Mat was still curled up in a ball on the bed, just as Rand had left him. He raised his head to stare at them. “How do you know they're really who they look like?” he said hoarsely. His face was flushed, the skin tight and slick with sweat. “How do I know you're who you look like?”
“Not sick?” Nynaeve gave Rand a disdainful look as she pushed past him, already unslinging her bag from her shoulder.
“Everybody changes,” Mat rasped. “How can I be sure? Perrin? Is that you? You've changed, haven't you?” His laugh sounded more like a cough. “Oh, yes, you've changed.”
To Rand's surprise Perrin dropped onto the edge of the other bed with his head in hands, staring at the floor. Mat's hacking laughter seemed to pierce him.
Nynaeve knelt beside Mat's bed and put a hand to his face, pushing up his headcloth. He jerked back from her with a scornful look. His eyes were bright and glazed. “You're burning,” she said, “but you should not be sweating with this much fever.” She could not keep the worry out of her voice. “Rand, you and Perrin fetch some clean cloths and as much cool water as you can carry. I'll bring your temperature down first, Mat, and —”
“Pretty Nynaeve,” Mat spat. “A Wisdom isn't supposed to think of herself as a woman, is she? Not a pretty woman. But you do, don't you? Now. You can't make yourself forget that you're a pretty woman, now, and it frightens you. Everybody changes.” Nynaeve's face paled as he spoke, whether with anger or something else, Rand could not tell. Mat gave a sly laugh, and his feverish eyes slid to Egwene. “Pretty Egwene,” he croaked. “Pretty as Nynaeve. And you share other things now, don't you? Other dreams. What do you dream about now?” Egwene took a step back from the bed.
“We are safe from the Dark One's eyes for the time being,” Moiraine announced as she walked into the room with Lan at her heels. Her eyes fell on Mat as she stepped through the doorway, and she hissed as if she had touched a hot stove. “Get away from him!”
Nynaeve did not move except for turning to stare at the Aes Sedai in surprise. In two quick steps Moiraine seized the Wisdom by the shoulders, hauling her across the floor like a sack of grain. Nynaeve struggled and protested, but Moiraine did not release her until she was well away from the bed. The Wisdom continued her protests as she got to her feet, angrily straightening her clothes, but Moiraine ignored her completely. The Aes Sedai watched Mat to the exclusion of everything else, eyeing him the way she would a viper.
“All of you stay away from him,” she said. “And be quiet.”
Mat stared back as intently as she. He bared his teeth in a silent, snarling rictus, and pulled himself into an ever tighter knot, but he never took his eyes from hers. Slowly she put one hand on him, lightly, on a knee drawn up to his chest. A convulsion shook him at her touch, a shudder of revulsion spasming through his entire body, and abruptly he pulled one hand out, slashing at her face with the rubyhilted dagger.
One minute Lan was in the doorway, the next he was at the bedside, as if he had not bothered with the intervening space. His hand caught Mat's wrist, stopping the slash as if it had struck stone. Still Mat held himself in that tight ball. Only the hand with the dagger tried to move, straining against the Warder's implacable grip. Mat's eyes never left Moiraine, and they burned with hate.
Moiraine also did not move. She did not flinch from the blade only inches from her face, as she had not when he first struck. “How did he come by this?” she asked in a steel voice. “I asked if Mordeth had given you anything. I asked, and I warned you, and you said he had not.”
“He didn't,” Rand said. “He ... Mat took it from the treasure room.” Moiraine looked at him, her eyes seeming to burn as much as Mat's. He almost stepped back before she turned away again, back to the bed. “I didn't know until after we were separated. I didn't know.”
“You did not know.” Moiraine studied Mat. He still lay with his knees pulled up to his chest, still snarled soundlessly at her, and his hand yet fought Lan to reach her with the dagger. “It is a wonder you got this far, carrying this. I felt the evil of it when I laid eyes on him, the touch of Mashadar, but a Fade could sense it for miles. Even though he would not know exactly where, he would know it was near, and Mashadar would draw his spirit while his bones remembered that this same evil swallowed an army — Dreadlords, Fades, Trollocs, and all. Some Darkfriends could probably feel it, too. Those who have truly given away their souls. There could not help but be those who would wonder at suddenly feeling this, as if the very air around them itched. They would be compelled to seek it. It should have drawn them to it as a magnet draws iron filings.”
“There were Darkfriends,” Rand said, “more than once, but we got away from them. And a Fade, the night before we reached Caemlyn, but he never saw us.” He cleared his throat. “There are rumors of strange things in the night outside the city. It could be Trollocs. ”
“Oh, it's Trollocs, sheepherder,” Lan said wryly. “And where Trollocs are, there are Fades.” Tendons stood out on the back of his hand from the effort of holding Mat's wrist, but there was no strain in his voice. “They've tried to hide their passage, but I have seen sign for two days. And heard farmers and villagers mutter about things in the night. The Myrddraal managed to strike into the Two Rivers unseen, somehow, but every day they come closer to those who can send soldiers to hunt them down. Even so, they won't stop now, sheepherder.”
“But we're in Caemlyn,” Egwene said. “They can't get to us as long as —”
“They can't?” the Warder cut her off. “The Fades are building their numbers in the countryside. That's plain enough from the sign, if you know what to look for. Already there are more Trollocs than they need just to watch all the ways out of the city, a dozen fists, at least. There can only be one reason; when the Fades have enough numbers, they will come into the city after you. That act may send half the armies of the south marching to the Borderlands, but the evidence is that they're willing to take that risk. You three have escaped them too long. It looks as if you've brought a new Trolloc War to Caemlyn, sheepherder.”
Egwene gave a gasping sob, and Perrin shook his head as though to deny it. Rand felt a sickness in his stomach at the thought of Trollocs in the streets of Caemlyn. All those people at one another's throats, never realizing the real threat waiting to come over the walls. What would they do when they suddenly found Trollocs and Fades in their midst, killing them? He could see the towers burning, flames breaking through the domes, Trollocs pillaging through the curving streets and vistas of the Inner City. The Palace itself in flames. Elayne, and Gawyn, and Morgase ... dead.
“Not yet,” Moiraine said absently. She was still intent on Mat. “If we can find a way out of Caemlyn, the Halfmen will have no more interest here. If. So many if's.”
“Better we were all dead,” Perrin said suddenly, and Rand jumped at the echo of his own thoughts. Perrin still sat staring at the floor — glaring at it now — and his voice was bitter. “Everywhere we go, we bring pain and suffering on our backs. It would be better for everyone if we were dead.”
Nynaeve rounded on him, her face half fury and half worried fear, but Moiraine forestalled her.
“What do you think to gain, for yourself or anyone else, by dying?” the Aes Sedai asked. Her voice was level, yet sharp. “If the Lord of the Grave has gained as much freedom to touch the Pattern as I fear, he can reach you dead more easily than alive, now. Dead, you can help no one, not the people who have helped you, not your friends and family back in the Two Rivers. The Shadow is falling over the world, and none of you can stop it dead.”
Perrin raised his head to look at her, and Rand gave a start. The irises of his friend's eyes were more yellow than brown. With his shaggy hair and the intensity of his gaze, there was something about him... Rand could not grasp it enough to make it out.
Perrin spoke with a soft flatness that gave his words more weight than if he had shouted. “We can't stop it alive, either, now can we?”
“I will have time to argue with you later,” Moiraine said, “but your friend needs me now.” She stepped aside so they could all see Mat clearly. His eyes still on her with a ragefilled stare, he had not moved or changed his position on the bed. Sweat stood out on his face, and his lips were bloodless in an unchanging snarl. All of his strength seemed to be pouring into the effort to reach Moiraine with the dagger Lan held motionless. “Or had you forgotten?”
Perrin gave an embarrassed shrug and spread his hands wordlessly.
“What's wrong with him?” Egwene asked, and Nynaeve added, “Is it catching? I can still treat him. I don't seem to catch sick, no matter what it is.”
“Oh, it is catching,” Moiraine said, “and your... protection would not save you.” She pointed to the rubyhilted dagger, careful not to let her finger touch it. The blade trembled as Mat strained to reach her with it. “This is from Shadar Logoth. There is not a pebble of that city that is not tainted and dangerous to bring outside the walls, and this is far more than a pebble. The evil that killed Shadar Logoth is in it, and in Mat, too, now. Suspicion and hatred so strong that even those closest are seen as enemies, rooted so deep in the bone that eventually the only thought left is to kill. By carrying the dagger beyond the walls of Shadar Logoth he freed it, this seed of it, from what bound it to that place. It will have waxed and waned in him, what he is in the heart of him fighting what the contagion of Mashadar sought to make him, but now the battle inside him is almost done, and he almost defeated. Soon, if it does not kill him first, he will spread that evil like a plague wherever he goes. Just as one scratch from that blade is enough to infect and destroy, so, soon, a few minutes with Mat will