Rand al'Thor, the Dragon Reborn, destined to battle the Dark One in the final battle, leads those Aiel (a warrior desert people) willing to follow him into the West to secure his new conquests and engage in even more direct conflicts with the surviving Forsaken (magic-using men and women who have pledged themselves to the Dark One). After Rand's revelations in the last book that the Aiel were once a people dedicated to peace, the Aiel split between those who believe that Rand, despite being an outlander, is their long-prophesied Car'a'carn (their own version of the Dragon Reborn), and those who refuse to believe either who he is or the shameful things he has revealed about their past. Those who refuse to follow him have joined with the Shaido clan, and are now leaving the Aiel Waste for the first time in twenty years to sack the city of Cairhien. Rand assembles all the loyal clans and begins pursuit.
Jasin Natael continues to secretly teach Rand how to control his burgeoning power. No one else knows that Natael is actually the Forsaken Asmodean, whom Rand defeated and shackled with the One Power at the end of the last book. He had critical help from Lanfear, who, despite also being one of the Forsaken, is still obsessively in love with Rand. Also in the Waste with Rand are Mat Cauthon, his childhood best friend and one of the other taver'en (special individuals whose existence alters the destinies of those around them), and Moiraine, the Aes Sedai (a magical society of women) who first found Rand and his friends in the Two Rivers and set them on this path all those years before.
In the last book, Moiraine and Mat both went through ter'angereal (objects designed for a special use of the One Power) and underwent powerful transformations of their own. After so many minor trickling hints, Mat's brain finally awakens to the memories of dozens of great generals over the long centuries, whose cumulative experience raises questions about Mat's own identity while instilling in him a veteran battle master's understanding of war. Moiraine faced proof of her imminent fate, and this has made her desperate to spend every second with Rand, to give him every last bit of help she can before that fate must be faced.
Meanwhile, Elaine and Nynaeve are on the way out of Tarabon feeling pretty good about themselves. They saved the Queen, foiled a sect of Aes Sedai serving the Dark One, and Nynaeve became the first Aes Sedai in three thousand years to face a Forsaken in single combat and not only survive, but win. Unfortunately that Forsaken, Moghedien, escaped soon after, but both women try not to consider the threat this might pose to them in the future. They focus instead on finding the secret enclave of rebel Aes Sedai – those who fled rather than accept the usurper Elaida, who stilled and attempted to execute the last Amyrlin, before taking her throne. In their travels, they almost get kidnapped and shipped back to Elaida, they join a traveling circus, and run into the mad Prophet, who worships Rand and whose growing mob of followers are ransacking the countryside in his name.
They also meet and are guided by Birgitte, a legendary hero, in the dream world of Tel'aran'rhiod, which mirrors our own in a state of lucid dreaming. Grown overbold by her successes, Nynaeve convinces Birgitte to help her spy on the Forsaken in Tel'aran'rhiod, where they meet and scheme. Birgitte reluctantly agrees, but they are spotted by Moghedien herself. Moghedien, still furious from before, captures and tortures Nynaeve. She is only saved by a desperate Birgitte, who as punishment is ripped out of Tel'aran'rhiod, her home, and dropped into Elayne and Nynaeve's room back in the real world. Birgitte is near death, though. Elayne does something long forbidden, doubly forbidden: she bonds Birgitte as her Warder despite the fact that Birgittte is unconscious and a woman. The bond, though, gives Birgitte just enough strength to survive. Nynaeve is shattered by what she sees as her own cowardice, and the cost of that cowardice on Birgitte's expulsion from Tel'aran'rhiod. She lives in constant fear that Moghedien will return, and now believes that her first victory against the Forsaken must have been a fluke.
Back at the Dragonwall, Rand and the Aiel have finally caught up to the Shaido outside the gates of Cairhien. They spent the previous weeks witnessing the horrors and massacres the Shaido left in their wake. A massive battle ensues. Mat tries to flee, but finds himself caught up in skirmish after skirmish, in which his instinctive knowledge turns desperate defeat into nonstop victory. By chance, he runs into the Shaido chief and kills him in single combat. Rand's allies take heavy losses, but with Couladin dead and the Shaido in retreat, victory is theirs at last.
Rand marches into Cairhien their savior and, also, conqueror. There he learns that Rahvin, one of the most powerful of male Forsaken, has killed Elayne's mother, the Queen of Caemlyn, and taken her throne. Rand – in love with Elayne and outraged on her behalf – sets out to kill him. But before he can do so, Lanfear arrives in Cairhien and attacks the entire party. She has learned that Rand has slept with Aviendha (another woman he's in love with), and in her jealousy she is unstoppable.
Moiraine's moment comes at last. While Lanfear is distracted with torturing Aviendha, she tackles Lanfear and the two women fall through a ter'angreal, which is then destroyed in fire, presumably killing them both. Moiraine's sacrifice saves everyone. Rand, devastated even more than before, grimly sets out to finish off Rahvin. Mat and Aviendha and many others follow Rand to Caemlyn through a Gateway. But Rahvin is waiting for them.
The battle between the two of them is epic. But neither can get an edge on each other, and the battle slips into Tel'aran'rhiod. There, by coincidence, Nynaeve has finally worked up the nerve to confront Moghedien at last, and takes her captive with an a'dam, a ter'angreal that enslaves one woman who can channel to another. Rahvin and Rand are entirely preoccupied with their battle to notice. Using Moghedien's power against the other Forsaken, Nynaeve engulfs Rahvin in flame, giving Rand the edge he needed to finish him off.
The book ends on a conflicted note. Ravhin is dead. Lanfear is presumably dead. Moghedien is captured. And Caemlyn and Cairhien are in Rand's hands. But Moiraine is also dead, and there are other Forsaken out there, and other, even greater threats looming just out of sight.
Best part of story, including ending:
Jordan knows how to plot, and his narrative machinery hums along nicely. His characters are a little simplistic at times, and their motivations occasionally childish, but the set pieces for the most part are breathtakingly epic.
Best scene in story:
The scene where Lanfear confronts Rand et al on the Cairhienen docks is powerful, gruesome, and tragic. It's because of scenes like this that I keep slogging through this series.
Opinion about the main character:
Aside from Rand's absurdly genteel refusal to kill, or even harm, any of the female Forsaken (despite the repeated assertions that they are evil), Rand proves himself to be a genuinely fascinating character. He is powerful beyond belief, but he also knows that he's doomed to die to save a world that fears and hates him.