Arys the Hunter
Arys chewed on the stem of her pipe, frowning. She had never been a pretty lady, with her close-cropped greying hair and scarred face. Some said that her eyes could faze a stone and sometimes even scare it away. She wasn't even old yet, not by the old standards that measured age in years. Her life, however, had made her very old indeed. She was barely into her fifties, almost a slip of a girl for an Aes Sedai. She was a member of the Hunter ajah.
She surveyed the landscape that had changed vastly within mere days. Once, there had been small grassland hills and pretty, sparkling rivulets that slowly merged to form the widest river in the world. Now, the land was barren, the rivulets gone, replaced by a forest of jagged stones, some of which reached nearly thirty meters in height. It was a deadly maze, and somewhere in there, one of the last surviving male Aes Sedai was gathering his strength to strike again. He was only the third male Aes Sedai whom she had managed to find, most of them were already long dead and the rest had disappeared. She was wearing an ancient paralis-net, thirteen rings with different carvings, one that had been created soon after the beginning of the War, and also a cape of fancloth. She wasn't certain either would help much against this foe.
She was considered weak but then, everyone was that, nowadays. Gone were the days when men and women worked together in circles, when great strength wasn't of importance. Now, individual strength mattered greatly, for it increased the chances of survival. A weak channeler was a liability to a stronger one. Arys' mentor hadn't taught her Travelling but then, she didn't have the strength to do it. Not many did, anymore. Hardly anyone knew how to do it. Some in the East claimed to know the web but refused to share it out of fear. So much of fear and no hope to be seen.
Behind her, her student, a little girl called Firen, stood still behind the Mirror of Mists, keeping up a web against lightning. Her ability was negligible, even compared to Arys', but she was one of the precious few Arys had been able to find before the Sickness took her. Young women nearly always died when their ability manifested around the age of twelve or thirteen, since there was no one to instruct them. Both of Firen's sisters had died screaming and convulsing years before Arys had come upon the group of refugees, and her brother had killed himself when he found out he could channel. It was a sad, very common story, two hundred and forty years after the beginning of the Breaking. Arys no longer felt anger or frustration. She just accepted the fact that she couldn't possibly find all the girls with the Spark before it was too late. She had found twenty girls in as many years, and only three survived today. It was the way life was.
Arys held back a sigh, berating herself. This foe had eluded her for weeks, cunningly dodging her whenever she got close. She channelled the pipe alight and puffed on it pensively. Once her quarry had been a great man, back when saidin was clean and no girls died when their ability came out. She had heard stories of before the Bore, legends of time of peace. It had been a long time since she had believed any of them.
"Arys Sedai, can I have something to eat today?" Firen asked quietly. Arys nearly blinked in surprise and looked at the girl. She looked nominally healthier than three years ago when Arys had apprenticed her. Still, she was very gaunt, all too gaunt for a sixteen-year-old.
"There's bread in the bag, I think," Arys said with a low, growling voice that barely sounded human. Firen hardly flinched anymore when Arys spoke, though the girl looked still nervous. Arys had taken a bullet in her throat several years ago and only swift battlefield Healing had saved her. The damage hadn't been Healed well enough, though. Good Restorers were getting rare like all the other resources, especially knowledge, and Aisalle hadn't definitely been one of them. Her Talent had been much greater than Arys', though. It was a waste that she had died of blood-poisoning only a few days after giving birth to dead twin girls. Another waste, that. They would have been strong channelers one day.
"Eat fast," Arys said. "Our prey is about to move."
She could sense, if faintly, something being spun with the male side of the Source. One of the pieces of her paralis-net allowed her to know if someone was touching saidin or better yet, doing something with it. She didn't know which piece it was but it had saved her life countless times over the years. It even allowed her to know the direction, though vaguely. She waited patiently while Firen wolfed down a piece of bread. Arys herself hardly ate anymore. One of the pieces, a ring carved with sunbursts, would sustain her even if she stopped eating, drinking and sleeping altogether. For a few weeks, at least. Firen had no such ring and she needed all the food Arys could find her.
Lightning fell suddenly, heavy strikes that smashed rock around Arys and her apprentice. Arys channelled briefly, raising a shield against flying shards of stone. It seemed that he knew where they were. Good. He had shown that he thought he could scare them away. Very well.
From the start Arys had known that she couldn't face this foe head on for he was vastly stronger than she. She had, however, whatever knowledge she managed to gather during long lonely years and a great deal of experience. She had dealt with his kind before. She knew how to face the Insane Ones.
A lot depended, of course, on the type of his insanity. Was he a classic case, seeing and hearing things that didn't exist? Or a pathetic case, a man regressed back to early childhood? Or, the worst case, a cold, highly intelligent creature who no longer had a scrap of humanity remaining?
To find out which one it was, Arys needed to do some investigation and failing that, to set a bait to draw him out in the open. She looked at her apprentice who froze, looking openly fearful for the first time today.
"Let's move. He's expecting us to respond to his show of strength if we survived it. I'll slip to his left and you to the right. Draw his attention to yourself. If he seems to be openly hostile, flee. If not, keep him calm. I'll kill him from the distance."
Firen nodded, gulping, then turned and ran. She didn't have any other choice but to obey, even if it made her nearly wet herself. Arys waited till the girl disappeared between the rocks before leaving the spot. She didn't really expect the girl to do anything about their prey but she would serve well as a bait. She would keep the creature distracted for long enough. She set out to find a good place for killing the male.
Firen walked briskly, her hands clenched. Her teeth wanted to chatter. She didn't like being with Arys Sedai on these missions, they were too scary. She still regretted having been born with the ability. It would have been much easier to be an ordinary person, without strange powers that made her more useful. Firen held back a sigh. She dreaded that the male channeler might find her. She didn't dare to touch the Source anymore for he might sense her. It was strange that male channelers could sense women with the ability when they were using it but women couldn't sense the male channelers at all without a ter'angreal.
Firen shook her head, trying to clear it. At least she wasn't hungry anymore all that often. Travelling with an Aes Sedai saw to that. She always got scared when she was hungry for she remembered how awful it felt when hunger went on for hours, often for days.
She froze when she heard someone talking in a low voice. It sounded definitely male and since they were supposed to be alone in this Light-forsaken part of the world with a male channeler, it had to be him. She crouched and crawled towards the sound. Her stupid bravery always amazed her. Anyone with brains would be sneaking away as fast as she could.
She peeked between thin undergrowth and saw a sorry sight of a male sitting on a rock, hugging himself and repeating something quietly in the Old Tongue. Firen didn't speak it and had no idea what he was saying. Tears were streaking down his face. He had once been handsome, perhaps, but now his long, straggly hair and matching dirty beard were completely grey, his blue eyes sunken and glazed, his skin peeling off and making him look even more sickly, whatever was left of his once-grand clothing hanging on his too-lean body. He was carrying a golden pendant around his neck and he was holding it open in his hands, gazing at whatever was inside. Firen could not see what it was from where she was hiding. A picture, perhaps. Those were common enough.
The male didn't seem all that threatening. Still, Firen felt cold. If he was the creature they were looking for, he was very dangerous indeed. The lightning proved it. She took a deep breath and got up slowly, as to not startle him. He didn't even seem to notice.
"Excuse me," she began, trying not to sound close to fainting, "I'm lost. Can you show me where I can find shelter?"
The male looked up slowly, blinking. He saw her and didn't seem to understand what he was seeing or hearing. Firen did not move. It was said that predators reacted instinctively with violence to sudden movements.
The male said something more in the Old Tongue. Firen shook her head slowly, trying to tell the male that she didn't understand. The man stared at her for a while, cocking his head. Firen was fairly certain that she was going to die soon.
The male suddenly beckoned her closer. Seeing it better to do as he wanted, she walked slowly to him. He showed her the contents of the pendant. It was a picture indeed, of a woman and three smiling children. Not a painting but a real photograph. The only other photograph she had ever seen had been her mother's, a picture of her parents and siblings. A great treasure.
The male said something in the Old Tongue, a question perhaps. She simply shook her head. She didn't understand. Arys Sedai probably would understand but she hardly was about to come here to converse with the male.
Firen had kept him distracted for long enough. Arys Sedai should make her move as soon as possible. Firen felt cold, fresh dread well inside her when the male looked her straight in the eyes, started as if seeing her for the first time and began to mutter to himself angrily. She took a few steps back, keeping her eyes down, praying fervently. She was going to die.
Arys took a piece of rock and swiftly fashioned it into a bullet with thin threads of Earth. She then set it in her Aimer, another ter'angreal she carried. She looked through its telescopic sight, locking on the target. Firen was already there, standing beside the male, making sure that he didn't notice what Arys was about to do. Good. She took a deep breath, aimed carefully, channelled briefly to give the ter'angreal all the Power it needed, and then fired. The ter'angreal made no noise but the bullet broke the sound barrier immediately, making a huge crack that made Arys' ears ring. Through the telescopic sight she could see the male's head whip back and splatter against the rocks behind him. Yet another one put down.
She cleaned the ter'angreal with care, wiping off the marks left by the bullet. The ter'angreal was very old, from the early days of the War of Power, and it was slowly starting to show its age. Perhaps it had still a few more years of use in it. Arys put the weapon back into its casing and left to get the girl. She was probably blubbering somewhere. The first time witnessing a violent death often shook people.
Firen picked up the pendant very gingerly. The male's blood and other fluids stained it, marring the photograph. She spun clumsily a web of cleaning, and most of the liquid disappeared. She wasn't very good at channelling, yet. Arys Sedai said that it would take a few more years for her skill to mature. She put the pendant in her pocket and sighed. Odd, she felt much better now that she wasn't in immediate danger of dying suddenly. She searched the male's body for other precious items but found none. Maybe he hadn't been an Aes Sedai once at all, just a poor wretch of a male that had begun channelling. She offered a prayer to his soul, a feeble wish that he would be born again at some other, better time. Might the Creator shelter him.
Then she left to look for her mentor.
They travelled back to the South where Arys knew some of her Hunter sisters were gathered. Thirteen months passed while they made their way through a devastated landscape, scarce of human life and of everything else as well, for that matter. They did not meet any male channelers but saw their handiwork, nonetheless. Where once had been the shoreline of an ancient ocean, were now monstrously high mountains wreathed in mists. The peaks were sharp and hardly covered in snow. Less than a hundred years had passed since their creation. The land was still hurting with this wound, quaking every now and then involuntarily. Months away from the new mountain range, in the horizon they could see the Dragon's Tomb, a volcano that was a lot higher than any of the new mountains. That was where the cursed male had killed himself and left the world to pay for his arrogance. Both Arys and Firen seethed with resentment.
The Hunter ajah had made its headquarters deep in what had once been a mountain range. Now it was a swamp. The headquarters were right in the middle of it, inaccessible to those who hadn't been led through the treacherous mire. Arys had been there countless times but for Firen this was the first time. Arys warned her to not touch anything for most of the living things there were hungry.
The Hunter ajah sounded grand but was in truth a sorry lot of women. Hard women but still sorry. Anyhow, when the headquarters came in view, three shacks and a few patched tents clustered together on solid ground, Arys felt a sense of relief. Here they were relatively safe. Most male channelers walked wherever they wanted to go and this place was as inhospitable as any, save the Blighted Lands.
The camp seemed empty at first but once someone identified Arys, people started to come out of their hiding places. There were no males in here. Women of all ages came to meet them, most looking suspicious, some outright hostile. A few of them were wearing red scarves. Curious.
"Is Dumera Sedai still alive?" was the first thing Arys asked. Some of the women nodded.
Another relief. Their leader was still hale.
With a curt gesture, Arys sent Firen to join the other apprentices. There were nearly a dozen of them, twice as many as when Arys left. Maybe a group of refugees had passed the swamp carrying eligible women.
The women didn't seem to want to let her through but strength counted for much and Arys was by far the strongest here. That really underlined the weakness of these women. Really strong channelers seemed to be going extinct, slowly but certainly. Dumera and two others were stronger than Arys, here. Much stronger, indeed. Possibly last of their kind.
The group parted to let her through, some muttering audibly their suspicions. They called Arys the Wild One, for going out to hunt the Insane Ones without Dumera's consent, taking their precious relics with her. Most of them worked in threes and fours, to ensure their safety and to make up for their weakness. Arys would have pitied them if she dared. They needed no pity. In threes and fours, any one of those groups could usually overpower most males. They did not kill the males, they severed them and left them to rot. If Arys felt no mercy, these women felt even less. The world had to be purged of the male channelers. Still, in the camp, strength had to be respected for that made a woman more useful. She could work alone. Arys had more than any two of them. Of the three women stronger than her, two had almost five times as much as Arys and Dumera nearly ten times. They were monstrously strong.
Arys went to the shack that looked less likely to collapse than the others, knocked respectfully and went inside.
The shack that enclosed one square room smelled of old straw and dried wood. A mat made of aforementioned straw covered the floor and flat bowls supporting candles sat in each corner. Two women were present, one old, one nearly youthful. The old one, Jian, once Arys' mentor, was a tiny woman with curly white hair and nearly blind, bluish eyes. She was showing a strange web to the nearly youthful woman, Dumera Alman. Dumera was a tall woman with long brown hair and dark eyes. She might have been beautiful but long years fighting the madness of the males had worn it out of her. She bore no visible scars though Arys knew that she had once been burned by a bolt of lightning and another time by a ball of fire, both flung at her by male channelers. Arys loathed the Insane Ones passionately but Dumera was said to feel nothing anymore. She had moved beyond mere feelings. The males were nothing to her. She was hatred incarnate. Or so it was said. Arys knew that Dumera often felt pity. It made her even greater.
Arys bowed deeply, placing the ter'angreal she had borrowed in front of Dumera and Jian. She did not try to memorise the web she had seen. Not her place to do so.
"It is done, Highest," Arys intoned meekly. "The male Aes Sedai is dead. The Breaking is closer to ending."
She did not dare to look up before Dumera said she could. This close, Arys could sense the other woman's strength. It felt like standing beside an open furnace. Arys' meager ability was nothing compared to it.
"It is well that you have returned to us safely," Dumera said after a while. Her voice was toneless as if she were reciting something out of memory. "You'll don the red shawl to show the world what you have done. It is our duty to spill the blood of the male channelers. Though now forsaken by the Light, they once were men. We spill human blood. We will wear red to atone, to show everyone what we are, for murderers carry their victims' souls with them. We are no longer the Hunter ajah. We are the Red, the hunters of the Insane, and we murder to keep the world whole. The Breaking is coming to an end. Stand up, sister."
Arys stood up slowly. Jian was offering her a large red scarf, similar to those Arys had seen on some women outside. Arys took it gingerly, uncertain what to think of it. Dumera looked calm, disinterested even.
"Don it," Jian said, sounding almost motherly. Arys laid the scarf on her shoulders. It felt heavy. "For too long, we have been hiding. The Breaking is slowly coming to an end. It's time to look for the other surviving groups. We only waited for your return. We'll move tomorrow. You have the latest knowledge of the formations of the land in the North. You'll assist the Highest and me. Marial had a Dream. At the feet of the Dragon's Mountain, we'll find our sisters."
Marial was one of the strong trinity and a Dreamer, one of the precious gems of the camp. Whenever she had Dreams, everyone, even Dumera, did as she said. Arys felt honoured that she could be of assistance to these women. She was allowed to sit with them for an hour before being waved out. Outside, she surveyed the camp, eyebrows furrowing as she looked at the shacks and patched tents, the muddy ground and the hustling women. The sense of purpose this place had was very faint but it was still there. In fact, it was growing stronger. The air smelled of decay and mud, a scent that Arys associated with safety. Tomorrow, they would be leaving. The camp had stood there for almost two decades and tomorrow it would be gone. What would it be like in the North? She had never gone near the Dragon's Tomb, the place implied by Marial's words. Arys closed her eyes and sighed. The Breaking was coming to an end. Maybe there was still hope.