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What Am I? (Janine's Arches)


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Why is it that they always stop me whenever I'm on an errand? Janine thought to herself as she turned to face whoever it was that had called her name. From the sound of it, she was probably about to be blamed for something that she hadn't done. It'd been a long time since Janine had been punished for talking back, drinking, or any of her other activities; learning discretion had seen to that. Nonetheless, she knew that this was not going to be pleasant. When it involved the Mistress of Novices, it was never pleasant. "If you'll pardon me saying so, Mistress, I am running an errand for Sibyan Sedai, and she-"


"That doesn't matter, child. You've other business to attend to now. Follow me." Without another word, the Mistress of Novices spun on her heel, setting a rapid pace that made even Janine struggle to keep up. What was going on? It didn't sound like the normal pre-beating conversation. That one normally began with, "So, Miss Alastarn, can you tell me what you've done wrong, or do I need to coax it out of you?" That was always a loaded question; more than once, Janine had said something that was not what the woman was looking for. It hadn't turned out well. "If you don't mind me asking, Mistress, where are we going? This isn't like any of our usual conversations."


"Child, you're to be raised to Accepted tonight."


To say that Janine immediately understood what had been said to her would be wrong. It took a few steps for her to finally stop in her tracks. "Say what? Accepted? There's no way! Both you and I know that I'm not ready for that!"


Shaking her head, the Mistress of Novices said, "Child, I know you're not ready. I wasn't ready. Nobody is ready. What you need, you have within you." Oh, that was reassuring...


Through the corridors of the White Tower the two walked, the silence underscoring a tension that was almost visible. Panic, fear, every emotion seemed to cascade upon Janine at once. She couldn't do this. She couldn't! Nonetheless, she walked. Down into the lower levels of the White Tower, she walked. Looking around, the only thing that would make the image complete was rats. There were no rats in the White Tower, she knew, but still... She was also painfully aware that the entire White Tower was above her head. Three thousand years, it'd been there; what if this was its day to come down? Janine would never even have a chance. The walls seemed to be closing in around her. She couldn't breathe. She was going to die. Shaking her head, Janine took a deep breath. She was overreacting.


It took her a moment to realize that they'd stopped. Looking at the Mistress of Novices' back, Janine took a moment to scrutinize her posture before looking about the room. Her eyes immediately fell upon the Arches, and that was the end of any inspection. She'd read about them, and she'd learned what they taught about them, but to actually see them... It made it all the more real. They were actually going to raise her to Accepted. Her! The troublemaker!


"Janine, listen to me," the Mistress of Novices said. "What I tell you now, no woman hears until she is in this room. The first is this. Once you begin, you must go on. Refuse, and no matter your strength, no matter your courage, you will be put out of the Tower and you will never be allowed back. The second is this. To seek, to strive, is to know danger. Some women have entered and never come out. When the ter'angreal went quiet, they – were – not – there. And they were never seen again. If you will survive, you must be steadfast. Falter, fail, and…" Janine understood. "This is your last chance. Refuse now, and it counts as the first mark. You may still try twice more. If you accept now, there is no turning back. It's no shame to refuse; many sisters could not do it their first time." Refusal during the test meant a permanent end to her learning. It was a tempting thought. No more chores, no more studying. No more Aes Sedai, no more One Power. She could go back to the farm. "Choose, Janine." It wasn't even a choice.


"I'll do it," she said.


"Good. Ready yourself."


It took a moment for Janine to figure out what she meant. She had to go in "clad in the Light." Basically, she was going into this ter'angreal in nothing more than the skin she'd been born in. Her shoes and stockings were the first to be placed on the pile, then her dress, then her shift. On top of that, she left the books that Sibyan Sedai had wanted. There, she was as ready as she could possibly get.


If only she didn't feel as if she were facing the gallows.


"Whom do you bring with you, Sister?" The words made Janine start; she'd failed to notice the other Aes Sedai in the room. All of a sudden, she was far more aware of her nudity. Even in her fear, a part of Janine was saying, "Well, if they're that interested, let them look." Somehow, though, she doubted any of them were that interested.


"One who comes as a candidate for Acceptance, Sister." The Mistress of Novices' voice sounded calm. Heh. Easy for her. It was only a sheer effort of will that kept Janine's knees from shaking, that kept her from falling to the floor in a trembling heap.


"Is she ready?" Not bloody likely.


"She is ready to leave behind what she was, and, passing through her fears, gain Acceptance." Why all this talk about Acceptance? The more the ceremony dragged on, the more nervous Janine became. It wasn't good, it wasn't fair. It wasn't making things any easier for her.


"Does she know her fears?" Ummm... can I say "everything?"


"She has never faced them, but now is willing."


If Janine weren't so terrified that she'd stopped breathing, she would have laughed. Of course she wasn't willing!


"Then let her face what she fears." The words had barely been spoken when the Arches sprang to life. A silvery glow began eminating from the ter'angreal, creating a kaleidoscopic effect that Janine would have found hypnotic at any other time. It was lovely.


It was frightful.


"The first time is for what was." The words were spoken quietly, but they seemed to carry throughout the entire room. Swallowing, Janine gazed at the silvery glow, willing her feet to release their hold on the paving stones of the floor. "The way back will come but once. Be steadfast." Let's get this over with. If nothing else, I'm done being a novice, no matter what. It took everything that Janine had to force her through that portal of light. A roar like a thousand seas echoed in her ears, and she felt as if she were being torn apart...




"The first time is for what was…"


Her eyes closed, Janine savored the feel of lips pressed against hers, the taste of the other. Of Anilise. Her secret lover, the one who her husband knew nothing of. Their affair had been going for over a year, beginning innocently enough, but now it was something… more. Something greater. Slowly, their lips parted, and Janine allowed herself to gaze into Anilise's gray eyes. Tenderly, she traced a finger across the other woman's cheek, brushing a hair out of her face. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. Janine's brow wrinkled in curiosity. Where had that thought come from? It wasn't one of hers. "What's the matter, love?" Anilise asked as her hands moved to her bodice strings, undoing the knots holding it in place. "You look as if you've seen a ghost."


Shaking her head, Janine caressed Anilise's cheek again. "Nothing. It was nothing." Smiling warmly, Janine pulled Anilise close, their lips meeting. Blindly, the two worked at the other's dresses, their passions aflame. A voice in the back of Janine's head was telling her that there was something odd about the whole situation. Something that wasn't quite right. But it was a quiet voice, growing quieter as she allowed her dress to fall to the barn floor. All she wanted was Anilise, her silky skin pressed against her body, her kiss lasting forever. All she wanted…


"So, the stories are true, I see." The cold anger in the deep, masculine voice caused both Janine and Anilise to start in fear. Like lightning, they were both holding shifts over their nudity. "Blood and bloody ashes," Janine cursed. "What are you doing back so early, Haral?" They were caught; there was no reason to play innocent.


"What do you mean back, my dear Janine? I never left." Haral's angry eyes flickered from Janine to Anilise. For a moment, the merest hint of interest crossed that gaze, but it was soon buried again by anger and something else. A familiar look crossed Haral's face then, a look that Janine had seen all-too-many times. It was the days after looks like that where Janine stayed in the house and out of sight, away from anybody who might notice the dark bruises. Her father had arranged this marriage, a marriage to a man who knew how to "deal with a lively woman." His dealings with her often left Janine unable to move for hours and unable to sit for days. She hated him for it, yet there was nothing to do but take the blows and find solace in the arms of another. That look... "I had to know that the rumors were true. Do you have any idea what they're saying about me in the village? That I'm not enough man for my own wife! That this... this wench here is more to you than I can be! This is your fault, Janine. You're making me do this." The open-handed blow was expected, but it still sent Janine flailing into the hay, unable to keep her balance. Her head spinning, she looked up to see Haral dragging Anilise out of the barn, a handful of her hair in his hand. A muffled scream sounded from outside as he threw her to the ground. Staggering up from the hay, Janine made her way to the door, her steps hesitant and staggering, waiting for the inevitable call of gravity to bring her back down to the ground.


Anilise was trying to crawl away, her bare back already marked by two welts. It looked as if Haral was using the horse whip on her. An angry growl escaped her throat. How dare he? How dare he?! Janine didn't even realize that she'd picked up the scythe until she was walking out the door, her naked body covered in small scratches from the hay, her eye already swelling shut and turning purple. Too long had Haral used her poorly. She'd been beaten, starved, and intimidated, and still- The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. Shaking her head at the sudden thought, Janine found herself looking at a silvery gateway that lay beyond where Anilise lay. Her eyes darted between the two. There lay Anilise, her eyes wide and fearful in a face that was bruised and bleeding, one hand reaching out to Janine. When she said, "Help me," in a voice that could barely break a whisper, Janine could see the gaps in her once-beautiful smile where Haral had knocked out her teeth. The man had to die, and yet...


The first step towards the silvery gateway was the hardest. As were the next several. Hot tears were pouring from Janine's eyes as she walked, tears of anger, frustration, and sadness. The steady screams from Anilise became a bubbling gurgle, yet Janine walked on.


White light consumed her...




Gasping, her breath ragged from sobbing, Janine stumbled out of the arch, falling to her hands and knees before the assembled Aes Sedai. The memories burned in her mind, memories of Anilise, memories of Haral, memories of a life she never lived. "Oh, Light, Anilise," she sobbed again. Her sobs turned into another gasp as cold water splashed onto her head and down her neck and back. Shuddering, she looked up at the cold-faced Aes Sedai holding the pitcher. "You are washed clean of what sin you may have done, and those done against you. You are washed clean of what crime you may have committed, and those committed against you. You come to us washed clean and pure, in heart and soul."


No, I come to you with a heart and soul full of pain and rage, Janine thought. The thought itself was almost enough to bring tears to her eyes again. "Light, was that... was that real?"


"Every woman who come out of that ter'angreal has asked the same question, and the answer is, nobody knows. Perhaps..." A look of compassion and, maybe, unbidden memory came across the Aes Sedai's face. "Some do not come out of these arches. Some find the life that they see there too much to leave. Some choose to stay with husbands, wives, families that they'll never have here. Some choose to fight some sort of great wrong that they see." The Aes Sedai's look changed as she met Janine's gaze; it was obvious that she had a guess at what Janine had been forced to do. It was probably obvious. "The ring has a price, Janine Alastarn, and we all must pay it. For now, though," the Aes Sedai said, helping Janine to her feet, "there is more to be done."


Janine allowed herself to be led to the next arch in the sequence. For a moment, she simply stared into it, wondering what hells would be waiting for her beyond. "Are you ready?" a kind but authoritative voice said behind her.


No, I'm not ready! I'll never be ready for this! Why do I have to go into this thing again?! All there is beyond is pain and suffering! Taking a deep breath, Janine stilled the angry thoughts. There was no room for anger or fear. There was no room for emotion. Only a cold realization that she had to go through that door. Swallowing fear, anger, everything, Janine said, "I'm ready," surprised at how steady her voice was.


"The second time is for what is." Again, that flickering light inside the Arches. Janine gazed steadily into it, hoping to divine what waited for her beyond. "The way back will come but once. Be steadfast." One deep breath. A steady pace. I will not weep again. I will not fear. I will fight it. Light, Anilise... Her world became white light...




"The second time is for what is..."


Her brother's grasp left her arm numb from lack of blood. "Blood and bloody ashes, Jan, Father almost died of rage when you up and left us without any warning. 'Just like her mother,' he kept sayin'. You know I don't like hurting you, but you're givin' me no choice. It's either you or me when we get home."


Heh, home. Home was not what Janine called their little farm. That was hell. Her brothers were only the gatekeepers to that little shrine to pain and torment. "Please, just let me go back! They're going to think I'm a flaming runaway! Do you have any idea what that means?!" The first chance she'd ever had to go outside the Tower into Tar Valon, and her brothers had been waiting for her. When she'd made it far enough to be snatched without drawing too much attention, they'd done it, and getting out of the city had been relatively easy, too. Tar Valon was fading into the distance, and her hopes of becoming an Aes Sedai faded with it. Despite her misgivings, despite everything, Janine had come to love the White Tower.


"Sorry, Jan, we can't do that. When we'd failed to bring you home, Dad beat the both of us until we couldn't stand. You're in for it when we get back, too. I hear he's got a husband picked out for you and everything." His voice spoke of pity. Arin and Cyle had always been kind to her; they were pranksters all in their youth. But now... What husband could I possibly take? Already, she was starting to slow. Any man she married would die long before her, and she'd spend the rest of her life alone. Miserable.


"Look, Arin, I know you mean well, but you have to let me go back. Do you have any idea what I can do? Do you have any idea what I can do to you?" It was tempting to open herself to saidar, let the Power flow into her. With it, she knew, she could fend off her brothers. But wouldn't that be using it as a weapon? Wouldn't that be against the Three Oaths? No, it's only a weapon if you intend to do harm. A slim blade, a hard point to see, but it was there. Temptation won over. Closing her eyes, Janine began the first exercise any novice learned upon arriving at the Tower...


Only to be cut short. Out of the forest streamed men on horses, more than what she could handle. As if she'd been trained to handle anything like this anyway. "Well, well, well, if we don't have a few travelers on their way back from Tar Valon. I'll wager that you've some rather heavy gold that's burdening you. Why don't you let us take that off your hands?" Bandits?! This close to Tar Valon?! It was unthinkable. Arin let Janine loose, and she slid to the ground in an undignified heap. Standing, she dusted herself off, only to find that every eye was fixed upon her. "Who's she?" the man asked, a pointed look directed at Arin. "Some likely whore you picked up from the White Tower to show you a good time? Maybe she can show all of us a good time."


"If you lay one hand on her," Arin said angrily, "I'll kill you."


"Ooh, a tough one," the bandit muttered again. "I think I'll take you up on that challenge." Slowly, his horse advanced towards her. Janine was transfixed, unable to even recall the exercises to find saidar. Fortunately, Arin and Cyle saved her from that decision. Without a word, the two of them booted their horses forward, Cyle's rearing up to kick the bandit in the head. Instantly, the others were on them, knives and swords being drawn, curses being shouted. Over the din, Janine could hear Arin shouting, "RUN, JANINE! RUN!" Above all that, though, was a voice in her head. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. Turning, Janine saw a silvery gateway. She also found her mind clear enough to find saidar. She could lay waste to everything and everybody there, but... First Arin yelled in agony, then Cyle. They'd been wounded. She could help them. She could. It would all be over so quickly. Closing her eyes, Janine bolted for the silvery doorway. She would not cry. She would not cry. She. Would. Not...




Falling through the arch, a sob tore itself from Janine's throat before she could stop it. Both of them dead. If it had been her father, Janine would never have cared. But her brothers? Light, why did it have to be them? It was almost a relief when the cold water poured over her head. "You are washed clean of false pride. You are washed clean of false ambition. You come to us washed clean in heart and soul."


"But I let them die," Janine whispered. It wasn't right. She couldn't be clean, not if she destroyed everything she loved. She couldn't be good. Was she just inherently evil, then? No. I would die before I let the Dark One claim me. I would kill before I let that happen. Somehow, Janine knew that it was true, and she had an odd feeling that she would have to prove it one day. Convulsively, her right hand balled into a fist. This was the Janine they'd come to know. Through the pain, through the despair, through everything, she was a fighter. She wasn't going to let this flaming remnant from a bloody Age long past beat her. She would come through it! She had to.


Allowing herself to be guided to the last arch, Janine slowly met the eyes of the Aes Sedai, her nerve already failing before the woman said, "The third time is for what will be. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast." What nerve she had managed to hold onto had faded to fear when Janine looked again at the ter'angreal. I don't want to do it again! I don't want the pain! Tears were already forming again as she stepped into the bright white light. One last time...




"The third time is for what will be..."


Shadar Logoth. It was as fine a place as any to make a stand, though Janine knew that she would probably die here. At least she wouldn't die alone. At least she wouldn't die unloved. The bundle of emotions in the back of her mind that was Loren told of tension, nervousness, a spring ready to unleash its energy. It also carried love. Loren was her second Warder. Her first, Kaitlen, had asked to have the bond broken many years ago; she'd found a man, and Janine had been more than happy to let her go to him. If she was happy, then it was worth it. They'd been good friends, but nothing else. With Loren, though, it had been a rocky start. Neither had liked the other much. Probably because we saw too much of ourselves in each other. However, their respect for each other had come, and soon, love followed. Janine could still remember that first night that they'd spent together; she often did when they were in danger. It helped her calm herself. Helped her find saidar.


Helped her fight.


The tension in the back of her mind seemed to suddenly release, and Janine knew that Loren had engaged the Shadowspawn that had been tracking them. The Blightborder had fallen, and Trollocs and Fades had poured into the breach, even as far south as forgotten Aridhol. The Battle Ajah had been busy trying to beat them back, but it was hard. Janine was one of the ones that they called when they needed the killing done. Her strength, her skill, everything she knew was directed towards wholesale slaughter of the Shadow's creatures. It was hard for hordes of Shadowspawn to overrun an outpost when vast numbers of them were swallowed by the earth, set aflame, or cut down by surges of lightning. A slow smile spread over Janine's face as she wove. Lightning... It had always been her weapon of choice in the fight against the Shadow. Drawing the very power of the heavens to aid her, she could rain down death to any who stood in her way. Already, she could feel the charge forming, like a tingle on her skin. Though she couldn't feel it, Janine knew that strands of her hair were beginning to stand on end. More.


"Janine, the Trollocs have come into the city. We can't fight them for long, not here. Night will fall soon, and you know what happens then." Loren was as beautiful as ever, even when drenched in Trolloc blood. Her blue eyes sparkled with concern, which Janine could feel through the bond. Her hand rested gently on Janine's arm. "We cannot win here, Janine. We either flee or we die."


"We either die here and take them with us, or we die on the run. I can't keep running the horses the way we are, and we both know that they'll die if I keep draining away their fatigue. And if I get too tired to flee, then how can we even hope to fight?" Janine's voice was calm. Dying in this place with her enemies around her would be preferable to dying tired and unable to fight back. "Remember, love, we'll always be with each other, even to death."


"Even to death," Loren whispered.


Janine wanted to hold her in that moment, to kiss her, to calm her nerves. But she had to get away from the woman she loved. Already, she was a massive conductor, a lightning rod, fully charged. What hair wasn't caught back in the short braid that ran down her neck was standing straight on end, and small bolts of lightning arced to whatever metal it could find. She was ready. The sun was halfway down. Shadar Logoth was ready. The sound of grunting Trollocs and heavy footfalls gradually grew louder. The Shadowspawn were ready. Her smile grew cold. "Let's dance, Loren."


The first Trolloc didn't even get a chance to see her. Janine simply pointed, laying the rest of the weave between her and the beaked creature. The blast hurled it against the wall, where its charred remains broke apart, scattering blackened Trolloc flesh into its fellow creatures. Dividing her weaves, Janine channeled Earth and Water into the street before the advancing mass of Shadowspawn, lightning shooting into the face of another Trolloc that got too close. As the main mass of the roaring creatures entered the square, they stepped into a mass of stone that was not entirely solid. The stone had taken on the consistency of thick mud, and any exposed dirt was more like water. En masse, the horde sunk into the stone up to its knees. Good. Tying the weave off, Janine began weaving again. All five elements needed to go into this one, and it was hard. It was a very difficult weave to manage; Janine could barely make it work, and once it was unleashed, there was nothing to do but watch. The last flow of Spirit connected her weave to the lead Trolloc, and the world exploded with blue light. Tendrils of energy arced between the huddled Trollocs, passing from beast to beast, the air filling with the sickly sweet smell of seared flesh. Those towards the rear of the mass were screaming in agony. Those in the front were unrecognizable. "Time to move on."


"Too late," Loren said. Janine didn't need to look to know what that meant. The sun was down. They were going to die. Mashadar would have woken up by now. Let it come.


It came.


The scent of death must have drawn it. From all around them it came, blocking all exits. And closing in. Slowly, Janine and Loren backed away from the glowing mist, careful to avoid the thin tendrils it sent out. "Careful, love," Loren muttered as she sidestepped one of Mashadar's feelers. It slithered between them. Janine's sigh of relief was quickly cut off as Mashadar flooded between them, cutting her off from her love. "No! NO!!" Loren screamed. The wall of mist slowly closed in on the Warder, whose sword would do nothing to the mist. She could only die, a painful death that did not bear thinking about. Janine would rather feel the pain of loss than have her feel the pain of that death. With a deep breath, she began to weave again. Mashadar would not have her love. The way back will come but once. Be steadfast. Janine could have screamed in rage and despair when the gateway appeared out of the corner of her eye. One tendril was extending towards Loren. It was now or never. "Janine... Janine? Janine! JANIEEEEEEEEEE!!!" Loren's pet name for her and the agonized scream it had become still echoed through Janine's mind as she passed through the silver portal, wanting to cry, but having no tears left to cry. The white light was a painful oblivion...




She wept. Her throat was ragged, her eyes and face red and tear-streaked. Janine fell to the floor, curled up into a little ball. It hurt. Three times she'd been able to save them. Three times she'd just left them! Three time! Light, she deserved to die, to be damned for all eternity for that alone. She had the power to save them, yet when they needed her most, when they needed her... This ring has cost me too damn much. But since she'd paid for it... It seemed like an eternity before Janine could bring herself to her knees, before she could stop sobbing. The cold water that splashed upon her head was a relief. It was only then that Janine became aware of some newcomers to the room.


Standing above her crouched form was a woman who could only be the Amyrlin himself; Janine had always thought she'd be taller in person.  Still holding the now-empty pitcher of water over her head, the Amyrlin intoned, "You are washed clean of Janine Alastarn of Andor.  You are washed clean of all ties that bind you to the world. You come to us washed clean in heart and soul. You are Janine Alastarn, Accepted of the White Tower." It was hard to keep her breath from catching in her throat. All of that for a simple title. All of that for a banded white dress. All of that for a ring. All of that... If I ever become Aes Sedai, I will make sure that they pay for this. "You are sealed to us, now."


Sealed. She was trapped. Just as well. What had the world to offer Janine Alastarn now? She barely even noticed when the Amyrlin guided her hand up with her own. The sensation of being touch left for a moment, then returned as a ring slid onto her middle finger. Slowly, Janine rose to her feet, her eyes meeting the Amyrlin's. "Welcome, daughter," she said, leaning over to kiss her first on one cheek, then the other. "Welcome."


Accepted of the White Tower... Janine wished that she could revel in the name, feel the excitement of what it meant to be Accepted, but she couldn't. She felt hollow, confused. There were things about all three visions that bothered her, that didn't make sense. The remainder of the day, Janine felt, would be spent trying to figure out those very things. She didn't notice the Mistress of Novices approaching until she was standing right next to her. "It's hard, I know, and you may never feel as if it were worth the sacrifices you had to make. There are times when I'm not sure. Don't hold it in, though, Janine. It'll only tear you apart and leave you hollow."


"It already has," Janine muttered, too quietly to be heard. "It already has."

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