Shayol Ghul had changed quite a lot since Demandred’s last visit.
“Would you like a banana thingy?” Shaidar Haran said in his patented rotting-crumbling-leather voice. “It has a swizzle stick shaped like a stretched-out gholam.”
Demandred looked. “So it does,” he said, taking the drink and sipping without taking his eyes off the seething metropolis that was forming below. Thakan’dar had once been little more than a few forges strung out along a foul black river, but now there was a veritable industrial zone, surrounded by trolloc camps, draghkar creches, forger warehouses, and other structures Demandred didn’t even recognise. The Cairhienin and Shaido prisoners they’d taken would not be enough to keep this lot fed and armed for very long. Even with the losses they had suffered in the retreat from Cairhien, the surrender of Caemlyn and the insurrection in Tar Valon, there were more Shadowspawn than anybody knew what to do with, and more jogging out of the Blight every day. Even the revolutionary new farming techniques would only take the Shadowspawn so far. They needed free-range food. “Making cocktails now, are you?”
“It gives me something to do,” Shadar shrugged. “I haven’t become obsolete yet, but there are so many new models coming out that it’s not as if I have a lot to keep me busy.”
“Where did the bananas come from?”
“Aginor was experimenting with the water in Cairhien, trying to alter it for use by the forgers,” Shadar touched the hilt of his own dead black sword. “It didn’t work out very well – the water needs hundreds of years of intensive work before it is suitable, and the rivers over there are disappointingly clean. Instead, he stumbled upon this new way of growing fruit.”
“Isn’t it, though?” Shadar grinned. “We were a little worried that the Great Lord’s assault on the world’s climate would give us as much problem with finding decent food as it was giving the enemy. But now, we’ll be chowing down on fresh mandarins and drinking banana thingies while they’re all dying of thirst and eating ground-up weevils,” the enormous halfman chuckled merrily. “Well, don’t let me keep you,” he went on, “I suppose you have an appointment.”
Suddenly losing his appetite, Demandred stepped through into the vent-like opening in the side of the mountain. Performing a sudden double-take, he stepped back and stared at the impressive carving that had been made out of an obsidian extrusion to one side of the cave mouth.
“In honour of all Darkfriends and Shadowspawn who give their lives every day in the name of a better future,” he read the little bronze plaque. The statue depicted a man, a myrddraal, and a gholam dynamically lifting one another towards the sky, with expressions of hope and nobility on their glossy black faces. The man had a sword slung across his back, the fade seemed to be missing an arm, and the gholam was holding its long, skinny arms aloft, breaking what looked like one of the seals of the Dark One’s prison between its hands. “What’s all this?”
“Do you like it?” Shadar asked idly. “I did it myself.”
Wondering just what the world was coming to, Demandred wandered into the Bore, stirring his banana thingy. He couldn’t help but notice that the ground was very even, and the stalactites were clear of his head by at least six feet. That had to be a good sign.
Demandred fell to his knees as the voice slammed into his cerebral cortex. “Great Lord,” he gasped, feeling banana thingy soaking into his pants.
HOW FARES THIS WORLD?
“Everything is running according to plan, Great Lord,” Demandred’s whole body was shaking with the raw power that flooded out of that mysterious place where the Pattern was thin and the Bore could be sensed. “Angamael, the Nae’blis, has everything working very smoothly.”
Demandred collapsed onto his face, writhing and shivering.
AND HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?
“I … uh, fine, Great Lord.”
GOOD, GOOD. AND THE FAMILY? ALL DEAD FOR THOUSANDS OF YEARS, I EXPECT.
“Yes, Great Lord.”
THAT’S A SHAME. A MAN SHOULD HAVE A FAMILY. There was a slow consideration to the overpowering words, as if the Great Lord of the Dark was thinking about taking steps to restore Demandred’s long-dead relations. STILL, YOU MAY BE BETTER OFF WITHOUT ANY EMOTIONAL TIES RIGHT NOW, it went on. ONCE THIS IS ALL OVER, HOWEVER, I WANT YOU TO FIND A NICE GIRL AND SETTLE DOWN, DEMANDRED. A MAN SHOULDN’T BE ALONE.
“As you command, Great Lord.”
Demandred went limp, sweat pouring down his face, as the presence retreated.
I’M GLAD WE COULD HAVE THIS TALK.
“It is an honour to serve, Great Lord.”
WE SHOULD DO LUNCH SOME TIME.
“As you command, Great Lord.”
OF COURSE, THAT IS JUST SOMETHING I HAVE HEARD PEOPLE SAY. WE CAN NOT, OF COURSE, DO LUNCH IN SO MANY WORDS. METAPHYSICAL CONSTRAINTS BEYOND YOUR COMPREHENSION MAKE SUCH A THING, SADLY, IMPOSSIBLE AT PRESENT.
“Of course, Great Lord.”
STILL, IT MIGHT BE FUN. ANGAMAEL IS ALWAYS SAYING WE SHOULD GET TO KNOW OUR PEOPLE MORE CLOSELY, AND FORM FRIENDLY WORKING RELATIONSHIPS WITH THEM.
“I am the Great Lord’s humble instrument.”
THAT’S AS MAY BE, BUT MAYBE NEXT TIME YOU COULD BRING ALONG SOME SANDWICHES, AND PRETEND I AM EATING TOO.
Demandred screamed as the voice crashed home. Tears of joy rolled down his face. He thought that maybe cucumber and cheese would be nice.
Lanfear folded her arms awkwardly underneath her breasts, and sniffed. She sniffed again, and coughed as she inhaled a bit of dust. Then, rearranging herself in discomfort and straightening her undergarments, she groped around behind her back and pulled on her own hair. She winced.
“This feels stupid,” she muttered. “If I find out you’re lying to me, there won’t be screams enough in this world or any other-”
“No, it’s true, it’s true great mistress, it’s true,” Min wept, falling to her knees and clasping at Lanfear’s toes. When she’d broken, she had broken hard. “She does it all the time.”
Lanfear sniffed again, experimentally. It made a completely unflattering sound.
“Nynaeve is going to change her habits very quickly,” she said, glaring at the lovely pale-skinned woman in the silver collar. It irked her no end to see the Selene mask wrapped around such a graceless and dull-witted creature, but it was necessary. “And Selene is going to stop looking at Nynaeve that way, or Selene is going to get the nettles in her eyes again.”
Selene squeezed her eyes shut, and Lanfear went back to attempting to pull on her own hair without messing it up too much, or straining muscles in her neck.
When the Nae’blis had told her his disturbing vision of the future, of Moghedien collared and forced to teach wilders the great secrets of the Age of Legends, Lanfear had been shocked. She hadn’t been entirely convinced that Angamael was correct in his foretelling, and she had had the courage to let him know. Angamael had been pleased at her questioning, and explained that the nature of time was changing, and things may indeed not happen the way they once would have. She hadn’t understood his explanation, but she’d appreciated not being burned to a crisp for her impertinence. The whole conversation had left her not quite sure what to think, actually. In the end, the Nae’blis had explained at great length and in great detail what might happen, and had asked her to go along in Moghedien’s place just in case. She had chosen her usual secret identity for the mission, and had been surprised at how close to Angamael’s prediction events had run … well, certain events. They had not fled towards Salidar on a boat named the Riverserpent, but had instead escaped straight from the White Tower to Cairhien, riding on a fade’s unwilling metaphorical shoulders. Not something she wanted to repeat.
The showdown in Tel’aran’rhiod, however, had turned out almost precisely as Angamael had predicted. Except, of course, Lanfear was significantly more powerful than Nynaeve, and Birgitte Silverbow had not shown up at an inopportune moment to shoot her in the back. So Lanfear had collared Nynaeve, slapped a good healthy pinhole-shield on her just to be sure, and given them both Masks of Mirrors. Now Nynaeve looked like Selene, and appeared to be unable to channel more than a tiny trickle of saidar – barely enough to warrant being a novice. And Lanfear looked like Nynaeve, which was already beginning to be a pain in the ass.
“Tell me about the Dragon,” she smiled to herself, thinking about the warm canister of fluid slowly nursing the true Dragon, her true Lews Therin, back into the world. In a few more short months, she would hold a little birthday party on the slopes of Dragonmount. She would raise him as her own, raise him to be loyal, to love no other, to serve her … yes, and the Great Lord, if it must be. But when the time came, and she offered Lews Therin the chance to cast aside the Creator and the Dark One both, this time he would not refuse her. And then, united, mother and son, husband and wife, saidar and saidin, they would rule the Ages.
Min was nattering away desperately, and Nynaeve was adding her own stiff, unwilling contributions to the narrative. Lanfear listened to the string of useless information and fearfully half-attempted misdirection, thinking about ways she could rid herself of the pair of fools.
“But that’s not the best part,” Min said, “the best part is, Puddin Taim and Nynaeve are-”
“Shut up, you fool!” Nynaeve hissed. “Min was about to tell you that the Dragon and I … grew up in the same village,” she went on, sweat beading on her forehead, “but it’s not-”
Lanfear wove Air swiftly, clamping down hard enough to break Nynaeve’s jaw in three places and crack all her lower teeth right down to the roots. The wilder’s screams were silenced by the weave, and a few seconds later the pain had rendered her blessedly unconscious.
“Go on, child,” Lanfear murmured.
“The best thing is,” Min went on in a breathless whisper, “Nynaeve and the Dragon Reborn are lovers!” she smiled up at Lanfear though her tears, eyes pleading that this would be good news, that it would somehow mean an end to the punishment. “He loves her more than anything, Puddin Taim does, and he’d do anything for her!”
Lanfear began to laugh.