Angamael sighed, ran his fingers through his hair, and put his feet up on a stool made out of a stuffed wolf. It had taken him some time to clear his message backlog. For some reason, their little communicator ter’angreal didn’t work in Shadar Logoth, but a lot of his cleverer minions had discovered the message bank function, and he’d been enjoying the fruits of CEOship ever since. Why his cleverer minions thought he would give a shit about the price of white peppers in Amadicia, and Slayer killing a bunch of guys in Jehannah and then making ropes out of their skin and then using the ropes to kill another bunch of guys in a little town on the banks of the river Eldar or some crap, was completely beyond him.
While he’d been doing that, Aginor had been trying to answer questions about his latest scientific-magic escapade.
“Explain it again,” Angamael said, “Mesaana is still looking confused.”
Mesaana bristled a little, but grudgingly concurred.
“I’m not sure how else I can explain this, Nae’blis,” Aginor ventured. “It’s a rather complicated-”
“Explain it as if you were explaining it to the biggest retard in the entire universe,” Angamael suggested. “Somebody who just couldn’t take a hint. Somebody who actively resists understanding as if it is an enemy force come to rape his livestock and stampede his women. Somebody without an original or intuitive thought in his head. Somebody who just keeps on going ‘huh?’ well past the point at which you wish he was dead, simply because that is easier for him than wrapping what passes for a brain around an unfamiliar concept or issue.”
“Somebody like Rahvin,” Demandred said, and sniggered through his nose before choking into silence. “My apologies, Rahvin, Nae’blis,” he said contritely. “I was merely making a jest.”
“We don’t make jokes at the expense of our fellow Chosen,” Angamael said serenely, “nor do we overreact to an extreme degree when somebody makes a joke. Rahvin, you of course have the right of reply.”
“Nah, it’s cool,” Rahvin shrugged.
“Really?” Angamael blinked.
“Yeah,” Rahvin replied with a sheepish grin. “It was a good set-up and it would’ve been a shame to waste it. You got me a good one, Demandred. Good work.”
“You’re not, perhaps, plotting some sort of disproportionate, violent revenge?” Angamael persisted.
“No way. We’re on the same side.”
“Hm,” Angamael, not quite sure what had just happened, shrugged to himself and turned back to Aginor. “Okay, so anyway. Explain it again.”
“Very well, Nae’blis,” Aginor gathered his thoughts. “I remind you, of course, that I only started to study this phenomenon after hearing the reports Be’lal sent out about the Shadowspawn used in the unexpectedly successful attack near the Blight. There are several points we must deal with in answering this puzzle. We must understand what it means to be a Shadowspawn. We must understand what it means to Travel using a gateway, and we must understand why doing so kills, or otherwise ruins, Shadowspawn in the process.”
“And why is it so frequently linked with quasars?” Angamael suggested. The Chosen gave him several variants of blank looks, and he sighed, momentarily regretting that his chosen path left him without fellow Monkeys to joke with. “Never mind, just a comedic reference,” he waved a hand. “Carry on.”
“Shadowspawn are a genetic creation of the One Power,” Aginor went on, “but with the strong influence of the Blight, and the Great Lord of the Dark – as is implied by their very name. The Shadowspawn we were producing in Cairhien were acceptable, but below standard – places far removed from Shayol Ghul are useful for many things, but not producing the high-quality Shadowspawn we have come to expect. I am aiming forward, looking for ways to improve our stock, not merely continue it. My experiments have long since proven that some acts of creation are simply impossible without the Great Lord’s … taint, if you will pardon the expression. Although in our case, we need not give the term negative connotations.
“When a forger goes too far from Thakan’dar, we see one of the inherent weaknesses in the Shadowspawn. It is perhaps unnecessary to explain the process by which I have de-regionalised our freelance forgers, since it is a related but otherwise dissimilar affliction. The link Shadowspawn share with the Great Lord of the Dark might be seen as a more profound version of the link we share with the Great Lord. When it is severed, the Shadowspawn dies, or suffers what Aginor Bio-Weapons Corp. has come to describe as loss-of-signal degeneration.
“The effects are different for all types of Shadowspawn. Forgers, being creations almost wholly of the One Power and the taint, literally crumble to dust when they reach a sufficient distance. Gholam are a difficult case, and continue to surprise us. Trollocs and myrddraal, being of root animal stock, are able to roam as far afield as they wish, but once the connection is broken, the general effect is the same – death, or loss of signal. Similar to their reaction to the severing of the bond between trolloc and myrddraal in a combat unit situation, since that is the same link, writ small.”
“And going through a gateway breaks this connection?” Angamael asked. “I haven’t noticed that happening with our own oaths.”
“Our own oaths are conscious, and somehow less physiological than the connection between Shadowspawn and Shayol Ghul,” Aginor waved his hands as if he dearly wanted a laser pointer and a PowerPoint wall-projection. “They can be severed, but not by walking through a gateway. The nature of the gateway, however, is such that separation occurs on an atomic level. This is where it gets confusing.”
“Oh good,” Be’lal drawled.
“Just as you can break a body down into its component atoms and not find a single atom of ‘life’, so too can you break down the body of a Shadowspawn and not find a single atom of ‘Shadow’,” Aginor lectured. “However, break a body down to its component atoms and it will most assuredly die. So too, it is, with Shadowspawn. When they Travel through a gateway, they cease to exist in one place, and resume existence in another. The space between is infinitely small, literally nonexistant. A Shadowspawn – indeed anything – ceases to exist, one infinitely-thin layer at a time, and begins existing again at its destination.
“For whatever reason, the connection to the Great Lord does not make this atomic-level transition, and the Shadowspawn is destroyed.”
“And the Ways do not do this?” Moghedien asked.
“Not as such – they are open and contiguous passageways from one place to another, through a compact pocket-universe that is more than one atom in width,” Aginor agreed. “In any case, the Ways are soaked with the essence of the Great Lord, and while Machin Shin can be literally dangerous, there is less risk of loss of signal.”
“So by that logic, if I made a gateway with the True Power, Shadowspawn could Travel through it?” Angamael guessed.
Aginor looked a little uncomfortable. “In theory, yes, Nae’blis. The True Power comes directly from the Great Lord of the Dark. Traveling through a gateway woven from the True Power would not sever the connection to Shayol Ghul, even for a moment, and the Shadowspawn would be unharmed. It would cease to exist, an atomic layer at a time, and resume existing through a medium of the Great Lord. It is not, however, something I would wish to experiment with. The True Power, as the Nae’blis is surely aware-”
“-is not a toy,” Angamael nodded. “Gotcha.”
“So how did those trollocs manage to Travel using ordinary gateways?” Be’lal asked. “I felt like a right idiot sending half a fist through to certain death, and I felt like an even bigger idiot when they ran through and went right on kicking,” he paused. “Was it because of the seal?” he asked in mounting excitement. “I was ordered to send trollocs through to clear the path for that mad myrddraal that was trying to destroy one of the seals, and I thought it was a dumb idea … no offence, Nae’blis.”
“None taken,” Angamael allowed. “In hindsight, I guess it was a dumb idea. But it wasn’t the seal, was it?” he asked Aginor.
“No, Nae’blis. The seals, while they do serve as a focus to the Great Lord’s energy, also smother that energy completely, right up until the point at which they break down. Even then, they would not provide a comparable blanket of Shadow to enable a trolloc to re-constitute itself safely. No, the reason trollocs were able to travel in these two isolated occasions was because of Shadar Logoth.”
There was an uncomfortable murmur up and down the table. Angamael allowed it.
“It is a power not unlike the Great Lord, but at the same time completely opposed to Him,” Aginor said. “I am still no closer to understanding its mysteries. One would imagine that the Light and the Shadow are binary opposites … and yet there is this third power, that appears to be in binary opposition to both the Light and the Shadow. Binary, but in three ideological dimensions rather than two. And by its nature, it spreads and converts everything around it, in a way that neither the Light nor the Shadow can do. It can provide a blanket, over a person, or a group of people, or even something as simple as Padan Fain’s famous ruby-hilted dagger. It’s massively infectious, and there’s no telling how far it could spread if we don’t catch every cell.
“I’ve been studying the trollocs that returned from the incursion against those tainted Whitecloaks and Darkfriends,” Aginor went on sombrely, “and it seems that, while it hasn’t exactly done them a power of good, the process hasn’t actively destroyed them either. When the trollocs stepped through into that region, soaked as it was in the essence of Shadar Logoth, their connection was severed at an atomic level … but it was re-established, simultaneously, with a new connection. But their loyalty is largely unchanged, as that is a matter of indoctrination. While a Darkfriend such as Liandrin became corrupted and deranged, trollocs seem to suffer only mild disorientation. This is because the Shadar Logoth energy doesn’t so much create a connection between Shadowspawn and Shadar Logoth, as it reacts to the failing connection to Shayol Ghul, and follows it back. The two energies cancel each other out, or more accurately feed off one another. The result is – almost – equilibrium,” he concluded. “Experiments are ongoing. So far, our chief concern is the nature of this new link. If it can infect Shadowspawn, and affect their link to the Great Lord, it might be that the power of Shadar Logoth can spread unseen along these lines, and infect others. So far, however, it seems as though the two powers effectively neutralise one another.”
“So now that we’ve convinced the Ogier that Shadowspawn can Travel, but we’re not letting them do so out of some obscure concept of fair-play, does this mean we can finally move our negotiations the fuck out of Shadar Logoth?” Angamael pressed.
“Yes, Nae’blis,” Aginor replied positively.
“Good,” the Nae’blis grunted. “Place was giving me the willies.”
They left Vamps behind in Cairhien, under the watchful but not entirely trustworthy eye of his brother Mazrim. Janica hadn’t been happy about it, but had decided there was nothing to be done – and besides, she expected to be given her stole and allowed to head back to Cairhien and business by nightfall anyway.
Things were extremely chaotic in Salidar when Debs, Janica, Chucky, Egwene and Asmodean arrived. For a start, the Band of the Red Hand – such as it was – had arrived unexpectedly and in a great hurry. Dr. Nick, Cyberwollf, Wyse, Coarshus, Frendli, Hoarni, the Green Man, Olver, Mat, Melindhra, and Contro, still accompanied by the unpleasant horses Bela and Cow, had all turned up on the outskirts of town, along with a rag-tag bunch of soldiers, noblemen, smugglers, and a hundred anachronistically-dressed Ogier Heroes of the Horn, many of whom were still deliberating at great length and in extraordinary detail about the fate of a group of Tinkers on the road to Tear.
This crowd had a jumbled but mostly-joyful reunion with the delegation from Cairhien and the Monkeys and associates already gathered in Salidar, including Shannon, Lan, Nynaeve, Min, Logain and Loial. Sandrine, pale and shaken but able to keep to her feet as long as Shannon kept his distance – and he carefully did so – joined the party. The other Salidar natives, Darkfriend or otherwise, were more or less obliged to have fun, or get out of the way. Somewhere in the middle of it all, the Sitters melted away into the background, taking Debs and Janica along with them.
“I thunk y’all was miles away,” Shannon exclaimed, as Dr. Nick grinned up to him and offered him a mug of ale. “How’d y’all get here so dang fast? Nynaeve din’t Travel for you as well, did she?”
“Nope,” Dr. Nick turned and pointed at the Ogier Heroes, who were gathered cheerfully around the five contemporary Ogier, who were in turn enjoying an unusually boisterous reunion after so many months ducking and weaving around one another. Loial was fielding a variety of questions and accusations, and delivering several mild-yet-blistering volleys of his own in return, and the Heroes were acting as referees. “Those guys found a Portal Stone, and they figured out how to make it work, just like that. No fuss, no muss, no motion-sickness or awful flashbacks. Someshta helped too, and they got me and whatshername, Melindhra, to help them do this funky singing thing. Contro tried to sing too, but Chee did this awesome sort of kung-fu move on him, put him out for the count,” he sighed wistfully. “I wish I could do that move.”
“Chee?” Shannon repeated dubiously.
“Yeah. Chee, son of Shaft, son of Unknown Playa,” Dr. Nick said. “No, seriously. Some of those Ogier Heroes are fucked up, man.”
The Aielman and the merchant woman stood in companionable silence, listening to the hubbub around them. Ogier voices rumbled under the human ones like a sort of subsonic harmony.
“I didn’t know Hoarni was Erith’s older brother,” Shannon blinked.
“Oh yeah,” Dr. Nick shrugged, momentarily setting his earlobes to wobbling. “You know that saying about every family having a black sheep?”
“Well if Erith’s family had one, Hoarni would’ve fucked it by now.”
“We are gathered here in this place to witness a solemn and auspicious moment. The beginning of a new era, the ending of an old, with new faces and established elders both, in a spirit of awe, respect, and humility. For although we are far from the original place from whence we came, we enter this undertaking with unity of purpose, a clear view of our path to come and reverence for the path we leave behind.”
All eyes were on the speaker, all faces inscrutable, unreadable. Not a single person stirred, nor cleared their throat, nor glanced at the person sitting next to them.
“With this ritual, we observe tradition.
“With this ritual, we pay homage.
“With this ritual-”
“Wind it up, fatty.”
Chucky sighed, shrugged, and acquiesced.
“Alright. With no further ado, I declared the Salidar Gentlemen’s Club open for business,” he said proudly, cutting the ribbon – well, string – he’d artfully set up across the bar – well, row of barrels. “Welcome, one and all.”
The Gentlemen’s Club membership, now numbering over a dozen (including Olver, who was a combination honorary member and mascot), cheered and raised their beer mugs, hash pipes, wine horns and assorted other vessels of getting-down. Within a few minutes, Loial was quietly explaining the rules of membership to his former pursuers – as quietly, that is, as an Ogier could, but I think we’ve just about got it through everybody’s head that Ogier are big and loud by now – Lan was challenging Asmodean to a drinking contest, and Logain was telling Mat and Dr. Nick a lurid sexual anecdote that for some reason lacked any gender-specific pronouns.
Chucky looked over the festivities with a happy smile. He knew, by this stage, Janica would be going through some sort of hocus-pocus ritual to be raised to the stole, and from what he recalled it involved washing feet and reciting silly snatches of old prophecies. He’d decided to occupy his time in the most effective way possible, by coordinating and networking communications. And supplies.
Supplies. That reminded him. He headed across the room and ducked his head outside, where a pair of fire-pits had been turned into makeshift barbecues. The steaks were coming along nicely.
Chucky turned to see Shannon wandering up, pint in hand.
“Y’all havin’ a fry-up or somethin’?” Shannon asked. “Yee-haw! Y’all can just count me in.”
“Sorry,” Chucky said with a cavernous lack of regret, “no chicks allowed.”