“You are not Aiel.” The speaker was a woman clad in brown skirts and a white blouse, the glint of gold showing between strand upon strand of ivory beads encircling her neck. She had a shawl, too, though how she could stand to wear so many layers under the boiling sun, Dax couldn’t begin to imagine. Her hair was nearly white, though not from age, hanging preternaturally straight around a face far too young for the authority in her voice. So she can channel. He doubted she knew he was aware of that fact...and also doubted it would do him a single bit of good.
There were three other Wise Ones, all of them watching him where he stood, all of them taller than he. A spear pressed against his throat, its wielder staring at him with ice-blue eyes. Jein and several other Maidens had brought him here after confronting him some hours east of the Dragonwall. They had all clearly been amused by his persistence and curious about his mission. Given the stories he had heard about wetlanders being killed on sight or left to die of thirst, he was thankful for their odd humor.
“I am not,” Dax admitted. The Wise Ones were nameless still, but he didn’t need their names...not yet. “I was born in Tear.” He supposed others might have spoken more eloquently, but saw no reason to do so himself. The likelihood of them caring for anything beyond bare minimum seemed small.
“How do you know of Rhuidean, wetlander?” That Wise One had pale green eyes framed by nearly invisible lashes, and fiery red hair; the combination reminded him painfully of Elia, although she resembled his lover in no other way. He thought the Aielwoman might be able to crush rocks with her bare hands.
“I am Gaidin,” he responded slowly, “and in my service to Aes Sedai I have heard of many things.” Her eyes widened ever so slightly and Dax hid his smile. “My Aes Sedai poses no concern for you, Wise Ones. I am not from here.”
“What do you mean, ‘here’?” If she was offended by the implication that an Aes Sedai could be a threat, the older woman showed no sign.
Dax sighed, tugging at the cuffs of his shirt. He wished he had his bracers. “Are you aware there are many worlds contained within the Pattern?” He asked. It had been difficult to understand them, but the snakes had explained the phenomenon...a little. Without his memory of both Katrie and Elia’s curiosity, it would have been well beyond his ability to grasp even as little as he did. “There are hundreds of others, thousands even. The world you live in is one, while the world I live in...is another.”
They were staring at him, eyes cool and disbelieving. After an extended silence, Dax continued. “An enemy sent me here. I don’t know why.” He hadn’t asked the snake people for an explanation so he would never know for sure unless he found that bloody Aes Sedai again. However, given what the things had told him about Elia, it had not been difficult to come to his own conclusions.
“I don’t belong here, and I want to go home. In my search for a way, I went through a redstone door in Tear, one fabled to answer questions for visitors.” The blonde tensed. It was so minute he would have missed it if not for a lifetime of training. She knows something. That was far more interesting than anything he’d seen so far. What would a Wise One know of a ter’angreal in Tear? How could she know?
One way to find out, really. He glanced at the Maiden, then nodded to the ground. “May I?” After a moment of hesitation she nodded and withdrew the spear; he crouched, and drew with one hand in the sand. “It looked like this.” He couldn’t capture the redstone, but he could show the distinctive way the frame had twisted. “The people there told me in order to get home, I must go to Rhuidean.”
Still they stared in silence, lips pursed and eyes distant, though the blonde woman looked thoughtful. The Tairen could feel the others withdrawing, choosing to disbelieve. He licked his lips, offered a silent prayer to luck and insanity, and made the verbal gamble of a lifetime. “In my world, Terric of the Nakai Aiel is Gaidin with me and we fought side by side to defend our Tower for many years. He’s a good, honorable man in my experience, but he has abandoned his people for good. In your world I suspect he spends his days catching thieves and his evenings eating sweets from his first-mother. He and Rhiale might be married...hard to say, really.”
A clatter of ivory and metal mixed with the rustle of rough fabric and soft whispers as the Wise Ones turned to murmur to each other. Jein felt no such need for conference; her spear jabbed into the ground between his legs as she leaned forward to stare at him. “Where did you learn these things, Dakson Torellion?” Not for the first time in the last few days, he regretted giving Jein his full name.
“I am from a different world,” he repeated, unable to keep the tired frustration from his voice any longer. “What more can I do to prove it to you? I just want to go home,” he said softly, “to the people I love and the places I know.”
The Wise Ones turned back. “We hear your story, but it is not permitted,” the redhead told him. “You have no Aiel blood.”Dax closed his eyes and blew a long breath out through pursed lips. He could not give up. This was not the end! Not now...not this close.
“I have heard stories of the Aiel accepting newcomers to their number,” he said slowly as he pushed himself to his feet. Even standing his eyes were on level with their chins, but he felt better even so. “Hundreds of years ago, perhaps even thousands, but it has been done.” Thank you Katrie. That was one story he had not personally read, but it had certainly fascinated his former wife. And then, of course, there was Ravak with his tattoos...surely that had to mean something. “However, all I want is to visit the city. If I prove my worth against the spears of your choice, would that be sufficient to grant me entry?”
The Maiden chuckled as if he had made a great joke, but otherwise did not speak. The Wise Ones glanced at each other, no trace of humor on their faces. “It is not permit-” the woman began again, but the blonde lifted her hand.
“I will allow it,” she said firmly. The others frowned, but after a long pause in which Dax thought he might actually sweat the entirety of Lake Sohal through his cloak, the others all nodded slow agreement.
Dax suspected the journey to Rhuidean from the camp the Wise Ones took him to would have been brutal even if he hadn’t been aching and bruised from fighting for the privilege to make it. He remembered little of that battle beyond the initial encounter. The shadows in his mind laid claim at the first direct hit, rage carrying him through what Jein claimed were impossible odds for a wetlander.
”I’m not a typical wetlander,” Dax remembered telling her. When he rolled up his sleeves to wash the blood from his face the Maiden had seen the ink on his wrists for the first time. She had laughed, pointing to the herons and making some odd gestures with her hands as she turned to the other Maidens. They had laughed as well, then scattered without another word spoken, much to his mystified surprise.
Now he was alone with his thoughts and his wounds, walking down a hill toward a bank of fog taller than the Grey Tower itself. He watched it curiously as he moved nearer. The cloud was heavy and dark, constantly moving, yet remained in place despite the light wind that had sprung up an hour prior.
Eventually Dax topped a small rise and found that the fog cut a line through the sand like a wall. He stepped closer, closer still, until he could reach out and hover a hand inches from the roiling cloud. He pushed his hand forward, half expecting it to rebound, but it passed through easily; when he pulled it out, a slight damp feeling followed, but it quickly dissipated in the sun. “Strange.” Of all the things to give him pause in this world, a wall of mist seemed a ridiculous candidate, and yet the Tairen hesitated, licking his lips and considering his options, until the sand beneath his feet finally grew so hot he could no longer stand still. He squeezed his eyes shut, built an image of Tomas and Thea and Elia behind his eyelids, and forced himself forward.
When he opened his eyes again, it was to find himself inside a vast dome, its blue-ish surface comprised of that same queasy-looking moving mist. He turned on his heel to stare at it. How many channelers did it take to build this thing? How do they maintain it? Those were questions for Elia, assuming he ever had reason to ask. For now…
His gaze wandered, taking in the structures surrounding him. The Wise Ones had given him no instructions beyond telling him he could have no food or water--and Light, he regretted not drinking his fill before he left, now--and thus the Tairen had no idea what he was supposed to do next. After several more moments of hesitation, he willed his feet forward. Whatever he was supposed to do here it would become apparent eventually.
Easy to have hope when my options are have hope or die, he thought somewhat morbidly as he explored the wide avenues and enormous, unfinished structures that lined them. It was beautiful, yet haunting; it reminded him a little of Hama Valon after the Seanchan attacked...if construction had been forced to stop midway. I wonder how many have come here to die? He hadn’t seen any evidence of such, yet, but he had difficulty finding comfort in that fact.
Slowly the Gaidin’s feet carried him inward. At first he sang tavern songs to pass the time, but then his dry throat protested the abuse and he proceeded in silence. Eventually he rounded a corner and found himself staring into a plaza the likes of which he had never seen before. His eyes skipped from columns to statues to strangely shaped sculptures...item to odd item, thousands of them, spread out like a child’s overturned toy box.
Near the center was a tree larger than most Dax had ever seen, its limbs reaching up to the dome above as if its trefoil leaves could feel the sun despite the block. He wanted to go to it, but the tree seemed out of bounds to him, cordoned off by a wall of his own mistakes and lies, and the blood on his hands. Others might deserve to spend time with the Tree of Life, but Dax? No. Dax could never claim such a right. Lips twitching up in a crooked smile, the Gaidin bowed to Avendesora every bit as respectfully as he ever had to a human, and turned away.
He wished it didn't hurt so much.
On his third circuit of the plaza, he found what he needed. He had been staring at a figure of a woman in a flowing dress that he was absolutely certain Elia would like, but when he finally ripped his eyes away and looked around, they landed on a redstone doorway, its frame twisted so the eye could not follow from point to point. It stood there, silently taunting the Tairen, until he crossed the intervening space to examine it more closely.
“I already talked to the snake people,” Dax told the door conversationally. “They answered my questions. If I needed more questions answered, why wouldn’t they just grant me three more, or tell me to re-enter the door in Tear?” He touched the frame cautiously, running callused fingers along the triangles that framed the door in rows of three. That’s different, isn’t it? He couldn’t remember, but it hardly seemed important. The Tairen argued with himself until he could think of nothing further to say. Considering all he had been through to get there, it seemed absurd to stop then, no matter how strange it seemed to go back in.
He sighed, shrugged, and took a step into blinding light and resonant sound.