“What did he mean?” Mat demanded. “If there's time?”
“Come,” Moiraine said. And she stepped through the arch. Lan went at her heels.
Rand was not sure what he expected when he followed. The hair stirred uneasily on his arms, and rose on the back of his neck. But it was only a corridor, its polished walls rounded overhead like the arch, winding gently downward. There was headroom enough and to spare for Loial; there would have been room enough for the Green Man. The smooth floor, slick to the eye like oiled slate, yet somehow gave a sure footing. Seamless, white walls glittered with uncounted flecks in untold colors, giving a low, soft light even after the sunlit archway vanished around a curve behind. He was sure the light was no natural thing, but he sensed it was benign, too. Then why is your skin still crawling? Down they went, and down.
“There,” Moiraine said at last, pointing. “Ahead.”
And the corridor opened into a vast, domed space, the rough, living rock of its ceiling dotted with clumps of glowing crystals. Below it, a pool took up the entire cavern, except for the walkway around it, perhaps five paces wide. In the oval shape of an eye, the pool was lined about its rim with a low, flat edging of crystals that glowed with a duller, yet fiercer, light than those above. Its surface was as smooth as glass and as clear as the Winespring Water. Rand felt as if his eyes could penetrate it forever, but he could not see any bottom to it.
“The Eye of the World,” Moiraine said softly beside him.
As he looked around in wonder, he realized that the long years since the making—three thousand of them—had worked their way while no one came. Not all the crystals in the dome glowed with the same intensity. Some were stronger, some weaker; some flickered, and others were only faceted lumps to sparkle in a captured light. Had all shone, the dome would have been as bright as noonday, but they made it only late afternoon, now. Dust coated the walkway, and bits of stone and even crystal. Long years waiting, while the Wheel turned and ground.
“But what is it?” Mat asked uneasily. “That doesn't look like any water I ever saw.” He kicked a lump of dark stone the size of his fist over the edge. “It — ”
The stone struck the glassy surface and slid into the pool without a splash, or so much as a ripple. As it sank, the rock began to swell, growing ever larger, larger and more attenuated, a blob the size of his head that Rand could almost see through, a faint blur as wide as his arm was long. Then it was gone. He thought his skin would creep right off his body.
“What is it?” he demanded, and was shocked at the hoarse harshness of his own voice.
“It might be called the essence of saidin.” The Aes Sedai's words echoed round the dome. “The essence of the male half of the True Source, the pure essence of the Power wielded by men before the Time of Madness. The Power to mend the seal on the Dark One's prison, or to break it open completely. ”
“The Light shine on us and protect us,” Nynaeve whispered. Egwene clutched her as if she wanted to hide behind the Wisdom. Even Lan stirred uneasily, though there was no surprise in his eyes.
Stone thudded into Rand's shoulders, and he realized he had backed as far as the wall, as far from the Eye of the World as he could get. He would have pushed himself right through the wall, if he could have. Mat, too, was splayed out against the stone as flat as he could make himself. Perrin was staring at the pool with his axe half drawn. His eyes shone, yellow and fierce.
“I always wondered,” Loial said uneasily. “When I read about it, I always wondered what it was. Why? Why did they do it? And how?”
“No one living knows.” Moiraine no longer looked at the pool. She was watching Rand and his two friends, studying them, her eyes weighing. "Neither the how, nor more of the why than that it would be needed one day, and that that need would be the greatest and most desperate the world had faced to that time. Perhaps ever would face.
“Many in Tar Valon have attempted to find a way to use this Power, but it is as untouchable for any woman as the moon is for a cat. Only a man could channel it, but the last male Aes Sedai is nearly three thousand years gone. Yet the need they saw was a desperate one. They worked through the taint of the Dark One on saidin to make it, and make it pure, knowing that doing so would kill them all. Male Aes Sedai and female together. The Green Man spoke true. The greatest wonders of the Age of Legends were done in that way, saidin and saidar together. All the women in Tar Valon, all the Aes Sedai in all the courts and cities, even with those in the lands beyond the Waste, even counting those who may still live beyond the Aryth Ocean, could not fill a spoon with the Power, lacking men to work with them.”
Rand's throat rasped as if he had been screaming. “Why did you bring us here?”
“Because you are ta'veren.” The Aes Sedai's face was unreadable. Her eyes shimmered, and seemed to pull at him. “Because the Dark One's power will strike here, and because it must be confronted and stopped, or the Shadow will cover the world. There is no need greater than that. Let us go out into the sunlight again, while there is yet time.” Without waiting to see if they would follow, she started back up the corridor with Lan, who stepped perhaps a bit more quickly than usual for him. Egwene and Nynaeve hurried behind her.
Rand edged along the wall — he could not make himself get even one step closer to what the pool was — and scrambled into the corridor in a tangle with Mat and Perrin. He would have run if it had not meant trampling Egwene and Nynaeve, Moiraine and Lan. He could not stop shaking even when he was back outside.
“I do not like this, Moiraine,” Nynaeve said angrily when the sun shone on them again. “I believe the danger is as great as you say or I would not be here, but this is —”
“I have found you at last. ”
Rand jerked as if a rope had tightened around his neck. The words, the voice... for a moment he believed it was Ba'alzamon. But the two men who walked out of the trees, faces hidden by their cowls, did not wear cloaks the color of dried blood. One cloak was a dark gray, the other almost as dark a green, and they seemed musty even in the open air. And the men were not Fades; the breeze stirred their cloaks.
“Who are you?” Lan's stance was cautious, his hand on his sword hilt. “How did you come here? If you are seeking the Green Man —”
“He guided us.” The hand that pointed to Mat was old and shriveled to scarcely human, lacking a fingernail and with knuckles gnarled like knots in a piece of rope. Mat took a step back, eyes widening. “An old thing, an old friend, an old enemy. But he is not the one we seek,” the greencloaked man finished. The other man stood as if he would never speak.
Moiraine straightened to her full height, no more than shoulder high to any man there, but suddenly seeming as tall as the hills. Her voice rang like a bell, demanding, “Who are you?”
Hands pushed back hoods, and Rand goggled. The old man was older than old; he made Cenn Buie look like a child in the bloom of health. The skin of his face was like crazed parchment drawn tight over a skull, then pulled tighter still. Wispy tufts of brittle hair stood at odd places on his scabrous scalp. His ears were withered bits like scraps of ancient leather; his eyes sunken, peering out of his head as if from the ends of tunnels. Yet the other was worse. A tight, black leather carapace covered that one's head and face completely, but the front of it was worked into a perfect face, a young man's face, laughing wildly, laughing insanely, frozen forever. What is he hiding if the other shows what he shows? Then even thought froze in his head, shattered to dust and blew away.
“I am called Aginor,” the old one said. “And he is Balthamel. He no longer speaks with his tongue. The Wheel grinds exceedingly fine over three thousand years imprisoned.” His sunken eyes slid to the arch; Balthamel leaned forward, his mask's eyes on the white stone opening, as if he wanted to go straight in. “So long without,” Aginor said softly. “So long.”
“The Light protect — ” Loial began, his voice shaking, and cut off abruptly when Aginor looked at him.
“The Forsaken,” Mat said hoarsely, “are bound in Shayol Ghul—”
“Were bound.” Aginor smiled; his yellowed teeth had the look of fangs. “Some of us are bound no longer. The seals weaken, Aes Sedai. Like Ishamael, we walk the world again, and soon the rest of us will come. I was too close to this world in my captivity, I and Balthamel, too close to the grinding of the Wheel, but soon the Great Lord of the Dark will be free, and give us new flesh, and the world will be ours once more. You will have no Lews Therin Kinslayer, this time. No Lord of the Morning to save you. We know the one we seek now, and there is no more need for the rest of you.”
Lan's sword sprang from its scabbard too fast for Rand's eye to follow. Yet the Warder hesitated, eyes flickering to Moiraine, to Nynaeve. The two women stood well apart; to put himself between either of them and the Forsaken would put him further from the other. Only for a heartbeat the hesitation lasted, but as the Warder's feet moved, Aginor raised his hand. It was a scornful gesture, a flipping of his gnarled fingers as if to shoo away a fly. The Warder flew backwards through the air as though a huge fist had caught him. With a dull thud Lan struck the stone arch, hanging there for an instant before dropping in a flaccid heap, his sword lying n