Just as he was beginning to wonder whether anybody was going to succumb to the all-too-human urge to fuck him at all, Muffin Vamps felt a change in the shield cutting him off from the One Power. The infuriating muzzle put on him by one of those awful women who couldn’t come to terms with how charming and amusing he was had been smothered by a solid shield, which in turn had been kept on him in a steadily-rotating pattern that he could not have unpicked even if he’d had an ounce of ability.
A meek little voice in his head, a voice he was increasingly certain belonged to Puddin Taim, told him that the shield was being kept on him by a group of channelers, and if they stopped switching from one to the other and tied off the weaves, he might be able to unpick it. Muffin Vamps didn’t trust the voice, because he knew it was not real. It was just madness encroaching on him.
Unfortunately, thinking the word ‘encroaching’ made him think of roaches, and suddenly the box seemed to be full of them. He flailed in panic, screamed, banged his head, and passed out.
Puddin Taim woke up in darkness, the distressingly thick yammering of Muffin Vamps a distant thunder in his mind. There was a lot of shouting going on outside, his box was lying on its side as if discarded in a hurry, and the shield cutting him off from saidin was indeed tied off, on at least three points.
Patiently, he began to pick away at them.
I wish my wife was here, Vamps muttered, aimlessly, in the background. She’s a witch. She’d get us out of here in no time, and then… here, Vamps seemed to run out of steam, or perhaps decided that the rest was best left to the imaginations of the audience. …, he concluded.
“I don’t have time for this right now, Muffin,” Puddin said politely. “I need to get us out of this shield. Anything you can do to help would be appreciated.”
…, Muffin Vamps said.
One by one, the tied-off knots loosened. The shouting and running around outside the box began to give way to screams and weird bubbly noises, but Puddin didn’t let himself get distracted. Finally, the knots fell away and he was able to break through the shield. Saidin flooded into him, and he brushed away the last channelers attempting to hold him. The box shattered under a swift outwards club of Air, and he staggered to his feet.
Puddin turned to see Min, limping towards him through a thickening fog. Whatever trauma had afflicted her in recent weeks, it had taken a back seat to survival, and when Puddin craned his neck to look over her head, he saw why.
“Gosh,” he said, “what are those Aiel doing to those soldiers?”
It was a bit difficult to make out, since Puddin could only assume that long days locked in a box had left his eyes weak and blurred, but that could only be a good thing from what little he could see. A mob of shambling Aielmen and women had gathered all around the camp, from what he could see, and were fighting the meagre forces put together by Padan Fain and the Darkfriend Aes Sedai who had kidnapped him in the first place. There was something in the air, something that throbbed and reverberated and was echoed by pulses from within saidin itself, and within all that confusion the Aiel seemed to be doing quite a lot of weird things to the Younglings. Embarrassed, Puddin looked away.
Min staggered up to him and cowered behind his back, and her proximity was all Muffin Vamps needed to resume control of his body. He straightened, puffed out his chest, and flexed his hands. Doing so reminded him that he’d lost half a finger not long before, and the burns on his palms still hurt, and the flags printed on his arms hurt too.
“I’m in a lot of pain,” he told Min, “but just so you know, I’m going to carry on anyway. That’s just the sort of guy I-”
“Oh shut up,” Quincey snapped, and thumped Vamps over the head with a handy piece of the shattered wooden trunk. Min looked on in astonishment as Vamps collapsed to the ground for no reason.
“He was pissing me off,” Quincey said, “but you can’t even see me, can you?” he waved his hands in front of Min’s face. She blinked, looked at him for a second in amazement, then her eyes slid away and she continued watching the weird fight between the Shadar Logoth-tainted followers of Padan Fain, the Padan Fain-tainted followers of Angamael, the Aginor-altered Shadar Logoth-immune Shaido, and the slowly-tightening circle of Aiel, asha’man, and Two Rivers longbowmen, all taking place inside what was rapidly becoming the biggest vacuole in the history of the Pattern. “Sod this,” the Grey Man concluded, “I’m offski.”
“Hang on,” Alexander said, studying Min with the close-up, personal-space-violating interest of somebody who has gotten really used to looking at women without them knowing he was looking. She’d undergone a lot of rough treatment at the hands of Galina and Fain, but most of that had just bounced off her. There was thicker scar tissue underneath, inflicted by somebody with far more skill. “We can’t just bugger off. Can we?”
“Who’s going to miss us?” Quincey said.
“That’s a really good point.”
At that moment, the tensions tugging the Pattern in conflicting directions, the force of the Dark One’s miasma underneath and the opposing power of Shadar Logoth in Fain and the Shaido alike, all reached critical mass and the vacuole tore open.
There was a thwack.
Back in Cairhien, Herid Fel was sitting in his study attempting to figure out why his hydraulic penis-enlarger just wouldn’t work. At the same time, the strangest philosophical ideas about the Dark One and the Bore were occurring to him, and he had no real idea why. He’d already attempted to meld the two projects together, but it just didn’t work. Besides, the best-case scenario he could think of if he harmonised the projects was the Dark One escaping from his prison and finding himself with an enormous hardon, and that just didn’t bear thinking about.
The thwack reverberated through his head, and he spun around on the swivelly wheely-chair one of the other inventors had built for him. As usual, he lost control of the spin, and had to grab hold of something to right himself. His flailing hand gripped somebody’s wrist, and he looked up at a skinny, confused-looking woman.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“This isn’t the Tarasin Palace,” she said.
“No, I should say not,” Fel chuckled. “This was once the palace of Darkfriend Barthanes Damodred, but now it is an academy for … who are you and where did you come from?”
“I’m Sandrine,” the woman said, “and I was just complaining about not being allowed to kill anybody in the palace, and now I’m here. Coincidence? I think not.”
“You came from the Tarasin Palace in Ebou Dar in the blink of an eye?” Herid Fel asked excitedly. “You must tell me how argh.”
At the same moment, in Salidar, Shannon was just beginning to comprehend just how annoying the combination of ta’veren Pattern-influencing and Contro could be. Of all the myriad things in the universe that, combined with Contro, were annoying, the ta’veren effect was one of the worst he had encountered, and ranked right up there with playing games, searching for The Song, and talking. It was worse than all of these, in a way, because in a lot of cases playing games, searching for the Song, and talking could also be involved in the Contro-ta’veren-Pattern-influencing combination.
“Ha ha! And then he tried to bite me! Funny that!”
“I know,” Shannon wept, “you’ve already told me this anecdote about your fucking horse twelve fucking times.”
“My horse? Funny you should mention my horse! Ha ha! Funny!” Contro slapped his thigh. “Ow! Ha ha ha! I wonder why people do that??!? Anyway, my horse…”
Shannon had already tried to kill himself by eating a bunch of herbs he’d stolen from Nynaeve’s bag, but so far all they had done was make his nipples hurt. And Contro was doing a good enough job at that already. Frankly, he was beginning to think that Cow had done the right thing.
“Cow, by which I mean my horse, was waiting outside the toilet tent the other day-”
Whatever it was that happened next, it was a tremendous relief. With a loud thwack, the incessant ta’veren effect that had Contro in its grip immediately released, like an over-wound rubber band. Contro fell backwards off his stool with a laugh, and Shannon spun almost 180-degrees on his. He ended up facing the tent-flaps, and decided that it was an opportunity too good to pass up. This time, when he tried to jump to his feet and run out of the tent, he didn’t fail for a variety of excruciating reasons the way he had for the past three hours – he barrelled to his feet and charged into the cool evening air.
“Gots to get on out of here,” he muttered. “Gots to get on out of here, gots to get help, gots to get away, turn t’ the Dark One if’n I gots to…”
He paused. In the wake of the strange Pattern-quake, he could still feel the swirling of ta’veren going on around him, could still feel the tension of its potential. After so many months of living with it, he could feel the signs. This was a temporary reprieve, nothing more. So that bit where he’d promised to turn to the Dark One … had that been genuine?
“Don’t matter nohow,” he grunted, and headed for the tent where Nynaeve had left Moghedien, or whoever, securely bound with an a’dam and dire instructions that she was not to be released, or even looked after beyond the occasional plate of scraps and bucket of water. “Gots to do somethin’.”
The tent had a neglected look, all the other residents of Salidar gave it a wide berth, and when he got close Shannon could tell that a certain amount of sitting around in her own filth had been done by the tent’s lone resident. He slipped inside and looked around.
The Forsaken was still wrapped in her ‘Selene’ guise, was still sitting in a little pile of soiled straw with the gleaming silver collar around her neck and the leash and bracelet trailing away across the floor carelessly. Her mouth was hanging slackly open, her jaw bent at an unnatural angle, blood caked over her cracked lips, the shards of shattered teeth showing through. How much of it was illusion and how much was real, Shannon didn’t know. She looked up at him incuriously.
“Right,” he said, “y’all don’t like me and I don’t like y’all, but we’re goin’ t’ have to help each other. I know y’all’re a Forsaken in disguise, Moghedien or Lanfear or somesuch, I don’t know, but it looks like you’re in trouble here. Y’all’s fellow Forsaken have forgotten about you, an’ the Aes Sedai here are just goin’ to wring you out until you’ve done told ’em everything. Nynaeve’s gone right now, but she’ll be back. There ain’t no point in glarin’,” he went on. Moghedien was staring at him with the rising light of anger in her eyes. “I don’t care who y’all are or how much trouble y’all’ll be in with your Great Lord when he finds out about this. Do you want out o’ here or not?”
“Ng,” Selene said, wide-eyed and apparently terrified.
“Y’all just have to promise not to blow me up, or whatever,” Shannon went on. “Remember, I’m the only one who’s gonna let you outta here, so y’all’re gonna owe me a favour. Alright?”
“We ain’t got no time for this,” Shannon hurried forwards. “I want y’all to swear by your hope o’ salvation and rebirth, or by the Dark One, or what-all-ever, that you ain’t gonna blow me up when I let you outta here, that you’ll get me out of Salidar and leave me alone. If y’all swear it, blink your eyes three times,” Selene blinked three times. “Alright. Let’s see about this here thing.”
He fiddled with the a’dam for a moment, and found the clasp. There was a little electric flash against his fingers when the collar came open, but nothing too unpleasant. Lanfear or whoever fell to the floor, patting at her neck and sobbing. After a few seconds she crawled, crablike, away from the pile of faeces-smeared straw, and the a’dam lying curled beside it.
“Remember y’all said you ain’t gonna blow me up,” Shannon repeated.
“Ang ung unk,” she said, and suddenly it was not Selene, but Nynaeve lying in front of him. The horrific injuries were still the same, however, and Shannon wondered what the point of the disguise was.
“Y’all’re still all fucked up,” he said. “Can’t you weave no illusion to cover your hurtin’s? Anyway, make with a gateway, I want out of here.”
“Unk unk,” she said, raising her fingers to her face and sobbing again as they brushed her broken jaw. “Iy-ee-ay.”
“I ain’t followin’,” Shannon stood up and, as an afterthought, scooped up the a’dam as well. Lanfear scuttled a few feet further back, eyes wide with fear. “If y’all ain’t gonna help me get out o’ here, I’ll just have to go on my own. Get that jaw seen to, and have a bath. I’m-”
With a soft ripping sound, a hole tore in the fabric of reality, taking one of the tent’s side-walls with it. A tall, black-clad figure stepped through, straightened as much as was possible for somebody of his height in the cramped conditions, and looked as confused as it was possible to judge, considering that he had no eyes. He was eating a sandwich.
“That’s strange,” Shaidar Haran said. “I was expecting Moghedien.”
“That’s her there,” Shannon pointed. “I just let her go, an’ she promised not to blow me up.”
“That was nice of her,” Shaidar Haran smiled, “but she’s not one of the Chosen. What am I doing here anyway?”
“I was about to ask y’all the same durn question,” Shannon remarked.
“There was a great disturbance in the Pattern, and then it released and I had the strangest feeling we should be receiving guests from Salidar,” the giant halfman shrugged. “Well, I guess you’d better come along,” he said, popping the rest of the sandwich in his mouth and leaning down to take Nynaeve – apparently the real Nynaeve – under the arms. “You’re a right mess, aren’t you? Well, we’ll see what we can do about that, Aginor is very good at fixing people up,” Shaidar Haran turned his chilling eyeless gaze on Shannon. “You’d better come too, ma’am.”
“I, uh, I don’t know,” Shannon demurred. “I might just-”
“Ha ha ha! Where did everybody go? Is this hide and seek? Maybe I should count to ten! Ha ha ha!!! One! I think!”
“Let’s roll,” Shannon elbowed past Shaidar Haran and hurried through the gateway.
Gradually, Perrin’s hearing returned, and he climbed to his feet.
“What happened?” he demanded of the world in general.
“I don’t know,” Rhuarc was also climbing to his feet, brushing greasy dust off his cadin’sor, “but I’m glad we weren’t any closer to it.”
“I saw something open up in the mist, like a mouth or a flower,” Gaul said, “and there was darkness within. Then, I feel I saw more, but now it is as forgotten as a dream.”
“Maybe it’s better that way,” Perrin said thoughtfully. “I get the feeling that if we remembered it … hey, look. There are still people down there.”
The area around Dumai’s Wells was churned and disrupted in a large circle. Some parts were flattened as if by many feet; others were wet with blood and littered with body-parts; still other parts of the ground were glassy and smoking as if melted by a great conflagration; and at least one stretch of land was smeared in a glistening silvery slime, like a giant flying slug had come down for a brief landing, before realising it was in the wrong place and taking back off again. Perrin found this to be an entirely unwelcome, entirely too-plausible mental image, and did his best to dismiss it from his mind.
In the middle of the circle, though, the campsite where the Dragon’s kidnappers had made their stand seemed more or less untouched. The tents closer to the battle zone had been pulled down, and there were more bodies and body-parts lying around, but further in things seemed in better shape. A small group of people were wandering around down there, and the asha’man were already picking their way through the no-man’s-land towards the survivors. Perrin, Rhuarc, Gaul, and some of the other ranking Aiel and Wise Ones decided to join them.
Vamps, Min, and a handful of battered Younglings and zombie Shaido were left in the camp, and the asha’man were busily demolishing the soldiers under Mazrim Taim’s judicious instructions. Vamps was looking miserable but rugged, and Min was looking simply miserable.
“What happened?” the Dragon Reborn asked. It seemed like that was the question of the day.
“We didn’t see, Car’a’carn,” Rhuarc said, “there was some sort of breach in the Pattern. You were closer – did you see anything?”
Vamps shook his head. “Last I remember, I was in a box, and suddenly I was standing here,” he smiled. “Speaking of in a box-”
“I don’t remember anything either,” Min interrupted, “I was being tortured by Galina, and then-”
“Galina?” a blocky-faced Aes Sedai hurried up, her shirts dragging through the dirt and covered in blood and gore almost to the knees. Bera Harkin, one of the other Aes Sedai who had turned up with Kiruna and the others. “She is Black Ajah?”
“I don’t know,” Min said, with a trace of her old attitude, “I’ve stopped trying to keep track of which of you are Darkfriends and which aren’t. It’s been going downhill ever since that stupid tickle-tum thing that everybody did in Tel’aran’rhiod.”
Bera and the other Aes Sedai drew themselves up indignantly, but Mazrim Taim interrupted.
“This whole thing looks like a mess,” he declared, “and I’m going to get to the bottom of what exactly the big idea was. From what I heard, it started out as a plan to get the Pattern back on-track by doing something that was meant to be done, right, only then it went wrong and my brother actually was kidnapped, and then these goons turned up,” he nudged the still-twitching remains of a Shaido, this one apparently a Wise One who had died in the middle of a pregnancy, “and messed things up even more, even though that wasn’t part of the plan, which apparently was arranged between us and the Darkfriends, and then there was a big glitch in the Pattern and … oh for fuck’s sake,” he flicked his hand at the corpse lying by his feet, and the slowly-shifting bulge in the torso’s belly exploded with a loud splatter. Green squirming bits flew everywhere, and disintegrated on impact. “On second thoughts, forget it. I don’t want to know.”
“Well, the good news is, Puddin seems to be okay,” Perrin said. Vamps, as if to confirm this, struck a pose.
“Right,” Mazrim gave his little brother an affectionate elbow. “Good.”
“Good,” Rhuarc said.
They looked at each other for a while. There was an uncomfortable silence.
“There’s something missing,” Taim said finally. “Somebody should be kneeling and swearing allegiance to somebody else.”
“Don’t look at me,” Rhuarc said.
SO, DEMANDRED, HOW HAVE YOU BEEN?
The power of the Great Lord’s voice burned through Demandred, and he shook and quivered on his knees. At the same time, there was a relaxed, familiar quality to the voice, and he didn’t feel as scared as he used to.
“Fine, Great Lord, just fine,” he replied. “Keeping busy. The negotiations with the Ogier proceed apace, but I am not taking part in those. There have been great disruptions to the Pattern, and the Nae’blis tells me that all efforts to fix things at this stage will only make matters worse, as long as we continue to follow the plan laid out. Soon you will be able to reach out your hand and-”
YEAH, YEAH, THAT’S NICE. TELL ME SOMETHING FUN.
“Sorry, Great Lord,” Demandred stammered, “I didn’t mean to be a bore.”
There was a cold, cold silence for a moment that stretched out into an eternity.
of the Sixth Book of
The Steal of Time