With a feeling of extreme dubiousness, Aginor reviewed his latest batch.
“They certainly look like Shaido,” Be’lal said supportively.
“They should,” Aginor said, “since they are Shaido,” he sighed. “I just wish the success rate wasn’t so low.”
Of perhaps ten thousand Shaido Aiel to be captured and brought to Thakan’dar, little over a thousand remained after the on-site testing. And even those had the nasty habit of occasionally biting their own extremities off or displaying what Angamael called ‘hysterical stigmata’ when nervous. The females also periodically and rather explosively became pregnant, but so far only one infant had been delivered alive, and that was currently sealed in a stasis pod deep underground in a Level Thirteen Aginor Bio-Weapons Corp. secure laboratory. Aginor hadn’t figured out what was causing that, yet.
The Shaido were, however, guaranteed immune to the corrupting effects of Shadar Logoth, at least as far as any and all tests Aginor had been able to conduct.
He couldn’t shake the feeling that he was meddling with powers with which man was not meant to meddle. That wasn’t particularly unusual, of course – it was part of the Chosen’s job description. What was unusual, in this case, was the degree of uneasiness he was experiencing about this particular build.
“What are you looking at?” a heavily-benecklaced Shaido woman with a terrifyingly deep, freckled cleavage, demanded.
“Your hooters,” Aginor replied. “Problem?”
The creature obviously had some sort of problem, but she had been well-conditioned during the experiments, and would not dare defy the Chosen any more directly than the occasional short word. Black veins throbbed under the skin of her face, forcing thick clots of dead blood and other, more specialised substances through her system.
The Nae’blis, while conducting ‘peace talks’ in Aridhol, had started thinking about ways of rendering the evil of the place harmless. This led to several experiments in the field, testing the different ways the taint of Shadar Logoth and the taint of the Great Lord interacted, cancelled each other out, competed together, opposed or complemented one another. Now the peace talks had moved to some stedding or other, as far as Aginor was aware, but the experiments continued. Graendal was also on board, in her capacity as a psychiatrist, and had made considerable breakthroughs in the afflictions and corruptions of those tainted by Shadar Logoth. Her skills were long-forgotten in the outside world, but the Nae’blis had decided to put them to good use.
“Are we ready to send them to the agreed rendezvous point?” Graendal asked, finishing her check of the last Aielman in the rank and tucking her set of ink-blots back into a folder. Aginor had looked at some of the ink-blots, and found them disturbing in a way that he couldn’t quite explain. He’d stopped looking at them, and fought against the maddening urge to check under chairs and tables before sitting down for several days afterwards. The altered Shaido had looked at them fondly, and made a variety of creepy, affectionate noises.
“We’re ready,” Aginor replied, and gave the nod to a group of trainee channelers standing around on the edge of the formation. Most of them were Shaido, with a couple of Black Ajah Aes Sedai standing by to direct the weaves. The Nae’blis had insisted. “You remember where you’re going? Dumai’s Wells.”
“Yes, Chosen,” the Aes Sedai, who Aginor had long since given up trying to remember by name, curtseyed deeply and began to channel.
“And you know what to do when you get there?” he pressed.
“Yes, Chosen,” one of the Aiel channelers – this one he knew, her name was Therava and she’d bitten one of his best new myrddraal a couple of days ago, causing the worst-smelling lab accident he could remember in the long history of Aginor Bio-Weapons Corp. – replied in a surly voice. “Surround the kidnappers, kill as many as we can, take up the shield and bonds holding the Car’a’carn, and bring him to a secure location.”
“Right,” Aginor said, although he wasn’t entirely sure about the ‘Car’a’carn‘ bit. To be honest, he didn’t know if the man they were after was even the Dragon Reborn. The Nae’blis apparently had his own theories about it all, but the Nae’blis played things close to his chest, whenever doing so did not put the plan in jeopardy.
Gateways slid open around the review yard, and the Shaido began to lurch out.
Rhuarc had gathered perhaps six thousand Aiel, including a thousand Maidens of the Spear, and around ninety Wise Ones. This was a far cry from the ‘fucking billions’ he had promised, but when Perrin rode his horse out through the gateway, straightened in his saddle and saw the rather ratty collection of enemies gathered at the proposed battle-site, he figured their forces would probably be sufficient.
“Shaido,” Rhuarc said, with a frown. “I thought them all destroyed by the creatures of Sightblinder.”
“Perhaps they were,” Perrin said, “perhaps these have been turned,” he wrinkled his nose. “I haven’t smelled anything this wrong since the Beans Night.”
“Who are they attacking?” Rhuarc wondered.
The Shaido were milling around in confusion, but seemed to be gravitating generally towards a little cleared patch in the middle of their forces, where a number of wagons and tents could be seen. Whether the fighting had actually begun yet, or whether something was holding the Shaido at bay, was difficult to tell. There was something going on at the boundary of the surrounded camp, but not even the keen eyes of the Aiel could make it out, and Perrin’s nose could detect nothing over the ghastly reek of mingled evil.
“They’re trying to get to the Car’a’carn,” Perrin guessed, “whether to rescue him or kidnap him themselves I’m not sure. This was the essence of the message Satsujinki sent me. He’s down there somewhere,” he shuddered to think of how terrible the smell of wrongness would be up-close and personal, but reflected that Satsujinki had unusual talents.
“Well, what do you say we go down there,” Rhuarc said, “and fuck them all up and shit?”
“Sounds like a solid plan,” Perrin said, as the volunteers from the Two Rivers rallied under the New Manetheren banner. All around them, Aiel massed and gathered and chatted companionably, checking their spears and telling weird Aiel jokes. A few wolves had come along for the ride, but most of them were currently holed up in a safe location, communicating with various other teams through the Wolf Dream. “I … wait.”
Down below, Dumai’s Wells was slowly falling out of focus. Mist was rising, or dust, or the entire countryside was fading somehow, starting at the edge of the embattled camp and moving outwards. The scurrying figures within the circle were no longer visible, and the Shaido gathered outside became faint, spidery outlines. The wavering mirage extended outwards unevenly, like a bloodstain on cloth.
“Now there’s a thing,” Gaul, who had accompanied Rhuarc from Caemlyn, stepped up to Perrin’s knee and looked down at the unfolding surreality. “What is that?” he asked in a low voice. “A bubble of evil sent by Sightblinder?”
“Yes,” Perrin said, “and no. It smells … different. There’s more to it. I think it’s one of those breaks in the Pattern that Janica and Debs were telling us about. Only, the Dark One is outside the Pattern too, so when a gap opens wide enough, perhaps his miasma can also use the…” he trailed off. “I don’t fucking know,” he snapped. “I’m a blacksmith.”
“Right,” Rhuarc said, “and I’m a sa’sara girl.”
They watched the shifting blur for a while. The Shaido within didn’t seem to be suffering at all, but it was mildly nauseating to watch them slip in and out of clarity.
“They seem fine,” Rhuarc said, “maybe we should just go down there anyway. It might be harmless.”
“I agree,” Gaul said, “and I think Rhuarc should go first.”
“Perrin Aybara,” one of the Aes Sedai, Kiruna, stepped up to Perrin’s horse and did her best to look stern. Perrin wondered where she had come from, and why. “There is a lot of channeling going on down there. Saidar, saidin … and other powers that sit like shadows across my sight. There are channelers among the Shaido, but the greatest danger comes not from them, but from the warriors themselves. You must be on guard-”
At that moment, with truly evil timing, a brilliant stripe of light appeared in the air, directly overlapping Kiruna’s body. Perrin barely had time to tug his horse to one side before the gateway revolved open and the Aes Sedai fell to the ground in two rather soggy pieces. Frankly, it was something of a relief.
The gateway opened to capacity, and black-clad asha’man began to army-roll through. The military precision was ruined somewhat by the first few landing in Kiruna’s intestines, tangling themselves up and getting their new clothes smeared in half-digested faeces, and saying ‘fuck’. When Mazrim Taim stepped through, however, it was with cool, collected smoothness, a lopsided, rakish grin, and complete and total disregard for the pile of twitching mince on the ground.
“Admit it,” he said, “you’re glad to see me.”