"Can you feel it?" Wit asked of the open night. "Something just changed. I believe that's the sound the world makes when it pisses itself."

Three guards stood just inside the thick wooden city gates of Kholinar. The men regarded Wit with worry.

The gates were closed, and these men were of the night watch, a somewhat inappropriate title. They didn't spend time "watching" so much as chatting, yawning, gambling, or - in tonight's case - standing uncomfortably and listening to a crazy man.

That crazy man happened to have blue eyes, which let him get away with all kinds of trouble. Perhaps Wit should have been bemused by the stock these people put in something as simple as eye color, but he had been many places and seen many methods of rule. This didn't seem any more ridiculous than most others.

And, of course, there was a reason the people did what they did. Well, there was usually a reason. In this case, it just happened to be a good one.

"Brightlord?" one of the guards asked, looking at where Wit sat on his boxes. They'd been piled there and left by a merchant who had tipped the night watchmen to make certain nothing was stolen. To Wit, they simply made a convenient perch. His pack sat beside him, and on his knees he was tuning his enthir, a square, stringed instrument. You played it from above, plucking at strings with it sitting on your lap.

"Brightlord?" the guard repeated. "What are you doing up there?"

"Waiting," Wit said. He looked up, glancing eastward. "Waiting for the storm to arrive."

That made the guards more uncomfortable. A highstorm was not predicted this night.

Wit began playing the enthir. "Let us have a conversation to pass the time. Tell me. What is it that men value in others?"

The music played toward an audience of silent buildings, alleys, and worn cobblestones. The guards didn't respond to him. They didn't seem to know what to make of a black-clad, lighteyed man who entered the city just before evening fell, then sat on boxes beside the gates playing music.

"Well?" Wit asked, pausing the music. "What do you think? If a man or woman were to have a talent, which would be the most revered, best regarded, considered of the most worth?"

"Er… music?" one of the men finally said.

"Yes, a common answer," Wit said, plucking at a few low notes. "I once asked this question of some very wise scholars. What do men consider the most valuable of talents? One mentioned artistic ability, as you so keenly guessed. Another chose great intellect. The final chose the talent to invent, the ability to design and create great devices."

He didn't play a specific tune on the enthir, just plucks here and there, an occasional scale or fifth. Like chitchat in string form.

"Aesthetic genius," Wit said, "invention, acumen, creativity. Noble ideals indeed. Most men would pick one of those, if given the choice, and name them the greatest of talents." He plucked a string. "What beautiful liars we are."

The guards glanced at each other; the torches burning in brackets on the wall painted them with orange light.

"You think I'm a cynic," Wit said. "You think I'm going to tell you that men claim to value these ideals, but secretly prefer base talents. The ability to gather coin or to charm women. Well, I am a cynic, but in this case, I actually think those scholars were honest. Their answers speak for the souls of men. In our hearts, we want to believe in - and would choose - great accomplishment and virtue. That's why our lies, particularly to ourselves, are so beautiful."

He began to play a real song. A simple melody at first, soft, subdued. A song for a silent night when the entire world changed.

One of the soldiers cleared his throat. "So what is the most valuable talent a man can have?" He sounded genuinely curious.

"I haven't the faintest idea," Wit said. "Fortunately, that wasn't the question. I didn't ask what was most valuable, I asked what men value most. The difference between those questions is both tiny and as vast as the world itself all at once."

He kept plucking his song. One did not strum an enthir. It just wasn't done, at least not by people with any sense of propriety.

"In this," Wit said, "as in all things, our actions give us away. If an artist creates a work of powerful beauty - using new and innovative techniques - she will be lauded as a master, and will launch a new movement in aesthetics. Yet what if another, working independently with that exact level of skill, were to make the same accomplishments the very next month? Would she find similar acclaim? No. She'd be called derivative.

"Intellect. If a great thinker develops a new theory of mathematics, science, or philosophy, we will name him wise. We will sit at his feet and learn, and will record his name in history for thousands upon thousands to revere. But what if another man determines the same theory on his own, then delays in publishing his results by a mere week? Will he be remembered for his greatness? No. He will be forgotten.

"Invention. A woman builds a new design of great worth - some fabrial or feat of engineering. She will be known as an innovator. But if someone with the same talent creates the same design a year later - not realizing it has already been crafted - will she be rewarded for her creativity? No. She'll be called a copier and a forger."

He plucked at his strings, letting the melody continue, twisting, haunting, yet with a faint edge of mockery. "And so," he said, "in the end, what must we determine? Is it the intellect of a genius that we revere? If it were their artistry, the beauty of their mind, would we not laud it regardless of whether we'd seen their product before?

"But we don't. Given two works of artistic majesty, otherwise weighted equally, we will give greater acclaim to the one who did it first. It doesn't matter what you create. It matters what you create before anyone else.

"So it's not the beauty itself we admire. It's not the force of intellect. It's not invention, aesthetics, or capacity itself. The greatest talent that we think a man can have?" He plucked one final string. "Seems to me that it must be nothing more than novelty."

The guards looked confused.

The gates shook. Something pounded on them from outside.

"The storm has come," Wit said, standing up.

The guards scrambled for spears left leaning beside the wall. They had a guard house, but it was empty; they preferred the night air.

The gate shook again, as if something enormous were outside. The guards yelled, calling to the men atop the wall. All was chaos and confusion as the gate thumped yet a third time, powerful, shaking, vibrating as if hit with a boulder.

And then a bright, silvery blade rammed between the massive doors, slicing upward, cutting the bar that held them closed. A Shardblade.

The gates swung open. The guards scrambled back. Wit waited on his boxes, enthir held in one hand, pack over his shoulder.

Outside the gates, standing on the dark stone roadway, was a solitary man with dark skin. His hair was long and matted, his clothing nothing more than a ragged, sacklike length of cloth wrapping his waist. He stood with head bowed, wet, ratty hair hanging down over his face and mixing with a beard that had bits of wood and leaves stuck in it.

His muscles glistened, wet as if he'd just swum a great distance. To his side, he carried a massive Shardblade, point down, sticking about a finger's width into the stone, his hand on the hilt. The Blade reflected torchlight; it was long, narrow, and straight, shaped like an enormous spike.

"Welcome, lost one," Wit whispered.

"Who are you!" one of the guards called, nervous, as one of the other two ran to give the alert. A Shardbearer had come to Kholinar.

The figure ignored the question. He stepped forward, dragging his Shardblade, as if it weighed a great deal. It cut the rock behind him, leaving a tiny groove in the stone. The figure walked unsteadily, and nearly tripped. He steadied himself against the gate door, and a lock of hair moved from the side of his face, exposing his eyes. Dark brown eyes, like a man of the lower class. Those eyes were wild, dazed.

The man finally noticed the two guards, who stood, terrified, with spears leveled at him. He raised his empty hand toward them. "Go," he said raggedly, speaking perfect Alethi, no hint of an accent. "Run! Raise the call! Give the warning!"

"Who are you?" one of the guards forced out. "What warning? Who attacks?"

The man paused. He raised a hand to his head, wavering. "Who am I? I… I am Talenel'Elin, Stonesinew, Herald of the Almighty. The Desolation has come. Oh, God… it has come. And I have failed."

He slumped forward, hitting the rocky ground, Shardblade clattering down behind him. It did not vanish. The guards inched forward. One prodded the man with the butt of his spear.

The man who had named himself a Herald did not move.

"What is it we value?" Wit whispered. "Innovation. Originality. Novelty. But most importantly… timeliness. I fear you may be too late, my confused, unfortunate friend."


Book One of