It was not noticeably different in the World of If to which Mazrim Taim transported them, although it was certainly less hot and sticky and sandy and unpleasant. In fact, it seemed to have recently rained and the plant life seemed positively healthy. Forsaken_1 wondered if the Dark One’s hold on the world did not extend to the Worlds of If, or whether it was only a matter of time. The thought gave him a headache, so he quit.
The Portal Stone was in as poor and neglected a condition on this side as it had been in the real world, which was a bit unusual from what Forsaken_1 could remember. On the other hand, they’d also managed to transport across without any of the horrible imaginary flashbacks and lying future-glimpses and alternate timelines he’d experienced before, so he was willing to ignore the mouth on this particular gift-horse. Mazrim Taim, smarmy jerk and possible Darkfriend-or-Forsaken-in-disguise though he was, certainly knew his way around a Portal Stone.
“We still need to find our way to somewhere in Shara,” Loial said, not looking up from his notebook. “I would assume we are still in the same geographical location as our origin-point?”
“Beats me,” Taim said. “I’ve never been to this particular one before,” he gestured. “We normally put up some ropes and signs to mark the places we’ve visited, and of course if we’d been testing here there would be some craters or volcanic glass or slime or whatever. As for Shara…” he shrugged. “I’ve never been there either.”
“I can do that, at least,” Elayne had pulled out the glass dowsing stick ter’angreal again, and was wobbling it around. “I’ll make a gateway … unless you still have some objection?” she and her Warders glanced coolly at Taim, who seemed quite unimpressed.
“I don’t think there’s anyone here who gives a crap,” he said.
Elayne scowled, but busied herself with the ter’angreal. “I don’t know if a gateway will work,” she admitted. “I didn’t know the area of the Portal Stone, even in our own world, and this one might be completely different. Holding saidar is the best way to learn an area quickly, but…”
“If you want me to make a gateway, just say so,” Taim said. “I know this area pretty well. At least, I knew it well on our side.”
“But you can’t use the ter’angreal,” Elayne said.
“Oh for the Light’s sake,” Cadsuane snapped, and snatched the ter’angreal off Elayne. “How does this … I see,” she nodded, waved the stick, and a gateway revolved open at the lip of the grassy indentation where the Portal Stone stood. “Let’s go.”
“Warders first,” Gaidal Cain said, and strode towards the gateway with Birgitte and Stifler on either side.
“Yeah, fuckers,” Forsaken_1 muttered, but fell in behind.
He hadn’t been entirely sure what to expect from Shara, even a Bizarro World verion of Shara like the one they were apparently visiting. It seemed much the same as the place their Portal Stone had stood, if a little colder. Forsaken_1 pulled his colour-shifting cloak more tightly around himself and did his best to survey his surroundings in the same militant, professional manner as the other Warders. Scouting for threats and such, although what exactly any of them could do about anything that might pose a threat to a party containing Loial, Cadsuane and Mazrim Taim was honestly beyond him.
“They should’ve been the scouts,” he grumbled.
Birgitte looked across at him. “What?”
“I, um,” Forsaken_1 stammered, then pointed. “I said, ‘is that a house?’.”
The four Warders sidled carefully towards the smooth stone building that had very conveniently been nearby and allowed Forsaken_1 to point at it. It seemed to be the only artificial structure in the area, which was a lightly-wooded hillside under a chilly blue sky. Weird blobby UFO-shaped clouds hung on one horizon. Forsaken_1 remembered seeing pictures of clouds like that on a website once, but couldn’t remember what caused them. On the far horizon, the hills continued into a small mountain range. The house itself, if that was what it was, stood on the edge of the trees like a dolmen with windows.
“Ogier-made,” Cain said softly.
“How can you tell?” Forsaken_1 asked.
“Well, there are a couple of give-aways,” Cain replied. “First, only Ogier masons and the One Power can create stonework this fine. Second, this is a quite familiar style, if a bit out of date. A lot of the houses in Tar Valon used to be put together like this. I’ve seen it before.”
“And third,” Stifler said from where he was standing in a clump of knee-high bushes closer to the house, “here’s the Ogier that built it.”
The Warders stepped up and gathered around the remains of the Ogier, which were scattered liberally and quite nastily over what Forsaken_1 supposed was the house’s front yard. It had been there for some time, preserved by the chilly weather and apparent lack of wildlife, and it looked to have died quite badly if the gaping mouth and staring eyes on what was left of its face was anything to go by. Worst of all, it seemed to have performed the deed itself. One gore-clotted hand was outstretched with a thick snarl of intestines and what could have been a kidney squeezed between the fingers, and the other was holding a couple of huge ribs upright in a liquefying mass of skin and muscle, as if the Ogier had opened its own chest like an advent calendar.
“Holy fuck,” Forsaken_1 said.
Cadsuane stomped through the gateway.
“When you scout,” she said, “you’re supposed to give the all-clear or withdraw, so we know what’s happening.”
“If Puddin is here,” Birgitte said, “he’s in a lot more trouble than we originally thought.”
Cadsuane crossed to the massive splayed corpse, and grimaced. “Ugly business.”
“It looks like someone made him build this house,” Cain said, “and then killed him.”
“Compelled him to kill himself,” Cadsuane clarified, fiddling with one of her hair-trinkets. The rest of the team began sidling through the gateway.
“You know,” Bashere said, “when you scout-”
“Shut your tit-hole,” Cadsuane said coolly, and for a wonder Bashere did just that. Loial hurried over to the clump of bushes and looked down with shaking hands and quivering ear-tips.
“Who would do such a thing?” he murmured.
“The Forsaken,” Taim snarled, “who else?” he turned towards the house. “Is my brother in there?” Elayne and Min conferred for a short time, a discussion consisting of rather too many shrugs and whispered I don’t knows for Forsaken_1’s comfort. Then Elayne nodded. “Right,” Taim said, and raised his hand.
“Don’t-” Cadsuane started, and Taim blasted the front of the house to gravel. It was still pattering down around their shoulders when the asha’man strode into the smoke.
The interior of the house was the same seamless stone as the outside, looking as if it had been naturally extruded from the earth and shaped by wind and water. Only some oddly jarring decorations and the smouldering remains of a rug on the floor made it the least bit homely. Taim had obviously smashed his way into a small entrance-hall, because there was a hat-stand and a cross-stitch hanging on the wall reading HOME SWEET HOME. Unlike the outer wall, the interior seemed more standard and Mazrim marched forward and swung open the scorched door on the far side of the chamber.
The house wasn’t large – in fact there were probably only one or two rooms beyond the entrance – and it didn’t take any of them long to realise that not only was Vamps not there, but that something was very, very wrong with the whole thing. Frankly, Forsaken_1 could have slapped them all for not turning around and going home as soon as they saw the dismembered Ogier on the front lawn. A glance across at Davram Bashere told him the Saldaean felt much the same way, but they were both operating under pretty similar limitations when it came to slapping people.
The room onto which the entrance hall opened was a combination kitchen and nursery, with brightly-coloured pictures and soft toys scattered around. The centrepiece, to which all eyes had immediately been dragged, sat on a table alongside a decorative – and as-yet empty – crib. The ter’angreal in Cadsuane’s hands was pointing steadily at the horrible thing on the table.
“What,” Mazrim said quietly, “in fuck’s name…”
They stood in the recently-renovated entry way, looking at the base-lit glass canister for several seconds as feelings of deep and terrible foreboding and unease sank into each member of the party, each in their own distinct ways.
And that was when Lanfear’s inverted security measures kicked in.