps?” Janica asked unwillingly.
“My arms hurt too. But I can put up with it. If it’s what I have to do, I can put up with any-”
“Well, Jasin,” Janica overrode, loudly, “you’d better just explain all you can about whatever it is they’re doing.”
“How would he know?” Moiraine snapped. “Oh, wait – gleeschool, right? Forget I asked.”
“I really don’t know,” Asmodean stammered. “Honestly, I have no idea. They existed in the Age of Legends, huge weaves of saidar and saidin that lay along certain lines … they could be used by people without the need for channeling. I think? I … I can’t say any more. This grid seems to have been dusted off and set to work making lightning weaves. It’s more powerful than a circle of Aes Sedai, at least as far as I can tell.”
“Most of their channelers should be knocked back to their senses right now,” Janica said, “and that includes the Aes Sedai and the damane. But if they can strike without needing any more channelers…”
Lightning began to blast relentlessly, blazing through the woods and marching up towards the wobbling tower.
“For the last bloody, ashy, bloody time,” Mat growled, “I don’t know anything about military tactics. I never set foot in any Aes Sedai’s ter’angreal, or at least I never did all on my own without you bloody people dragging me along. As far as I know, Snakes and Foxes is just a stupid children’s game. Now stop asking me questions before I punch your smiling dumb head.”
Contro smiled baffledly and opened his mouth.
Mat punched his head. Lan cheered tipsily as Contro fell off Cow’s back and landed in a prickle bush. Contro laughed.
“You mustn’t blame him, young master Cauthon,” the Green Man rustled, picking the happy Tinker up and returning him to the one-eyed horse’s back shortly before the horse could muster up a stream of urine. As soon as Contro was reinstalled, Cow once again seemed to lose the will to live, and became moody and listless. “He is a very confused person.”
“He’s a bloody idiot,” Mat muttered. “Who gave him the idea that I was some sort of general? Rummy Pete here is probably a better tactician than I am. At least he used to be a Warder.”
Lan tried to strike back without losing any more dignity, and settled for an icy glare. Mandarb was looking at Bela and Cow with a great deal of apprehension. Bela didn’t notice, as she was currently trying to bite Loial as he walked alongside. Every time Loial skipped to one side and backhanded her with the book he was reading, the Tinker-tainted horse gave a horribly-human snigger and bared her long tellow teeth.
Forsaken_1 and Shannon were riding towards the rear of the eccentric little group, which in turn was trundling along somewhere ahead of the Aiel army which, knowing the Aiel, could be just about anywhere by now. Forsaken_1 was congratulating himself on being able to ride his horse – a handsome black-and-grey charger he had named Shadar Bob – with a fair degree of style, and Shannon was sitting in the saddle of his as-yet unnamed plough horse like a sack of potatoes in a frock, watching with the occasional sigh as birds flew full-speed into tree-trunks, sometimes flattening themselves out in eccentric dreamcatcher patterns, and sometimes knocking the trees down and continuing on their way without so much as pausing.
“It don’t look like this version of Mat went into no land o’ Snakes and Foxies,” Shannon said, “an’ y’all know what that means.”
“I sure do,” Forsaken_1 said firmly. He was watching Cow’s rear end. He had the sneaking and quite disturbing impression that Cow was making faces at them somehow, with his sphincter. It was inexpressibly nasty.
“I said ‘y’all know what that means’ because I knew that y’all don’t know a durn thing what it means,” Shannon said, not unkindly.
“Alright, you sassy broad,” Forsaken_1 said, “why don’t you tell me what it means?”
“Why don’t y’all go on an’ fuck yerself?”
“Aw, c’mon toots,” Forsaken_1 sparkled as best he could, which was pretty sparkly. “You know you want to tell me, otherwise you wouldn’t’ve started to talk in the first place.”
“I started to talk in the first place,” Shannon growled, “because I was gittin’ sick o’ watching you make kissy-faces in that there horse’s ass’ direction. What in Tarmon Gai’donation are y’all doin’ anyways?”
“He’s poking his tongue out at us.”
“Who? Contro?” Shannon shrugged. “Ignore him. He’s nuttier’n a bowl o’ steakhouse nibbles.”
“No, I mean the horse.”
“Stickin’ his tongue out at us?”
“Through his ass?”
“I don’t pretend to have all the answers, my heaving-bosomed friend,” Forsaken_1 turned and gave Shannon his full attention. “So Mat didn’t go through the twisty door. I remember that much, because he got strangled and Rand saved him. I suppose it’s for the best that he didn’t go through, because Rand wouldn’t’ve been able to save him at all, right? So what’s the problem?”
“The problem is,” Shannon said, “that Mat went off in the books and got all this knowledge about old wars up in ‘im, and the group o’ soldiers he ended up with went from victory to victory and were basically okay. Only now, he doesn’t have no knowledge an’ we’re stuck with him an’ we’re gonna get creamed.”
“We have Someshta and Loial,” Forsaken_1 pointed out. “Those two would be the first guys I’d pick for my dodgeball team, no offence to you or Mat. And we have Lan. He’s a bit drunk, but he’s a mean drunk.”
“Alright,” Forsaken_1 sighed. It seemed to always be his place to soothe the nerves of hysterical women. “If we won’t get out of this without knowledge of old wars, where’s the problem? You and I have all the war knowledge this group is ever going to need.”
“We know all about wars. Let’s say, in this case we’re storming the beaches at Normandy.”
” How ’bout let’s not.”
“Come on. We’re coming in, with huge numbers, against a fortified position with heavy artillery, and the Aiel are sort of like ninjas so even that fits.”
“There weren’t no goldurn ninjas at-”
“Okay, granted, they weren’t on the side of the Allies at the time, but that little detail only runs in our favour. Am I right?” Forsaken_1 put his hand on his sword hilt and thrust out his chest. “Am I right?” Shannon didn’t say anything. “Nancy, am I-”
“I’m thinkin’,” Shannon said.
“No need. I assure you, I’m right,” Forsaken_1 said. “And handsome.”
“Matter o’ fact, I was just thinkin’ ’bout whether or not I’d rather go an’ talk to Contro.”
With a rolling crash, the lightning began to slam around them.
Demandred, to tell the honest truth, was confused about the standing flows himself. It had all started at one of their recent Chosen get-togethers. Angamael had returned from his latest trip to the Bore, where he and the Great Lord had conferred with their “peeps”, whatever that meant. Presumably a spy network of some kind.
The Nae’blis had brought a new book with him, and seemed very smug about it. Moghedien had said she’d snuck a “peep” at the book herself, but hadn’t been able to read the strange, primitive and oddly disturbing language it was written in. Angamael, who had set great store in books right from the beginning, was delighted about this one.
Apparently, the idea for the standing flows had come from this book. However, as soon as Angamael had begun to talk about them, the Chosen had realised that the standing flows had been used in the Age of Legends – in fact, they were quite well-known. The Nae’blis had mentioned them, and all of a sudden they had always existed.
How such a huge thing had slipped their minds, Angamael said, was not important. The important thing was getting them back into operation so they could enjoy the advantages of having the One Power around more constantly, but not have to worry about irritating present-day channelers who needed a baker’s dozen of halfmen and dependable Dreadlords just to keep them on the straight and narrow.
It had taken a few dozen more trainees to get the standing flows nearest Cairhien to kick back in after three thousand-odd years in mothballs, and it had burned most of them out in the process, but it had worked. And their costs hadn’t even been that bad. The only really decent channeler they’d lost had been a single Seanchan damane-sul’dam set, the rest had been fairly weak Shaido spark-bearers, with a couple of newly-found Shaido male channelers thrown in to increase the size of the circle. There were lots of guys eager to help in the Linking, once they heard it provided intense sexual stimulation, and there were a lot of trainee women for the same reason. The Friends of the Dark had no problem forming large circles. Add a sul’dam expert to control the power, and a pair of angreal just to make it all that much more intense, and the moaning, shuddering bunch of Shaido had achieved the extraordinary feat. A lot of them hadn’t just burned themselves out, but had also been killed. The sul’dam herself seemed to have died of a pleasure overload, according to Semirhage, and the damane‘s body had not been found – just a small lilac-scented puddle where she’d been standing.
None of the casualties could wipe the smiles off their faces.
And so now Demandred stood in the middle of the standing flows control node, doing his best to call down the confusing, confusing lightning on the enemies of the Great Lord of the Dark.
There were a lot of these outside the city, and more than a few of them inside as well, but those inside were being well taken care of. While it seemed the Seanchan channelers had awakened in the full grips of furious uprising, as had the Aes Sedai and their flocks of trainees, the sul’dam and the damane at least had fallen into line. This was because the Seanchan Blood, or at least the important members thereof presently visiting the continent, were all either Darkfriends or utter fuckwits. A few of the ostensibly Light-fearing ones had actually been guests of honour at Aginor’s recent Shadowspawn Expo, during which he had unveiled new model trollocs, fades, draghkar and an experimental thing called a feeder, about which nobody knew very much yet but was said to have been adapted from jumara stock out of the Blight. Anyway, the Seanchan had loved it, and actually placed money on a little fight between a juiced-up myrddraal and a pair of grolm, without even stopping to think that the former was obviously some kind of Shadowspawn. It had been a long time since the Seanchan had seen a halfman.
The halfman had won, but that wasn’t the point. The Seanchan had been living in and around Cairhien for quite some time already, and didn’t seem to realise that it had become a manufactory for a lot of things Artur Hawkwing had wanted to destroy.
Most of the trollocs and fades had been shipped out of Cairhien almost as soon as they’d stepped from the nurseries, because Angamael had predicted this attack and wasn’t willing to make heavy losses in defense of a place that might just be a lost cause. If the Aiel War had proven nothing else, according to Demandred’s brief studies on the topic, it was that Cairhien was extremely attackable. And to be honest, they’d gotten quite a lot out of the place, even though they hadn’t had much time. They’d found more angreal and ter’angreal in the hands of private collectors, they’d found a nice supply of channelers among the local populace, and they’d gained a lot of what the Nae’blis called “working capital”, something Demandred suspected was related to “peeps” but might in fact just mean “loot”.
True, a lot of the channelers had been somehow turned back, a feat that seemed distressingly easy for the enemy considering the effort and expenditure that went into the conversion process, but a lot of these had been neatly shielded and dragged away to fallback positions. The rest had made the mistake of attacking the Seanchan after mistaking the raken for Shadowspawn, and the result had been a nasty mess inside the city limits.
Demandred quite enjoyed using the standing flows again, even though he couldn’t quite remember using them the first time. They were low-effort and he could do several things without even really concentrating on them, which left him a lot of time for exposition.
Absently, he directed a powerful blast of lightning towards the watch tower that was the highly-visible source of the fireball attacks he’d been shrugging off for the past half an hour. When there was nothing left of it, he calmly went back to blasting aimlessly at hidden Aielmen and thinking about what he was going to buy at the markets next week.
The first thing Dr. Nick noticed when they entered Tar Valon was how quiet and deserted it seemed. Every now and then, his senses became convinced that they’d crossed over into Tel’aran’rhiod at the same time they’d walked over the bridge into the city.
There were a few merchants wandering the streets, kicking in theatrical despondency at fallen leaves and other articles of non-offensive litter. They might have been kicking empty tin cans, except for a sign that Dr. Nick already saw duplicated on several prominent walls and posts around the entrance to the city:
By order of the Amyrlin Seat
ALL LITTERERS, LOITERERS, TROUBLEMAKERS, TINKERS, DISSENTERS, ANARCHISTS, BORDERLANDERS, WHITECLOAKS, CONSCIENTIOUS OBJECTORS, AIELMEN and FAT CHICKS will be handed over to
MISTRESS OF NOVICES NEMENE DAMENDAR BOANN
For chastisement with EXTREME PREJUDICE
“Who’s Nemene Damendar Boann?” Dr. Nick wondered. “All these Aes Sedai and their names, I can’t keep track of it.”
“Before she pledged her soul to the Dark One,” Wyse said shakily from somewhere under the piles of cloth, “Nemene Damendar Boann was the name that Semirhage went by.”
“Oh good,” Dr. Nick looked around. A large part of the city seemed to have been burned in the not-too-distant past, and there was a lot of very quiet rebuilding going on. “I’m so glad we’re just about all of those things that the sign was talking about.”
“Who’s a fat chick?” Nynaeve snapped.
“Nobody,” Dr. Nick replied hastily. In the distance, somebody suddenly started to scream in a highly unsettling and above all persistent way. “Let’s just get to the Tower and attract as little attention as possible, okay?”
This was easier said than done. They’d pulled their usual trick of dressing up like cloth merchants, and the Ogier were this time pretending to be giant boar-horses, or at least they were pretending to be people pretending to be giant boar-horses. They’d come up with the idea after discovering that every bolt of purple material the wagon contained had inexplicably turned grey during their trip through the Ways. Wyse and Coarshus were under one pile, Frendli and Hoarni under the other. The frontmost Ogier were responsible for a variety of tasks, including the waving of a lumpy and quite rude-looking trunk and the holding of a pair of unconvincing wooden tusks. The rearmost Ogier were required to do little but stay back there out of the way. Even this proved almost too much work for Hoarni, who had wanted to be a front-end. He’d explained at unnecessary length about what he could use as a trunk, and how a boar-horse could be expected to probe women’s dresses experimentally with its trunk and squirt refreshing fountains of assorted fluids onto passing people. He’d explained his interpretation of what it meant to be a giant boar-horse right up until Gaidal Cain lifted aside one of the wagon’s wall-flaps and offered to stuff Hoarni’s testicles up his anus and peel his foreskin so far back it could be turned into underpants, and then wedgie him.
Dr. Nick had noticed that the Heroes of the Horn were far more foulmouthed than he’d expected, even considering how much more explicit and dirty everything seemed to be in the unedited version of the story. They were especially crude whenever talking to to the Ogier, and Dr. Nick had deduced that this was because the Ogier were responsible for the Heroes of the Horn undergoing some very uncomfortable experiences.
In spite of the strangely deserted vibe Tar Valon was giving out, they were attracting a certain amount of attention from the general public. This was quite understandable. With the four Ogier dressed up like a pair of boar-horses, Cyberwollf dyed several different colours, Elayne and two of her three Warders lying semi-comatose in the wagon, Nynaeve and Min looking ready to kick somebody between the legs and Dr. Nick and Stifler looking like it had already happened to them, it was really no wonder they were being watched.
“This isn’t the covert infiltration I was hoping for,” Dr. Nick said. “And why aren’t there freed Aes Sedai running around, screaming about Darkfriends in the White Tower?”
“Maybe that was what that screaming earlier was,” Stifler suggested. “It sounded like a chick.”
“What’s that supposed to mean?” Nynaeve demanded, grabbing her braid and tugging it ferociously.
“Nothing, forget it, don’t know what I was thinking,” Stifler muttered. “Women don’t have shrill, annoying voices,” he paused and looked up at the Tower, which was bulking overhead even though they were still several blocks away. He whistled. “It’s even more phallic than I remember it being.”
“What does ‘phallic’ mean?” Min asked.
“It’s a word in the Old Tongue,” Stifler explained quickly. “It means, uh, white, with, um, a lot of windows.”
“When were you last here?” Nynaeve wanted to know.
“Oh, maybe six hundred years ago. I don’t know the exact timeframe. I was helping a group of Ogier masons fix some doors in the Warder barracks, and I got Shangtaied into this crazy adventure with a mad male channeler and a bunch of Warders. I was the plucky comic relief,” he added, glancing at Dr. Nick. “Like usual.”
“Shangtaied?” Dr. Nick chuckled.
“Yeah. It’s just a slang term for getting dragged into something against your will all of a sudden, usually with Ogier involved.”
They looked up at the White Tower again.
“How are we going to get up there?” Dr. Nick wondered. “You wouldn’t happen to remember a sneaky way in, would you?”
Hoarni cleared his throat. From the rear end of an apparent giant boar-horse, the noise was rather distressing.
“I could always break a door down with my mighty-”
“That’s it,” Gaidal Cain growled. “Help me up, I’m going to kill him.”
Swearing and dusting herself off, Debs pulled herself out of the wreckage. She raised her arm and dragged Janica clear forcefully.
“Are ye alreet, lass?”
“I’m fine,” Janica replied, surprised. “That log landed on my leg, but it didn’t hurt me … and I didn’t get ten times anything from you, so I suppose you weren’t hurt either,” she looked around. “That was a bit of luck. I wonder if Shannon’s influence is extending this far.”
Their good luck, whatever its source, didn’t seem to have extended to Muffin Vamps and Aviendha, who were both groaning under piles of charred lumber. Asmodean also staggered out of the woodchips, bent close to Vamps, and channeled briefly. Vamps gasped and jumped to his feet, and Asmodean limped across to Aviendha and Healed her as well. In the meantime, Egwene had uncovered Moiraine, who was alive and ear-blisteringly healthy.
“I think my arm is broken,” Asmodean reported meekly, “and my lute is completely ruined.”
“What a shame,” Moiraine said, and climbed over to where he was standing. She reached out her hand in Janica’s direction. “Give me that ter’angreal, otherwise I’m never going to be able to Heal him,” she paused thoughtfully. “Although I don’t know why I should Heal him, he just used the One Power and I’m pretty sure he didn’t learn that at shit-scrotuming gleeschool.”
“You’re right,” Janica admitted, grudingly handing over the Choedan Kal figurine, “he’s a channeler. We’re trying to get as many male channelers together as possible, because we’re going to need them sooner or later. And he does know a lot of important things because of his classical training.”
“Classical training, my pert little ass,” Moiraine growled, Healed the injured Forsaken with a rough slapping of weaves. Asmodean gasped, and Moiraine tossed the ter’angreal back to Janica. Debs caught it before it could knock the nearsighted damane unconscious.
“What noo?” she pondered, handing the Choedan Kal back to Janica.
“Nothing else for it,” Janica said, “we’ll have to go into the city and fight street by street.”
Cairhien, by the time they got there, was a disaster area. Trollocs and myrddraal were scattered around, killed by Aiel spears, the obvious handiwork of the Green Man, and the unpleasantly lingering-looking attentions of Cow and Bela. More fighting was going on in various corners of the city, but it seemed like the fight was over.
Or at least, Janica had a nagging suspicion, that it had moved elsewhere.
“What happened here?” Moiraine asked rhetorically, as they sidled down a body-riddled boulevard with Vamps whimpering in their midst. “They can’t have beaten all those Shadowspawn already, surely.”
“I guess it depends,” Janica said, “if the channelers all got free, they might have mounted a resistance movement, freed the prisoners from their cages, and joined forces with the Aiel … I don’t know. There’s something not right here.”
A pair of trollocs came howling out of a side-street. Debs spun, channeled through Janica quickly, and the huge beasts exploded in a soggy mess. Moiraine swore and flicked entrails out of her hair. Vamps lifted the Choedan Kal in his hands, looked thoughtful, and started talking to himself. Asmodean, who was the only one standing close enough to really hear whatever it was Vamps was saying, blinked in astonishment and shielded the Dragon with a deft weave of saidin.
“I don’t think we’d survive if you did that, milord Dragon,” he murmured. “And if we did, we’d probably wish we hadn’t.”
Vamps looked angry, then dissolved back into whimpering about his sore hands and arms and his amazing finger that he missed so very much, but not as much as Candy and Betty and Nicole missed it. They approached one of the dark, newly-converted buildings that had housed the Aginor Bio-Weapons apparatus. The doors were hanging from their hinges, the lumpy corpse of a forger lay in the entrance hall with a couple of spears and a horseshoe lodged in it, and an extremely disturbing collection of half-grown trollocs and a couple of fade-foetuses lay scattered around the cavernous main chamber.
And that was all.
“This place has been cleaned out,” Moiraine said. “I don’t like it.”
“You don’t like anything,” Asmodean pointed out.
“That’s not true. I like it when you shut the fuck up.”
Debs stamped humanely on a squidgy puppy-headed thing with no arms that was still wriggling in its puddle of amniotic fluid. It burst and splashed green and yellow stuff on Aviendha’s white clothes. “Soo,” she said, “they take oover Cairhien, kell an’ ensleeve all the people, an’ then teek their-”
“If somebody has to sum up what’s going on, can it be somebody I can understand a Ghul-damned word of?” Moiraine asked wearily. “They destroyed the city, made a huge bunch of Shadowspawn, and then vanished as soon as we let the channelers free. They must have had a contingency plan. They must have been expecting an attack, and they cut their losses and ran as soon as it looked like they couldn’t win. They melted off and took most of their forces, including most of the Seanchan, along with them, and left just enough trollocs and … those things,” she pointed at the giant prone figure of the forger, “to make sure we were kept busy and maybe killed off a bit while they scarpered.”
“Same thing with the standing flows,” Asmodean added. “That grid was active just long enough to provide a distraction.”
“That doesn’t sound very much like the Forsaken we know and love,” Janica remarked, “I think we can thank Shadow Monkey for this.”
The forger moved, making a sound like distant cattle mutilation. Debs wielded Janica again, and the forger groaned and began to burn with a low blue-grey flame. A few seconds later it collapsed into a pile of greasy ash, and Debs noticed one or two similar piles lying around when they headed back into the main street.
A small group of veiled Aiel came trotting up, baring their faces as they saw who it was.
“I see you, Puddin Taim,” Rhuarc said with a grin. He had the eyeless head of a halfman impaled on one of his spears. “The Car’a’carn fights alongside his people.”
“Yeah,” said Vamps miserably, “I rule.”
“We have killed some hundreds of trollocs, and perhaps a dozen myrddraal,” the Clan Chief reported. “The city seems strangely empty, after what we saw earlier. There are some Aes Sedai and freed Wetlander hostages, but not many. The Seanchan seem to have vanished, although whether with the Darkfriends or on their own, I do not know.”
“The Treekiller nobles are still hostage in a big Wetlander building in the middle of the city,” another Aielman said, “but we do not think it will be long until they are freed. Would you like us to kill them by accident during the fighting?”
“No,” Moiraine said, although her tone of voice indicated that she hadn’t been entirely offended by the idea.
“Well,” Janica said, turning vaguely in Vamps’s direction, “it looks like we’ve taken Cairhien. It might have been only because the enemy wanted to give it to us, but that’s okay. We’ll take it. Right?”
“Right,” Vamps said, cheering up a little bit and even managing a small chesty-puff. “Right, let’s get busy,” he thrust out his chin, then looked uncertain. “What now?”
Chucky slowly quieted. He’d begun to get a bit of a sore throat anyway. He refused, however, to open his eyes. “Are we out?”
“Yes. I mean no,” Mister C said with malicious indecision, grinning audibly as Chucky squeezed his eyes even more tightly shut. “I mean yes. You utter poofburger.”
“I didn’t expect it to be like that.”
“Like what?” Mister C’s voice was so scornful it could have been used as a mass-transit system for very small, easily-stacked scorns. “Dark?”
“Dark?” Chucky cautiously opened his eyes, looked around, and blinked down at his half-friend. “Why would you think it was dark?”
“Well first of all, because it’s a shadow,” Mister C of 9 said, trying to roll into a kneeling position. “Secondly, because I don’t have any eyes. And thirdly, because there is no thirdly because there shouldn’t even need to be a firstly because it’s fucking obvious and will you please get me a wheelchair?”
“I don’t think they have wheelchairs here,” Chucky replied.
To tell the truth, he hadn’t been sure what he’d expected the shadow-ride to feel like. He’d never gotten around to picturing himself standing in a dark, out-of-the-way alley, holding Mister C of 9 in his arms like a stretched baby, so the subject had never really come up. He’d been moderately assured that it couldn’t possibly be worse than the things Sheriam had dragged him through on the way to the Tower of Ghenjei, or at least the final parts of that encounter, and he’d been right. But there was something fundamentally disturbing about the light he had seen. Nothing could be that bright, and illuminate nothing. It had, for an immeasurable moment that he couldn’t describe without delving into extremely bad dramatisation, peeled away the universe and shown him that there was nothing underneath. Not even darkness and void. He shuddered to remember it, and reflected that if this was seeing the light, he never wanted to see it again. There was a good reason, it seemed, for halfmen not having eyes.
Mister C of 9 was grumbling about prejudiced-against-the-disabled motherfuckers.
“It’s your own fault for being a disabled motherfucker,” Chucky said vaguely, peering out through the doorway of the burned-out house they’d stepped into. “Are you sure we’re in Cairhien?”
“Of course I’m sure.”
“Only, I think we’re in Tar Valon.”
“What would you know?” Mister C snorted. “You wouldn’t know Cairhien if it put an earwig up your pee-hole.”
“Oh, I don’t know,” Chucky looked up and down the street. “The volcano over there and the big thumping tower over there were a bit of a giveaway to me. And this sign on the wall here about the Amyrlin Seat and the Mistress of Novices also gave me reason to believe-”
“Every city has a big white building of some sort, and a volcano and a Mistress of Novices,” Mister C said haughtily. “I’m surprised you didn’t know that. You obviously don’t play Sim-”
“Would you just admit you’re wrong?” Chucky pleaded. “If it’ll seal the deal, I can assure you that the shock of hearing you do so will probably kill me.”
“I’m not wrong. And if there aren’t any wheelchairs, you’ll have to carry me.”
“Okay,” Chucky crouched down unwillingly. “Get on my back. It should be easy enough for you, it’s one of your favourite pastimes.”
Mister C scrambled as best he could with wrist and tiny foetus-hand and his rag-wrapped legstumps. “Do I really have to share your back with these damn caterwaulers?”
“Don’t worry, they have a hole in them. They won’t do anything bad if you just leave them alone.”
“They won’t do anything bad, he says,” Mister C muttered. “Bagpipes. Won’t do anything bad.”
They rounded a corner, still wrangling, and were confronted by the sight of a very unconvincing elephant being assaulted from behind by a sick-looking man with two swords, while a small group of people including a man with ears the size of dinner plates, a wolf with a multicoloured coat, and another elephant stood by and watched. A haggard blonde woman with a silver longbow was standing in the back of a wagon, shouting in a language that sounded suspiciously like the language Chucky had heard in the palace of the fox people – only now, thanks to his irritating wishes, he could understand it. This didn’t help him very much, of course, since she seemed to be cursing sexually overactive Ogier and all their descendants.
Chucky walked up to Dr. Nick, and gave him a nod.
“Hi,” the unwilling Aielman said. “Long time no see.”
“Yeah. What are you doing in Tar Valon?”
“He means Cairhien,” Mister C of 9 corrected, over Chucky’s shoulder.
“Oh, you know,” Dr. Nick replied, “sneaking into the Tower, rescuing a bunch of Aes Sedai, saving the world.”
“Good for you. Hi Cybes.”
“So what are you doing in Tar Valon?” Dr. Nick went on.
The scuffle between the elephant and the ill-looking stranger seemed to have died down, although the elephant was now walking with a pronounced limp and its backside was snuffling in an alarming way. The man had climbed back into the wagon and the woman with the bow spent another couple of seconds glaring at Chucky and Mister C before crouching by his side. Neither of them looked very healthy.
“Well, we sort of took a wrong turn,” Chucky said, “we were on our way to Cairhien to try to figure out what’s happened there, and whether, you know, Janica and the others are in trouble.”
“They’re not,” Dr. Nick said, “they’re with the Aiel and they’re about to attack Cairhien. Probably already started, actually. Long story,” he glanced at the scowling burden on the gleeman’s back. “Sort of like the one about how he ended up with his hands and feet off, I’m guessing.”
“Oh, yeah,” Chucky nodded. “I heard that Cairhien was completely overrun and is now a Shadowspawn factory. And the Aiel were attacked and taken prisoner and the … Seanchan were following the Forsaken now.”
“Not the Dragon’s little group, or the Aiel army with them,” Dr. Nick said. “We’ve been talking together in the Wolf Dream thing, and the Car’a’carn’s managed to unite some of the tribes, and we came up with a way of turning the Aes Sedai back from the Dark One if they were forced to turn, and they’re attacking Cairhien right now and we’re meant to be seeing what’s going on here, if any Aes Sedai managed to get free…”
“Do you think we could talk about this later?” Nynaeve snapped. She seemed extremely ungrateful to see Chucky and Mister See of Mayene again, and this was probably not helped by the fact that she was too far away from Vamps to croon sympathetically and admiringly over his numerous boo-boos and anecdotes involving inordinate amounts of ellipses. “We have this mission.”
“Hi Nynaeve,” Chucky said. “Nice to see you too.”
“Where’s your gleestaff?” Nynaeve shot back.
“He got busted down to gleeman carrier, third class,” Mister C replied before Chucky could say anything, “for the crime of making up utter lies and generally being a smegger. The Glee Academy of Gleetown took away his staff and it’s only a matter of time before they take away his cloak as well, and give it to me because my gleeshirt is all fucked.”
“They didn’t bust me down,” Chucky said. “I had to leave it behind in Emond’s Field, we were just there a little while ago, and Mister See almost got married to Rosie Cauthon.”
Nynaeve winced. “Not even he deserves that.”
“I’m glad somebody thinks so,” Mister C said. “But they still took his gleestaff.”
“Why didn’t they take your bagpipes away?” Min wanted to know.
“I see you have a few extras in your party now,” Chucky tried to change the subject. “Is that … Ogier, I thought so. Hi guys.”
“Bit of an accident in Tel’aran’rhiod,” Dr. Nick explained, turning and leading the way back along the road towards the Tower. “Elayne and the others were sort of attacked, and a bunch of Heroes got torn out of the World of Dreams and she had to bond them to keep them alive. You already know Birgitte. This,” he lifted the wagon flap, “is Gaidal Cain.”
“So I guess he’s not Olver after all,” Chucky said, and laughed until he realised nobody else was doing so. “Never mind.”
“And this is another Hero, a sort of general category Hero who doesn’t seem to have a real mythical name. He’s the plucky comic relief. We call him Stifler.”
“Of course you do,” Chucky gave Stifler a casual nod. “That’s all we need, is plucky comic relief.”
“We were just trying to decide how to get into the White Tower,” Dr. Nick explained, “so we could check out how things stand, and maybe rescue some Aes Sedai before they can be re-turned.”
“Birgitte was just telling me that she might know a way in,” Elayne said from the wagon. “It was an adventure she had in a previous life, but it requires a riot to be going on outside, to offer a distraction.”
“A riot?” Min frowned. “How are we going to start a riot?”
“I could always,” the rear-end of elephant #2 said, then prudently trailed off.
“Play your pipes, gleeman carrier third class,” Mister C said nastily.
“I can’t,” Chucky snapped, “some hick tosspot put a barbecue fork through them,” he juggled his pipes and Mister C for a moment, and held up the bag. “See?”
“No,” Nynaeve said after a moment. Chucky looked at his pipes in astonishment. Where before there had been a pair of puncture-marks and a certain amount of leaking bag-dressing, there was now nothing but smooth leather and the unsettling dark tartan of the fox people.
“That’s all we need,” Mister C sighed. “Undead bagpipes.”