The chamber, too, was as he remembered, the mad, striated sky beyond the balcony, the melted walls, the polished table, the terrible fireplace with its roaring, heatless flames. Some of those faces that made the fireplace, writhing in torment, shrieking in silence, tugged at his memory as if he knew them, but he held the void close, floated within himself in emptiness. He was alone. When he looked at the mirror on the wall, his face was there as clear as if it was him. There is calm in the void.
“Yes,” Ba'alzamon said from in front of the fireplace, “I thought Aginor's greed would overcome him. But it makes no difference in the end. A long search, but ended now. You are here, and I know you.”
In the midst of the Light the void drifted, and in the midst of the void floated Rand. He reached for the soil of his home, and felt hard rock, unyielding and dry, stone without pity, where only the strong could survive, only those as hard as the mountains. “I am tired of running.” He could not believe his voice was so calm. “Tired of you threatening my friends. I will run no more.” Ba'alzamon had a cord, too, he saw. A black cord, thicker by far than his own, so wide it should have dwarfed the human body, yet dwarfed by Ba'alzamon, instead. Each pulse along that black vein ate light.
“You think it makes any difference, whether you run or stay?” The flames of Ba'alzamon's mouth laughed. The faces in the hearth wept at their master's mirth. “You have fled from me many times, and each time I run you down and make you eat your pride with sniveling tears for spice. Many times you have stood and fought, then groveled in defeat, begging mercy. You have this choice, worm, and this choice only: kneel at my feet and serve me well, and I will give you power above thrones; or be Tar Valon's puppet fool and scream while you are ground into the dust of time. ”
Rand shifted, glancing back through the door as if seeking a way to escape. Let the Dark One think that. Beyond the doorway was still the black of nothing, split by the shining thread that ran from his body. And out there Ba'alzamon's heavier cord ran as well, so black that it stood out in the dark as if against snow. The two cords beat like heartveins in countertime, against each other, the light barely resisting the waves of dark.
“There are other choices,” Rand said. “The Wheel weaves the Pattern, not you. Every trap you've laid for me, I have escaped. I've escaped your Fades and Trollocs, escaped your Darkfriends. I tracked you here, and destroyed your army on the way. You do not weave the Pattern.”
Ba'alzamon's eyes roared like two furnaces. His lips did not move, but Rand thought he heard a curse screamed at Aginor. Then the fires died, and that ordinary human face smiled at him in a way that chilled even through the warmth of the Light.
“Other armies can be raised, fool. Armies you have not dreamed of will yet come. And you tracked me? You slug under a rock, track me? I began the setting of your path the day you were born, a path to lead you to your grave, or here. Aiel allowed to flee, and one to live, to speak the words that would echo down the years. Jain Farstrider, a hero,” he twisted the word to a sneer, “whom I painted like a fool and sent to the Ogier thinking he was free of me. The Black Ajah, wriggling like worms on their bellies across the world to search you out. I pull the strings and the Amyrlin Seat dances and thinks she controls events.”
The void trembled; hastily Rand firmed it again. He knows it all. He could have done. It could be the way he says. The Light warmed the void. Doubt cried out and was stilled, till only the seed remained. He struggled, not knowing whether he wanted to bury the seed or make it grow. The void steadied, smaller than before, and he floated in calm.
Ba'alzamon seemed to notice nothing. “It matters little if I have you alive or dead, except to you, and to what power you might have. You will serve me, or your soul will. But I would rather have you kneel to me alive than dead. A single fist of Trollocs sent to your village when I could have sent a thousand. One Darkfriend to face you where a hundred could come on you asleep. And you, fool, you don't even know them all, neither those ahead, nor those behind, nor those by your side. You are mine, have always been mine, my dog on a leash, and I brought you here to kneel to your master or die and let your soul kneel.”
“I deny you. You have no power over me, and I will not kneel to you, alive or dead.”
“Look,” Ba'alzamon said. “Look.” Unwilling, Rand yet turned his head.
Egwene stood there, and Nynaeve, pale and frightened, with flowers in their hair. And another woman, little older than the Wisdom, grayeyed and beautiful, clothed in a Two Rivers dress, bright blossoms embroidered round the neck.
“Mother?” he breathed, and she smiled, a hopeless smile. His mother's smile. “No! My mother is dead, and the other two are safe away from here. I deny you!” Egwene and Nynaeve blurred, became wafting mist, dissipated. Kari al'Thor still stood there, her eyes big with fear.
“She, at least,” Ba'alzamon said, “is mine to do with as I will.”
Rand shook his head. “I deny you.” He had to force the words out. “She is dead, and safe from you in the Light.”
His mother's lips trembled. Tears trickled down her cheeks; each one burned him like acid. “The Lord of the Grave is stronger than he once was, my son,” she said. “His reach is longer. The Father of Lies has a honeyed tongue for unwary souls. My son. My only, darling son. I would spare you if I could, but he is my master, now, his whim, the law of my existence. I can but obey him, and grovel for his favor. Only you can free me. Please, my son. Please help me. Help me. Help me! PLEASE!”
The wail ripped out of her as barefaced Fades, pale and eyeless, closed round. Her clothes ripped away in their bloodless hands, hands that wielded pincers and clamps and things that stung and burned and whipped against her naked flesh. Her scream would not end.
Rand's scream echoed hers. The void boiled in his mind. His sword was in his hand. Not the heronmark blade, but a blade of light, a blade of the Light. Even as he raised it, a fiery white bolt shot from the point, as if the blade itself had reached out. It touched the nearest Fade, and blinding candescence filled the chamber, shining through the Halfmen like a candle through paper, burning through them, blinding his eyes to the scene.
From the midst of the brilliance, he heard a whisper. “Thank you, my son. The Light. The blessed Light.”
The flash faded, and he was alone in the chamber with Ba'alzamon. Ba'alzamon's eyes burned like the Pit of Doom, but he shied back from the sword as if it truly were the Light itself. “Fool! You will destroy yourself! You cannot wield it so, not yet! Not until I teach you!”
“It is ended,” Rand said, and he swung the sword at Ba'alzamon's black cord.
Ba'alzamon screamed as the sword fell, screamed till the stone walls trembled, and the endless howl redoubled as the blade of Light severed the cord. The cut ends rebounded apart as if they had been under tension. The end stretching into the nothingness outside began to shrivel as it sprang away; the other whipped back into Ba'alzamon, hurling him against the fireplace. There was silent laughter in the soundless shrieks of the tortured faces. The walls shivered and cracked; the floor heaved, and chunks of stone crashed to the floor from the ceiling.
As all broke apart around him, Rand pointed the sword at Ba'alzamon's heart. “It is ended!”
Light lanced from the blade, coruscating in a shower of fiery sparks like droplets of molten, white metal. Wailing, Ba'alzamon threw up his arms in a vain effort to shield himself. Flames shrieked in his eyes, joining with other flames as the stone ignited, the stone of the cracking walls, the stone of the pitching floor, the stone showering from the ceiling. Rand felt the bright thread attached to him thinning, till only the glow itself remained, but he strained harder, not knowing what he did, or how, only that this had to be ended. It has to be ended!
Fire filled the chamber, a solid flame. He could see Ba'alzamon withering like a leaf, hear him howling, feel the shrieks grating on his bones. The flame became pure, white light, brighter than the sun. Then the last flicker of the thread was gone, and he was falling through endless black and Ba'alzamon's fading howl.
Something struck him with tremendous force, turning him to jelly, and the jelly shook and screamed from the fire raging inside, the hungry cold burning without end.
Neither Beginning Nor End
He became aware of the sun, first, moving across a cloudless sky, filling his unblinking eyes. It seemed to go by fits and starts, standing still for days, then darting ahead in a streak of light, jerking toward the far horizon, day falling with it. Light. That should mean something. Thought was a new thing. I can think. I means me. Pain came next, the memory of raging fever, the bruises where shaking chills had thrown him around like a rag doll. And a stink. A greasy, burned smell, filling his nostrils, and his head.
With aching muscles, he heaved himself over, pushed up to hands and knees. Uncomprehending, he stared at the oily ashes in which he had been lying, ashes scattered and smeared over the stone of the hilltop. Bits of dark green cloth lay mixed in the char, edgeblackened scraps th