A Crown of Swords (The Wheel of Time #7)


The sword vanished from his hands. Still poised at the end of the form called Twisting the Wind, he stood among death. The last Trolloc to fall still thrashed, goat horns scraping on the fragmented pavement. The headless Myrddraal yet flung its arms about, of course, booted feet scrabbling wildly; Halfmen did not die quickly, even headless.

No sooner did the sword disappear than silver lightning lanced down from the cloudless, starry sky.

The first bolt struck with a deafening roar not four paces away. The world turned white, and the Void collapsed. The ground bounced under him as another bolt struck, and another. He had not realized he was on his face until then. The air crackled. Dazed, he pushed himself up, half falling as he ran from a hail of lightning that ripped the street apart to a thunder of collapsing buildings. Straight ahead he staggered, not caring where, so long as it was away.

Suddenly his head cleared enough for him to see where he was, reeling across a vast stone floor covered with tumbled chunks of stone, some as big as he. Here and there, dark uneven holes gaped in the floorstones. All around rose high walls, and tier upon tier of deep balconies that ran all the way around. Only a small portion of what had once been a vast roof remained, at one corner. Stars shone bright overhead.

He lurched another step, and the floor gave way beneath him. Desperately he flung out his hands; with a jolt, the right hand caught hold of a rough edge. He dangled into pitch blackness. The fall beneath his boots might be a few spans into a basement, or a mile for all he could tell. He could latch bands of Air to the jagged rim of the hole above his head to help pull himself out, except. . . . Somehow, Sammael had sensed the relatively small amount of saidin used in the sword. There had been a delay before the lightnings struck, but he could not say how long he had taken killing the Trollocs. A minute? Seconds?

With a heave, he swung his left arm up, trying to catch the edge of the hole. Pain no longer buffered by the Void stabbed through his side like a dagger going in. Spots danced in his vision. Worse, his right hand slipped on crumbling stone, and he could feel his fingers weakening. He was going to have to. . . .

A hand grabbed his right wrist. “You are a fool,” a man’s deep voice said. “Count yourself lucky I don’t care to see you die today.” The hand began drawing him up. “Are you going to help?” the voice demanded. “I don’t intend to carry you on my shoulders, or kill Sammael for you.”

Shaking off his shock, Rand reached up and grabbed the rim of the hole, pulling despite the agony of his side. Despite the agony, he managed to acquire the Void again, too, and seize saidin. He did not channel, but he wanted to be ready.

His head and shoulders came above the floor, and he could see the other man, a big fellow little older than he, with hair black as the night and a coat black as an Asha’man’s. Rand had never seen him before. At least he was not one of the Forsaken; those faces he knew. He thought he did, anyway. “Who are you?” he demanded.

Still heaving, the man barked a laugh. “Just say I’m a wanderer passing through. Do you really want to talk now?”

Saving his breath, Rand struggled upward, getting his chest over the lip, his waist. Abruptly he realized that a glow bathed the floor around them like the glow of a full moon.

Twisting to look over his shoulder, he saw Mashadar. Not a tendril, but a shining silver-gray wave rolling out of one of the balconies, arching over their heads. Descending.

Without a thought, his free hand rose, and balefire shot upward, a bar of liquid white fire slicing across the wave sinking toward them. Dimly he was aware of another bar of pale solid fire rising from the other man’s hand that was not clasping his, a bar slashing the opposite way from his. The two touched.

Head ringing like a struck gong, Rand convulsed, saidin and the Void shattering. Everything was doubled in his eyes, the balconies, the chunks of stone lying about the floor. There seemed to be a pair of the other man overlapping one another, each clutching his head between two hands. Blinking, Rand searched for Mashadar. The wave of shining mist was gone; a glow remained in the balconies above, but dimming, receding, as Rand’s eyes began to clear. Even mindless Mashadar fled balefire, it seemed.

Unsteadily, he got to his feet and offered a hand. “I think we best move quickly. What happened there?”

The other man pushed himself up with a grimace at Rand’s proffered hand. He was easily as tall as Rand, rare except among the Aiel. “I don’t know what happened,” he snarled. “Run, if you want to live.” He suited his own words immediately, dashing toward a row of open arches. Not in the nearest wall. Mashadar had come from that one.

Fumbling for the Void, Rand limped after him as fast as he could, but before they were completely across the floor, the lightnings fell again, a storm of silver arrows. The two of them darted through the archways pursued by the thunder of walls and floor collapsing behind them, by clouds of dust and a hail of stones. Shoulders hunched and an arm across his face, Rand ran coughing through a broad room where trembling arches supported the ceiling and bits of stone rained down.

He burst out into a street before he knew it, stumbling three steps before stopping. The pain in his side made him want to bend over, but he thought his legs might give way if he did. His wounded foot throbbed; it seemed a year ago that that red wire of Fire and Air had stabbed his heel. His rescuer stood watching him; covered with dust head to toe, the fellow managed to look a king.

“Who are you?” Rand asked again. “One of Taim’s men? Or did you teach yourself? You can go to Caemlyn, you know, to the Black Tower. You don’t have to live afraid of Aes Sedai.” For some reason, saying that made him frown; he could not understand why.

“I have never been afraid of Aes Sedai,” the man snapped, then drew a deep breath. “You probably should leave here now, but if you intend to stay and kill Sammael, you had better try thinking like him. You have shown you can. He always liked destroying a man in sight of one of that man’s triumphs, if he could. Lacking that, somewhere the man had marked as his would do.”

“The Waygate,” Rand said slowly. If he could be said to have marked anything in Shadar Logoth, it had to be the Waygate. “He’s waiting near the Waygate. And he has traps set.” Wards as well, it seemed, like those in Illian, to detect a man channeling. Sammael had planned this well.

The man laughed wryly. “You can find the way, it seems. If you’re led by the hand. Try not to stumble. A great many plans will have to be relaid if you let yourself be killed now.” Turning, he started across the street for an al