Morelin, ~Brian~ and Wubbles peered at the sallow newcomer with near-superstitious awe.
“They could be brothers,” Wubbles murmured.
“Hey,” Ilya and Cooper Two said simultaneously.
“Ilya’s the one with the bruises,” Robert E said helpfully.
Morelin looked at the two stringy figures and saw that sure enough, one of them had a noticeably more lumpy and purple face than the other. Also, Cooper Two was now wearing some of Forsaken_1’s clothes in an attempt to look normal. If anything, he now looked weirder than ever. There was just something deeply and philosophically disturbing about a gholam wearing a T-shirt that had “Marry Me, I’m A Mormon” written on it. “Bruises?”
“During the trip, we came up with a workable system,” Rob E explained. “Every time he says something completely random and meaningless, I punch him,” he smiled in happy reminiscence. “By the time we got to the state line, he was hardly saying anything anymore.”
“Dude, only because my mouth swelled closed,” Ilya protested, then grimaced as Rob E punched him. “That wasn’t meaningless.”
“It was to me.”
“Roger,” Coop said briskly. “Is this the last of the guys we were waiting for?”
“Yeah,” Morelin nodded.
“Which one is Roger?” Ilya asked. “Ow.”
“So,” Cooper Two cracked his knuckles. Everybody took one or two swift steps away from the gholam as he did so – by the sound of it he had twice the number of knuckles as a human, and by the look of it some of them were about to burst out of his skin and ricochet across the room. “We head for the Bore building?”
He reached backwards, pulled the gleaming golden dagger from Shadar Logoth from the back of his jeans, and spun it through his fingers as if it were a coin. Everybody took another one or two steps away.
“The Tor building,” Morelin corrected faintly. “And there’s not going to be a tour through the place until tomorrow morning, so that’s our best time.”
“Well, if you’re going to be here that long,” Mrs_1 said brightly, “you might as well have dinner.”
Muttering to himself and rubbing grit from his eyes, Shannon stumped out into the camp.
“Who is it?” he grumbled, “the Aes Sedai wantin’ me to be Amyrlin Seat?”
“Why in the world would the Aes Sedai want you to be Amyrlin Seat?” Nynaeve, who had apparently stepped into his tent just long enough to realise he was asleep, drop into a cat-nap of her own, and find him in Tel’aran’rhiod, stepped out alongside him. “You can’t even channel.”
“Oh, there’ll be some sort o’ stupid old law, don’t you pay that no nevermind,” Shannon said darkly. “They’re done goan find it on complete accident, and I’ll be-”
He was interrupted mid-bitch in one of the worst possible ways. His ‘guests’ – a vaguely-familiar man and a woman so thin it was a wonder her bizarre ruffled clothes stayed on at all – were standing nearby, and the woman had suddenly doubled over and vomited explosively. A thick, clotted red sludge like plum jam sprayed over the dusty ground, splashing Shannon’s shoes and dress halfway to the knee. The woman gasped, curled, and vomited again, a projectile that extended all the way to the tent flaps and filled the air with a rancid, meaty stench. At the same time, Shannon’s treacherous ears heard the sound of the woman’s bowels loosening.
“I’m sorry,” the man leaned down and solicitously helped his companion to her feet. “It’s been getting worse for the past few days, but never this bad.”
“Bulimia?” Shannon guessed.
The woman raised long-fingered hands to her face, smoothing her hair and wiping her chin delicately. “No,” she said, with an embarrassed little giggle as if she’d just been caught eating a third After Eight mint, “it’s just a problem I have … it’s nothing. Don’t worry yourselves.”
“My name is Logain Ablar,” the man said. “You may have heard of me, but I can only assure you that I have seen the error of my ways and intend to seek the shelter of the true Dragon’s amnesty,” he paused, “or that of the White Tower, if it proves to be more effective. My companion is Halima.”
“Halima?” Shannon blinked. The woman standing in front of him was a far cry from the lush, busty temptress he’d read about in the books. What had gone wrong in the narrative flow to make such a thing happen to her? Had the Dark One been unable to find the right body for Aran’gar to return to, so had been forced to pick up some starving hippie from somewhere? Maybe she had some sort of terrible stomach flu.
“Oh,” Halima gave a slightly wobbly curtsey and another girlish giggle, “but you can call me Sandrine.”
There was something naggingly familiar about Sandrine, but Shannon couldn’t quite put his finger on it. He knew it was something glaring and obvious and huge, a sort of giant neon street sign flashing on and off above her head, with an arrow pointing down at her … but he just couldn’t see what the sign actually said.
She was seriously ill. The waves of nausea came and went, and Shannon eventually decided to move out of his tent and go somewhere quieter, somewhere with less vomit-stalactites on the roof. He felt a little sorry for Moghedien, or Lanfear, or whoever it was, but not very. The person he mainly felt sorry for was himself.
Sandrine seemed nice enough, in a weirdly out-of-touch way. He was pretty sure she was a Darkfriend, but she wasn’t a very effective one, on account of almost constantly coughing and puking blood and what looked suspiciously like bits of her own internal organs all over the place. In a camp full of likely Darkfriends and annoying bitches like Nynaeve and Min, she made an almost welcome change, but that didn’t mean Shannon was interested in sharing a tent with her.
He wandered through the little settlement, which was already sweltering-hot even though it was barely sunrise, and stopped when he found Logain and Loial sitting together against the wall of a newly-renovated house, having a smoke. Logain was sitting on an empty barrel, Loial on the ground. They were more or less eye-to-eye.
“Good morning, mistress Sidesaddle,” Loial said politely. “I hope mistress Sandrine is feeling better.”
“She’s,” Shannon started, then sighed and rolled his eyes as, with a great clatter, an avalanche of shingles fell off the roof and exploded on the ground between him and the others. When the dust cleared, the pieces of slate had landed in perfectly-formed letters.
“‘What is seven times six?’,” Logain read, and gave Shannon a puzzled frown. “What does that mean?”
“Nothin’,” Shannon grunted, scuffing the tiles into disorder with his boot. “What’re y’all talkin’ about anyhow?”
“I was just explaining to Loial why we should get out of here,” Logain said, “and you can come with us if you like. Don’t worry,” he added wryly, “I have no interest in the contents of your shift.”
“I ain’t wearin’ no goldurn shift!” Shannon said through gritted teeth.
“See? That, just for example, I could have lived without knowing,” Logain looked up and down the mostly-deserted street, then puffed thoughtfully on his pipe. “The thing is, I have this sort of sense, when it comes to trouble. And I’ve got this feeling like things are going to go bad around here. It can’t have escaped your notice that a lot of the Aes Sedai here are … how can I put this?”
“Followers o’ the Dark One,” Shannon said. Loial’s ears twitched.
“I suppose so,” Logain frowned. “See, I’m confused. I have nothing in particular against Darkfriends,” he chuckled. “Ghul, I even had the occasional fling with a pretty young Darkfriend or two, back in my wild, experimental youth.”
“Now we’re even,” Shannon remarked. “I coulda lived without knowin’ that.”
“Anyway, the thing is, I think there are still Aes Sedai here who aren’t Darkfriends, but they’re being infiltrated by these others. Slowly and steadily. And Sandrine – Halima – is by no means the weirdest,” he hesitated. “I’m pretty sure I’m being followed by a pair that make her look positively normal. And then there’s my former master…”
“Sandrine probably ain’t gonna last much longer,” Shannon said as delicately as he could be bothered. “That blood she’s spewin’ up-”
“Isn’t hers,” Logain interrupted.
“It’s only a matter o’ time before – what?”
“It’s not her blood,” Logain explained. “We passed through a little cluster of farms on the way here … this was before she started to get sick,” he took a deep breath and passed a hand in front of his eyes. “She … she just walked up to this man working in the field, and asked him … asked him if she could have a drink.”
“Oh, Lemmy,” Shannon groaned. “Sandrine. O’course. I knew I’d done heard that durn name somewheres before.”
“Oh?” Logain said with interest.
“Never mind. Let’s just say she’s a Darkfriend an’ leave it at that.”
Shannon was brooding, Loial was nervously thumbing through his notebook, and Logain was casually refilling his pipe a few minutes later when a small group of Aes Sedai came walking serenely up to them. The five women stood in an arrowhead formation in front of the channeler, ta’veren and Ogier, their eyes unreadable and their faces impenetrable. Shannon didn’t recognise any of them, but he did seem to recall at least a couple of them hanging around with Nynaeve a lot. His heart sank.
“Nancy Sidesaddle,” the Aes Sedai in the lead position, an imposing woman with a red-fringed shawl, intoned formally. Shannon thought it might have been Romanda, but he didn’t have a clue, and he gave a shit even less.
“Here it comes,” he muttered to himself. “Ayuh?”
“You are summoned to the Hall of the Tower. We have been studying the ancient laws of the Aes Sedai, and we have come to a daring and ground-breaking historical decision.”
“Fuck, I knew it.”
“The White Tower demands your presence, your cooperation, and your loyalty.”
“You will appear before the Sitters promptly at noon.”
“In full accordance with the letter of the law.”