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A Memory of Light (Page 161)

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Thank you, Tam.

Lan cantered his steed along the eastern slope of the Heights, alone now, past the soldiers, past the Shadowspawn. He was one with the breeze that streamed through his hair, one with the sinewy animal beneath him that carried him forward, one with the target that was his destination, his fate.

Demandred stood at the sound of the hoofbeats, his Sharan companions rising in front of him.

With a roar, Lan heeled Mandarb into the Sharans that blocked his path. The stallion leaped, front legs driving the guards before him into the ground. Mandarb wheeled around, his haunches knocking down more Sharans, his forelegs coming down on yet others.

Lan threw himself from the saddle—Mandarb had no protection against channeling, and so to fight from horseback would be to invite Demandred to kill his mount—and hit the ground at a run, sword out.

"Another one?" Demandred roared. "Lews Therin, you are beginning to—"

He cut off as Lan reached him and flung himself into Thistledown Floats on the Whirlwind, a tempestuous, offensive sword form. Demandred whipped his sword up, catching the blow on his weapon and skidding backward a step at the force of it. They exchanged three blows, quick as cracks of lightning, Lan still in motion until the last blow caught Demandred on the cheek. Lan felt a slight tug, and a blood sprayed into the air.

Demandred felt at the wound in his cheek, and his eyes opened wider. "Who are you!" Demandred asked.

"I am the man who will kill you".

Min looked up from the back of her torm as it loped toward the gateway back to the battlefield at Merrilor. She hoped it would withstand the battle frenzy when they got there. Bonfires and torches shone in the distance, fireflies illuminating scenes of valor and determination. She watched the lights flicker, the last embers of a fire that would soon be extinguished.

Rand trembled, distant, far to the north.

The Pattern spun around Rand, forcing him to watch. He looked through eyes streaming with tears. He saw the people struggle. He saw them fall. He saw Elayne, captive and alone, a Dreadlord preparing to rip their children from her womb. He saw Rhuarc, his mind forfeit, now a pawn of one of the Forsaken.

He saw Mat, desperate, facing down horrible odds.

He saw Lan riding to his death.

Demandred’s words dug at him. The Dark One’s pressure continued to tear at him.

Rand had failed.

But in the back of his mind, a voice. Frail, almost forgotten.

Let go.

Lan held nothing back.

He did not fight as he had trained Rand to fight. No careful testing, no judging the terrain, no careful evaluation. Demandred could channel, and despite the medallion, Lan couldn’t give his enemy time to think, time to weave and hurl rocks at him or open the ground beneath him.

Lan burrowed deeply into the void, allowing instincts to guide him. He went beyond lack of emotions, burning away everything. He did not need to judge the terrain, for he felt the land as if it were part of him. He did not need to test Demandred’s strength. One of the Forsaken, with many decades of experience, would be the most skilled swordsman Lan had ever faced.

Lan was vaguely aware of the Sharans spreading out to make a broad circle around the two combatants as they fought. Apparently Demandred was confident enough of his skills that he did not allow interference from others.

Lan spun into a sequence of attacks. Water Flows Downhill became Whirlwind on the Mountain which became Hawk Dives into the Brush. His forms were like streams blending into a larger and larger river. Demandred fought as well as Lan had feared. Though the man’s forms were slightly different from those Lan knew, the years had not changed the nature of a swordfight.

"You are . . . good . . ". Demandred said with a grunt, falling back before Wind and Rain, a line of blood dripping from his chin. Lan’s sword flashed in the air, reflecting the red light of a bonfire nearby.

Demandred came back with Striking the Spark, which Lan anticipated, countering. He took a scratch along the side, but ignored it. The exchange set Lan back a step, and gave Demandred the chance to pick up a rock with the One Power and hurl it at Lan.

Deep within the void, Lan felt the stone coming. It was an understanding of the fight—one that ran deeply into him, to the very core of his soul. The way Demandred stepped, the direction his eyes flickered, told Lan exactly what was coming.

As he flowed into his next sword form, Lan brought his weapon up across his chest and stepped backward. A stone the size of a man’s head passed directly in front of him. Lan flowed forward, arm moving into his next form as another stone flew under his arm, tugging wind with it. Lan raised his sword and flowed around the path of a third stone, which missed him by a thumb’s width, rippling his clothing.

Demandred blocked Lan’s attack, but he breathed hoarsely. "Who are you?" Demandred whispered again. "No one of this Age has such skill. Asmodean? No, no. He couldn’t have fought me like this. Lews Therin? It is you behind that face, isn’t it?"

"I am just a man", Lan whispered. "That is all I have ever been".

Demandred growled, then launched an attack. Lan responded with Stones Falling Down the Mountain, but Demandred’s fury forced him back a few steps.

Despite Lan’s initial offensive, Demandred was the better swordsman. Lan knew this by the same sense that told him when to strike, when to parry, when to step and when to withdraw. Perhaps if they had come to the fight evenly, it would be different. They had not. Lan had been fighting for an entire day, and though he’d been Healed from his worst wounds, the smaller ones still ached. Beyond that, a Healing in and of itself was draining.

Demandred was still fresh. The Forsaken stopped talking and engrossed himself in the duel. He also stopped using the One Power, focused only on his swordplay. He did not grin as he took the advantage. He did not seem like a man who grinned very often.

Lan slipped away from Demandred, but the Forsaken pressed forward with Boar Rushes Down the Mountain, again pushing Lan back to the perimeter of the circle, battering at his defenses, cutting him on the arm, then the shoulder, then finally the thigh.

I’ve only time for one last lesson . . .

"I have you", Demandred finally growled, breathing heavily. "Whoever you are, I have you. You cannot win".

"You didn’t listen to me", Lan whispered.

One last lesson. The hardest . . .

Demandred struck, and Lan saw his opening. Lan lunged forward, placing Demandred’s sword point against his own side and ramming himself forward onto it.

"I did not come here to win", Lan whispered, smiling. "I came here to kill you. Death is lighter than a feather".

Demandred’s eyes opened wide, and he tried to pull back. Too late. Lan’s sword took him straight through the throat.

The world grew dark as Lan slipped backward off the sword. He felt Nynaeve’s fear and pain as he did, and he sent his love to her.

CHAPTER 38

The Place That Was Not

Rand saw Lan fall, and it sent a spasm of anguish through him. The Dark One pressed in around Rand. Swallowing him, shredding him. Fighting that attack was too hard. Rand was spent.

Let go. His fathers voice.

"I have to save them . . ". Rand whispered.

Let them sacrifice. You can’t do this yourself.

"I have to . . . That’s what it means . . ". The Dark One’s destruction crawled on him like a thousand crows, picking at his flesh, pulling it from his bones. He could barely think through the pressure and the sense of loss. The death of Egwene and so many others.

Let go.

It is their choice to make.

He wanted so badly to protect them, the people who believed in him. Their deaths, and the danger they faced, were an enormous weight upon him. How could a man just . . . let go? Wasn’t that letting go of responsibility?

Or was it giving the responsibility to them?

Rand squeezed his eyes shut, thinking of all those who had died for him. Of Egwene, whom he had sworn to himself to protect.

You fool. Her voice in his head. Fond, but sharp.

"Egwene?"

Am I not allowed to be a hero, too?

"It’s not that . ".

You march to your death. Yet you forbid anyone else from doing so?

"I . . "

Let go, Rand. Let us die for what we believe, and do not try to steal that from us.

You have embraced your death. Embrace mine.

Tears leaked from the corners of his eyes. "I’m sorry", he whispered.

Why?

"I’ve failed".

No. Not yet you haven’t.

The Dark One flayed him. He huddled before that vast nothingness, unable to move. He screamed in agony.

And then, he let go.

He let go of the guilt. He let go of the shame for having not saved Egwene and all the others. He let go of the need to protect her, to protect all of them.

He let them be heroes.

Names streamed from his head. Egwene, Hurin, Bashere, Isan of the Chareen Aiel, Somara and thousands more. One by one—first slowly, but with increasing speed—he counted backward through the list he had once maintained in his head. The list had once been only women, but had grown to include everyone he knew had died for him. He hadn’t realized how large it had become, how much he had let himself carry.

The names ripped from him like physical things, like doves aflight, and each one carried away a burden. Weight vanished from his shoulders. His breathing grew steadier. It was as if Perrin had come with his hammer and shattered a thousand chains that had been dragging behind Rand.

Ilyena was last. We are reborn, Rand thought, so we can do better the next time.

So do better.

He opened his eyes and placed his hand before him, palm against blackness that felt solid. His self that had fuzzed, becoming indistinct as the Dark One ripped at it, pulled together. He placed his other arm down, then heaved himself to his knees.

And then, Rand al’Thor—the Dragon Reborn—stood up once again to face the Shadow.

"No, no", the beautiful Shendla whispered, looking down at Demandred’s body. Her heart sank down inside of her and she tore at her hair with both hands, her body swaying. As she gazed on her beloved, Shendla slowly drew breath deep into her chest, and when it released, it was a fearful shriek: "Bao the Wyld is dead!"

The entire battlefield seemed to grow still.

Rand faced the Dark One in that place that was not, surrounded by all time and nothing at the same time. His body still stood in the cave of Shayol Ghul, locked into that moment of battle against Moridin, but his soul was here.

He existed in this place that was not, this place outside of the Pattern, this place where evil was born. He looked into it, and he knew it. The Dark One was not a being, but a force—an essence as wide as the universe itself, which Rand could now see in complete detail. Planets, stars in their multitudes, like the motes above a bonfire.

The Dark One still strove to destroy him. Rand felt strong despite the attacks. Relaxed, complete. With his burdens gone, he could fight again. He held himself together. It was difficult, but he was victorious.

Rand stepped forward.

The Darkness shuddered. It quivered, vibrated, as if disbelieving.

I DESTROY THEM.

The Dark One was not a being. It was the darkness between. Between lights, between moments, between eyeblinks.

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