The heat did not abate as the bloody sun fell toward the horizon. In the distance to the north, mountains rose, higher than the Mountains of Mist, black against the sky. Sometimes an icy wind from the sharp peaks gusted far enough to reach them. The torrid humidity leached away most of the mountain chill, but what remained was wintercold compared to the swelter it replaced, if just for a moment. The sweat on Rand's face seemed to flash into beads of ice; as the wind died, the beads melted again, running angry lines down his cheeks, and the thick heat returned harder than before by comparison. For the instant the wind surrounded them, it swept away the fetor, yet he would have done without that, too, if he could have. The cold was the chill of the grave, and it carried the dusty must of an old tomb newly opened.
“We cannot reach the mountains by nightfall,” Lan said, “and it is dangerous to move at night, even for a Warder alone.”
“There is a place not far off,” Moiraine said. “It will be a good omen for us to camp there.”
The Warder gave her a flat look, then nodded reluctantly. “Yes. We must camp somewhere. It might as well be there.”
“The Eye of the World was beyond the high passes when I found it,” Moiraine said. “Better to cross the Mountains of Dhoom in full daylight, at noon, when the Dark One's powers in this world are weakest.”
“You talk as if the Eye isn't always in the same place.” Egwene spoke to the Aes Sedai, but it was Loial who answered.
“No two among the Ogier have found it in exactly the same place. The Green Man seems to be found where he is needed. But it has always been beyond the high passes. They are treacherous, the high passes, and haunted by creatures of the Dark One.”
“We must reach the passes before we need worry about them,” Lan said. “Tomorrow we will be truly into the Blight.”
Rand looked at the forest around him, every leaf and flower diseased, every creeper decaying as it grew, and he could not repress a shudder. If this isn't truly the Blight, what is?
Lan turned them westward, at an angle to the sinking sun. The Warder maintained the pace he had set before, but there was reluctance in the set of his shoulders.
The sun was a sullen red ball just touching the treetops when they crested a hill and the Warder drew rein. Beyond them to the west lay a network of lakes, the waters glittering darkly in the slanting sunlight, like beads of random size on a necklace of many strings. In the distance, circled by the lakes, stood jaggedtopped hills, thick in the creeping shadows of evening. For one brief instant the sun's rays caught the shattered tops, and Rand's breath stilled. Not hills. The broken remnants of seven towers. He was not sure if anyone else had seen it; the sight was gone as quickly as it came. The Warder was dismounting, his face as lacking in emotion as a stone.
“Couldn't we camp down by the lakes?” Nynaeve asked, patting her face with her kerchief. “It must be cooler down by the water.”
“Light,” Mat said, “I'd just like to stick my head in one of them. I might never take it out.”
Just then something roiled the waters of the nearest lake, the dark water phosphorescing as a huge body rolled beneath the surface. Length on manthick length sent ripples spreading, rolling on and on until at last a tail rose, waving a point like a wasp's stinger for an instant in the twilight, at least five spans into the air. All along that length fat tentacles writhed like monstrous worms, as many as a centipede's legs. It slid slowly beneath the surface and was gone, only the fading ripples to say it had ever been.
Rand closed his mouth and exchanged a look with Perrin. Perrin's yellow eyes were as disbelieving as he knew his own must be. Nothing that big could live in a lake that size. Those couldn't have been hands on those tentacles. They couldn't have been.
“On second thought,” Mat said faintly, “I like it right here just fine.”
“I will set guarding wards around this hill,” Moiraine said. She had already dismounted from Aldieb. “A true barrier would draw the attention we do not want like flies to honey, but if any creation of the Dark One or anything that serves the Shadow comes within a mile of us, I will know.”
“I'd be happier with the barrier,” Mat said as his boots touched the ground, “just as long as it kept that, that ... thing on the other side.”
“Oh, do be quiet, Mat,” Egwene said curtly, at the same time as Nynaeve spoke. “And have them waiting for us when we leave in the morning? You are a fool, Matrim Cauthon.” Mat glowered at the two women as they climbed down, but he kept his mouth shut.
As he took Bela's reins, Rand shared a grin with Perrin. For a moment it was almost like being home, having Mat saying what he should not at the worst possible time. Then the smile faded from Perrin's face; in the twilight his eyes did glow, as if they had a yellow light behind them. Rand's grin slipped away, too. It isn't like home at all.
Rand and Mat and Perrin helped Lan unsaddle and hobble the horses while the others began setting up the camp. Loial muttered to himself as he set up the Warder's tiny stove, but his thick fingers moved deftly. Egwene was humming as she filled the tea kettle from a bulging waterbag. Rand no longer wondered why the Warder had insisted on bringing so many full waterskins.
Setting the bay's saddle in line with the others, he unfastened his saddlebags and blanketroll from the cantle, turned, and stopped with a tingle of fear. The Ogier and the women were gone. So was the stove and all the wicker panniers from the packhorse. The hilltop was empty except for evening shadows.
With a numb hand he fumbled for his sword, dimly hearing Mat curse. Perrin had his axe out, his shaggy head swiveling to find the danger.
“Sheepherders,” Lan muttered. Unconcernedly the Warder strode across the hilltop, and at his third step, he vanished.
Rand exchanged wideeyed looks with Mat and Perrin, and then they were all darting for where the Warder had disappeared. Abruptly Rand skidded to a halt, taking another step when Mat ran into his back. Egwene looked up from setting the kettle atop the tiny stove. Nynaeve was closing the mantle on a second lit lantern. They were all there, Moiraine sitting crosslegged, Lan lounging on an elbow, Loial taking a book out of his pack.
Cautiously Rand looked behind him. The hillside was there as it had been, the shadowed trees, the lakes beyond sinking into darkness. He was afraid to step back, afraid they would all disappear again and perhaps this time he would not be able to find them. Edging carefully around him, Perrin let out a long breath.
Moiraine noticed the three of them standing there, gaping. Perrin looked abashed, and slipped his axe back into the heavy belt loop as if he thought no one might notice. A smile touched her lips. “It is a simple thing,” she said, “a bending, so any eye looking at us sees around us, instead. We cannot have the eyes that will be out there seeing our lights tonight, and the Blight is no place to be in the dark.”
“Moiraine Sedai says I might be able to do it.” Egwene's eyes were bright. “She says I can handle enough of the One Power right now.”
“Not without training, child,” Moiraine cautioned. “The simplest matter concerning the One Power can be dangerous to the untrained, and to those around them.” Perrin snorted, and Egwene looked so uncomfortable that Rand wondered if she had already been trying her abilities.
Nynaeve set down the lantern. Together with the tiny flame of the stove, the pair of lanterns gave a generous light. “When you go to Tar Valon, Egwene,” she said carefully, “perhaps I'll go with you.” The look she gave Moiraine was strangely defensive. “It will do her good to see a familiar face among strangers. She'll need someone to advise her besides Aes Sedai.”
“Perhaps that would be for the best, Wisdom,” Moiraine said simply.
Egwene laughed and clapped her hands. “Oh, that will be wonderful. And you, Rand. You'll come, too, won't you?” He paused in the act of sitting across the stove from her, then slowly lowered himself. He thought her eyes had never been bigger, or brighter, or more like pools that he could lose himself in. Spots of color appeared in her cheeks, and she gave a smaller laugh. “Perrin, Mat, you two will come, won't you? We'll all be together.” Mat gave a grunt that could have signified anything, and Perrin only shrugged, but she took it for assent. “You see, Rand. We'll all be together. ”
Light, but a man could drown in those eyes and be happy doing it. Embarrassed, he cleared his throat. “Do they have sheep in Tar Valon? That's all I know, herding sheep and growing tabac.”
“I believe,” Moiraine said, “that I can find something for you to do in Tar Valon. For all of you. Not herding sheep, perhaps, but something you will find interesting.”
“There,” Egwene said as if it were settled. “I know. I will make you my Warder, when I'm an Aes Sedai. You would like being a Warder, wouldn't you? My Warder?”
She sounded sure, but he saw the question in her eyes. She wanted an answer, needed it.
“I'd like being your Warder,” he said. She's not for you, nor you for her. Why did