|The Paths Of If
The Blight was guarded now more heavily than any time since the Trolloc Wars had ended; the watchtowers along the border manned not only by soldiers but by Aes Sedai. And by – others.
Much could be done with either Power, but some things only by women and men working together. And while no one liked it – no one! – that was why men wearing the badge of the Dragon now guarded those towers alongside the sisters, and why the banner that flew above them flaunted the symbol of both Powers combined. Madness had to be risked; worse than the spectre of another Breaking was that of the Shadow’s victory.
And after all, if an Amyrlin raised from the Red Ajah agreed with the necessity, who else would be so bold as to argue…
Sharia turned from the window of the keep with a shiver. She agreed with it, because it had to be done. She agreed with it, but she liked it no more than any other. Better than any she knew the havoc a channeler could wreak in a fit of madness. It was a wasteground, where once flowers had bloomed, and she cradled a man in her arms as the flames died down…
And the Light let it not happen again!
The White Tower was virtually empty, now; almost every sister was here in the Borderlands. Basharande, Elsalam; the room where she sat was on the northern edge of Rhamdashar, in the foothills of the Mountains of Dhoom. The novices, and the younger Accepted, had been sent south along with all the other non-fighters.
The armies of all the lands waited here, along the border. They all waited, but for what no one quite knew. Only one man knew that, and whatever he might think, he told no one.
“I’ll know,” he had said. “When the time comes to strike, I’ll know it. And when I give the command, no one but me will be expecting it. Even Ishamael. Even Shai -”
She had hit him then, almost without thought, before he could complete the name. But he only laughed, her handprint red on his face. “Don’t worry. I’ll get his attention soon enough.”
“Burn you, Davian,” she whispered now, “are you still sane?”
Movement outside the window caught her attention, and she turned in time to see a familiar figure. Then the figure disappeared, and in the same moment a gateway spun open at the other end of the room.
“You could knock,” she said dryly.
Davian stepped through, his eyes flicking warily from one corner to another. The gateway closed as quickly as it had opened. “You are alone? Where is everyone?”
“At their posts, where they should be. What -”
He broke in. “It’s time.”
“Time?” she repeated blankly, then felt her eyes widen as she realised his meaning. “Now? Are you -”
“I’m sure! Now listen. When I leave here I go to fight the Dark One.” There was not a hint in his voice of any emotion at the prospect. “The generals know their orders, but you must tell them to be ready. The Shadow’s attack will come as soon as they know I am gone.” His face hardened. “And that will not be long.”
“I understand,” she said simply. What else was there to say? But he would not meet her eyes. “Davian -”
“There is one more thing,” he broke in again. “When I have left, go to my rooms. The ward will let you pass. There is a statue – as high as my hand – of a woman holding a sphere of crystal. Take it, but let no one know you have it. It may be of use.”
“An angreal?” she guessed. He shook his head.
“No. A ter’angreal. One that links to a sa’angreal – the greatest sa’angreal ever made.” His sudden laughter was fierce and bitter. “One for women, one for men. Made in the War of Power to bind away the Dark One. But they failed – as I failed!”
It was more than the words. His eyes met hers at last, and the knowledge came as if he had hit her. This was Davian who stood before her. But it was not Davian who spoke.
“Sharia,” he said softly, but she thought another name had been on his tongue.
“Lews Therin,” she answered just as quietly.
“It was I who began this. Fitting for me to end it.” He sighed. “Or perhaps I am not he. Perhaps I am after all Davian. It grows hard to tell.” His eyes, once so familiar, were now strange to her. “But you I know. You I will always know – Ilyena.”
She stared at him in shock. Has he truly gone mad? “I am not her!”
“Three thousand years. Fifty lives, seventy, a hundred. How could you remember one?” He shook his head. “I remember. Sunhair no longer, Ilyena no longer, but always my beloved. And while you live there is hope.” Another gateway opened, and she averted her eyes from what she knew must be the dark slopes of Shayol Ghul. His hand touched her cheek, gently. “Remember hope, Ilyena, Sharia – cuebiyar an cuebiyar mia.”
Heart of my heart. And then he was gone, the gateway closing behind him.
She stood there a moment, the touch of his hand lingering on her skin. Then she left the room. There were orders to be given, an army to be readied. Channelers must gather to defend the border, to fight the Dreadlords that must come. But she would not be among them.
The statue linked to the greatest of female sa’angreal, he had said. And no doubt he had the male one now. But two were better than one.
And she, too, knew how to make a gateway.
A storm raged in his eyes. Black they were, no longer specks but a solid darkness hiding iris and white alike.
The watcher. That was how he had thought of himself for a long time now; for the years that he had spent, watching, waiting. But now, as he still watched, the name he had once held rose to his thoughts.
Elan Morin Tedronai.
But no, that was not it either. That name he had left behind long ago. It was another that he held now, one that they had called him in anger but he had accepted in pride.
Betrayer of Hope.
Hope was the last refuge of fools. He had something far better; the certainty of victory.
And as he continued to watch, he laughed, for from his place on the dark slopes he saw a gateway open and a man, tiny from this distance, step through it. Distance or no, he recognised the figure – and even had he not, here, now, there was only one man it might be.
Though you wear a different face, Lews Therin, still you are no less foolhardy than you were when last you walked the world. So this is the moment you have chosen for your battle. Alas, you will never reach it.
The One Power was misnamed, for there was another, one that only he of all alive today could wield. Now he reached for it, readied weaves of black flame. Once before you were careless, and I let you live to hope. It was not yet time. Now it is time, Lews Therin, and that pretty statue you hold will not save you when the Shadow strikes from behind!
The weaves were ready, but sudden shock made him let go of them. His skin began tingling.
What? Who is it who dares? The blackness in his eyes kindled into flame. No other should be here. Only he, and I, and the Great Lord of the Dark. That is how it must go!
Even as he whirled around, the gateway that had opened narrowed again into a slit and vanished, leaving behind a lone figure only a few paces from him.
She glared at him, face pale yet determined. Her dark eyes held fear, but they also held fierceness. And she had the second ter’angreal in her hands.
“You, foolish girl. What do you think you can do here?” He was enraged, not afraid. She had no right to be here, in this place, in this time! His eyes blazed. “Do you imagine it was any more than a fluke you captured Lanfear? Do you think the Dragon’s love makes you immortal? His family found out otherwise, in that last life! He glared at her contemptuously. “Are you truly foolish enough to think you can win this battle on his behalf?”
A shudder ran through her body. She took a step back. Another. The ter’angreal seemed almost forgotten, buried by the fear she must feel standing at Shayol Ghul. He reached for the black flames again, this time to burn her.
But all of a sudden her head came up, eyes flashing. Her voice, when she spoke, was astonishingly calm.
“No, Betrayer of Hope. But I can win this one!”
Her hands rose. The crystal sphere began to glow. Molten light shot from them as the tingling returned, stronger than ever. But only for a moment.
Balefire swallowed him.
A man walked over the black rocks of Shayol Ghul.
Was he Davian, or was he Lews Therin? Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. There were other memories there, other voices, other identities. It was not important at this moment.
He was the Dragon. That was all that mattered.
Every step fell with the sound of doom. But light blazed to the side of his vision, and he turned. High above him, a slender woman staggered back, the glow in her hands dimming. A shadowy figure seemed to hang in the air for less than a heartbeat before the light vanished, and he with it.
“Sharia!” For a moment the other identities dropped away, and he was Davian only. “Sharia, go back! You should not be here!”
She swayed, catching her balance. He could not tell whether she heard him or not.
“Sharia! Go back!” But he was the Dragon again, and there was no time to make sure she obeyed. He moved on, toward the great gap that opened into the mountain. She had eliminated Ishamael, at least; that was one less danger he had to face.
The rock arched high over him as he entered, his enemy welcoming him in. It was a short walk. I remember this place, and it was Lews Therin now who thought these words as the unearthly skies blazed above him. Once before I came here, and I and the world paid a great price. What price now must be paid?
The voice echoed like thunder, around him and in his mind.
SO YOU COME AT LAST. WELCOME, DRAGON.
“I come to defeat you.”
The thunder became laughter. A THOUSAND TIMES WE HAVE PLAYED THIS OUT, DRAGON. I KNOW YOU HAVE THE SEALS. BREAK THEM. THEN WE SHALL SEE HOW THE STORY GOES THIS TIME.
“So we shall,” he said softly, and reached into his belt pouch. Seven discs marked with a sinuous line, half black, half white. They were solid cuendillar; unbreakable, so all the stories said.
He flung the first one to the rocks beneath, and watched it shatter. The Dark One’s laughter echoed around him.
Am I mad, to do this? But he knew he was not. Before a new wall could be built, the rubble of the old must be cleared.
He threw them one by one, leaving the shards to lie on the ground. There was only one left, now; he held it in his hand for a moment, then hurled it down.
And at the same time, he reached for the True Source. Saidin raced through him, fierce, exhilarating, pure.
“Now we shall see.”
SO WE SHALL, DRAGON. He almost thought he heard a note of approval in the thunder. YOU KNOW THE MOVE ON WHICH THIS TURNS. JOIN ME.
“I will never join you.”
NO? THINK AGAIN.
A woman appeared before him, standing it seemed in mid-air above the broken seals. Hair golden as the dawn framed a face sweet as spring; her eyes were warm and blue as a summer sky. Laughter curved her mouth as she held one hand out to him.
Ilyena! Lews Therin whispered.
WOULD YOU HAVE YOUR LOVE RETURNED TO YOU, DRAGON? THE DEAD ARE MINE, TO DO WITH AS I PLEASE.
“But she is not dead.” It was an effort, but he spoke evenly. “She is reborn into the world, and you have no control over her. It is not her semblance I love, but her.”
YOU KNOW MUCH, BUT NOT ENOUGH. ONCE MORE – THINK AGAIN.
The woman’s hair darkened, her eyes became pools of shadow. Her features shifted, changed. Sharia! Davian cried out.
SHE STANDS ON SHAYOL GHUL, DRAGON. SHE IS MINE!
Sharia, why did you stay? Had she lingered thinking to help him, or had she meant to leave but been trapped? It did not matter. She was here; that had been no lie. Whatever her motives, she was now a pawn in the Dark One’s game.
I CAN STRIKE HER DEAD WHERE SHE STANDS, DRAGON. Triumph sounded in the voice, modulating into persuasion. OR I CAN BRING HER SAFELY TO YOUR SIDE. KNEEL TO ME ONCE, AND THE WORLD IS AT YOUR FEET. RULE IT AS YOU WILL, FOR ALL I WISH IS FREEDOM.
Could that be true? It was a dazzling vision that opened up before him; with unlimited power he could end war, end poverty, make of the world a new Age of Legends. Gardens would bloom where prisons now stood; the meanest city could boast streets of marble and silver. And Sharia would rule openly by his side, love and lover through all the Ages…
It will never be so, Lews Therin said sadly.
The vision shattered.
There will always be suffering. It is the price we pay for being free. But under the Shadow’s yoke, the suffering will be infinitely greater.
I do not so soon forget the Collapse.
Now his vision reformed itself, clearer and truer beneath the bright dreams. The shadows in every human mind would grow, nourished by the Dark One’s touch. In a world outwardly beautiful, inward ugliness would fester. Far from a paradise, it would be a golden cage in which the last remnants of goodness would stifle.
And Sharia would come to hate him for what he had made of the world, and he would curse her for being the cause of his betrayal…
Far better death than that.
“I will never join you.”
BUT YOU SHALL, DRAGON. All hint of persuasion had gone from the voice. OF YOUR OWN WILL OR OTHERWISE!
He staggered as the Shadow slammed at his mind. Pain lashed at him from every side.
YIELD, DRAGON! The thunder almost overwhelmed him with its sheer force; his will shivered, seemed to crack. KNEEL AND YIELD TO ME!
So easy, it would be to give up…From somewhere, he knew not where, he managed to find strength to force the words from his mouth.
“I will not.”
It was barely a whisper, so hoarse and croaking that he barely recognised his own voice. But the pressure ceased on the instant. From all around him came a long, wordless howl of rage and despair.
It is not done yet…some voice deep in his mind warned. He knew what must now be done. Reaching through the statue he still held – and through it the great sa’angreal that lay buried in the earth – he drew deeply on pure, untainted saidin.
To weave a ward that none may break…He chose flows by instinct, brought them together. Not truly knowing what he did, he wove threads of the Power into forms finer and yet stronger than ever before. He seemed to float above the mountain, looking down into its heart. A prison that none may escape…
But there were holes in the pattern. Despite his efforts, it was incomplete.
Half of the whole – Even as he thought it, flows began to fill the gaps left by his weaving; another mind hovered near his, one that he recognised. Sharia? a part of his thought wondered, stunned. Another part laughed, joyous. Well, who better?
Two minds as one, they wove. Neither truly understood what it was they did or how they did it, but something deep inside them did, and the light blazed gloriously around them, and they were content.
It seemed an eternity. It seemed an instant. But at some point in time, there was nothing left to weave.
It is done! Lews Therin exulted. Unconsciousness swallowed them both.
It was the touch of the sun that woke him.
How can it be…? But a soft golden light shimmered beyond his closed eyelids, and a ray of warmth lay on his face. Davian opened his eyes, and looked around him with wonder.
The sky was blue. The air was sweet. And what had been barren rock had blossomed. All around for as far as he could see, wildflowers grew. He breathed in their scents.
Lews Therin, how is this possible? But there was no answer. Only, now that he thought about it, a faint memory of his other self’s voice in the moments before losing consciousness.
It is done at last, and I can rest.
He rose to his feet, and walked through the flowers to what had been a tunnel of black rock and was now a tangle of roses. Pushing them aside, he stepped through into a flower-filled vale.
Was this once Thakan’dar? It was beyond belief. If I do not dream – if all this is true – then the Dark One must truly be banished. And what now is the state of the world?
He saw her before she saw him, standing with her arms full of flowers, gazing around her with as much wonder and bemusement as he had surely shown before. His heart, all of a sudden, felt light as a feather.
She turned, blossoms showering from her arms, the wind lifting her hair. “Davian,” she called, laughing. “Davian!”
Spring had come to Shayol Ghul. And all the world was new.
She walked in the gardens.
Snow lay thick on the ground, yet a few flowers still bloomed in sheltered corners; gardeners still tended the dormant plants. Even in this, the heart of winter, the gardens of Tar Valon were famed for their beauty. But her destination today was a wilder, more solitary part of the grounds.
The oaks were bare, now, and no leaves rustled beneath her feet. The gravestones stood, rising from the snow, in their stately ranks. One, off to the side of the valley, drew her gaze, and for a moment pale sunlight seemed to illuminate the single engraved word.
“What need for more?” she said softly. “The world will speak your name for centuries.” She had thought once, if only for moments, that they would speak it in a different context. False Dragon was enough for renown, but renown, she knew, was never what he had wanted. And she had dreamed…
“Were your dreams the same as mine?” she said aloud. She crossed the valley to stand, looking down at the stone. “I dreamed that you stood steadfast at Shayol Ghul, and you and I wove a barrier to imprison the Dark One for Ages to come. And among the black rocks flowers bloomed.”
Snow began to fall, drifting down like feathers. She lifted her head, gazing across to a corner shadowed by trees. “Once I thought I loved; but that love seems now a dream, and it is the dreams that seem real. A second time I loved…” Her eyes fell again to the stone at her feet, and her voice became softer still, so that even a nearby listener would have strained to hear. “If I know nothing else, that I know was no dream.”
No dream. Her words seemed to echo in the lonely valley. No dream?
Sharia turned from the graves. Slowly she walked away, walked back to the Tower.
The snow continued to fall.
And that brings us to the end of The Paths Of If. There will be no more sequels. In this world or another, the Sharia and Davian story has reached its natural end, and I have no intention of ruining it by dragging it out further.
This story presents one possible way for the Last Battle to go. Let me hasten to say it is not the way I think Jordan will write it. For one, I'm sure Rand will have a whole lot more suffering to go through, including possible temporary death, than Davian did; Jordan's a better writer than me and he can afford to do that. Plus, he has a lot more space to write in. But I wanted a happy ending - in that world at least - and remembering when spring came to Tarwin's Gap after Rand fought Ishamael there, I thought there couldn't be a better symbol of new life than flowers blooming at Shayol Ghul.
And for those of you who wanted a happy ending in this world - sorry. That was never my intention. Even if I could twist the plot into one, it would spoil the whole story.
You may be wondering about several questions the story leaves hanging. Like, what happened to the Shadow's armies when the Dark One was imprisoned? Is the world set for a new Age of Legends? Even now, can Davian and Sharia get away with making their relationship public? Is Sharia really Ilyena reborn or was Lews Therin deluding himself?
Only the Creator knows. And she's not telling!