“Kneel!” Ba'alzamon pointed to the floor at his feet. “Kneel, and acknowledge me your master! In the end, you will. You will be my creature, or you will die.”
The last word echoed through the room, reverberating back on itself, doubling and redoubling, till Rand threw up his arms as if to shield his head from a blow. Staggering back until he thumped into the table, he shouted, trying to drown the sound in his ears. “Noooooooooooo!”
As he cried out, he spun, sweeping the figures to the floor. Something stabbed his hand, but he ignored it, stomping the clay to shapeless smears underfoot. But when his shout failed, the echo was still there, and growing stronger: diediediediedieDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIEDIE
The sound pulled on him like a whirlpool, drawing him in, ripping the void in his mind to shreds. The light dimmed, and his vision narrowed down to a tunnel with Ba'alzamon standing tall in the last spot of brightness at the end, dwindling until it was the size of his hand, a fingernail, nothing. Around and around the echo whirled him, down into blackness and death.
The thump as he hit the floor woke him, still struggling to swim up out of that darkness. The room was dark, but not so dark as that. Frantically he tried to center on the flame, to shovel fear into it, but the calm of the void eluded him. Tremors ran down his arms and legs, but he held the image of the single flame until the blood stopped pounding in his ears.
Mat was tossing and twisting on his bed, groaning in his sleep. “...deny you, deny you, deny you ...” It faded off into unintelligible moans.
Rand reached out to shake him awake, and at the first touch Mat sat up with a strangled grunt. For a minute Mat stared around wildly, then drew a long, shuddering breath and dropped his head into his hands. Abruptly he twisted around, digging under his pillow, then sank back clutching the rubyhilted dagger in both hands on his chest. He turned his head to look at Rand, his face hidden in shadow. “He's back, Rand.”
“I know. ”
Mat nodded. “There were these three figures ...”
“I saw them, too.”
“He knows who I am, Rand. I picked up the one with the dagger, and he said, 'So that's who you are.' And when I looked again, the figure had my face. My face, Rand! It looked like flesh. It felt like flesh. Light help me, I could feel my own hand gripping me, like I was the figure.”
Rand was silent for a moment. “You have to keep denying him, Mat.”
“I did, and he laughed. He kept talking about some eternal war, and saying we'd met like that a thousand times before, and ... Light, Rand, the Dark One knows me.”
“He said the same thing to me. I don't think he does,” he added slowly. “I don't think he knows which of us ...” Which of us what?
As he levered himself up, pain stabbed his hand. Making his way to the table, he managed to get the candle lit after three tries, then spread his hand open in the light. Driven into his palm was a thick splinter of dark wood, smooth and polished on one side. He stared at it, not breathing. Abruptly he was panting, plucking at the splinter, fumbling with haste.
“What's the matter?” Mat asked.
Finally he had it, and a sharp yank pulled it free. With a grunt of disgust he dropped it, but the grunt froze in his throat. As soon as the splinter left his fingers, it vanished.
The wound was still there in his hand, though, bleeding. There was water in the stoneware pitcher. He filled the basin, his hands shaking so that he splashed water onto the table. Hurriedly he washed his hands, kneading his palm till his thumb brought more blood, then washed them again. The thought of the smallest sliver remaining in his flesh terrified him.
“Light,” Mat said, “he made me feel dirty, too.” But he still lay where he was, holding the dagger in both hands.
“Yes,” Rand said. “Dirty.” He fumbled a towel from the stack beside the basin. There was a knock at the door, and he jumped. It came again. “Yes?” he said.
Moiraine put her head into the room. “You are awake already. Good. Dress quickly and come down. We must be away before first light.”
“Now?” Mat groaned. “We haven't had an hour's sleep yet.”
“An hour?” she said. “You have had four. Now hurry, we do not have much time.”
Rand shared a confused look with Mat. He could remember every second of the dream clearly. It had begun as soon as he closed his eyes, and lasted only minutes.
Something in that exchange must have communicated itself to Moiraine. She gave them a penetrating look and came all the way in. “What has happened? The dreams?”
“He knows who I am,” Mat said. “The Dark One knows my face.”
Rand held up his hand wordlessly, palm toward her. Even in the shadowed light from the one candle the blood was plain.
The Aes Sedai stepped forward and grasped his upheld hand, her thumb across his palm covering the wound. Cold pierced him to the bone, so chill that his fingers cramped and he had to fight to keep them open. When she took her fingers away, the chill went, too.
He turned his hand, then, stunned, scrubbed the thin smear of blood away. The wound was gone. Slowly he raised his eyes to meet those of the Aes Sedai.
“Hurry,” she said softly. “Time grows very short.”
He knew she was not speaking of the time for their leaving anymore.
The Dark Along the Ways
In the darkness just before dawn Rand followed Moiraine down to the back hall, where Master Gill and the others were waiting, Nynaeve and Egwene as anxiously as Loial, Perrin almost as calm as the Warder. Mat stayed on Rand's heels as if he were afraid to be even a little alone now, even as much as a few feet away. The cook and her helpers straightened, staring as the party passed silently into the kitchen, already brightly lit and hot with preparations for breakfast. It was not usual for patrons of the inn to be up and out at that hour. At Master Gill's soothing words, the cook gave a loud sniff and slapped her dough down hard. They were all back to tending griddles and kneading dough before Rand reached the stableyard door.
Outside, the night was still pitchblack. To Rand, everyone else was only a darker shadow at best. He followed the innkeeper and Lan blindly, blind in truth, hoping Master Gill's knowledge of his own stableyard and the Warder's instincts would get them across it without someone breaking a leg. Loial stumbled more than once.
“I don't see why we can't have just one light,” the Ogier grumbled. “We don't go running about in the dark in the stedding. I'm an Ogier, not a cat.” Rand had a sudden image of Loial's tufted ears twitching irritably.
The stable loomed up suddenly out of the night, a threatening mass until the stable door creaked open, spilling a narrow stream of light into the yard. The innkeeper only opened it wide enough for them to go in one at a time, and hastily pulled it to behind Perrin, almost clipping his heels. Rand blinked in the sudden light inside.
The stablemen were not surprised by their appearance, as the cook had been. Their horses were saddled and waiting. Mandarb stood arrogantly, ignoring everyone but Lan, but Aldieb stretched her nose out to nuzzle Moiraine's hand. There was a packhorse, bulky with wicker panniers, and a huge animal with hairy fetlocks, taller even than the Warder's stallion, for Loial. It looked big enough to pull a loaded haywain by itself, but compared with the Ogier it seemed a pony.
Loial eyed the big horse and muttered doubtfully, “My own feet have always been good enough.”
Master Gill motioned to Rand. The innkeeper was lending him a bay almost the color of his own hair, tall and deep of chest, but with none of the fire in his step that Cloud had had, Rand was glad to see. Master Gill said his name was Red.
Egwene went straight to Bela, and Nynaeve to her longlegged mare.
Mat brought his duncolored horse over by Rand. “Perrin's making me nervous,” he muttered. Rand looked at him sharply. “Well, he's acting strange. Don't you see it, too? I swear it's not my imagination, or ... or ...”
Rand nodded. Not the dagger taking hold of him again, thank the Light. “He is, Mat, but just be easy. Moiraine knows about ... whatever it is. Perrin's fine.” He wished he could believe it, but it seemed to satisfy Mat, a little at least.
“Of course,” Mat said hastily, still watching Perrin out of the corner of his eye. “I never said he wasn't.”
Master Gill conferred with the head groom. That leatheryskinned man, with a face like one of the horses, knuckled his forehead and hurried to the back of the stable. The innkeeper turned to Moiraine with a satisfied smile on his round face. “Ramey says the way is clear, Aes Sedai.”
The rear wall of the stable appeared solid and stout, lined with heavy racks of tools. Ramey and another stableman cleared away the hayforks, rakes, and shovels, then reached behind the racks to manipulate hidden latches. Abruptly a section of the wall swung inward on hinges so well concealed that Rand was not sure he could find them even with the disguised door standing open. Light from the stable illuminated a brick wall only a few feet away.
“It's only a narrow run between buildings,” the innkeeper said, “but nobody outside this stable knows there's a way into it from here. Whitecloaks or white cockades, there'll not be any watchers to see