Sunday, 28 October 2018

A History of the Wheel of Time Part 4: The War of the Shadow

"I am Lews Therin Telamon, the Dragon. I ruled these lands, unified, during the Age of Legends. I was leader of all the armies of the Light, I wore the Ring of Tamyrlin. I stood first among the Servants, highest of the Aes Sedai, and I could summon the Nine Rods of Dominion. I held the loyalty and fealty of all seventeen Generals of Dawn’s Gate."

The War of the Shadow
The War of the Shadow was also called the War of the Power, for it was during this war that most defensive and offensive uses of the One Power were discovered. In fact, it seems that the amount of knowledge regarding the Power was increased more during the war than during the preceding few centuries. It was also during this war that the most destructive form of the Power was discovered.

The war lasted around ten years from beginning to end and soon spread to all parts of the world. No island, no matter how small or remote, was left untouched by the conflict.

In the first year of the war the Light was still reeling with surprise from the unexpected entrance of Trollocs and Myrddraal (and, later that year, Grey Men, Draghkar and Darkhounds) into the conflict. During this year vast swathes of territory fell into the hands of the Shadow. During the second year the Light began to rally, but was still too disorganised to offer effective resistance.

During the third year the Light was struck hard by the sudden, unexpected defection of Barid Bel Medar to the Shadow. The second-in-command of all the Light’s armies had coldly analysed the facts and realised that the Shadow would almost certainly emerge victorious. For his strength in the Power – second only to Ishamael – the Dark One raised him to the ranks of the Forsaken and he was given a new, cursed name: Demandred.

It seems that Lews Therin may have had an inkling about Barid Bel’s defection, for he let it slip to Barid only days before his departure that he had moved the armies defending Paaran Disen to remote areas in an effort to stop a new Shadow offensive in those regions, and they could not be recalled easily. When Barid, now Demandred, told Ishamael of this, Ishamael led a huge assault on the capital itself. As promised, no armies appeared to stop them. The Shadow’s forces had come within a mile of the city’s gates when Lews Therin appeared and, apparently in desperation, challenged Ishamael to single combat. Ishamael agreed in amusement, planning to treacherously kill Lews Therin should he begin to win, but this was merely a distraction. The Light’s armies suddenly fell upon the Shadow’s forces from behind, catching them by surprise and almost completely destroying them. Ishamael and the other Forsaken present barely escaped with their lives.

This army had been the Shadow’s largest, and with its destruction Lews Therin gained the advantage. He retook much of the lost territory as well and for a time the Light stood victorious. For his skill and seemingly unbeatable strategies Lews Therin found himself called “The Dragon” and “The Lord of the Morning.” He was named supreme commander of all the forces fighting the Shadow, to the disquiet of his ally Tel Janin Aellinsar, who considered himself a superior general. Tel Janin betrayed the Light by opening the Gate of Heaven – a defensive fortification of some kind around the city of Satelle – and allowing the Shadow armies to take the city. He was inducted into the ranks of the Forsaken and given the name Sammael.

Despite this betrayal, the Light rallied and continued to win fresh victories. But the Shadow was quick to replenish its decimated armies, since Trollocs bred almost as fast as they could be killed. After four years of victories, Lews Therin found himself checked as fresh Trolloc forces arose.

The eighth year of the war was the year of stalemate, with neither side able to gain an advantage. During this year the form of the One Power known as balefire was discovered. Balefire was awesomely destructive. It not only totally destroyed whatever or whoever it touched, right down to the molecular level, but it also erased them backwards in time for short periods (usually a few hours, though channellers as powerful as Lews Therin, Ishamael, Lanfear or Demandred could erase them back a day or two), undoing their actions. This led to some unusual temporal paradoxes and, it was eventually discovered, threatened the very stability of the Wheel of Time. Without truce or discussion, both sides stopped using balefire within days of one another. But the destruction caused by balefire had given the Shadow an edge, and now Aginor gave them another. He had been working on additional forms of Shadowspawn and unleashed the jumara, a terrifying insectoid that emerged from a worm-like larval stage, and, worst of all, the gholam.

Gholam resembled humans of average height and appearance. They numbered only six, three men and three women. Without a shadow of a doubt, they were the most formidable foes ever faced by channellers of the One Power. They even scared the Forsaken. Somehow, they were completely immune to the One Power. Even balefire could not touch them. They also were boneless, somehow able to solidify or soften their body mass as needed. In their “soft” state they could squeeze themselves through keyholes and cracks under doors, through grills and the like. Their primary function was to kill Aes Sedai. Their soft body matter also made it incredibly difficult to kill them, since sword blows enough to fell a Nym barely dented them. They could also heal any wound very quickly. They were terrifyingly strong, almost as strong as an Ogier, and lightning fast. It was rumoured that devices manufactured using the Power, such as angreal, burned their skin beyond the ability to heal (since the gholam’s very nature was at odds with the Power), but there is no confirmation of this. The simple truth is that no gholam was ever killed. All six survived the War of the Shadow in stasis boxes, but fortunately these appear to have all been lost in the passage of more than three and a half millennia.

With dozens of major Aes Sedai suddenly assassinated without warning, and with the new Shadowspawn bolstering their armies, the Shadow struck out again suddenly and could not be stopped. The Dark One’s minions steamrollered across the world, slaying and murdering, slaughtering all who opposed them. The ninth year of the war, a year of despair, saw all the land retaken by the Light during their four years of victory fall again under the Shadow, and new territory was threatened.

Even with the Ogier now actively fighting alongside the humans, Lews Therin saw that there was no way the Light could win with conventional armies and combat. His forces were tired and fresh troops slow in being trained, whilst the Shadow was breeding a thousand new Trollocs and twenty Myrddraal a day. More and more cities previously supporting the Light surrendered to the Shadow in despair.

Lews Therin saw only one slim chance for victory. If the Bore was sealed and the Dark One’s touch removed from the world, then it would be a great blow for the Shadow. Morale would fall but, more than that, the source of the True Power would be cut off and the Dark One’s own words could not be heard in the Pit of Doom any more. Without its leadership, the Shadow may very well have evaporated.

Lews Therin’s plan was relatively simple: seven weavings of the Power would be created which, when properly placed, would simply collapse the earthly end of the Bore, sealing the Dark One away from the world forever. The seals would be linked to physical ter’angreal and made of cuendillar, a metal constructed with the One Power that was immune even to balefire. Once sealed, the prison could not be opened again. Unfortunately, there were two major flaws in the plan: firstly, the weavings would have to be made with the utmost care. One wrong move and they could rupture the Dark One’s prison entirely rather than seal it. Secondly, they had to be physically placed around Shayol Ghul itself, the focus of the earthly end of the Bore, in order to have any effect. The loss in life would be horrendous. There was also the possibility that the Shadow would capture the Seven Seals and use them to smash the Dark One’s prison.

The debate rocked the Hall of the Servants. Lews Therin acknowledged the risks, but said that it was the one chance to end the war forever. His opponent was Latra Posae Decume, who led an ajah known as the Fateful Concord (it came to be known as such afterwards, not at the time), who simply refused to consider it. The danger was too great, she said. Her faction proposed an alternative plan: two immense sa’angreal, the most powerful ever made, would be created, one for women and one for men (these sa’angreal would take the form of huge statues, one of a man and one of a woman, both clutching an immense crystal sphere). They would be called the Choedan Kal. These would be used to place a new seal around the entirety of Shayol Ghul itself, similarly cutting the Dark One off from its minions. The same end result would take place: the Shadow’s morale would collapse and the Light would emerge victorious. Lews Therin pointed out that this might allow the Dark One time to emerge from its prison itself, but at the very least would attract the power of all the Forsaken. Not even a One Power field made with the two most powerful sa’angreal in history could withstand thirty Forsaken and thousands of Dreadlords channelling against it.

The debate became quite heated and the Hall of the Servants split almost entirely along male-female lines. The most vocal of Lews Therin’s supporters were 113 powerful male Aes Sedai, who formed an ajah called the Hundred Companions. With the council deadlocked, it was decided that both the Choedan Kal and the Seven Seals would be constructed simultaneously. After they were completed, the situation at that time could be assessed and a final decision taken.

The year of despair continued, with the Shadow now gaining fresh victories. Lews Therin managed to prevent the complete collapse of the front, but it was a close thing. By the end of the year the Shadow’s forces had advanced to threaten Paaran Disen and many of the remaining cities held by the Light.

The tenth and final year of the war began and construction of the angreal proceeded slowly. The Seven Seals were completed first and the Power flows carefully woven into them. The Choedan Kal were completed soon after, but it was quickly discovered that they were far too powerful to use by themselves. A test subject Aes Sedai attempting to channel through one of the statues was instantly killed, consumed by fire. To use them safely, special ter’angreal known as access keys had to be used, one for each statue (though many more keys had actually been made for redundancy’s sake). Unfortunately, no sooner had the keys been completed than the research centre was overrun in a Shadow push led by Sammael and lost forever. Agents despatched undercover to retrieve them were killed or captured. Since the agents were not informed about the details of the artifacts, the Shadow did not learn what they were to be used for, only that they were vital to the Light’s war effort. Lanfear, in particular, became intrigued by them and started studying them. The Light still possessed the two giant Choedan Kal statues themselves but no way of safely using them.

It now seemed that there was no choice but to go with Lews Therin’s plan, but still the Fateful Concord prevaricated, even suggesting new access keys be constructed. But then Be’lal led a raid on the Hall of the Servants itself, killing a large number of the Aes Sedai Council and even razing part of the building. Demandred, Sammael and Be’lal led mighty offensives that Lews Therin barely checked, bringing the Dark One’s armies to within miles of the site of the Choedan Kal. It seems doubtful that the Forsaken had learned of the devices, but if so they would have realised that the devices were powerful enough to shatter the Dark One’s prison altogether. Lews Therin declared that the Light could not afford to wait any more. One fateful morning, almost ten years to the month after the beginning of the war, he and the Hundred Companions departed Paaran Disen, taking 10,000 armsmen and the Seven Seals with them. Their destination: Shayol Ghul, the heart of the Shadow itself.

Almost simultaneously, a hasty meeting of all the surviving Forsaken was called at the Pit of Doom itself. Some historians have theorised that either Lanfear had successfully divined the purpose of the access keys and was urging a capture of the two Choedan Kal as soon as possible, or a traitor in Lews Therin’s ranks had betrayed him. It was at this point that Lews Therin struck.

The Hundred Companions immediately engaged the Forsaken and the Dreadlords present, whilst the armsmen fought against ten or twenty times their number of Shadowspawn. During the battle Ishamael and Lanfear looked to capture Lews Therin, whilst Sammael and Demandred planned to kill him. None of them found him, for he was busy placing the seals. It seems that Ishamael located Lews Therin just as the last seal was placed, completing the circle and collapsing the earthly end of the Bore.

Immediately all but one of the Forsaken, intimately bound to the Dark One through the True Power, were “sucked” into Shayol Ghul and imprisoned there in some form of stasis. The only exception was Ishamael, who may have worked out Lews Therin’s intentions and taken steps against them in the few seconds he had left. But the Shadow armies had suddenly lost their leaders and found themselves suddenly on the defensive. The Light, it seemed was victorious.

But then, mere seconds after the final placing of the last seal, a vast, uncontrolled explosion of the Power rippled out from Shayol Ghul, from Lews Therin and the sixty-eight surviving members of the Hundred Companions themselves. Shadowspawn and Light-sworn trooper alike simply blew apart in the firestorm.

The Hundred Companions returned to their homes, but instead of accepting a hero’s welcome instead unleashed the Power almost at random, slaughtering friends and family alike, laying waste to whole cities. Earthquakes erupted and the seas rose over these regions.

Lews Therin returned to the Dragon Palace in Paaran Disen to a rapturous welcome from Ilyena and his children. In some kind of fevered rage, he struck them down with the Power before slaughtering every servant and Da’shain in the building. He wandered in a daze, calling out the names of the friends and his wife he had brutally killed only moments before. Then Ishamael appeared before him and using the Power Healed him of his madness. He told Lews Therin that in the last moment before he sealed the Dark One’s prison, the Dark One had discerned his plan and cursed saidin, the male half of the One Power itself. This curse drove the Hundred Companions and the Dragon himself mad on the instant, but soon all male Aes Sedai would suffer a similar fate. First, they would go mad, destroying and murdering in their insanity, and then they would die, horribly and in great agony. The Dark One was sealed away from the world for now, it was true, but it was also true that the Seven Seals had been made with saidin and would rot from the corruption within. Whether it took forty years or forty thousand, the Dark One would eventually be able to touch the world again.

Horrified at what he had down, Lews Therin fled to a remote part of the world. Here he channelled more of the Power than he could safely handle, killing himself. Curiously, as he died the very earth reared up into a tall, forbidding mountain that stretched into the heavens. Ishamael was unimpressed, knowing that one day Lews Therin would be reincarnated again and on that day Ishamael would have his final revenge. At this point Ishamael’s protection against being imprisoned along with the rest of the Forsaken seems to have run out, and he was cast into the darkness to join his fellows.

The Light had won the war. But it would be unable to enjoy the peace, for the price of victory over the Shadow was the complete and unequivocal destruction of civilisation, and the destruction of almost the entire human race.

Please note that Parts 5-7 of this series are also available to read now on my Patreon page and my other blog, Atlas of Ice and Fire, is currently running a Wheel of Time Atlas series.

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