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


“Wait,” Rand called. The fellow kept on, not looking back. “Who are you? What plans?” The man vanished into the alley.

Rand teetered after him, but when he reached the mouth of the narrow alley, it was empty. Unbroken walls ran a good hundred paces to another street, where a glow told of yet another part of Mashadar abroad, but the man was gone. Which was purely impossible. The fellow had had time to make a gateway, of course, if he knew how, but the residue would have been visible, and besides, that much of saidin being woven so near would have shouted at him.

Suddenly he realized that he had not felt saidin when the man made balefire, either. Just thinking of that, of the two streams touching, made his vision double again. Just for an instant, he could see the man’s face again, sharp where everything else blurred. He shook his head until it cleared. “Who in the Light are you?” he whispered. And after a moment, “What in the Light are you?”

Whoever or whatever, the man was gone, though. Sammael was still in Shadar Logoth. With an effort he managed to regain the Void once more. The taint on saidin vibrated now, humming its way deep into him; the Void itself vibrated. But the weakness of watery muscles and the pain of injuries faded. He was going to kill one of the Forsaken before this night was done.

Limping, he ghosted through the dark streets, placing his feet with great care. He still made noise, but the night was full of noise now. Shrieks and guttural cries sounded in the distance. Mindless Mashadar killed whatever it found, and Trollocs were dying in Shadar Logoth tonight as they had once long, long ago. Sometimes down a crossing street he saw Trollocs, two or five or a dozen, occasionally with a Halfman but most often not. None saw him, and he did not bother them. Not simply because Sammael would detect any channeling. Those Trollocs and Myrddraal that Mashadar did not kill were still dead. Sammael had almost certainly brought them by the Ways, but apparently he did not realize just how Rand had marked the Waygate here.

Well short of the square where the Waygate lay, Rand stopped and looked around. Nearby, a tower stood seemingly whole. Not nearly as tall as some, its top still rose more than fifty paces above the ground. The dark doorway at its base was empty, the wood long rotted away and the hinges gone to dust. Through blackness relieved only by faint starlight through the windows, he climbed the winding stairs slowly, small clouds puffing up beneath his boots, every second step a stab of pain up his leg. Distant pain. On the towertop, he leaned against the smooth parapet to catch his breath. The idle thought came that he would never hear the end if Min learned of this. Min, or Amys, or Cadsuane for that matter.

Across missing rooftops, he could see the great square that had been one of the most important in Aridhol. Once an Ogier grove had covered this part of the land, but within thirty years after the Ogier who had built the oldest parts of the city departed, the residents had cut down the trees to make room for expanding Aridhol. Palaces and the remains of palaces surrounded the huge square, the glow of Mashadar shining deep inside a few windows, and a huge mound of rubble covered one end, but in the center stood the Waygate, apparently a tall broad piece of stone. He was not close enough to see the delicately carved leaves and vines that covered it, but he could make out the toppled pieces of high fence that had once surrounded it. Power-wrought metal lying in a heap, they gleamed untarnished in the night. He could also see the trap he had woven around the Waygate, inverted so no eye but his could see it. No way to tell by looking whether the Trollocs and Halfmen really had passed through it, yet if they had, they would die before long. A nasty thing. Whatever traps Sammael had made down there were invisible to him, but that was expected. Likely they were not very pleasant either.

At first, he could not see Sammael, but then someone moved among the fluted, flaring columns of a palace. Rand waited. He wanted to be sure; he had only one chance. The figure stepped forward, out of the columns and a pace into the square, head swinging this way and that. Sammael, with snowy lace shining at his throat, waiting to see Rand walk into the square, into the traps. Behind him, the glow in the windows of the palace brightened. Sammael peered into the darkness lying across the square, and Mashadar oozed out of the windows, thick billows of silver-gray fog sliding together, merging as they loomed above his head. Sammael walked a little to one side, and the wave began to descend, slowly picking up speed as it fell.

Rand shook his head. Sammael was his. The flows needed for balefire seemed to gather themselves, despite the far echo of Cadsuane’s voice. He raised his hand.

A scream tore the darkness, a woman shrieking in agony beyond knowing. Rand saw Sammael turn to stare toward the great mound of rubble even as his own eyes flashed that way. Atop the mound a shape stood outlined against the night sky in coat and breeches, a single thin tendril of Mashadar touching her leg. Arms outstretched, she thrashed about, unable to move from the spot, and her wordless wail seemed to call Rand’s name.

“Liah,” he whispered. Unconsciously he reached out, as though he could stretch his arm across the intervening distance and pull her away. Nothing could save what Mashadar touched, though, no more than anything could have saved him had Fain’s dagger plunged into his heart. “Liah,” he whispered. And balefire leaped from his hand.

For less than a heartbeat, the shape of her still seemed to be there, all in stark blacks and snowy whites, and then she was gone, dead before her agony began.

Screaming, Rand swept the balefire down toward the square, the rubble collapsing on itself, swept down death out of time—and let saidin go before the bar of white touched the lake of Mashadar that now rolled across the square, billowing past the Waygate toward rivers of glowing gray that flowed out from another palace on the other side. Sammael had to be dead. He had to be. There had not been time for him to run, no time to weave a gateway, and if he had, Rand would have felt saidin being worked. Sammael was dead, killed by an evil almost as great as himself. Emotion raced across the outside of the Void; Rand wanted to laugh, or perhaps cry. He had come here to kill one of the Forsaken, but instead he had killed a woman he had abandoned here to her fate.

For a long time he stood on the towertop while the waning moon crossed the sky, almost at its half, stood watching Mashadar fill the square completely, till only the very top of the Waygate rose above the surface of the fog. Slowly it began to ebb away, hunting elsewhere. If Sammael had been alive, he could have killed the Dragon Reborn easily then. Rand was not sure that he would have cared. Finally he opened a gateway for Skimming and made a platform, a railless disc, half white and half black. Skimming was slower than Traveling; it took him at least half an hour to reach Illian, and the whole way, he burned Liah’s name into his mind again and again, flailing himself with it. He wished he could cry. He tho