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Homeward Bound
#21
A noise disrupted their peaceful snowfall. The three men turned sharp attentions its way, but it was Jai who broke the stillness.
"Let's go."

The others agreed. They made good time back to the main street after that. The footprints would be a track, but the three Dru leveled wouldn't follow. Not after the truth of who was hunting whom punched them in the head. They'd never own to being ambushed and downed by one homeless vagrant. Not three to one.

"You were waiting for them? What's going on?"
Jai said. He and Araya shared curious looks about the time they hit the main thoroughfare. There were a few other travelers out and about. Shapes of hooded men on horseback journeyed south. Dark lines unfilled yet with snow crisscrossed the road: tracks from recent wheels. There were still some lights overhead, but Jai didn't need rows of dark windows to know it was getting late. He stifled a yawn, pumped some blood through his hands, and ignored the hunger curling his stomach. He needed to stay clear headed to keep the map in his head of where they were. It was force of habit more than anything, but the counting of their footfalls dulled to a vague noise in the back of his head as they turned north. It was a lot to juggle at once, and he wasn't exactly at his sharpest.

"Yeah,"
Andreu replied. Snowflakes were collecting in his brother's beard. He didn't look over, but he seemed to consider his next words carefully. "Look, Jai. Something's going on with the company. Something big. We have a leech, someone sucking fumes off the accounts and selling the information. I've spent the last month looking for them."


Jai felt his entire body go numb, but he managed to keep his face calm. Yet Andreu still sensed his brother's tension and went on before Jai interrupted. Those two dark eyes may be rimmed by hair, but they struck a man's center when they wanted to. Right then, one look was all it took to manage Jai's silence.

Andreu went on, explaining quietly, yet not too concerned if Araya overheard. In fact, he glanced at the quiet Asha'man every few words as though he were included in the conversation.
"Best way to find the leech is to find the buyer. This last month has been hottest. It started when we found one of our off-duty guards with a slit throat. I'm told it was quite the pay off to cover that up."


Jai frowned. Their guards were mercenaries, paid as well as they were trained. Arman Kojima's philosophy was an investment in quality was an investment in the future, but Zakar believed differently than their father: that the fear of the Light was the better motive. Yet his version of the Light tended to be bent harder than most would agree was the accurate reflection of moral fortitude.

"Then we find a forgery in our records. Someone made a copy, and two days later, the original files are returned. So what happened to the copy?"
Dru asked.

Jai's chest tightened. "The records. They were White Tower account-holders weren't they?"
He'd held those papers in his hands. Not two weeks ago, from the stash hidden in Winther's false floorboards. Ellis was the man in Caemlyn pimping the sells, but he never found out the accomplice in Tar Valon. Even with an Asha'man turning the spotlight - a literal flesh-sizzling sort of light - on the man, Ellis maintained his silence. Whoever it was, he was too frightened of them to betray them, more so than he feared torture from an Asha'man, which was quite a lot. But by Andreu's account, the list of possibilities was short. Few men wielded the keys to those strongrooms.

Andreu suddenly looked over, nodding. "Yes. Days later, a Darkfriend cobbles some waif of an Accepted around the corner from our building, and he's led off to the White Tower in shackles. I checked him out, Jai. The guy's a real winner, and has a name for himself out here. And often muttered in the same breath as one of our clerks as a decent tag team. Turns out, they've pulled jobs together before. Both were ran out of Cairhien and Arad Doman after nearly being caught."


This sounded painfully familiar. Yet Jai kept walking. The snow kept sticking to his coat and the droplets hit his cheeks. He stared straight ahead, thinking, sorting through the mess of men he couldn't calculate as easily as every other pattern. Someone on the inside was selling off account information. That the mugger, Graham, had a buddy working the bank would be a fortunate coincidence, as Zakar alleged, and easy to pinpoint as the traitor. Yet the mastermind had to be someone higher up than a generic clerk. Which explained Zakar's accusations against Jai. The day Zakar summoned a row of crossbolts to stare down his piehole. The idiot.

Andreu went on. "Both men disappear. I figure Zakar reached the same conclusion I did, and while there were still discrepancies, I was about to drop it all. Until I hear Zak spends an hour speaking with an Accepted of the White Tower in his office. An Accepted with a sudden fortune opening a new account,"
Andreu said, thoughtful.

The disappearances sounded right. In fact, when Jai left Ellis tied up in the lobby, he was counting on it. Zakar took care of business when it needed tended, and everyone involved was best to not inquire after the details. But as Jai was processing everything as Andreu continued, the rest of it finally sank in. Slow as sand. Sure as time, Jai felt like he was choking on every single grain. Nythadri. The Accepted with a sudden new fortune. A new fortune that Jai forced Ellis to donate to her family.

She went to Zak?

Why? The fortune. She deposited her end of Ellis' donation with Zak. He spent an hour with her, alone, in his office. That looked bad. She met him. She knew his family. She saw the portraits. That was it then. Everything Jai wanted to drown, to keep beneath the surface, she was swimming in it.

A pit in his stomach formed. Not just from the lack of food. It was hearing the draw of a bow right behind your back and the hollow feeling of knowing who held it. He fell quiet. Thoughtless. The clop of horsehooves sounded in the distance. The whisper of snowfall hit his shoulders, and Jai realized they were gathering on his eyelashes. Yet on he stared. Unmoving but for the slow rise and fall of his chest, the appearance and disappearance of cold mist in front of his face as he breathed.

"You've been gone a month. How did you know all this has happened?"
Jai asked quietly. He couldn't bring himself to look his brother in the eye.

"Zakar isn't the only one to keep tabs on everyone else, Jai."
Dru said. Intent, wary.

His insides twisted, and he rubbed exhausted eyes.

Zak accused Jai. Andreu suspected Zak.

And Andreu was right. It was Zakar all along. He was setting up others to take the fall so he could continue feeding Caemlyn illegal documents. He was the accomplice. Ellis was Zakar's bloody prodigy!

It all made sense, except why. If why even mattered.

He set his jaw, and swallowed the lump in his throat. Andreu was watching closely. Araya looked concerned. His family was about to tear itself apart. If Dru learned the truth, he would destroy Zakar. Who in turn had his ruthless retaliation at the ready: Jai, who wouldn't be around to defend himself. The crossfire would destroy their father. Their mother wouldn't understand why the half-finished portrait of her youngest son was banished from the wall. They would fare no better if Andreu succeeded in discovering the truth. Zakar had kids. Adorable ones. His youngest sat on Jai's knee that first night at dinner. The company would suffer. The Board would vote no confidence in ownership and the entire family's legacy, everything Asad built from the ruins of his soiled honor sacrificed in the name of love and the security of their future in Tar Valon would fall to ashes. Their name was going to rot as sure as a body in the field.

"It wasn't Zakar. You can stop the witchhunt."
Jai said. He drew his shoulders back and stared his older brother dead in the eye. "It was me."


Jai pulled his hands from his pockets and took a step forward. Dru took one step away. And Jai went on. "Zak figured it out and came for me, but the idiot really did forget what this means."
He held out his arms, showing himself off. A vessel, a man who could channel. That was all which remained behind Jai's numb eyes.

"You're lying kid. You've been gone. Why are you trying to protect him, and where is that bloody sword?"
Dru held his ground as the asha'man advanced, but he was growing wary.

"Go back, Andreu. Last week you'll learn Aharon Ellis showed up inside the lobby while the doors were guarded. That was an Asha'man's doing."
The words stuck in his throat as Dru's disbelief slowly turned into horror. He was buying it.

"I really can channel Dru."
Jai hesitated likely long enough for Araya to pick up on it. "And I really am different."
Channeling was a risk at that moment, but he had to prove something. The one thing he avoided like the plague, to channel in front of his family. 'What does an Asha'man actually do anyway?'

The flakes of snow around the three men suddenly began to slow their fall. They swirled first lopsided, like a pendulum, then in random directions, up and down like a child puffing at bubbles. Yet the air continued to grow wilder, and the hem of his coat began to stir in the breeze. Dru glanced around him, but Jai was not done finishing his point. The disturbance in the air grew warmer then, and the dust on their clothes melted first, accelerated by body heat. Then the flakes themselves curled and sizzled, water flicked into a fire. It was draining, holding one easy vial of saidin. Like holding himself upside down as his arms turned to liquid, but he held onto it, and pulled on more of the Power.

Then the flakes stopped and the air itself cracked. An invisible ripple of heat quaked around them. In the sudden blast a dome of snowless space vaporized the crystals first to water then to steam then nothing at all. The white blanketing the street turned dry as stone, Jai at its epicenter. The warm radius circled around him. It wasn't dangerous, but it was dramatic. The warmth could have continued to grow, that dome might have been more. It was a demonstration of potential, of what he could do, that touched on men's fears far more impressive than actually forcing their flesh into a furnace. The globes of Jai's eyes turned toward Araya. Warning him to remain silent as the snow returned to its normal freefall once more.

Breathing nearly tore out his lungs as he released the Power, and he was a little relieved he'd survived. An hour ago moving around furniture nearly ripped him apart.

Andreu was staring, but quiet. "Go back Dru. Go hug your wife and sleep in your own bed tonight. The company's in good hands now I'm done with it."


He turned away from the brother he loved, and closed his eyes. They were hot with emotion, but the Oneness kept the ache from his throat. "I am done with everyone. I melted the sword myself. Now none of us can have it. And you won't be seeing me again."


"Jai!"
Andreu said. Horror, disgust. The sounds in his brother's voice made him want to collapse. But it was the disbelief that most shook his conviction yet onto it he held. If the Black Tower did anything, it reminded him that he was Asha'man only. Nothing else mattered.

Andreu touched him on the shoulder, but Jai spun with a ready fist and his brother fell to the ground, face bleeding, looking shocked. This time, as Jai walked away Andreu didn't follow.

He paused by Araya. "Do yourself a favor. Stop trying to help me."
The image of Araya hefting him to his feet hit. Araya had done so much, Jai would never be able to repay him. The aid Jai didn't request did something, though. It gave him the ability to save what he cared for most. Though Araya knew the truth, of the punishment, of the sword, of his guilt, if there was one last favor Araya could grant, it would be to let Jai save his family's innocence. He was already damned anyway. For that chance, Jai would beg if he had to.

He left them alone. The snowflakes soothed his knuckles as he strode toward the pillar looming in the north. The White Tower. There was one more person to save.

Only darkness shows you the light.


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#22
When Jai reflected the question back, Araya shrugged and picked a direction. He didn’t know Tar Valon as well as the other man assumed - at least not enough to be any authority on decent drinking holes – but in the Shining City he supposed it didn’t really matter, and the first door that led them out of the drifting snow was fine by him. He brushed the ice-melt from his shoulders, ruffled his hair and smiled broadly at any who chose to shoot respectful welcomes in the direction of the two Asha’man. He’d never been here before – had not even taken care to squint at the sign above the door on their way in – but he was at home in the flickering warmth and amiability. Jai seemed confused by it, or maybe he was still tense from earlier. Either way Araya only shrugged. What kind of welcome had he expected?

Taverns were hardly tinker wagons, but there was a reminiscence he appreciated; the camaraderie of people brought together by something other than blood. Well, for the most part. They were not always nice places, or even always inclusive places, but this one seemed pleasant enough. The music, the fire, the friendly greetings; all important ingredients to a mellow night, or at least an unconfrontational one. He was happy to join the card game, though proved to lack a competitive edge. And luck. Which was fine by Araya; by the effervescent grin, he seemed to be enjoying himself regardless, if the company was rather more sober than he would have preferred. These men were more preoccupied with their cards than conversation, which left Araya more often than not humming a tuneless rasp to whatever was being played in the corner – blissful unaware of any of the undercurrents.

Sometime later, the bearded guy’s departure shifted something in Jai’s concentration; he seemed needlessly bothered by it. Araya didn’t hide the contemplative frown that knit his brow in response, and he watched as Jai twisted in his chair – not just with a swivel of eyes but with a full raise of his head. It was no subtle look; Araya was unusually open in that regard, despite spending so much time in a city of masks. The concern was evident. There was no warning, though; no suggestion that Jai should think about his actions before he acted. But he was watching; waiting for the conclusion of Jai’s initial reaction.

When Jai left, Araya sighed. He stood, laying his cards flat on the table. Was there protocol for this sort of thing among strangers? He didn’t know, supposed he didn’t really care, grinned, and left after the Asha’man. There was a brief pause before they slipped out into the alleyway. Jai explained himself like he was afraid Araya might try to stop him. Or judge him. Which might have been wise, given the fresh scar of punishment metered out for interfering in matters of no concern to an Asha’man. A sensible man would have taken the opportunity to remind him of that point – certainly the rationalisation must be going through his head if he so tentatively offered his intentions as a question. Though if he was instead testing the boundaries of Araya’s authority, there was nothing upon which to find purchase. Misgivings aside, Araya chose trust.

In the alley there were bodies. Such casually strewn violence lurched Araya’s stomach, but he barely had time to acknowledge the disgust. Instinct exploded reaction and in almost the same moment pain jarred the length of his arm. Saidin roared a vehement response, like searing white heat as it ripped free from its confines. Wrenching it to silent submission was harder than allowing ready threads to whip out in retaliation. Restraint versus intuition. Every beat of training urged an Asha’man to take an assailant down, and training was all an Asha’man had when taken by surprise. But Araya’s will was iron, even as his balance wavered and he fell. The control might have saved the guy’s life. In other circumstances, it might have cost Araya his. That was the compromise he had chosen to live with, though, and a dent to dignity hardly registered despite the fearsome weapon he was supposed to be. Araya was back upright by the time the fight had come to fists. Saidin was screaming at him. Every prickle of snow felt like the tips of blades driving him forward. He wouldn’t intervene unless he had to, and only came close to doing so when Jai held the sword to the man’s chest. But the moment unravelled before the brink upon which Araya would have been forced to act.

When the man spoke; when he used Jai’s name, Araya loosened his grip on Saidin, shuddered as the world blinked a little darker, and stuffed his hands in his pockets. Unblinking eyes followed the conversation, but he did not interrupt – if he did watch Jai closely at such casual mention of a missing sword. There was no discernible reaction, though, not so far as Araya was aware, and he did not dwell on the matter. Nor did he dwell on listening to the brief buzz of conversation, gaze instead falling down to his arm. It didn’t feel broken, which was good, but he expected an impressive bruise. Pain flared with the reminder. Still, better his arm than his head. Might not have gotten up from that one. Distracted, his eyes flicked up at the introductions. He didn’t correct the lack of surname, since that in fact was correct, and offered a smiled greeting for the as yet nameless but apparently friendly stranger. Not quite the wide grin of earlier, but neither standoffish.

Brother. Huh. Though since Jai actually seemed pretty happy to see Andreu despite earlier fears of running into his family, Araya chose not to linger on it. A man wasn’t meant to be an island, and it might even prove a fortunate coincidence. Maybe. Men reacted different ways when faced with a past that had existed before saidin. Tension that had eased when the two men had hugged slowly began to build again, unappeased by the lingering air of violence; Andreu had clearly known who Jai was even if the recognition hadn’t been mutual, and he had attacked indiscriminately anyway. It bothered him. After all these years and all the atrocities he had seen (and not just seen, but committed) it still bothered him. The weight of it sank heavy when it registered, but he ignored it with the same tenacity that shrugged off the temperature. You couldn't help everybody.

The three bodies they left in the snow dampened his curiosity somewhat; he wasn’t sure he wanted to hear what was going on. Still, he listened as they walked, asking no questions and understanding little and less of what he heard. Mention of the White Tower rung in his ears, so he had some idea of the gravity of the situation, but the Light knew he would not be getting involved by even trying to tie it all together into a picture that made a sort of sense. He didn’t even want to hear this much talk of conspiracy. Then the voices grew tighter, and Araya’s unease increased. Sensing saidin forced an instinctual grasp of his own, though he did nothing with it, just watched Jai channeling and slowly began to comprehend the wheels in motion. After a moment he turned his gaze away, unwilling to wtiness this severence of family ties. He could guess what as coming, if not the explosiveness with which the next moments played out.

He recognised the lie about the sword, but kept his lips shut. No such censorship blanked his expression, though since Andreu was staring at Jai it hardly mattered. If this was Jai’s version of closure, Araya didn’t understand it. When Araya had become a weapon, his family had ceased acknowledging him as one of them. No hostility, of course, but the bonds between them had shattered the moment the flame had resonated. Behind the polite smiles he’d lost everyone he’d ever held dear; he'd become a stranger. The formality had hurt more than simple rejection, and though he had come to terms with it, it was not a gift he liked to see wasted. Jai had something Araya could never have, and he squandered it with a brutality that seemed strangely self-sacrificial. Or maybe just masochistic. He didn’t understand it. He didn’t understand it at all.

The viciousness of the single punch made him flinch, and Araya came the closest yet to embracing the rarity of anger. His brows dropped deep over his eyes, every trace of mirth lost to something strangely aged. Of everything that had happened since he’d met Jai, it was that single blow which shuddered his impression of his fellow Asha’man. Not drunken antics nor grave reasons for punishment. Not questionable decisions nor an apparently fluctuating control. Just the punch. “Do yourself a favour, brother, and stop being an idiot.”
He didn't chase the figure into the swirling snow, could not even be sure if the low rasp of his voice even carried far enough to reach Jai's ears as he left. To Andreu he offered a hand up, though he wasn't even sure the man would accept it - fear of a channeler or the all-inclusive paranoia of a man who only drank from his own flask. There ere no consolations or explanations, though; there was nothing to say.
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#23
Ten minutes out of sight, Jai found a step and collapsed on it.  He put his head in his hands and sat there collecting snow for Light knew how long.  He wanted to vomit.  Or scream.  Or blow something up.  Really could have gone with that last one, but that little stunt with the snow was all Jai was likely to wring from his bones for a while.  Unless he was ready to drop dead afterward.  Which, as it didn't seem like the Last Battle was going to split the streets apart, trollocs crawl out like roaches, and  face a sole, pissed off Asha'man tonight, Jai made himself keep going.  

The walk north was uneventful.  Distant and quiet.  The counting fell away.  The map froze.  His head was blessedly quiet for once.  He couldn't let himself feel it.  He'd stop and run the other direction if he did.  Even the snow was no longer a peaceful companion, just a tool to cool his burning knuckles and ice his cheek every other blink.  Nothing could be as bad as the last hour had been.  Right?  Compared to that, this had to be-- 

His stomach lurched.  Light he wanted to throw up.  But he forced himself to keep going.  To stop thinking about it and just walk.  Walking was simple.  Right? 

The White Tower, the tallest building on the whole of the island, jut high overhead.  Many of the portals were dark, but a few were still yet lit.  He had no idea what time it was, but every residence along the last mile was quiet as tombs.  Travelers were few and far between.   It was the rare hour after taverns shut down for the night but before bakers fired their morning ovens.  Hopefully this wouldn't be too hard.  Though the Guards up ahead were looking lively.

It didn't gleam now, the bone white building.  The snow sparkled under his feet though, and the crunch of it snapped the face of every posted Guardsman his direction.  From overhead, Jai was a dark arrow crossing a great white field.  To those guards, he was an unknown danger.  They were wise to try and stop him at the front doors, hands on their swords, calling for a halt.

"Sorry guys.  If I stop I won't start again."  He said.  Force slammed ahead of him and the four were thrown from their feet.  Armored men, good, loyal men of Tar Valon, Jai tossed like bags of rice.  They crashed and slumped down.  He didn't look at them as he walked by.

The Front Hall greeted him in a blaze of light.  Enormous lampstands the size of noblemen's fishponds roared with flame, heralding his passage.  Yet the windows running overhead he did not stop to count.  His were the only foot steps to echo in the marble tomb.  

Until now.

He turned, a single Guard with the patch of an officer faced him.  He was older with grizzly brown hair and a jaw set hard enough to look on the verge of spitting.  He had his hand on his sword, a sign of respect perhaps or of a man wary of what he faced.  He looked like a devout man.  Jai didn't envy him the headache he'd have upon waking.  The Asha'man dove into his conviction and hurled the same force of Power at the officer.  But the flows touched him and disintegrated.  

Jai blinked.  

The officer snorted a laugh and pulled a chain out from under his tabard.  There hung a medallion Jai did not recognize.  

"Alright." Jai said, placing his hands in the air between them.  "Look, I am not here to hurt anyone.  I just want to talk to someone." He didn't blink now.  Just held the officer's eyes.  He was telling the truth.  

"The hell you are son," he laughed at the splits on Jai's hands and the fresh hits on his face.  He signaled, and Jai glimpsed two more guards on the wings depart for help.  

"I'm unarmed, sergeant.  And swear by the Light, my intentions are noble."  Jai backed away, opening space between them.  He was exhausted already, his grip on saidin was slipping fast, and he really didn't like the idea of swordfighting a fresh soldier in the front hall of the White Tower.  Especially given that Jai didn't have a sword.

"Unarmed?  Hah."  This one wasn't like the scripps outside.  He knew what he faced.  Likely why he hadn't yet drawn a weapon.  If the officer was afraid, he was wise to hide it.  Jai wasn't in the whack each other around the play-yard sort of mood.  But the officer made no move to advance, only follow the Asha'man's retreat step for step.  It was the job of a Sister to make such calls about what to do when one the Dragon's weapons kicked in the front door of their home.  

"Fine."  Jai said.  He passed beneath an archway, the same one Nythadri originally took to lead him toward the traveling grounds.  The map of the halls ahead burst in his mind.  "But I can't have you following me."  He backed beneath the passageway, eyes darting back and forth across the opening for a moment, then he flashed the officer a nod and took off.  

The man frowned and suddenly ran forward.  He met a barrier of the Power thick as glass, yelled after the escaped intruder, and immediately sprinted toward an alternate route.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#24
[Image: Adelaide-Kane-on-Reign_gallery_primary.jpg]



Now of course it was absolutely out of line to be wandering about the halls at such an unseemly hour as this.  Surely only the true night owls prowled the hushed corridors, or those on official White Tower business - servants, guards, and the like.  Any other persons likely to be out and about were surely to be up to no good.  Mischief abounds after midnight!  Or so good mothers warned their daughters.

Elsae tugged the pair of socks from her hands.  They were mottled up with all sorts of ash stains that would only come out with a good soak in the harshest sorts of water baths.   It would be an easy task with the One Power, pushing all that sod from the woolen fibers.  Then again, that would be sorely cheating.  Is it still cheating if no one knows the rules exist?  

Elsae smiled to herself.  The little mind games about logic were always a fun thread to tug along.  Only sometimes she wished she had a kitten to drag it by.

Then she halted.  A black shadow dashed down the hall.  She smoothed her hair back behind her ears and finished shoving the tail end of her sock mittens into her satchel.  Well, it wasn't a kitten, but it was an ... "Asha'man?"  She called after him.  

When he looked at her, Elsae's brows rose up her face.  Definitely not a kitten!

She smiled, and any fatigue washed itself away.  She felt fresh as a spring rain.
The Eye of the Khylsty
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#25
Jai walked.  Dulled to the world.  Numb to what he was going to say to Nythadri.  That he was actually going to go through with it.  On he walked, forcing one foot in front of the other.  His head was blessedly quiet now the thrill of fighting his way inside was behind him.  It was kind of nice, for once.  To not count every echo; to not chart his own route as he went.  Escapes are never about the path, he realized.  They were plans meant to take the road lined with the least causalities along the way.  It was something of a relief to not care anymore.  He could get out if he had to.

"Asha'man?"

A question.  His attention snapped toward it.

He was worried that his strength was failing, slipping.  Hauling around furniture nearly ripped him apart.  Instinct kept him from grappling at the Power when Andreu took him by surprise, and Jai resorted to simpler means to take care of the man.  Shoving bodies about like sacks of sand broke a sweat and the officer's medallion disintegrated his strongest flows.  Then cobbling up doorways as he went cost the last of his composure.  Since the comforting walls of the Oneness constructed themselves, Jai forced himself to accept he was too drained to control the Power any longer.  That saidin was too much to fight from your knees.  Odd then, that a Soldier who obsessively shoved himself to the brink of death day after endless day, would forget the basics.  

He found a flake of an Accepted when he was prepared to meet the whole of the Red Ajah itself.  For it, Jai quivered with more saidin than he had wielded before.  Ever.  Shock rippled somewhere beyond those high walls.  On the fringe with the rest of what he was feeling.  Then it slid beneath the dark waters and was acknowledged no longer.  

A few steps later Jai was standing before Elsae.  The dullness of the world resumed as practicality set in.  He did not much like the idea of being tracked down by any brothers staying the night here.  Which they could hunt like a beacon in the night if he weren't more careful.  The knowledge remained, however.  He was stronger now.  Though by how much he was too tired to consider.

"I mean no harm, Accepted.  But I need to see Nythadri Vanditera.  And you're going to take me to her." 

Please. 
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#26
[Image: Adelaide-Kane-on-Reign_gallery_primary.jpg]

Elsae pricked herself to the keenest of attentions as this was only her second encounter ever with an asha'man, she was particularly curious about whether or not she could feel one channel.  An echoey sort of silence stretched out like the angst of waiting between droplets in a water clock, and she felt nothing (at least nothing that had to do with channeling), but the terribly dark expression that regarded her scared her.  If he were channeling, then would have been an ominous moment.

He came closer, and while Elsae stood her ground she definitely tried to think through any number of plausible outcomes to go along with this situation.  What actually happened was far from what she imagined.

"Nythadri?"  She asked like she hadn't heard right.  Stranger things had happened, but she had to wonder, just for a flash, if this were real or if it were part of some test.  The Arches felt real at the time, and Elsae had no idea anything was out of the ordinary until she'd decided to walk out of that glowing doorway back to the real Pattern.  

So what was she going to say?  If this were some test, real or imagined, would she really answer any differently?  If Nythadri were lucky she'd be asleep right now, which would require waking her up.  Her fellow Accepted did a fine job hiding it when she wanted to, but it was no secret Accepted were all tired all the time.  Sleep is very important!  Accepted were allowed to have visitors, although Elsae wasn't sure if that rule designated allowable visiting hours.  Then again this had the sound of an emergency, and frankly Elsae was rather keen on knowing what this was all about, as well as ducking out of sight herself.

"Alright then.  Come with me, but we mustn't be seen okay?"  She nodded to herself and led the way.  They took the route Elsae used to get to this part of the Tower, which was definitely not the main hallways.  Any good prankster knew better than that.  Unless they had a cover story that excused them to be out and about at such unusual times of night, which she didn't have, although her mind raced to think of an interesting way to incorporate a man of the Black Tower if necessary.  

He was a man of the Black Tower at that too.  He was tall and walked with so much purpose to every single step.  The longer she was in his presence, Elsae realized her foolishness at being afraid at first.  Then again she'd not had much practice being around people like this.  Asha'man Ramiel was her only encounter with someone wearing the dark cloth of the Dragon, and he was more than kind in the dusty warmth of the library setting.  Perhaps that was it, the setting was far different now than it had been that day.  But Jai wasn't so scary now, not in the same way he was before.  He had cuts on his hands, one eye was bright pink, and his uniform was soggy with snow and she wondered again what was going on.  He barely looked elsewhere beyond straight ahead or back behind them, but when she caught better glimpses, he seemed pale and worn.  Like a ghost hanging angrily on to its purpose in life.  

If so, he was the most beautiful ghost she'd ever seen.  What are you and Nythadri up to?  

The Accepted tower was dark but for a single torch on the wall in the courtyard.  It would have been enough for Elsae to make it to her room especially after all the blindfold practice and her room was the first one on the ramp upward.  "Nythadri's is the seventh door."  She whispered and put a finger to her lips that he remain quiet too.  

She wasn't about to just let a stranger barge in on her friend unannounced like.  What if Nythadri wasn't decent?  Which if she was sleeping that would probably be the case; shifts weren't the most conservative of nightgowns.  What if this Asha'man was here on sinister purpose?  If so, he'd have to overcome not one, but two Accepted to carry out that purpose because Elsae wasn't going to leave until she was sure everything was safe.  Which after the day of War Games, Elsae was pretty sure if they linked together, they could handle quite a lot.  

"Stay out here."  She whispered as her hand slipped on the handle.  Some Accepted locked their doors at night and others left them open for friends to pop by at need.  Els typically left hers unlocked, and she was happy to find Nythadri's was too.  She gently opened the door with the intention to slip inside.  Knocking might wake up Icanthea next door, and Light knew that girl needed to sleep soundly at night.  Thea had a hard enough time keeping her wits about her during the day as it was.  I should pay her a visit tomorrow.
The Eye of the Khylsty
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#27
Every corridor was the same.  Doors gave way to empty passages.  Windows glimpsed grounds draped in darkness.  Elsae led a strange path, but a true one.  They weren't seen.  Though Jai was half prepared to come face to face with Mikel strolling down the hall, medals gleaming on his chest, cords decorating his shoulder.  He didn't.  Thank the Light.  Would have been fitting though.

Somewhere in the pleasant abyss through which he walked, Jai was aware everything was going to be fine.  Everyone would survive this light forsaken day, this light forsaken month.  Some of them might walk away a little better off for it.  And he might actually refrain from jamming a knife into his throat.  Which was probably for the best.  

Bottles worked wonders, but a little too wondrous to keep up with their kind of pace.  But oblivion wasn't the only path to numbness.  He should have thought of it sooner, but there were too many meathooks in his skin wrenching him back.  He simply wasn't strong enough to break those chains.  Sympathy, adoration, passion.  Links forged in his very heart.  And a man couldn't carve out his own heart.  

He had to uncurl the hooks.  One by one.  And cram something in there to fill what the barb ripped out.  
  
Apathy.  

It was through this garden of nothingness he strode.  It was the easiest rapture he'd ever known, and did not understand why he'd not welcomed it sooner.  

His guide departed.  Jai found himself alone, staring at the door that Nythadri crossed every day.  Until he could look at it no longer, and turned his back.  Waiting.
Only darkness shows you the light.


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#28
There were times at this quiet hour when, despite curfew, Nythadri would not be asleep; instead she would be bent over her desk under power-wrought bubbles of light, reading or writing until her mind dulled to numb silence. This was not one of those times. Though the neatly stacked papers of this evening’s studies had not been long departed, she’d fallen asleep almost as soon as she’d crawled into the cold bed. The blankets were drawn up almost over her head, and she was curled tight on her side, arms cradled about her face. Quiet, even breaths sounded in the pitch blackness; the first easy slumber she’d fallen into in a long time. And it was soon to be interrupted.

A sleep-fogged mind never really heard the word that woke her - presumably the whisper of her name - but sudden awareness of a solid shape in the darkness flooded her senses to a spooked alertness. Saidar gleamed first light and then protection, but the latter threads dissolved upon recognition of the face revealed. Elsae!? Fear quietened as quick as it had flared, replaced by sleepy irritability. Already half-way to sitting, heart blaring through her chest, she chucked her pillow at the Accepted in aggravated reflex. “Blood and bloody ashes, Elsae!” The words were a whispered hiss, croaky from sleep. Her brows drew deep over glaring eyes as she sat up fully, pulling her knees up to her chest and pressing her face into her hands. A dull ache throbbed in her head. Light what a lousy way to be woken. Not a funny prank. “What are you doing in here?” Her tone was miserably tired, but already the cocooned warmth of her huddled blankets was fading. Cold snaked across her bare arms, spiking consciousness through the remnants of blissful drowsiness. It was almost certainly not morning, not even close. Yet Elsae was fully dressed. If that damn girl is here to practise the hundred weaves...

She pushed her hands back over her head, mouth in a tight line. Black waves tumbled haphazard waves down her shoulders and back, and framed a pale face grievously unimpressed. This had better be good.
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#29
[Image: Adelaide-Kane-on-Reign_gallery_primary.jpg]
Accepted Elsae

The room was totally dark as normal people should keep their rooms in the middle of the night.  The sound of steady breathing filled in the darkness though.  Nythadri was definitely asleep, and Elsae smiled to herself a little.  Nythadri was almost as bad as she was about staying awake all night.  Although the older Accepted tended to be using her time in much more practical ways like studying or writing.  I wonder what the Greens have her doing.  Is the asha'man a plot of theirs?  It was a surprising ajah choice, but Elsae didn't claim to understand what made anyone else ticked.  She only knew herself, and that was by a long shot.  She'd not selected an ajah aspirancy either, and she was starting to get noticed for the lack of decisiveness.

I guess I should wake her up now.  She called her name on the air, but before she could twist an orb of light into existance, Nythadri sprung up angrily as though she were a slumbering spirit roused from her peaceful grave.  Elsae's smile grew as a sinister bucket of weaves nearly upended on her head followed by a pillow soaring past her face.  It skidded across the floor toward the cold hearth.

Elsae retrieved the pillow before it got dirt on it.  Nythadri was sitting up all dissheveled by sleep, and Els lay it gently beside her.  Her smile was almost invisible now, but determination continued to brighten her wide eyes.  "I'm going to stay with you until you tell me to go, okay?  And if you wish it, I won't tell anyone about this either."  Always up for a little heightened intrigue, Els nodded to herself and glanced at the door.  For that promise however she expected nothing in return beyond simple friendship and the ongoing balance of favors.  "There's someone wanting to talk to you.  An asha'man."  She crossed her arms and curiously studied Nythadri.  Accepted were allowed to have men visitors, so there wasn't any inherent rule broken by bringing him here.  They weren't allowed to be out and about at this hour really, but nothing linked the two separate rules in Elsae's conclusion.  She believed if the Tower meant for the laws to be entwined, the Sisters should have written it out as such.  If Elsae could do anything, it was pick apart the backbone of Tower Law and use the pieces for any number of purposes or disregard them altogether.  

"I came across him by the ambassador's hall.  If I were you, i'd steer clear of the first floor washroom for a day or two."  It was Elsae-speak for non-committal admittance to setting up a prank that most surely had nothing to do with the blackened socks in her bag that she was kind enough to warn someone about ahead of time.  "He seems rather... intent... Well, I didn't send him away."  She waited expectantly, eyelids heavy, but tight with focus - features Elsae didn't often display in front of other people.  Nythadri could in proper custom ask Elsae to ask him to call tomorrow during decent hours, but Elsae-speak piped up again.  She wasn't doing this so much out of the goodness of her heart as she was bound on a voyage of curiosity.  (Which is really just a nice word for suspicion.)
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#30
Elsae was taking nonsense, and she wasn’t answering the question with the swift precision one usually required when rudely woken in the middle of the night, at least if the aim was to sooth the irritability of the one ripped from sleep. You’ll leave when I ask you to? Light, what kind of riddle was that? But rather than interrupt – and there were ill-humoured words ready to razor from her tongue – she waited and absorbed the slow drip of explanation as it was offered, restructuring a context Elsae would have done better to state bluntly in the first place instead of delivering it all backwards. And then she said the only word that really mattered, and the rest seemed insignificant. Jai? The name provoked a collision of emotion carefully excluded from her expression. It rather felt like someone had shoved her hard in the chest, the way everything around her degenerated to quivering vibrations. Had she not placed so high a value on composure she might have stumbled to the door there and then. Anger? Relief? Whatever it was she crushed it down hard, until even frustration at Elsae froze beneath the ice.

The Accepted was waiting for her reaction with a focus Nythadri had never seen her display before, and she stood with as much calm and grace as to belie every idiotic babbling that had ever fled her lips. How much of yourself do you really hide? It didn’t matter; it wasn’t like Elsae was alone in the use of masks, although perhaps she was far more skilled than anyone ever gave her credit for. The girl's words were a mastery of flattering protectiveness and the smooth promise of a co-conspirator. But, meeting that keen gaze eye for eye, right now Nythadri wasn’t sure how much she wanted the other to know – or even be able to surmise from this odd arrangement of circumstances. Not simply as a matter of trust or fear of getting caught – she had no doubts Elsae could and would keep a secret – but because it laid a facet of herself bare she’d never chosen to share with her peers: that there was anything capable of ruffling her cool exterior, let alone enough to actually make her care.

“You brought a strange man to my door, and you didn’t think to ask his name?” She rubbed her face again and swung her legs over the edge of the bed. After the cosy warmth of sleep the prickle of cold that swept her exposed skin was cruel enough to cast out what remained of her drowsiness, or at least it made her feel alert. Her blank expression yielded a small smirk, though it was half-hearted and her brows soon tumbled down again in a look of contemplation. She stared at the shadows on the floor, then stood, faint attempt at mirth utterly gone. The sphere of power-made light began to dim, and in the same moment it winked out completely flame ignited two candles cupped in glass bowls – one at her bedside, the other on her desk. Then she let saidar go.

“I appreciate it, Elsae.” It was all she said for a long while, and though there was a raw sincerity to her tone she did not look at the other Accepted as she squeezed passed her to reach the wardrobe. It was more for the appearance of propriety that she bothered to dress at all, though it also gave her time to think. When Lythia had told her about the sword Nythadri had been determined to find Jai whatever the cost, but twenty-four hours trapped in the Cairheinin wilderness had crushed that reckless urge beneath reality’s heel. She knew he was alive, and she knew – unequivocally knew – that he would be in bad shape. But there was precious little she could do about it, and Lythia’s advice had descended like a steel vice on that small hesitation. Asha’man were forged for obedience, for blood and war, and so long as they fulfilled their duties what did their personal struggles matter? ‘You and I may see a flesh and blood man where others see only a vessel of fate, but that is the way it is.’ The Green’s words wound round and round in her head, biting off every rash instinct until by the time she had arrived home, she was strangely numb.

The resolution to seek him out had faded when finally her head overruled her heart. Stacked amongst her other work on the desk lay unfinished letters; the compromise she had convinced herself would bring closure if only she could find the right words – and she was never usually short of those. There was plenty to say, and reams of ink to prove it, but it all funnelled down to the same glass-cut edge of futility. Guilt had shadowed much of what she’d written – and much of what she’d burned. Tashir’s death and Jai’s fate had become inextricably linked in her mind. Both violences had catalysed around her regardless of intention, but only one she had the opportunity to atone – and that made the whole thing so much more precious. Twice she’d watched Tash die, and the idea of allowing another life ruined pushed her to the edge. But Jai had gone. Vanished. In the last few days she’d begun to wonder if it was kinder to let the whole thing fade. Swallow the guilt and accept it would always cast a shadow. Jai was gone. What right did she have to chase him down only to re-split tender wounds? And she could do that; she could really be that cold and that detached, so long as she never got to see what the loss of the sword had cost.

It was an option to send him away – she could even ask Elsae to do it. But it was an option she would never take. Despite the feeling that regret marked every viable path she had laid before her, that one she would regret the most; the never-knowing. “I appreciate it,” she repeated. “But I’d rather you didn’t stay. Or listen.” Her gaze was direct, but the phrasing of the words was unusually soft -despite the rather definite warning against eavesdropping at the end. She didn’t blame Elsae her curiosity, though neither was she in the mood to deal with it. Apparently there would be no explanations tonight, aside from what she might have extrapolated from Nythadri's reaction. Tomorrow she would consider her position, and decide whether she owed Elsae anything at all. But for now she pulled her hair from her collar, and otherwise didn't bother to preen before heading to the door. One motion to the next was fluid, like a pause might stall the whole thing. Though she had asked Elsae to leave - and expected her not to quibble upon the fact it had been a request and not a direct order - she at first didn't open the door very far. Enough for her head and most of her shoulders to be seen and only a bare sliver of the flickering darkness behind.

Even in the faint light he looked worn, like he’d frayed away at the edges since she’d last seen him. She was aware of that vacant space at his hip, but her eyes did not travel down to confirm it; didn’t need to, didn’t want to. When he turned his expression was cuttingly severe, eyes blazing an intensity she’d seen several times in Arad Doman, yet infinitely worse for the yawning abyss that marred a vacancy to his gaze. She’d seen that before, too, but it was dominant now; like several more fingers had been plucked from the cliff-edge upon which he perpetually hung. One cheek looked raw, freshly so. He’s been fighting. Her gaze hung onto his face for several more seconds. Predictably, her expression showed little, but the fingers holding the door half-open tightened; she was achingly close to slamming it shut. He was everything she’d feared and had decided she didn’t want to witness. Worse, she didn't trust the irrationality of her own base urge to lean over that cliff-edge and offer everything to help pull him back up. It would only mean they both fell.

She didn't speak, but after a moment she fell back, widening the door and dropping her grip on it.
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