Chapter 1: Part I
Chapter 1: Poisoned
Flashes of thought staggered through his mind as he himself staggered through the woods. He would die here, for the fourth and final time. How many beings could claim such? Truly, he was magnificent even in death.
It never hurt any less. He could feel the Keeper pumping in his veins… Ah, the illusions the mind conjured when faced with mortality.
One foot in front of the other, trying not to grimace at his ill-fitting boots. Why had he not demanded more comfortable clothing from the Mord'Sith before his departure? Or even a uniform from the soldiers… There had been a reason. A good one. He never did anything without a good reason. But he could not remember now.
He slipped as he pushed his way between the trees, and released a growling hiss as his world narrowed to a sharp white point. He fell against a tree, pressing into his poisoned wound. Black spots danced at the edge of his vision.
It was not as painful as holding an Agiel, and so all the more humiliating when he could not make himself rise.
He would die here. For the fourth and final time.
So this would be the final end of the great and terrible Darken Rahl, born beneath a staggering prophecy of treacherous deeds. A hoarse laugh, a vague whimper, and he would be no more. A plaything of the Keeper.
How utterly pathetic.
As his eyes slid shut, he thought of his brother.
Chapter 2: Found
He awoke to prodding hands. They skimmed his face, cool and soothing. Ghosting over his closed eyes, they paused under his nose until he exhaled against the skin.
The hands moved down, plucking at his clothes. He tried to force his eyes open, but it was as if his mind was no longer connected to his body. He felt the hands from far away.
A confused notion of alarm sluggishly fought to the fore of his awareness. Who did the hands belong to? Were they there to help or hinder?
Perhaps he had been found by his brother… No, that was not right, anyone who knew him would not treat him so gently.
A dark bubble of thought frothed from his cracked soul. Perhaps he would be robbed and his suffering ended by a bandit's blade. Better yet, let them be a baneling! A more ignoble and ironic end could not be asked for.
Perhaps it would be someone sufficiently in awe of his countenance to be ordered to aid him. He need only find the strength to make the command to escape the Keeper's wrath a little longer.
He made a valiant effort to pull his mind from darkness, but was thwarted when the hands found his bandaged shoulder and tore the wrapping away. It felt like a cry was wrung from his lips as he sank back into unconsciousness, but in reality it was a breathless wheeze.
The helping hands rubbed the malodorous slime oozing from the wound between two fingers, and came to a decision. As gently and quickly as the hands were capable of, the fallen man was wrapped in a cloak and dragged away.
Chapter 3: Healing
Awareness, like a fog, crept to his mind, interrupting the recriminations of the Keeper. Content to let his focus come in its own time, he drifted on the top of consciousness, skimming the edge of the waking world.
He could feel fabric against his skin. His head ached. His teeth were grimy, and a bitter acid had taken up residence in his throat.
So he was alive.
Rustling and footsteps, the sounds of liquid sloshing. He could smell wood smoke.
He opened his eyes and immediately shut them against the light, holding his breath to keep his captor from knowing of his awareness.
Opening his eyes the tiniest of slivers to allow them to adjust, he observed his surroundings. A ramshackle cabin, reasonably clean. Everything looked well worn, yet serviceable. Darken himself was on a pallet on the floor, a surprisingly soft rag of a blanket his only covering.
All of these things he took in within a moment. It was the woman with her back to him that captured his attention. With long, somewhat tangled blonde hair, she was wearing the garb of a Sister of the Light. She was not wearing the veil and her robes were stained along the hems, but there was no mistaking what they identified her as.
She stirred something in a pot hanging over the fire in the fireplace in the corner. The sloshing sounds… soup, or medicine.
She must have healed him… but why? She could not be a Sister of the Dark. They had their orders from the Keeper to send him back to the Underworld. He doubted that a Sister of the Light would grant him aid unless they wished for something in return.
A hatchet sat with a basket by the door, most likely for gathering fire wood. If he was silent and quick, he could reach it before she knew of his return to the world of the waking.
He shifted his weight, preparing to make his escape.
"I would not do that were I you," said the Sister, her voice pleasant.
He froze, briefly considered rolling over and feigning sleep, but decided against it.
"What, pray tell, was I going to do, Sister?"
"Something foolish," she answered as she picked up a clay jar from the mantle and sprinkled its contents into the pot over the fire.
He stiffened, his first desire to strike out at the one who dared speak to him so… but he could not deny the merit of her words. Running from the cabin clad only in a blanket and armed only with a hatchet when he had no idea where he was – it was most definitely foolish.
As he pulled himself into a more comfortable position, the Sister began spooning the slop in the pot into a rough clay bowl.
"I have been feeding you soup and water the past few days, but it was difficult to get you to swallow enough. You will need to eat now."
She turned, staring down into the soup bowl, taking careful slow steps to avoid spilling.
"Days? How long-"
She interrupted, "Three or four. It is hard for me to keep track."
She slowly, and not ungracefully, knelt at his side, still staring down into the bowl.
"Do you need any help sitting up?"
He was already sitting up, and had just opened his mouth to question her intelligence when she looked up and her milky white eyes met his.
She was blind.
Chapter 4: Names
His shock was momentary, hardly noticeable to the blind woman who held a bowl of soup out in offering. He took the bowl from her firm grip as his mind spun with comprehension.
The Sister could not see, was not capable of recognizing him. She probably thought she had helped some poor hunter who got caught by a gar. He would not disabuse her of the notion. Who knew how far her kindness might extend?
He schooled his features into a suitable expression before realizing he needn't have bothered. She could not see the wry twist of his lips as a smirk sprang to life.
"You are D'Haran," she said, instantly wiping the unseen smirk from his face.
Wary now, he answered, "Yes."
She smiled, a bit crookedly, as if she did not do so often... or perhaps did not know what one should look like.
The Sister held out a spoon and he guided her hand to his, taking it. She seemed inordinately pleased by this action, and swiftly rose and took a measured step back so as not to hover over him.
"I knew as soon as you spoke. It's the accent. Very few outside D'Hara pronounce their vowels that way."
That crooked smile again, and an expectant look. Did she want his praise?
Uncertainty was not a feeling he appreciated, and one he had been dealing with much too often as of late. He quietly ate the bland soup, not answering the woman for now. He would not commit himself to a course of action until he had studied her further.
Her smile faded, and she turned, walking to a corner of the room where a cupboard stood. She ran her hand along the door until she found the latch, then opened the cupboard and pulled out a bundle. When she turned to face him once more, he could see that she was holding his clothes. They were tattered, but appeared cleaner than when he had last had them on. Darken suspected she had washed them while he slept.
She stood there, waiting.
With a mental sigh, he asked "Are those my clothes?"
She perked up at that. Excellent. A droopy blind priestess that craved conversation.
Perhaps he should have stayed with his brother.
She stepped forward to place the clothes within his reach, and only his quick reflexes kept her from stepping in the bowl he had discarded. She did not seem to notice her near miss, instead measuring her steps back toward the fireplace, saying as she did so, "I'll heat water for you to bathe in. There is a river nearby, but it is a bit cold. I don't think your body is ready to deal with it yet."
A surge of annoyance at his implied weakness. True, he was not functioning at his peak, but he felt much better than he had any right to. He closed his eyes and forced the annoyance away, reminding himself that any strength he now possessed was thanks to the blind priestess twittering over his bath water.
Infusing his voice with the deadly charm that he was famous for, he pushed his way from the bed. The action made his head swim for a moment, but it was not of consequence.
"I thank you for your... hospitality, Sister. But I am afraid I must decline. I have no wish to trouble you further."
She turned, a frown creasing her brow, and started toward him with a hand held out. Whether it was an entreaty or to prevent her from bumping into him, Darken could not say.
His attempt to evade her was met with little success. The cabin was simply not big enough to allow him escape. He found himself standing naked, pressed against the cupboard where she had stored his clothes, with her rough hand laid against his chest.
She closed her milky eyes and he felt a pulse of magic, once, twice, in time with his heartbeat.
Her eyes snapped open, and for a startling second appeared to see. But the spark of recognition died quickly and he was able to dismiss it.
"You will stay and have your bath. Tomorrow, you will help me gather firewood. After that, you may leave or you may stay. It is up to you."
"Because you need healing."
"You cured me of the blood poisoning. I am well enough."
"Are you?" she said with that crooked twist to her lips he was already coming to loathe.
He could feel his face hardening into a snarl, "Your riddles are not enough to hold me here, Sister." He put a sneer in his voice, and raised his hand to remove hers from his chest.
She let him go, and stepped back, sensing the temper smoldering beneath his skin.
"No Sister. Just Hali. Hali of the Healing Hands."
His eyes widened. Many questions now needed answers, but before he could give them voice, she put forth a question of her own.
"Have you a name? Or shall I call you 'The D'Haran'?"
He hesitated only a fraction too long before answering,
"Derek. My name is Derek Cypher."
Chapter 5: Pride
Darken was not entirely sure how he came to be helping a blind woman collect fire wood, but he was entirely sure that he did not like it.
From whence came this recent trend of manipulation? The Keeper used his life to tear a hole in the veil separating worlds. His brother bested him not once, but twice: first with the dacra, then with the Listener. Darken could not help but be perversely proud of his brother, who was more Rahl than either of them would ever admit.
And now he was being made to do menial labor by Hali of the Healing Hands.
And how was he chained to her? With a yoke of his own curiosity.
When still a lord with a library at his disposal, he had read, ravenously, of every strategy and phenomena that could help him hold his empire. He had come across few references of those with Healing Hands, but he had read of them.
Not always women, but always compassionate. Some rot about righting the balances of the world. Able to heal with a touch upon wounded flesh. No incantations, no ill effects as would befall a wizard. There was nothing they could not heal in time.
But this was not what tethered him to the bothersome woman who was even now shouting at him to keep up. Physical healing was not so rare: wizards could do it, the Mord'Sith had the breath of life, it was not impossible for powerful Sisters of the Light and Dark.
Those with Healing Hands were said to go beyond the physical. They nurtured the spirit, soothed the mind.
She had said he needed healing.
He scoffed even as he broke into a light run to catch up to Hali.
She heard his footsteps and waited. Once he had reached her, she held out the hatchet in his direction, waiting for him to take it. He did so, and then surprised her by removing the basket from her arm as well. Seeing her delight at his chivalry, a plan formed in his mind. He was not above gallantry if it got him what he wanted. If treating the healer gently would get him answers faster, then he would chop and carry her wood, guide her along the path, and find a suitably furry young animal to present her with.
"Thank you for helping me, Derek," she said. "It is not often I have a chance to store excess firewood."
He tucked her hand into the crook of his elbow, the better to lead her on the forest path.
"I would imagine that it is difficult to cut wood when you cannot see." Darken paused, waiting for the typical feminine outrage at having her flaws addressed, his pretty speech of contrition waiting on his tongue to turn her head.
She said, "Yes, it is."
Changing his tact, he guided her around a root snaking through the path as he asked, "Why do you live so far from the village?"
"I have Healing Hands."
He waited for her to elaborate. When further explanation was not forthcoming, he gritted his teeth and prompted her again.
"The villagers know I can heal with a touch," she answered. "Living half a day's walk into the woods ensures that only those who have real need of me seek me out."
She turned her face to him, that ever present crooked grin in place, "When I lived in the village, I was once called on by the headman to heal his son. There was nothing wrong with the child but an overindulgence in sweets."
She paused, her faced troubled, and the air around her seemed to quiet.
He said, "There is another reason you left the village."
She tilted her head, her matted hair tickling his elbow. Seeming to reach a decision, she replied, "They wouldn't let me heal D'Harans."
Darken was not surprised. He would not allow his enemies a healer unless it served a purpose of the empire.
Hali was very quiet. Perhaps waiting for a response. He should give one.
"I will not tell them I am of D'Hara."
"You should not."
He could feel the tension ease from the hand tucked in his arm. Had she been afraid for him? What a novel feeling.
No. More likely she was familiar with D'Haran pride, and wished to spare herself a scene.
"Perhaps..." she hesitated.
Looking straight ahead, she continued, "It would be best if you covered your face if you ever enter the village. You could use bandages and say I was tending you. A gar attack. Or a bear. Your choice."
He was surprised by this. She did not know his identity, he was sure of it, so why?
He pretended to stumble and pulled Hali to him, a little awkwardly with the basket and hatchet, to 'keep his balance.'
"You think me ugly then?"
He would tease the answers from her.
She reached up slowly, as if he were a skittish horse, and cupped his face in her hands. She ran her fingers across his brow, traced his lips, outlined his jaw, and finally ran them quickly through his recently washed hair.
"You have strong features, and long hair for a D'Haran commoner. You speak well and are heavily muscled. You were either a high ranking officer of the Dragon Corps or you are a former member of Lord Rahl's court."
She pulled away from him and moved ahead. He let her go, once again taken aback by this strange intuition of hers.
As he began to move after her once more, she called over her shoulder, "Either way, I won't risk you being recognized."
Chapter 6: Confusion
Wood gathered, Hali guided, and a jar of foraged berries later, and Darken was still no closer to understanding what had moved the healer to insist on his staying.
He was also not sure why he stayed.
His curiosity was peaked, yes. He idly considered ways to manipulate Hali into helping him escape the Keeper permanently, but his legendary focus deserted him in that endeavor.
He had even been so blunt, so artless as to ask her precisely what she had meant. Her reply?
"You will know when you no longer need me."
He did not need her now.
But it had occurred to him that she needed him. Her cabin, as clean as a blind woman was capable of keeping it, needed new thatching. One of the roof's supporting beams was obviously rotten where it was exposed to the elements. She had a meager supply of firewood, and seemed to survive on water and the bland soup she had fed him earlier, made from boiled roots that grew in crooked rows in a tiny fenced in garden.
She wore the same robes every day, and washed them while she bathed. She could not stray too far from her cabin without being unable to find her way back. Until she touched something she was familiar with, she could walk in the wrong direction and never know it.
She would be indebted to him. Indebted enough to help him obtain the Stone of Tears?
She had obviously once stayed with a Sister of the Light, even if she had never been one herself. He did not know. She may have heard the prophecy foretelling the failure of his brother. She need not know his reasons for wanting the stone. Let her think he wished to save the world.
When last Darken had seen his brother's compass, they had been heading in the general direction of the nearby village. It would not be so difficult to find them, and with a bearer of the Healing Hands in tow he could... what?
What benefit could she possibly be in his quest to bask in the Creator's light?
Something told him that Hali was important to his future. He had always attributed this sixth sense to the power of the Rahl bloodline, but the body he inhabited now was not truly that of a Rahl.
Interesting. He was not as dependent on his wizard blood as he thought.
It was his intuition, the voices that whispered through his bones that had led him to victory in many endeavors. He would heed them now. If he could not convince Hali to help him in time to find his brother and take the stone, then they would travel to the Pillars of Creation and wait.
Staying with Hali did not make sense, and yet he could not bring himself to leave. Every time he seriously contemplated it, a noxious anxiety would form just below his thoughts until he gave up on the notion.
She was important. She would be useful to him. Healing Hands were rare. That they appeared in the form of Hali now could only mean that they were connected somehow to the struggle between the living and the dead.
His mind was filled with confusing thoughts.
Chapter 7: Gift
The villagers stopped asking about Darken’s bandaged face when he spread the story that he had been disfigured by a Mord'Sith.
It amused him.
He chopped wood and traded it to a villager for a bow. It was a small game bow, but rabbit stew was an improvement over the gruel he had been subsisting on. Hali's crooked smile as they ate made him think his plans were progressing nicely.
She was just like Jennsen. Show the face they want to see and they will play into your hands. With that thought in mind, he set out towards the village, a string of rabbits and small game birds at his belt.
A visit to the headman's house left him with with no game and a hound pup. Darken had had to promise the head of the first stag the dog felled, but as he had no intention of still being in the area once the dog was large enough to undertake such hunting, he had no compulsion in giving his word.
When he presented the dog to Hali, she smiled and ran her hands over the pup and said, "What will you name her?"
"I got her for you, Hali. You name her."
She gave him a wistful look and replied, "I cannot take a gift that is not honestly given."
"You deny my gift?" An instant rage filled Darken’s blood. He clenched his fists and reminded himself that he must tread carefully with Hali. She would not bend to force, and he had no means to break her and ensure she lived through it.
"The gift, no. The sentiment behind it, yes. You bring me this dog because you wish for me to feel gratitude. You have no joy in the giving."
She was in the cabin before he could formulate a reply not warped in his rage.
He aimed a kick at the dog, but the beast ran into the woods barking its head off before he could connect.
With a strangled exclamation he set out after it.
An hour later, he decided that if it ever returned he would kill the beast, that reminder of his rejection.
At dusk, when the bitch dropped a mangled squirrel at his feet, he decided he liked it.
He named her Denna.
It amused him.
Chapter 8: Coming
Darken whistled for Denna as he caught sight of the cabin. The bitch went into paroxysms of joy as soon as she saw him, rushing eagerly forward to lick his boots. A taste of the old devotion, a welcome reaffirmation of his worth. He patted her on the head.
"Derek, is that you?" Hali emerged from the cabin, and he went forward to meet her. Once close enough, he clasped her outstretched hand and guided it up to his face.
A flash of the crooked smile and another hand joined the first as she removed the bandages disguising him.
"What did you do in the village?"
"Bargained with some men to re-thatch the roof. I tire of it leaking," he answered.
She hummed under her breath as she rolled the bandages for the next time he would use them. Reaching out a hand, she pressed it through a gap between the ties of his shirt, momentarily resting it against his chest. It was an eccentricity of hers he had become accustomed to. The touch of the woman was not unwelcome. His heart thumped twice.
Hali sighed, and raised her milky eyes to his. She withdrew her hand and fidgeted with the rolled bandages.
"Why are you getting the roof fixed?"
"Because it leaks."
She huffed at him.
Darken held onto his roiling temper by a razor's edge. With this woman it was never enough that he did something – always, always, always she wished to know why!
A glitter entered his eye, and a calmness of demeanor that used to spell death.
"Does it matter?" he answered in his most seductive tone. "Is it not enough that I have seen to your comfort?"
The velvet of seduction could not quite hide the steel undercurrent of his outrage.
Hali, as always, was unmoved. He could sooner move a mountain than the bearer of the Healing Hands.
"Whose comfort are you seeing to, Derek? Truth."
A supreme act of will kept his hands at his sides and the blistering snarl clenched behind his lips.
It was really quite funny. He was defying the Keeper of the Underworld, only to be brought low by this small, ungrateful, ill kept woman.
When Darken Rahl regained his power, he would chain her for his personal pleasure. Her screams would echo night and day throughout the People's Palace. She would then appreciate the kind Derek who had tried to give her a dog and fix her roof.
The image did much to calm him, and he, a little too successfully to be genuine, infused his voice with good cheer.
"Do you wish to know the rumor sweeping the village?"
Hali narrowed her white-blind eyes, but allowed the change of topic, understanding the precipice she walked. Balance was key.
"What do the villagers say?"
She tucked the bandages into her robes, then reached out to grasp Darken’s belt, running her fingers along it to search for the strings he hung his game from. It reminded him of both his masculinity and her dependency, and had yet to fail to soothe his rages.
Arousal simmered below his skin as her nimble fingers grazed his sides. He would not push the issue: a wrong move would undo all the progress he had made with her.
He would not allow her to reject him.
"They say the Seeker is in the area. The headman is preparing a festival in his honor."
Hali smiled a different smile, and stepped forward, embracing him. He was shocked, but after a moment lightly wrapped his arms around her waist.
"So he finally arrives," she breathed into his chest, "I thought I would have more time."
Darken tightened his arms around her waist, enough so that the press of their bodies was painful. His voice was tauter still.
"You have been waiting for him."
They were always waiting for the Seeker.
"He has been coming for me my entire life. But that does not mean I'll go," the last part was said more to herself.
"Why is he coming?"
He felt her eyelashes wisp across his skin, and her body stiffened as if bracing for a blow.
"He comes for the Stone of Tears."
Chapter 9: Hope
Darken could not sleep. His nerve endings tingled, his body thrumming with elation, a dark satisfaction.
The taste of victory weighed heavy on his tongue.
He had beaten his brother to the Stone of Tears unwittingly. His intuition was correct. Hali was important in the battle.
She had seemed frightened when she revealed to him that she was the stone's protector, but not of him.
Now what to do with this information? His mind whirled with the possibilities. He could convince her that they should take the stone to the Pillars of Creation themselves. He would be her hero, her protector. And then he would use the stone to seal the veil, thus earning a place in the Creator's light.
He could wait for his brother and the merry band. They could do the heavy lifting, he could spend some time with Richard... the Seeker would be reluctant to kill him at the end of their little adventure if he was useful, Cara was proof of that.
Both plans depended on his control of Hali.
He reached across the enlarged floor pallet to trail a finger along the back of her hand. Eyelids fluttered, then opened, sightless eyes staring into his soul.
She slid her hand into his.
When her breathing became deep and even once more, he took the opportunity to study her face. She seemed frail and ordinary in her sleep. When she was awake her milky eyes lended her a sense of otherworldliness, world weariness.
But asleep she was just a woman in her child bearing years.
There was a thought.
If Darken allowed his brother to find them, he would have to contend with Hali discovering his true identity.
Would she betray the father of her child? He doubted it. And it was not a gift she could give back.
But he had little time, and he must do it gently, lest he send her running into Richard's arms. Experimentally, he leaned over and brushed a kiss against her forehead, allowing himself to grin into her hair.
She did not wake, but she did turn to face him, pulling his arm to clutch against her chest.
Hope grew within.
Chapter 10: Time
In the end, Darken had less time than he thought.
The festival for the Seeker and his followers was to take place in four day’s time. Darken planned to have Hali bedded by then. They would be married by the headman at the festival, and he would announce the imminent birth of their child after the nuptials, before revealing his face.
He did so love to make an entrance.
Hali, while not ecstatic about the idea, had been amenable to his proposal.
He had brought her fragrant flowers, and the gift of a comb with which he had brushed out her hair as she sat between his sprawled legs. They sat at the river's edge, watching his fishing lines, though Denna's antics further upstream were most likely scaring all the fish away.
"You will want for nothing if you marry me."
She did not answer, merely leaned heavily into his chest, trapping her tresses between them. She turned her cheek against his skin, her slightly parted lips warm and moist.
His heart thumped twice.
"If I marry you, I will have to stay with you."
Darken prepared to stay his more violent impulses. He would have to have patience.
Breathlessly, sightless eyes closed, she gave her answer, "Yes."
She did not question him, or the gifts of the comb and flowers.
Despite himself, he found it unnerving, though he would never reveal it.
They had not spoken of it again, though he had been to the village to make the arrangements and spent an excruciating length of time allowing a flock of women to question him as to the specifics. He longed for the days when a sharp look would have sent them to their knees, stammering apologies.
A messenger dispatched to locate the Seeker had returned triumphantly to tell them when the Seeker would arrive. All bought him drinks in the village tavern as he recounted the tale of his conversation with the Seeker, who promised to attend the festival after he finished some business nearby.
The business turned out to be Hali.
Darken was splitting logs on the chop block he had set up near the cabin when Denna began to bark. He ignored her, thinking it was most likely she was chasing some diminutive creature of the forest.
Then he felt the sword point against his back.
"What are you doing here, Rahl?"
Chapter 2: Part II
Chapter 11: Confrontation
"Brother," Darken said as he turned slowly to face the sword point, his axe gripped loosely in both hands. "I appear to be chopping wood."
The Sword of Truth glowed orange-red, held by Darken’s brother, the one true Seeker. Flanking the all important hero were the Mother Confessor and Cara, his Mord'Sith, both with weapons ready. The wizard, Zeddicus Z'ul Zorandor stood farther back, palm out, prepared to cast. Denna, the traitorous beast, sat at the wizard’s feet.
"My my, brother. This all seems a bit much to overcome one woodcutter."
So easy to rile, Richard was.
"The compass led us here, Rahl. I hardly think it's a coincidence you're here too," Richard said in his usual painfully earnest way.
Darken bent his knees slightly, ready to fight or flee as the situation demanded. He saw Cara's eyes flicker to the movement, and raised a brow at her, wondering how deep her devotion to her new Lord Rahl ran.
Before anyone could speak again, the cabin door opened and Hali stumbled out, tripping over the threshold, which was unusual. She moved clumsily, one hand outstretched, the other lost in the folds of her robe.
"Derek," she called, "who's there?"
He had seen her count her steps precisely in and around the cabin many times. She would not be so clumsy unless it was intentional.
She was playing a game and she appeared to be on Darken’s side. Though he still could not fathom why she preferred him to Richard (unless she feared the prophecy) he was willing to play along.
He cut his eyes to her, "Hali, go back in the house."
"Derek?" she said uncertainly, a quiver in her voice that made him want to laugh.
Cara snorted, "Derek?"
"You don't have to listen to him," said the bleeding heart, otherwise known as the Mother Confessor.
"Stay where you are!" Richard snapped at Hali, then added to Kahlan in an undertone, "She may be a Sister of the Dark."
Hali made a show of shuffling another step, her head tipped back to expose her eyes, querulously asking, "Have they come for our wedding?"
"Wedding!" exploded the wizard. If he frowned any harder, his jaw would fall off.
"Yes, brother. I am settling down, turning over a new leaf. Isn't that how the saying goes in Hartland?" Darken drew the attention back to himself, beginning to suspect what Hali had in mind.
"What has he done to you? Why are you marrying him?" Kahlan demanded in that entreating way of hers. She well remembered the account Richard had given her of her averted forced marriage to Rahl.
"He has treated me well, and he will protect me from you," Hali spat, the first true negative expression Darken had witnessed from her.
Taken aback, Kahlan sputtered, "But he's the Seeker!"
Hali was unmoved, a woman of stone.
"You," Richard turned back to Darken. "What do you want with her?"
"Would you believe love?" Darken answered flippantly.
"No," growled Richard at the same time Kahlan said, "What do you know of love?"
"Richard-" began Cara.
"I don't know what your game here is, Rahl-"
"Richard!" Cara said more urgently.
Everything was perfectly still for a moment in time. Then the wizard spoke into the stillness, "Seek the one who cannot see, and she will lead you."
"I will go nowhere with the Son of Brennidon."
The world erupted.
Hali threw the two dacras hidden in the folds of her robe. The wizard began to cast Wizard's Web, but was foiled when Denna felt moved to protect her mistress and bit his leg.
Cara redirected the dacra aimed at her, and then started toward Hali, viciously backhanding her to the ground. Her Agiels hummed with their thirst for pain.
"No!" shouted Darken as he slammed the haft of his axe down on the Sword of Truth, a burning urge to protect his newest treasure thundering through him.
The dacras thumped into two bodies, both grunting softly as air was forced from their lungs.
Laying on her side in the dust, a trickle of blood flowing into one eye turning it a disturbing pink, Hali raised steady hands.
"If any of you move, one of you dies."
Chapter 12: Identity
Cara leaned forward, slowly shifting weight from one foot to the other. Her Agiels lightly buzzed in her hands. She was confident that one of them would be pressed to the blind woman's temple before she became aware of the danger.
"Cara," Darken Rahl held up two fingers in a familiar gesture to halt her movement.
She stopped for a fraction of a second, the training ingrained in her since childhood making her automatically respond to his voice.
That slight hesitation was all that was needed for Hali to be made aware of the threat presented by the Mord'Sith. She scrambled away across the dirt, whistling for Denna. The gangly hound planted herself between Cara and her fallen mistress, long pink tongue a sharp contrast to her dark fur as she panted.
It was not exactly threatening, but it would give Hali enough notice to activate the magic of the dacra should Cara attempt to strike again.
Darken looked down at his chest, where the rebounded dacra had struck him and stuck.
Could she tell which one was in him? Did she even know he had been hit?
At least the other was sticking out of the side of the wizard's neck.
Richard sheathed his sword and nodded at the Confessor and Cara to do the same with their weapons.
"I don't know what he's told you about me, but I'm trying to save the world of the living. I need the Stone of Tears to do that," he spoke softly, gently, as if to a child or a particularly touchy animal.
"She's blind, brother. Not stupid," Darken began to circle his way around his attackers to get closer to Hali.
"That's debatable," muttered Cara. "What?" she said when Kahlan gave her a stern look. "She doesn't even know she's engaged to Lord Rahl. That's pretty stupid."
"Lord Rahl?" Hali said softly. She turned her head in the direction she had last heard his voice, though he was no longer standing there, "Darken Rahl?"
Her hands trembled almost imperceptibly. Was it a reaction to finding out Derek's true identity or simply the strain of holding them out so long?
Darken completed his path to her side, keeping his eyes on his brother and the rest. He touched Hali on the crown of her head, stroking a gentle hand down the length of her hair. He helped her to stand, noting that the blow to the head had left her a little unsteady.
She reached behind to touch the dacra stuck in his chest, though she kept facing forward, ready to rip the wizard's han away should anyone make a false move.
"Darken Rahl?" she asked, her fingers running along the edge of the dacra in an almost caress.
Everyone waited to see what she would do. They expected outrage and violence, sobbing and denials, perhaps a flashy end.
What no one predicted was what actually happened.
Seeming to stare into the sky, Hali said, "Well that makes more sense than it doesn't[i]," and pulled the dacra safely from Darken's chest.
Chapter 13: Accord
Darken refused to sigh in relief as the dacra slid from his flesh. He had grown complacent with Hali's sightlessness and exerted less control on himself than usual. That would change now that he was back among those who searched him for weakness at every turn.
Once more the mantle of Lord Rahl laid across his shoulders, a familiar heavy blood red cloak.
He had not been prepared for Hali's loyalty to him without a formal tie between them. He was not a man who inspired the adoration of his followers. Abject terror, yes - but not for him the soldiers that would throw themselves off a cliff out of love, wrung to the last drop of admiration.
That was his brother.
Whom Hali feared.
Perhaps this loyalty was born of terror after all - but in a strange twist of fate, it was not terror of Darken Rahl.
The looks of shock written on the faces of his not quite enemies as Hali freed him from the dacra were well worth any discomfort he felt.
The wizard tried to say something, but it was garbled by the magical steel stuck in his throat.
Cara was the first to shake her shock, but she did nothing but wait for Richard's orders.
Richard placed his hand on his sword hilt, but did not draw it. "Let Zedd go."
"Surely you don't expect us to simply free him, brother?" Darken said as he slipped an arm around Hali's waist, both to steady her and infuriate Richard.
He continued before Richard could respond with some inanity, "Hali will release the wizard once you have given your word that none of your merry band will attempt to harm us."
"You would trust my word?"
"You are the Seeker of Truth. Trustworthiness is in the job description. Now," he said, rapidly changing tone and tact, "do we have an accord?"
Richard glanced at his companions and then nodded.
"Also," Darken added, his hand raised, two fingers together and thumb extended in that familiar idiosyncracy, "you will escort us to the Pillars of Creation, where Hali shall give the stone to me, and I will use it to seal the veil."
"She has the stone?" Kahlan asked, apprehension warring with cautious exaltation.
Inwardly, Darken cursed.
Outwardly, he smiled mockingly.
"You did not know? None of you are very good at seeking, are you?"
Hali trembled against him, blinking the blood from her eye. Red tears.
"Do we have an agreement?" Darken bit out, determined to keep the upper hand.
In answer, the wizard shuffled forward to have the dacra removed.
Chapter 14: Bonds
They sent the wizard to the village to make their apologies for missing the upcoming festival. Richard wanted no more delays.
Richard had tried to bind Darken's hands as he did the first time Darken traveled with his brother, but relented on the idea when met with the stony silence Hali imposed on them until Darken assured her his bonds had been removed.
"Where is the Stone of Tears?"
The Mother Confessor sat on Darken's abandoned chopping block. They had all found various seats in the clearing. There was not enough room for all of them inside the cabin, and both Richard and Darken were unwilling to let Hali out of their sight.
"The stone is for giving, not taking," was Hali's cryptic reply.
Richard and Kahlan shared a look. Cara merely looked bored. Darken, having already quizzed Hali on the nature of the stone, was content to watch the scene unfold.
"You didn't answer my question."
Hali stared stonily ahead for a moment, then relented. "The stone is safe. I keep it with me always. I will call it forth at the Pillars of Creation."
Richard looked to Kahlan, who said, "She's telling the truth."
"Can we see the stone?" Richard asked, unwittingly utilizing that ineffable quality that seemed to draw followers from all walks of life.
His boyish good looks were lost on the blind.
Hali held a vague hand out in Darken's direction. Guessing what she wanted, he casually moved to stand between her and her inquisitors, effectively shielding her with his presence.
Richard was baffled by the healer's continual dependence on Rahl, and even more so by her aversion to himself. How could she want comfort from a monster?
Giving up on getting answers from Hali, he took out the compass, setting it flat on his palm. The soft blue glow pulsed in a steady rhythm, something it had never done before. The longer he held it the faster it went, until -
"Stop it!" shrieked a distressed Hali from behind her dark protector.
Richard snapped the compass closed as Darken Rahl knelt to soothe the upset woman, who appeared to be hyperventilating.
Darken enjoyed the discomfort of his companions as they watched him gentle the healer. Hali placed her hand over his heart, wide sightless eyes regaining their reason as her breathing returned to normal. His heart thumped twice.
Cara was determinedly not looking at him, obviously not willing to relive the times he had done this for her.
A strained silence mounted.
"Where's Denna?" Hali said once she had regained her voice.
Instantly the tension took on a different flavor.
"I believe," answered Darken, "that she followed the wizard to the village."
The Seeker was up, sword in hand, before Darken had fully finished the sentence. He ordered Cara to keep an eye on Darken and Hali and then turned to dash off with Kahlan.
Before the Seeker and Confessor had gone two steps, they were startled by the rich sound of Darken Rahl's laughter.
Richard turned to face him, anger flushing his skin when Darken said, "Relax, brother. Denna is the name of the dog."
Cara barked a short laugh, then looked mildly guilty at the looks on Richard and Kahlan's faces. It didn't last long, however, as soon a string of chuckles could be heard pouring from her lips, along with a muttered "Yes, mistress," followed by more restrained laughter.
Chapter 15: Sisters
They left at first light. Richard and Kahlan led the way, followed by Darken leading Hali by the arm, with Cara and Zeddicus bringing up the rear. The Seeker had insisted on the marching order, his distrust and desire to have his brother surrounded obvious.
The hound, Denna, raced back and forth between Darken and the wizard, whom she seemed to consider her new best friend despite the bite marks she had left on his calf. She barked enthusiastically. Darken caught Cara's fingers twitching towards her Agiel and allowed the corners of his mouth to quirk upward in amusement.
They stopped in the late afternoon. It was too hot to continue. The four usual members of the merry band swiftly set about making camp once the Seeker called a halt. Kahlan gathered wood, Cara chopped the larger pieces (using Darken's axe which she had appropriated without so much as a by your leave), the wizard lit the fire, and Richard pulled supplies from the packs with which to make a meal.
Darken was deciding where to put Hali when she loudly announced "I want to sit with the Mord'Sith."
Everyone looked at her as her words faded through the trees. After a whispered conversation with the Mother Confessor, Richard nodded to Cara, who shrugged and dropped the axe.
Cara approached and Darken guided Hali's hand to grip the leather laces running down one of Cara's arms, digging his nails lightly into Hali's wrist. A silent warning.
"Take me to the river. We'll bathe."
"There isn't a river nearby," Cara rebuked, intolerant of the woman.
"I can hear it."
Cara looked to Richard, who said "Do as she says," at the same time as Darken Rahl.
The brothers scowled at one another and Hali smiled her crooked smile.
As Cara grudgingly led the blind woman in the direction of the supposed river, Darken moved to the dropped axe and picked it up, swinging it back over his shoulder.
The Confessor drew her knives and assumed a battle stance.
Darken blinked at her and then swung the axe down, continuing to chop the logs Cara had left unfinished.
"You must be stifled in all this leather," Hali said as she ran her fingertips up and down Cara's arm, her other hand firmly entangled in the laces at Cara's wrist.
Cara placed a gloved hand none too gently over Hali's roaming fingers.
"Mord'Sith have great endurance."
"You do not like me."
"You loved him once."
Cara did not need to be told who 'he' was.
She picked up the pace, uncaring if the blind woman stumbled, but the intrusive healer was not to be deterred.
"It hurts you to see him treat me with the deference once afforded to you."
Cara, the words leaving her lips reluctantly, said "It is a Mord'Sith's duty to love the Lord Rahl. I have seen the way he rewarded the Mord'Sith for their devotion." Her tone turned ominous.
They reached the edge of the small stream and Hali let go of Cara's arm to unashamedly remove her robes. She paused at the edge of the water, listening, and then turned to a still fully clothed Cara and said "Won't you join me?"
Cara eyed the hand held out slightly too far to the left and then decided to indulge Hali. It would perhaps earn her some peace, and aside from all her posturing it would be nice to remove the layer of sweat that had been steadily accumulating under her leathers.
Cara plunged into the stream and surfaced to see Hali still standing at the water's edge facing her. Thinking unkind thoughts about helpless women, Cara returned to the bank to ease the healer into the water.
As soon as there was skin on skin contact between them, Cara felt a surge of magic test her own. Sightless eyes seemed to see, and Hali placed her palm against Cara's heart, just over her breast.
"You said you knew of the Mord'Sith's reward for their devotion," Hali said, close enough that Cara could feel the breath of her words. "Tell me of it."
Standing there in the water, front to front, eye to sightful, sightless eye, Cara recounted the future ruled by a male Confessor in a few terse sentences.
"That was not Darken, but his son that will never come to be."
Cara growled, "He will not reward you for your loyalty."
"No," Hali agreed.
Cara pushed the woman back from their odd embrace, watching as she floundered in the water.
"Richard is the true Lord Rahl, and I serve him," Cara said triumphantly. "By choice."
"You used to serve Darken with the same devotion. Can that love be so easily forgotten?"
"Love goes both ways. Richard taught me that. If he was half the lord that Richard is, he would not need Mord'Sith."
"The Seeker is not a lord, and he refuses to become Richard Rahl, Wizard of the First Order and Emperor of D'Hara."
Cara turned away to look out through the trees.
"Should the Son of Brennidon seek the stone, he will find it and deliver it to the enemy of the light," water seeped from the corners of Hali's mouth.
"Lord Rahl put you up to this."
"I thought Richard was the true Lord Rahl?"
Cara cursed inside her mind, her face furrowing in angry lines. If this woman were not blind, and defenseless, and important to the quest, she would press an Agiel to her breast.
Just for a second.
Hali dared to come close to Cara, and laid her hands against Cara's cheeks, exploring the contours of her face.
"You are very beautiful," she said. "When is the last time someone touched you with kindness?"
Cara closed her eyes against the touch of the Healing Hands and willed herself to relaxation.
She would not harm the person who held the Stone of Tears. No matter how much she wanted to.
"We are both used to being Sisters to a calling, Cara. Let's be Sisters to each other, you serving your Rahl and I serving mine."
"You remind me of a Night Wisp I once knew. She annoyed me too."
Hali laughed, a dry coughing sound, "We are both vessels of the Creator."
When they returned to the camp site, Richard was dismayed and Darken pleased to see that Cara had braided Hali's usually matted hair into the style of a Mord'Sith.
Later, when all believed Rahl and Hali to be sleeping they asked, "Did you see the stone?"
"No," Cara said, only now stopping to wonder where Hali had put it while they were in the water.
She would say no more about their encounter.
Chapter 16: Bridge
They broke camp in the morning and prepared to go on their way. Packs were balanced with weight at the bottom, the firepit ashes were scattered, and Cara rebraided Hali's hair, quick fingers and much practice making short work of it.
They assembled for their forward march along the path, Darken and Hali surrounded as Richard wished. Rahl tucked Hali's arm into his, but she did not yield to his direction as she usually did. Instead she held out her other arm and said, "Cara?"
Cara stood, lips pursed, her face a Mord'Sith blank.
She took Hali's arm.
Displeasure and something else warred within Darken. He did not like to be discarded.
But Hali did not relinquish his arm.
After some confused looks from the Seeker and searching comments from the Mother Confessor, they set out toward the Pillars of Creation.
For the first time in many months, Darken Rahl and Mistress Cara walked side by side.
Hali was the bridge.[ii]
When they stopped to refill their waterskins, Cara and Darken stood together, waiting for Hali to join them. She waved them onward, choosing to walk with Zeddicus instead.
Zedd was suspicious, and when he was suspicious he was unfailingly impolite.
"You should respect your elders," the healer smiled her crooked smile.
"I hardly think that applies to you."
"Really Zeddicus? You know better than that. You can see that I have been trained by the Sisters of the Light. Where do you think I received such training?"
"The Palace of the Prophets, where one year is ten."
"I was born there."
They walked on in silence for an indeterminate amount of time, Hali maintaining a grip on one of Zedd's voluminous sleeves.
"Why did you leave?"
She did not need to ask what he spoke of.
"The answer would be the same if you had asked why I stayed."
"And the answer?"
A light frown, tone wistful, "It was all I ever knew."
Zedd accessed the library of his mind, filtering through legends and half remembered texts.
"I have read of two male bearers of the Healing Hands, but all the others I've studied were women. Are you..?"
"Yes... all of them are me, save one. She was the first."
This was unbelievable, incredible.
Zedd's bushy brows drew down over his eyes. Too fantastic to be true.
"So you have returned to the Palace of the Prophets?"
"Not recently. I go where the Creator wills me."
"How old are you?"
"Isn't it impolite to ask a woman her age?" Hali teased. More seriously she answered, "I am old enough to know I will die, and young enough to wish not to."
Zedd let his eyes roam ahead. Kahlan and Richard were deep in conversation, and seemed not to even notice that Cara was walking alone with Rahl.
He couldn't say that they were walking together, as Cara seemed determined to stay a few paces ahead of him, but they were closer than he would like. Rahl seemed content to let Cara have the lead and Zedd could not help but think he was doing so in order to 'enjoy the view' as it were.
He was not a perverted old man, but neither was he blind.
With a mental cringe of guilt at that thought, he turned back to Hali.
"Why do you follow Rahl?"
"Why do you follow the Seeker?"
"Because the Seeker is a force for good," he struggled to retain his objectivity. "Not a monster like Darken Rahl."
He couldn't keep the anger from his voice, though he did speak quietly to avoid gaining the attention of the man they discussed.
"Darken is a man, not a monster. He is no less and no more than what he was made to be.[iii]"
Hali groped for Zedd’s hand, and when skin contact was made he could feel her magic pushing through the crackle of electricity that flowed through his powerful veins.
"He," she said, her eyes turned inward to see something Zedd couldn't, "is nothing more nor less than what you made him to be."
Zedd turned his mouth down, frown lines creasing his face as he forced himself to stop and think about her words instead of blindly lashing out as he so badly wanted to do.
"You know that I helped Panis Rahl conceive a child," his voice was rough with things not said.
The blind healer squeezed his hand, and said not unkindly, "Wizard, why is the world represented in magic scrolls as a mirrored symbol surrounded in a ring?"
Her question, like so many he had been asked during his magical training, sparked a rote response.
"The world is a balance of life and death, light and dark. The circle is the veil, the bridge between."
"And what would happen if one of these elements were missing?"
"Unbalance, chaos. A void that nature and magic would try to fill."
She smiled at him and nodded her head, her Mord'Sith braid thumping against her back, "Yes, Zeddicus. That is exactly right."
Zedd's anger rose at the condescending words, though her tone belied the phrasing.
"What is the point of this conversation?" he grumbled.
"The point is... I follow Darken Rahl because he is a void that calls to be filled."
Zedd's ears rang as his mind took him unwillingly through the implications of that last statement. He barely heard Hali as she described how Rahl pulled at her magic without knowing it and how she knew the Creator had sent him to her even before she learned who he was.
He interrupted her, "Rahl is unbalanced?"
"So when I helped Panis..." he trailed off, unwilling to face what at some level he had always known.
"You created a being who had never been touched by the Creator's light, who in fact was never meant to be born," she continued mercilessly, though not cruelly. "A man, who from his very conception has been a vessel of the Keeper."
"So he is a monster."
"No. Haven't you been listening?" she squeezed his hand tightly, as if willing understanding through their touch. "He harbors the darkness that is a part of us all, but with none of the light to counterbalance it. He has never been able to understand the light completely. Without understanding, there is no choice."
She huffed, out of breath. Zedd felt as winded as she.
"You would have us forgive him his transgressions just because he didn't know any better?" Zedd demanded, working his way into one of his tirades. Hali shushed him and Zedd stole a look at their companions to see if any had overheard.
"You have forgiven Cara, and she is a being of light and dark."
"Cara was tortured throughout her childhood!"
"What makes you think Darken was not? If by nothing else than the void in his spirit that has always pushed him to find some way to fill it?"
Zedd could barely see through the walls of hatred he had built around Darken Rahl so he turned his mind away, stones and fire settling like a fist in his gut.
"All of this, everything... is because I helped a friend to have a child."
"The greatest harm can come from the best of intentions," Hali quoted.
Zedd followed her sightless gaze to see Richard smiling at Kahlan.
He would hold this secret to his heart until the day existence ceased.
Chapter 17: Shatter
There was no warning. They were walking and then the air was filled with dacras flying from the trees.
They were all aimed for Darken.
Cara turned half of them back on their owners, but there were too many for her to block them all. Darken sank to the ground, five edges of silver peeking from his ruined shirt, dragging Hali down with him as she was still clinging to his arm.
Cara drew her Agiels and took a confident step towards the red robed banshees that had appeared from the trees.
"No!" shouted Richard, already in battle with a Sister of the Dark. "Protect Rahl and Hali!"
Cara stopped her forward motion, instead adopting a guard stance over the fallen Darken. Hali was busy pulling the dacras from his flesh, flinging them back into the fight wherever she heard an unfamiliar voice.
Zedd blasted Wizard Fire around the clearing, the dog Denna running out again and again, returning to his feet with bloody teeth.
Richard and Kahlan fought back to back, a beautiful, flawless, deadly dance as if they were one being. They blocked the path of the Sisters of the Dark who had begun the ambush on the ground, but were helpless to stop the ones who jumped from the trees to surround Cara and her charges.
Darken stood when the last dacra was pulled from his body, pushing the kneeling Hali to sprawl between himself and Cara. Cara caught his eye, and a familiar spark flowed between them. Darken turned outward, assuming a fighting stance of his own, he protecting one side of Hali, Cara the other.
The Sisters of the Dark descended on them, and they dealt with them brutally. Having no weapon, Darken dodged attacks, slamming hard hands into the soft weak spots he knew so well that they were written on his heart. Even as they fought, Cara admired his strong open form, the same one taught to all Mord'Sith.
Cara cracked an Agiel across a Sister's jaw, bringing the other up to press harshly between the woman's breasts. The Agiel sent pulsing strokes of fire up Cara's arm as it drank the woman's death. A minute pause to savor the rush, then turn to deliver a hard kick to the kneecap of the next opponent. Shatter the limbs, then crack their skulls, no thought needed. Her body knew what to do.
"Go! Tell the others they have the blind one!"
A shout was heard as one of the Sisters made a break for escape, Richard and Kahlan fast on her heels.
Darken was being forced to retreat, leaning back and forth, swaying like a snake, to avoid the two dacras being swung at him in violent arcs. Seeing his difficulty from the corner of her eye, Cara tossed one of her Agiels in a swift line. Darken caught it and drove it up into his attacker's stomach, a feral smile stretching across his face.
They became even more vicious than before, dealing a storm of death and pain. Darken held a Sister's arms behind her back as Cara delivered the killing blow, her free hand up to fend off a dacra thrown at them in vain.
And suddenly there were no more opponents. Hali huddled in the center of their carnage.
Zedd quickly set fire to the bodies and took off after Kahlan and Richard, expecting the others to follow.
Adrenaline spiked through Darken's veins, the sweet surge of pain of the Agiel in his hand something he had missed without knowing it.
"Give it back."
A playful light entered Darken's eye, the very air around him charged with fire as he replied.
Filled with bloodlust and the rush of war, Cara circled him, a sensuous lioness stalking her prey. A sudden lunge and burst of pain, and she was his Mistress Cara again, playing one of their old favorite games.
They sprung apart and lightning arched between them, unknowingly wearing matching carnal grins. Cara closed on Darken, and they were locked in battle, Agiel to Agiel, cheek to cheek.
A twist of the wrist and Agiels made contact, two moans of satisfaction echoing. A clench of teeth and they were rolling together over dead leaves, creaking leather and bloodied ripped cloth. The air whined with the satisfaction of the instruments of torture as Darken and Cara shared an untamed pain filled kiss.
The moment was broken with a sonic boom as Zedd's magic flung Darken off of Cara.
"What did you do to her?" demanded an enraged Richard as he advanced, the Sword of Truth a brand of coals in his hand.
Cara felt her world shatter as it had so many times that she had lost count. She brushed off the embrace Kahlan had knelt to give her, saying "I'm fine."
She walked deliberately and quickly to where Darken lay with the point of Richard's sword at his throat, tension and betrayal in every line of her body. Ghosts of her past haunted her when she met his eyes. She tore her Agiel from his hand, then pressed it to his side, against an open cut. His breath hitched in guttural bursts, but he did not cry out
Cara sheathed her Agiels and walked away, going down the path they had been traveling before the ambush began, ignoring Kahlan's call of "Cara?"
Richard increased the pressure of his sword until a bead of blood welled on Darken's neck.
"Jealous, brother?" Darken asked, his normally smooth voice scratchy.
Richard pulled his sword away and sheathed it, only to kick Darken in the ribs, the only way to vent his rage.
They found Cara at the mouth of a cave.
"This will make good shelter for the night," she said, in no way acknowledging what they had witnessed.
Cara sat at the back of the cave, as far away from the others as she could get without losing the light of the fire.
Hali divided her time among them, tending to Darken first. Only after she had checked Zedd for wounds did she approach the fire where Richard and Kahlan sat, their eyes on Cara.
"Are either of you hurt?"
"I'm fine," Richard said, his eyes never leaving Cara's shadowy profile. "But Kahlan's hand is cut."
Hali turned to the Mother Confessor, "Is it still bleeding?"
"Can you fight?"
A confused, "Yes."
"Then I will not touch you."
"Why?" Richard snapped his head to look at the healer. Her white eyes reflected the firelight in her red face, and for a moment it was like staring at a demon.
"Because I do not want to. Let Zeddicus do it."
Sensing there was more she wished to say, Richard waited.
Low and hostile, only for his ears, she said "No one kicks you for loving the Confessor."
She swept away before he could reply, occasionally tripping on the uneven rock of the cave floor.
As he watched her crush herself to Cara's side, taking the position of a subordinate Mord'Sith, he had a sinking feeling that he had just assured his place in Hali's heart.
And they were not friends.
Chapter 18: Sanctuary
Darken watched Hali go by from his position against the cavern wall. Normally he would be insulted by her choosing Cara over him, but he had realized something profound when Cara's lips had been enfolded in his.
He wanted her by his side again.
She was unsettled now, he knew. She feared how those paragons of virtue she traveled with would react to the exposure of her debauchery. They had seen her wield death before, but never had they been privy to the fierce enjoyment she could share with Darken.
She was beautiful. And Hali would bring her back to him.
His eyes fogged with memories of the gold haired Mord'Sith, whom he had chosen as his favorite long ago.
He was a young man then – not as broad, face less angular, but just as self assured. He was touring the Mord'Sith temples, enjoying the hospitality and looking over the potentials.
It was her eyes and her stubborn refusal to weep that first attracted him. The other girls were sniveling wastes. It was doubtful that any would survive the training, save maybe the brunette his fiery blonde seemed to be protecting.
He watched their training mistress pull them apart, and followed when Cara was dragged to the torture chamber to be hung above the floor grate.
The Agiel was offered to him, "She is challenging, my lord. You will enjoy her."
He rubbed his bottom lip with the second finger of his right hand, contemplating, and said "No."
"As you wish, my lord."
The training mistress was brutal and effective, and he had taken pleasure in many of her conquests. Nevertheless, this teenage girl, malnourished now, but with the promise of strength, held on, screaming only when the Agiel stopped her heart.
He had her given the breath of life and lowered to the floor. He himself carried her to the first soft bed she had seen in many years.
"What is your name?"
She was exhausted and wary, long experience teaching her not to trust kindness as it was swiftly followed by pain.
Darken gently tended her wounds, brushed her long hair, and ordered a soft gown for her to sleep in. When she slept, he held her in his arms, fingertips tracing tantalizing patterns on her back.
He stayed with her for three days. For three days he turned away the training mistress when she came for the girl. He was her sanctuary.
When he told her he was leaving, she spoke the first words he had ever heard her say.
"Cara, my lord. My name is Cara."
"Very good, Cara," he rewarded her with a caress. "Tell me. Do you enjoy my company?"
"Yes, my lord."
She clung to his robes, a silent entreaty not to leave her, eager to please.
"Cara, I am going to tell you something, and you must promise to remember, do you understand?"
"When they are hurting you, there is a way you can escape the pain," he pulled her head into his neck and whispered in her ear. "Think of me."
For three years following he visited that temple regularly and each time called for Cara. Many Mord'Sith were broken at his hands, but Cara he never touched unless it was to soothe. He wanted more than fear and obedience from her.
Cara, he trained to love him. Eternally.
When she passed her trials and was given leathers and an Agiel of her own, he sent for her to attend him in the People's Palace. He took her as his lover that very night. She was his, and always would be.
He had at first been pleased when he learned she carried his child. But that pleasure became a festering jealousy as Cara's focus turned more and more inward to the new life inside her.
He had attended the birth, which was accomplished silently. His proud Mistress Cara would not make a sound.
The child was handed directly to him.
"Have I pleased you, Lord Rahl?" asked a breathless Cara.
He rewarded her, "You have done well."
He had staged a performance for her benefit, handing the child to Cara's favorite subordinate, Dahlia.
"Take him to the Dragon Corps to be trained. He is to be treated like all the others. He will be far safer if none know of his parentage. When he is strong, he will be made known to the empire."
"Yes, my lord."
She left to carry out his will, never suspecting that he had ordered Egremont to kill the child once it was delivered to him.
It was too early for him to have an heir. The bastard would want the throne long before he was willing to give it up. And he would not share Cara with any man.
Not even his son.
He settled himself next to Cara's crumpled form, wiping sweat soaked hair from her forehead.
"Sleep," he said, and she did.
Darken was startled from his reverie by the movement of Hali and Cara as they settled down together to sleep in the back of the cave.
Soon they would lie on either side of him and all would be as it should be. But for now, he would watch them with fond possession.
Chapter 19: Torn
Hali stubbed her toe on a protruding rock and shuffled forward right into Cara. Cara did not respond to Hali's clumsiness, and with a mental sigh Hali lightly ran her hands over Cara's body to discover the most comfortable way to sit.
She settled on curling herself into Cara's side, pushing her way under a leather clad arm to rest her head on Cara's collar bone.
Still no response.
Hali reached upward to touch her hand to the skin made available by Cara's plunging neckline, but a preternaturally quick gloved hand caught hers.
"Why are you upset?"
"I am not upset."
Cruelly Cara said, "No, you don't."
Hali nuzzled her face into Cara's shoulder, heedless of the harsh leather. Cara's fingers curled ever so slightly around Hali's form, and Hali understood.
"Why don't you heal your eyes?"
Hali had been wondering when someone would ask that question.
"Because they are a punishment... and a gift."
She could hear Cara's request in the silence.
"Once, long ago," she began, sitting up straighter, "I lived in the Palace of the Prophets. I was taught by many Sisters of the Light there."
She tilted her head at Cara, waiting for a sign she should continue. Cara maneuvered her to begin unbraiding her hair, and Hali took it as an expression of interest.
"I became arrogant. I believed that because of my powers I was entitled to decide who deserved healing and who did not. I allowed myself to become unbalanced, my darkness growing stronger than my light. But I did not see it that way. The Prelate had convinced me that it was right."
Cara removed her gloves and asked, "Where is your comb?"
"I'll just use my fingers."
"One night, the Creator appeared to me in a dream. She told me that until I had saved as many lives as I had condemned, I would serve penance. When I awoke, I was blind."
"How is that a gift?"
Hali leaned her head back, pressing her scalp against Cara's bared hands, a form of skin contact the Mord'Sith had not thought to guard against.
"Understand, Cara. If I could not see, how could I judge? The Creator blessed me with the ability to heal with a touch, and now all are equal in these sightless eyes. When I first heard you speak you could have been a princess for all I knew."
"I'm no princess," Cara said, rather sullenly, Hali thought. There was a story there that she would have to hear someday.
"Yes, but the point is, now all I know about people stems from touching them and listening to them... I am forced to understand, and empathize, even if I don't want to."
She twisted to face Cara, smiling her crooked smile.
"I see better now that I am blind."
Sneakily, or so she thought, Hali edged her hand to its coveted position over Cara's heart. Cara stopped her, as before, but this time she was not wearing her gloves.
"It is alright to miss someone, Cara. Even if they are not as you remember. Sometimes especially if they are not as you remember."
Cara's eyes unwittingly stole to where Lord Rahl sat dozing by the fire. He was bare chested, his shirt having been so torn that it was given to the dog to chew on. He was too broad in the shoulders for Richard's spare to fit him. She wanted him as much as she ever had.
And hated herself for it.
Hali said, "It is a Mord'Sith's duty to love Lord Rahl."
"You are not Mord'Sith!" Cara hissed. "And Richard is the true Lord Rahl."
"So you keep saying."
Cara wanted to push Hali into the wall and punish her for overstepping her bounds. At the very least she wanted to knock her over and go out into the night to kill something she could bring back as food.
But she didn't because they were watching, and what must they think of her already?
Hali's face softened.
"It's not their place to tell you who to love. Only you can decide that."
"I have decided that I hate you."
Hali only smiled, her skin contact with Cara telling her that it wasn't true.
She grew serious, her sightless eyes drawn uncannily to Darken Rahl.
"He will need a guide, someone who understands what it's like to straddle the light and the dark when all of this is over."
Hali released her power, pushing it into Cara's hands. Cara flexed her Mord’Sith magic back, making the han run backwards in Hali's veins, a sensation so nauseating that for a moment Hali feared she would vomit on the Mord'Sith.
"You never make anything easy," she said, swallowing back the saliva that had pooled under her tongue.
Cara did not answer, simply pulled her hands away and laid down facing the black darkness of the cavern.
"Can we lay with Darken?"
"Can I lay with Darken?"
Neither of them was completely sure why.
Chapter 20: Betrayal
Kahlan, Richard, and Zedd stood just outside the cave. The others all appeared to be asleep, but with Rahl you never knew. It was best to be out of earshot.
"I'm worried for her," Kahlan said lowly, her arms crossed over her chest.
Richard stared back into the cave, though from this distance everything beyond the fire was swallowed in shadow.
"I think Hali's doing something to her. She's working with Rahl. I only wish I knew what they were planning," Richard frowned.
"What magic could possibly affect a Mord'Sith?" Kahlan asked, and then turned to Zedd.
He was deep in thought, and started when Richard said, "Zedd?"
"Could Hali be doing something to hurt Cara? To turn her back to Rahl?"
Zedd took a long moment to consider how to answer that question.
"She," he began, choosing his words carefully, "could be using the power of the Healing Hands. If Cara did not turn it back on her, it would work. But the power of the Hands can't be used to hurt, or manipulate..."
Zedd folded his hands into his sleeves, then continued, "Like a Confessor, the power of the Healing Hands is always present, but a bearer of the Hands can't cut themselves off from it. When skin contact is made, the empathetic bond is immediate."
"What are you saying? Cara wants to turn back to Rahl?" Kahlan turned her troubled face back toward the cave where the one person she trusted to keep Richard as safe as herself slumbered with two enemies.
"No," Richard said, quietly grim. "I know Cara. She would go to the ends of the world for me. She wouldn't betray us if she had a choice."
"Who said anything about betrayal?" Zedd shifted to stand at his full height, wishing to impress the importance of his next statement upon his listeners. "When Hali touches someone, she is instantly brought into a bond with their desires and fears. She wouldn't be capable of doing something to hurt them."
"So what? We just let her turn Cara back to Rahl because Hali thinks it's best?" Richard quietly exploded, his voice rough with the desire to shout. "You see the way she treats Rahl. She'd give him anything he wanted, including the Stone of Tears."
"Richard please," Zedd placed calming hands on Richard's shoulders, smiling a reassuring smile as Kahlan looked on. "It goes deeper than that. Hali doesn't do what she thinks is best, she does what is necessary - what her powers tell her she must do."
Richard shrugged his shoulders away from Zedd's long fingers, but Zedd tightened his grip, forcing Richard to face what he had to say, "If fact, I think what Hali wants has very little to do with what she does, because she looks at Rahl that way."
Rather than the resigned looks of budding understanding Zedd had hoped for, dawning suspicion passed over Richard's face.
"She's gotten to you," he stepped back from Zedd's grasp. Seeing Kahlan’s puzzled look, he walked to her, saying "We're the only ones she hasn't touched."
Fierce comprehension swept Kahlan's expression and she turned to Zedd, "What did she do to you?"
"Nothing!" Zedd emphasized with a motion of his hands, so agitated that he wanted to dance on the spot.
Richard and Kahlan talked over him.
"She didn't want to touch you. Maybe there's something about Confessors that keeps her from being able to control them."
"For the last time, she isn't controlling anyone!"
"Then tell us what she said to you when you walked together the other day," Kahlan said softly, though all who knew her as well as he did could hear the determination under the sweet tone. "And Zedd, I'll know if you lie."
Zedd compressed his mouth in a thin line. He would never reveal what he had learned that day.
After it became apparent he wasn't going to answer, Richard sighed a sad sigh. "I'm sorry, Zedd, but we just can't trust your word right now."
"I am Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, Wizard of the First Order, and you can trust me when I say that you are making a grave mistake!"
Kahlan was torn, but could not deny the sense Richard's theory made, her concern for Cara in the forefront of her mind.
She would not wish Rahl's attentions, amorous or otherwise, on anyone.
"Tomorrow, we'll separate them. You take Hali somewhere and try to get her to tell you what she's doing, and where she keeps the stone. If we can get it from her then she and Rahl won't have any more power over us."
"And if she tries to do to me what she's done to them?"
Ignoring Zedd's pleading cry of "No!" Kahlan said, "I've never heard of someone confessing a bearer of the Healing Hands. She may not react normally. It could even kill her."
"That's a chance we'll have to take. It's worth it to save Zedd and Cara, and get the stone."
Kahlan spoke over Zedd's pleading to let him fetch the Listener instead, all of them knowing he could never make it there and back in time for the summer solstice, "Rahl will know we're up to something. He won't let me just take her."
Richard gripped the hilt of the Sword of Truth.
"I'll handle it."
[i] Reference to The Immortals Series by Tamora Pierce.
[ii] Reference to Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card.
[iii] Sociopathy, as defined by Alone with the Devil: Profiles of Famous Serial Killers, is:
"A person who knows right from wrong intellectually and can conform to societal expectations when they feel they are being observed, but lack an "internal observer" to keep them from committing wrongs when there is no outside force to do so. Most are extremely intelligent and excellent mimics. They see themselves as of utmost importance and are incapable of valuing other people except in relation to themselves. Sociopaths are very charming in order to achieve their goals, and many seek professions where their lack of remorse and domineering attitude is acceptable or even admired. Often, they report a feeling of 'emptiness' and can only feel emotion when engaged in extreme behavior, such as depraved sexual acts and murder. They seek validation from their victims and accomplices, often engaging in cycles of reward and punishment, rewarding expressions of love and devotion and punishing the perceived lack. Sociopaths are known to fly into rages over trivial matters, but are not bothered by things that would upset a normal person. It is unclear whether this condition extends from genetic defect or suppressed childhood trauma, as law currently prohibits analysts from diagnosing children with sociopathy."
Chapter 3: Part III
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Chapter 21: Persuasion
When sunlight began to stream into the cave mouth, Kahlan approached Hali. Zedd blocked her way, saying quietly and quickly, "Consider well what you are about to do, Kahlan. Hali was given the stone and her powers for a reason. Confessing her could be tantamount to ensuring the Keeper's victory."
"If she is that important Zedd, I'll just order her to continue with us to the Pillars of Creation."
Zedd caught Kahlan’s long white sleeve, she having changed from her purple traveling gear to the robes of office of the Mother Confessor.
"The nature of her power commands her to care for others. If she is enslaved to you, she cannot fulfill her purpose," Zedd became softer, more willing to persuade. "I have more reason than most to wish Rahl had stayed in the underworld…" he trailed off, thinking of the torture of an unbalanced soul."But the fact is that he may have a part to play."
Kahlan looked up into Zedd's eyes, willing him to understand. "I am doing what Richard thinks is right. How many times have you counseled me to trust in the Seeker?" She looked past Zedd to Rahl, her countenance hardening with bitter hatred, "And if he does have a part to play, it's being the 'enemy of the light'."
Zedd stepped out of her way, but did not go without having his last word, saying so quietly that she almost didn't hear, "You would never confess Richard."
Just as quietly, and without turning to face him, she answered, "Richard would never hide things from us. Or try to drive Cara away."
Her eyes went dead as she remembered a time when she herself had done that very thing, and then she walked toward Rahl.
Darken watched the wizard and the Confessor have their conference. Kahlan Amnell was wearing Confessor white. His eyes darted to his brother, who was standing conspicuously in the cave entrance, his hand on his sword hilt.
They were so obvious Darken sometimes wondered why they bothered to refrain from announcing their plans to him.
Richard would have Hali confessed and the source of Darken's power, what little he retained, would be stripped from him.
He was prepared for this eventuality. It had actually taken longer than he expected. His brother was both soft-hearted and slow to find the most efficient solution when it went against his lofty morals.
Darken retrieved Hali from Cara's side while the Confessor was still engaged with the wizard and placed her between himself and the wall. Cara followed a few steps behind, carefully neutral though Darken knew that her sharp mind would have led her to the same conclusion as he.
Cara would be the wild card in this battle. Would she protect the woman that had filled the void left by her Sisters of the Agiel, or would she follow the commands of the Seeker?
"Hali, would you like to come to town with me? We need supplies," Kahlan eyed Rahl's naked chest, allowing herself to feel nothing but disgust. "Among other things."
A frightened, small sounding "No" came from behind Rahl's shoulder, where a crown of golden hair was just visible behind his bulk. Kahlan wondered at this woman's proclivity for switching between hostile sage and frightened child.
Was the healer even now trying to manipulate her, to gain her sympathy?
"Hali," Kahlan tried again, "I just want to understand what you are doing and why. Come to the village with me and we'll talk on the way."
Hali peaked out from behind Darken, leaning over his restraining arm, her head tilted to the side to better catch every nuance of Kahlan's voice.
"There are some things I can't tell you."
"Can't, or won't?" asked Richard from his position blocking the entrance, his voice ringing with challenge.
"Hali please," Kahlan reached out to the woman, but before she came within a foot of contact, Darken Rahl slapped her hand away.
"You will not touch her."
"I am immune to confession. I will not let her take you from me."
"You will let Kahlan question her," Richard insisted through clenched teeth. "It's her decision whether it comes to confession or not."
"And what are you going to do, brother? Kill me? I would hate to let things slip while in the company of the Keeper," Darken turned to meet Cara's eyes, letting a fraction of his desire for her show in his expression. "Or perhaps you will have Cara occupy me with her Agiels?"
"You and your witch aren't getting near Cara again," Richard said with suppressed emotion.
Cara's face was blank. Too blank.
"I don't have to fight you. I don't even have to draw my sword," Richard continued, an affable hostility flowing through the cave that reminded Darken strongly of Panis Rahl.
Richard pulled out the compass.
And opened it.
At first nothing happened, the blue glow pulsing steadily.
"Tell us about the stone, or I'll find it myself. Your choice," Richard did not take his eyes from Rahl's face, their gazes locked in a showdown of will. The glow of the compass pulsed faster and faster.
"Richard!" Kahlan suddenly cried, and Richard broke eye contact with Rahl to see Hali had collapsed into Cara's arms, her breath coming in quick little pants, one hand clutched to her chest, the other twitching.
"Stop it, I'll go! I'll go!" she begged in a croaky bare whisper. The edges of her lips turned blue. Fat tears ran from her white eyes.
Richard clicked the compass closed, feeling sick inside. Kahlan tried to help the healer, but Cara snapped, "Don't touch her!"
Rahl watched Cara stroke Hali's face and said, "Well done, brother."
Richard ignored him, waiting for Hali's breath and reason to return. When it did he ordered Cara, "Give her to Kahlan."
Cara did something then that cut him to the quick, something she had never done before.
She bowed her head and said, "Yes, Lord Rahl."
As Kahlan led the still dazed healer to the path outside, it was unclear who was more disturbed by Cara's words:
Richard or Darken.
Zedd stood forgotten in a corner with Denna at his feet, both watching the scene with sorrowful eyes.
Chapter 22: Confession
Kahlan tried to guide the trembling woman by the hand, but she pulled away, stumbling to the side to retch into the bushes. Kahlan watched, knowing that trying to help would only upset Hali further.
Finally the shaking of shoulders ceased and Hali stood. Tearing a bunch of leaves from one of the bushes, she tonelessly asked Kahlan if they were poisonous.
Hali chewed them and then spat them into the same bushes she had just been sick in.
Kahlan approached, deliberately loudly so as not to startle. She twisted the end of her sleeve into a bundle and brushed it against Hali's hand, letting the healer know that she would not attempt to touch her.
Hali took it and they started on the path, an hour's walk to the village Cavernsfolly[iv].
Kahlan wasn't sure what was right.
Yes, she cared for Cara and didn't want to see anything more go wrong in her life. Yes, Zedd was strangely protective of this woman that they had not known long enough to warrant it.
Yes, Darken Rahl was most definitely up to something.
But what Richard had done...
He hadn't known what would happen, of course. The first time he opened the compass in Hali's presence she had just gotten short of breath. But this time?
Kahlan stole a glance at the short blonde. She was still pale.
The world of the living was at stake. Everything that walked and breathed depended on them getting the Stone of Tears. What was one woman compared to that?
If Kahlan had to sacrifice herself for the world, for Richard... and Zedd, and Cara, and her sister... She would do it. She would curse her fate in that small part of her soul, but she had always been a creature of duty.
But could she make that decision for another?
They passed the town gates. Villagers smiled and greeted her, recognizing her as the Mother Confessor. Hali dragged behind, keeping Kahlan's sleeve taunt and occasionally stepping on the hem of her cloak.
Kahlan thought she was doing it on purpose, but felt that after the events in the cave the healer deserved a little petulance.
She led Hali to a clothing stall and quickly instructed the merchant woman as to what she wanted. She pulled her sleeve free from Hali's grip, tugging until Hali realized that she wanted her to let go.
"Stay here and pick out what you want, I'll be back."
Kahlan disappeared into the crowd.
Hali halfheartedly chatted with the merchant woman, learning that her name was Ema and she was working for the village tailor. The woman passed different fabrics under Hali's hands, describing colors and asking questions about size and fit.
"This one," Hali said when she felt tooled leather with a soft inner lining to prevent chafing.
"You'll want to be careful with that one, Miss Hali. Tailor cut down a D'Haran uniform to make it. Fool idea if you ask me. Wearing that thing's like asking for an arrow in the back."
Hali smiled her crooked smile. "It's perfect."
Kahlan returned to the clothes stall after buying food and drink and bartering for some horses that she would pick up when they left the village. Hali was waiting, wearing Kahlan's old green traveling dress which Kahlan had paid the merchant to alter to fit the shorter, smaller woman.
They picked up the horses on their way out of the village market square, and Kahlan decided to walk them back to the cave. They were hardly worthy beasts, just plow horses that had been saddled and sold, and Kahlan thought that they would be able to travel farther in the morning if the horses were well rested.
She tied her pack of supplies and Hali's bundle to the saddle of the first horse and connected it to a lead rope, tying the other three in a string behind.
They would have to take turns walking, or ride double, but they would reach the pillars faster.
Sending up a prayer to the Creator for guidance, Kahlan prepared to question Hali.
"Are you going to tell me what I need to know?"
"You're very like Darken you know."
Kahlan was stricken.
"He gave me things when he wanted my loyalty and... cooperation."
Finding her voice, and accessing that Confessor part of her mind that allowed her to remain passionless and objective, she asked, "Did it work?"
Hali frowned, "I don't know."
"Where is the stone?"
"Why can't we see it?"
"Because then it wouldn't be safe."
Kahlan glared at the stone of a woman.
"You're misinterpreting my questions."
"Ask them better."
Kahlan narrowed her eyes, "And you're trying to irritate me."
"It might be my last chance."
Hali set her white eyes on the sky, "Once I've been confessed I will strive to fulfill your every wish. I may as well antagonize you while I still can."
"I'm not going to confess you."
Hali's eyebrows shot into her hairline, "Really?"
Kahlan felt compelled to answer honestly.
"I don't know."
Kahlan turned to keep the blonde's profile in sight.
"What are you doing to Cara?"
The healer looked genuinely puzzled. She said, "I haven't done anything to Cara. I love Cara."
She was telling the truth... or at least what she believed to be the truth.
"What have you done to Zedd?"
"Forced him to face his fears and accept responsibility."
Kahlan was getting nowhere fast, and a growing urge to place her hand around Hali's throat was building, a strange sensation outside herself.
"Why don't you want to touch me?"
"I'm afraid you'll confess me."
"It's more than that."
"I have a duty to fulfill. I can't risk you forcing me to give up the stone before it's time."
Kahlan stopped, the plodding horses behind her stopping suddenly to avoid banging nose to tail. Hali, who had been gripping the lead line, stumbled.
Kahlan said, "You're still not telling the whole truth."
The skin crawled at the back of both their necks, a heavy presence watching closely.
Hali glared at anything and everything, resentment seeping from her aura.
"No," she said, head tilted to the sky. "You can't ask this."
Kahlan reached for Hali's sleeve, "Who are you talking to?"
"Do. Not. Touch. Me," the healer gritted out from betwixt her teeth.
"Why?" Kahlan said, brimming overfull of compassion, her hand stretching of its own accord, aching flexing toward Hali's throat.
"Because I refuse to love him!" the healer exploded, her face twisted in her vehemence.
"Who?" Kahlan said, exerting all her will power to keep her fingers from Hali's skin.
So long as the Mother Confessor's pure heart beats, the Keeper is doomed to fail.
"Who said that?" Kahlan whirled, the heavy hand guiding hers lifting.
Hali laughed, a croaking discordant sound. Kahlen grew angry, suspicion like venom in her blood. She closed the inches separating them, her fingers firmly circling Hali's neck, the healer's pulse beating like a rabbit's.
Hali gasped, her faced turned waxy, one tear making its way down her cheek.
"Tell me what I need to know."
"What is Darken Rahl planning? Why does he want the stone?"
"To seal the veil."
"You're lying," Kahlan was getting angry, all her bitterness and rage and disgusted attraction to Darken Rahl, her secret evil jealousy of Cara, her selfish wishes roiling to the surface of her skin, waiting for the Healing Hands to lance them like a boil.
"To save himself," Hali amended.
"What do you want?"
"Balance and happiness for the one I have waited centuries to meet."
Tears streamed in river trails down Hali's face.
"You are more twisted inside than even Darken Rahl. You hide from yourself. You are the Mother Confessor, but who do you confess to?" Hali asked as her magic bid her to, knowing she was sealing her own fate.
Kahlan's perfect storm of emotion reached its breaking point. Time slowed down and eyes swirled black, and suddenly everything was right in the world so long as Hali was with her mistress.
She dropped to her knees, pressing her forehead to the hand Kahlan had used to confess her in an antiquated gesture of fealty.
"Command me, Confessor."
Chapter 23: Good
Cara retreated to the back of the cave and sat on the ground, engaged in a game of tug-of-war with the dog.
Darken and Richard both watched her, agreeing without knowing it that it would be best not to approach her for the time being.
Darken had not foreseen the effects of the compass. He had not known of its power over the stone's protector before his brother arrived. It was true that he no longer had magic and legions at his command, but the oversight still rankled.
There must be some way he could overcome it.
If Hali came back confessed it would be best to take the compass or force Richard into using it to kill her.
She was better dead than enslaved to the Confessor, and thus, Richard.
Darken strode suddenly to the cave mouth, a plan blossoming in his mind.
"Where are you going?"
"It is none of your concern, brother."
"Zedd, stop him!"
A moment of unbelievable ambivalence, and then Darken's limbs were held by Wizard's Web.
Richard stalked to Rahl's frozen form, barely restraining himself from punching him in the jaw. It wouldn't be honorable to do so when Rahl wasn't even able to duck. But when had Rahl cared about foul play?
Richard flexed his fingers.
Zedd approached quickly, disturbed that the hilt of the Sworth of Truth was glowing bright orange when the sword itself was still in its sheath.
Zedd put his hand carefully on Richard's shoulder, causing his grandson to turn a face flushed purple with barely contained rage to his.
"Richard, the sword."
Richard looked down in surprise, then closed his eyes, beginning the deep breathing exercises Zedd had taught him.
When Zedd thought Richard was calm, he said, "You remember when the compass led us not toward the Stone of Tears, but to The Minders?"
"Yes," Richard said, remembering the tribe of people bound to the Rahl bloodline, his eyes still closed.
"This may be why," Zedd suggested cautiously. "As difficult as it is to accept..." Zedd paused, assessing Richard's state of mind. "You may need to let go of your anger for Darken Rahl."
The Sword of Truth flared red-orange again, the visible pieces of metal like a beacon in the dim cavern.
Richard said nothing.
When Darken became aware of himself again, the wizard was gone and there was a barrier across the cave mouth, effectively locking him in with his brother.
Darken straightened from the awkward between pose the Wizard's Web had caught him in, casually looking about.
Richard was standing against the wall, his arms crossed defensively. Denna was nowhere to be found, which meant she was probably with the wizard. As usual, all of the others had been very careful not to leave a weapon where Darken could get to it. Even Hali's dacras were kept from him.
Cara still sat in the back of the cave, a silent watcher.
Was she to be witness to his execution? Or to prevent Richard from sullying his facade of purity with cold blooded murder?
Richard, if he was truly a Rahl, would not kill Darken until he was certain that he was close enough to his goal that the Keeper wouldn't be able to stop him – meaning that the Confessor had gained the necessary information from Hali.
But was his brother a true Rahl? Running recent events through his head, Darken decided that he was.
"I have often speculated, brother, what things would have been like if I had had you brought to me as a child and raised you to love me as part of the House of Rahl," Darken smiled a small malicious grin. "But now, I think, it would not be so very different."
"I am nothing like you."
"Really? My, for being the Seeker, you are quite good at denying reality, brother."
"Stop calling me that."
Darken moved to the center of the cavern, beginning to enjoy his game, the rocky floor his stage.
He hoped Cara was paying attention.
"Why? We are brothers, after all. But back to the subject at hand," he steepled two fingers of each hand together and brought them up to tap against his lips. "Let us review your recent activities. You have press-ganged two people minding their own business into your service, treated them both as inferiors, sometimes with unwarranted beatings," Rahl counted the transgressions off on his fingers, "disregarded the wishes of your so called friends, tortured a woman to get what you wanted, sent that same woman to have her free will taken from her, and most recently, had your wizard keep me hostage."
"Quiet," said Richard, his face ashen.
Darken looked at him over his shoulder, his eyes shadowed by the curtain of his hair, draped across his face like a raven's wing, "And then there are your past crimes." Darken turned his body, taking slow deliberate steps toward his brother, walking in cadence with his speech, in his element, "How many D'Harans have you killed, brother? How many children orphaned and women made widows at your hands? How many men have you had confessed?"
"I am nothing like you," Richard spat into Darken's face.
Darken wiped the flecks of spittle from his cheek with one finger, "No, you are not. I am enough of a lord to see my actions for what they are. I do not need to hide behind pretty morals."
Darken watched Cara from the corner of his eye.
"My subjects knew my word was law. They understood that when I said I would punish them, I would, and in the way I had specified. With me, they were never surprised by unforeseen depths of brutality."
Richard opened his mouth to argue.
Darken held up a hand, "No, I have listened to hours of your self-righteous prattle, and I will now have my say. You shocked Cara today with your treatment of Hali. That alone says more than you know. I have seen my Mord'Sith face down much worse without flinching, but you... You never let them know what you were willing to do, and so they were not prepared."
Darken laughed lowly, following Richard, who had retreated to the barrier as if it would let him out.
"You hide behind your title, Seeker. The Seeker, so bright, and true and good," Darken mocked. "It's a mask. You are a Rahl, brother. The personal guard of Lord Rahl has acknowledged you as such."
"Cara?" Richard looked to her.
"Did you think I was just any Mord'Sith?" she said, the first words she had uttered since Hali was taken away.
Darken inclined his head, affecting a contemptuous bow, "Hail, the new Lord Rahl. The only difference between us is that I have more style and a head start."
Richard gazed into the green haze of the barrier he had asked Zedd to put on the cave mouth before sending him to see what was taking Kahlan so long.
"I am a good man," he reassured himself.
"Great rulers are rarely good men."
It was not Darken, but Cara that answered.
Darken looked toward Cara, and his heart beat twice.
"I hear horses," said Richard.
Chapter 24: Succumb
The green barrier dissolved as the wizard strode back into the clearing around the cave mouth, followed by the Mother Confessor who was leading a single horse by one hand, and Hali by the other.
Darken's sixth sense tickled the hairs on the back of his neck and he knew without approaching that Hali was confessed.
His brother strode into the clearing to meet those returning, and Darken followed. Cara stood slightly behind and between them, her face completely expressionless, just as Darken had taught her many years ago.
"Did the village not have enough horses for all of us?" asked Richard.
He let out a surprised exhalation when the Mother Confessor turned to approach them, still holding Hali by the hand.
Kahlan had a black eye and what appeared to be scratches down one side of her face. More disturbing was the slight black ring around the pupil of her visible eye, and the ever so reddish tinge of skin that signaled an impinging Blood Rage.
Hali was fawning over her, the hand not held flailing as she begged, "I can feel your pain, mistress, let me help you. I can heal you."
Darken felt rather than heard Cara's weight shifting and focus sharpening. A quick glance at her revealed fisted hands and a rigid spine. She had been disappointed twice in one day, it seemed. At least Darken had never led her to believe he was anything other than what he was.
"No," Kahlan said to Hali, the strange tonelessness of the near Blood Rage coloring her voice. "I will have Zedd do it."
"But I can do it better, mistress," Hali whined, a hangdog expression on her face, crawling for any scrap of affection. "I have the Hands."
She lifted her free hand to demonstrate.
"Kahlan?" Richard said cautiously, unsure what had provoked this state of near instability.
She turned her gaze on him and it gave him a chill.
"Cara, come here," said Kahlan in that voice like a flat bell.
Cara paused, and Richard waited for her to look at him for his permission.
Making the decision herself, she approached, hands near her Agiels.
"Go to Cara," Kahlan ordered Hali, and then pushed her forward with a knee to the back so hard that she practically flew into the Mord'Sith. At the same time, Kahlan took several large steps backwards.
As soon as Kahlan broke skin contact with Hali, the healer threw a blind punch, shrieking like a wet cat. Cara caught the lashing fists easily, pulling Hali into a vice like grip that allowed her little movement, her eyes enormous in her surprise.
The Confessor's eyes returned to their normal color, the pinkish hue of the Con Dar fading to leave creamy, though explosively bruised, flesh behind.
Darken pressed himself against Hali's back, muttering shushing, soothing nonsense, his eyes never leaving Cara's as they held the struggling woman between them.
"That happens every time I let go of her," Kahlan said in exhausted mien, the reason for her black eye and scratches now obvious.
Richard turned to Zedd, "I thought you said she wasn't capable of hurting anyone!"
Zedd reached with a long fingered hand to wipe away Kahlan's bruises and cuts, saying wryly as he did so, "I said she could hurt no one with the Healing Hands. I didn't mention her fists."
"She spooked the horses the first time I let go of her," Kahlan continued. "They broke the lead rope. That was the only one I caught." Kahlan looked at Hali, still cradled between the two beings that seemed least likely to be comforting, and said, "If she wasn't blind she would have escaped me."
"How is this possible?" Richard asked Zedd.
Zedd waved a hand over Kahlan, and then approached the trio clasped together, two sets of eyes watching him warily and the third set buried in Cara's chest.
Zedd met their gazes impassively, waving his hand through the air to read the magic surrounding the healer.
A red line anchored to a white light in the chest, the line stretching to...
Memories and moments flashed in rapid succession behind his eyelids, and suddenly all of the pieces clicked into place.
Hali, calm now, gazed unerringly at his face, more than a little eerie. A heavy presence pressed down on him, and he understood.
He would not tell.
Zedd started, shifting his gaze to meet Rahl's.
"As charming as this is, I would like an explanation."
Richard stopped himself from saying 'So would I.'
"Kahlan," asked Zedd, "are there any... odd effects when you touch Hali?"
Kahlan would not meet anyone's eyes, "It summons the Blood Rage. It's all I can do to keep from succumbing to it."
Zedd realized what she was not saying. The Blood Rage was brought on only by extreme negative emotion.
"Were you able to get any answers?" Richard asked, his tone both desperate and tender.
"No," Kahlan said, staring off into the distance. "She wouldn't give me a straight answer before, and now she's only confessed when she's in contact with me, and when I'm touching her..."
Kahlan trailed of, ashamed of the emotions that had been so buried even she had not been fully aware of them.
Richard looked to Zedd, waiting.
"All I can say," answered the wizard, "is that as far as I know, Hali is the first bearer of the Healing Hands to ever be confessed. It seems that, like with the Mord'Sith, her magic has a particular reaction to confession."
"Will she die?" asked Cara.
"I think she already would have."
A tense silence overtook them, broken only by the sound of Denna's panting, incongruous with the heavy feeling of the moment.
"Come," Darken said at last, leading both Hali and Cara back into the cavern.
"I still need answers," said Richard, irked at Rahl taking charge.
"Richard, enough," said Kahlan, her tone pleading, remorse written in the lines between her brows.
"I think I'll go find the horses," said Zedd. "We'll need them to make up lost time."
Richard watched Hali's retreating back, blaming everything on her recalcitrance.
It was all falling apart and he didn't know where to begin to fix it.
Chapter 25: Human
Darken admired the altered D'Haran uniform Hali had bought for him to replace his ruined shirt. The black and red leather, cut off at the shoulders to expose his muscular arms and embossed with the crest of the empire, did much to make him feel his old self again. It was more constraining around the neck than he preferred, but on the whole better than anything he had worn since his return to life.
And better yet, it boded well for his plan.
"Do you like it?" Hali asked.
He lightly caressed her face, running his fingertips along her jaw, pleased that she wished to please him.
He took a moment to take in Hali's attire, the green dress once belonging to the Mother Confessor. Darken had to admit that it was less ragged than her robes, but he did not like it.
It was a reminder of the hold the Confessor now had on her.
Cara stood watching them, looking like she was contemplating swallowing her tongue.
"Something troubles you, Cara?"
Cara refused to rise to his bait.
The events of the past few days had altered the fabric of her reality. Once more, she was trying to find her place and learn new rules.
Lord Rahl had been correct in his assessment of Richard. He was becoming more ruthless, as was befitting of a ruler who had thousands depending on his ability to lead. It should have been an improvement, something for Cara to take pride in, that the new Lord Rahl was learning.
But it wasn't and she didn't and she didn't understand why.
Cara had spent her entire life loving Darken Rahl as much as she was able. He was her protector, her teacher, her lover, and father to her son.
But he had betrayed her. She could forgive him taking Kahlan Amnell as his queen in that time that never was. He believed her dead, and she had never expected fidelity from him. It was not the Mord'Sith way. It had been enough to be his favorite, the one who could question him and live, the one called when he wished comfort, the one trusted to aid in the running of the empire more than any queen would be. She would have still had those things even with Kahlan as his wife, she was sure of it.
But disinheriting her son in favor of that twisted Confessor child that had gone on to erase all of the Mord'Sith, Cara's legacy… That was unforgivable. Her pride, and something else she did not have a name for, would not allow it.
Her son was illegitimate, but that had not stopped previous Lord Rahls from taking the throne. Cara was the mother of a king and she would not allow him to be slighted.
And yet, here she was, watching Lord Rahl – no, Darken – with appreciation and a fire in her loins that only he could quench.
It was odd to think his name. Not exactly uncomfortable, but not familiar. Lord Rahl was her old master in every way. Darken… she did not know.
"How does our son fare?" she asked him, the first time she had ever broached the topic of the boy.
The cave became noticeably more silent as Kahlan and Richard stared back at them from their position by the cave mouth, wearing twin expressions of shock as her voice carried to them.
"I fear for him, Cara," Darken lied smoothly. "I have not been able to find him nor had word of him since my return. It is possible that he was killed when the resistance stormed the People's Palace after my death."
"Yes. Only Egremont would have known for sure, but unfortunately Egremont was… silenced… by the wizard."
Cara was rooted to the spot, unaware until that very moment how much the foundation of her being revolved around the child she had never held.
Lord Rahl –Darken – pulled her into his embrace, his black hair mingling with her gold. She did not return it at first, but after a moment lifted her gloved hands to grip at his leather clad back, his touch tension fraught and painful and altogether familiar in a way that reassured her soul.
Kahlan squinted at Rahl, wishing that she could read the truth in his words. But he was like the Mord'Sith. Unreadable.
They waited until noon, and still Zedd had not returned from his search for the missing horses.
"We should go look for him," said Richard, gazing worriedly into the forest.
They split up to cover more ground, Cara and Rahl understandably insisting on keeping Hali with them.
Richard watched them go toward the village, trusting Cara to keep Darken and Hali from causing trouble.
Just an hour ago he would have insisted on splitting Cara and Rahl up, but something had changed when he heard of their son.
They were a family, one that had been together long before Richard had known Cara. They had a child together, and though he did not know why he thought so, Richard doubted that the child had been conceived by rape. It seemed too straightforward for Darken Rahl, and Richard imagined that Cara would have fought and died before she allowed that final degradation.
He thought of the death of his father. Both of them.
As he turned the horse to search for Zedd in the woods, Kahlan mounted behind him, Richard, for the first time, considered that Darken Rahl was human.
Chapter 26: Daring
"Was that wise?" Kahlan asked, her hands gripped tight around Richard's belt as they rode double through the woods, an eye out for Zedd or any of the missing horses.
"Sending those three off together alone. I thought you were worried about Cara."
"I am," Richard frowned. "But we need to find Zedd and it made the most sense to split up."
They ducked under a low hanging branch and then Richard continued, "And I don't think Rahl will hurt Cara and I trust her to watch him. Hali means too much to him because of the stone… I never realized before how much Cara gave up when she helped me defeat Rahl."
"Whatever she did then, Richard, she did for her own purposes," Kahlan said, alarmed at his naiveté. Richard was so obsessed with longing for a family of his own, he was letting that fantasy obscure his view.
Richard said, "She's not like that anymore."
"We're all like that in some way, no matter how small," rebutted Kahlan, her gaze turned inward, voice quiet.
Richard never answered, bringing their horse to a halt as he caught sight of the tree line ahead of them.
A circle of trees had been burned at chest height.
Darken was quite satisfied with the turn of events. He could feel Cara's resolve wavering. Soon she would be his again. Not only that, but his brother had ordered him in the direction he most wished to go, the place he had been attempting to reach when he was captured in the Wizard's Web.
They passed the gates of Cavernsfolly, the village that Hali had visited with the Mother Confessor just the day before. Darken wrapped his coarse black cloak around his shoulders, pulling the hood forward to hang over his face. Cara walked openly as a Mord'Sith, daring any to challenge her presence in the village. Hali they kept between them, guiding her through the crowd.
"Hali, what was the name of the merchant you bought my tunic from?"
Cara watched him, her look calculating. He twitched a brow at her.
"I will go see this Ema. Perhaps she has seen the wizard."
"Why look there?"
Cara had been glad when Richard ordered her to go with Darken. It had saved her from having to choose where her allegiance lie. But now she thought it would have been better to be forced away from Darken's side, lest Richard hold her accountable for Darken's deeds.
An image of Hali's blue lips stole across the edge of her memory. Would Richard punish her in the future? And if so, how?
At least with Darken she knew it would be a day of painful games followed by a night of pleasing him in whatever way he wished, or if she was particularly bad, some time deprived of his presence. It made it easy to assess if the action was worth the punishment.
With Richard she wasn't sure anymore and that in itself was worse than any pain inflicted.
"Meet me here in two hours time," Darken ordered, not even considering the possibility that he would be disobeyed. "I need new boots," he quipped as he headed toward the village market square.
The stand Hali had described was unmanned as it was not a market day, but after some discreet inquiries Darken was able to find the tailor's workshop, a sign depicting a needle and pair of shears hanging outside the door.
A bell jangled as he entered and a young woman rushed into the front room.
"Hello sir, welcome to Tailor's," she smiled brightly as she took in his clothes. "Oh, you must be Miss Hali's beau. She said you liked red and wouldn't mind about the D'Haran crest."
She was softly pretty in a plain way, though a little too doll-like for Darken's tastes with her rosy plump cheeks and equally rounded body.
"Ema, I trust?" his voice was filled with rich charm.
"Oh, yes sir," she answered earnestly, "is there anything I can do to help you?"
"Yes there is," he purred as he pushed her into the back room.
She gasped when she saw his face, her eyes widened in fright.
He left the shop with the information he needed and a pair of hunting boots that had been reserved for a rich trader.
The girl was still alive because he did not have time to hide his trail. He had left her with the impression that he was still a wizard and would know if she told any of his presence. Fear would do the rest.
He turned west down the dirt road, enjoying the feel of his new boots. He arrived at a boarding house run by an old widow. There was a man standing in the yard, his back to Darken as he watered a horse.
Darken allowed himself a tiny measure of relief and triumph as he recognized the tattoo on the man's shoulder. Third Battalion, the most loyal of his soldiers.
The man swiveled, teeth bared.
"Ain't no one here by that name," he said.
Darken moved into the yard, pushing back his hood just enough to allow light to hit his face.
"Lord Rahl," the man breathed, dropping to his knees with a fist over his heart.
"Rise," Darken said shortly, hoping none would see the idiot. "I have a task for you."
Chapter 27: Solemn
Zedd awoke to find wide dead eyes staring into his. He jerked backwards, but did not get very far due to the ropes binding his hands and feet, those bonds connected by a short rope behind his back bending his old body into a painful curve.
There was a Rada Han around his neck.
The dead woman lying in front of him was Mord'Sith if her leathers and long brown braid were anything to go by. She had pale skin and attractive features. She would have been beautiful in a better life.
A fly landed on her eye.
"She was following you to rescue Lord Rahl from the Seeker."
Zedd craned his neck, only barely able to bring the hems of bright red robes into his sight.
The Sister of the Dark moved to stand in front of him, kicking the corpse of the Mord'Sith out of her way, saying as she did so, "We thought she might return as a baneling after we relieved her of her han. But it seems she prefers the embrace of the Keeper."
Zedd's mind began to clear. He remembered looking for the horses, and then being surrounded by Sisters of the Dark. One of them had unexpectedly turned his magic on him. A blast he had meant to knock those surrounding him back had sent him careening into a tree trunk. All after was darkness.
"I don't believe we've been properly introduced," said the Sister, her long dark hair falling into his face as she knelt and ran a dacra along his cheek. "You are Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, the no longer so great wizard. I am Sister Marianna."
She pulled a handful of his hair tight and cut off a shank with a jerk of the dacra.
"I wish I could say it was a pleasure," Zedd wheezed in response to her introduction. His hands and feet were numb. "Why am I still alive?"
Sister Marianna walked away from him, her feet leaving his vision.
"Tie this and the note to the body of the dog and leave it where we took him. The Seeker will not be able to resist our offer," Zedd heard her order someone.
"What offer?" he raised his voice. It sounded gruff even to his ears.
He knew Marianna was smiling when she answered, "We will trade you for the blind one and Darken Rahl."
"They are worth more than me. You won't get your trade."
"You are worth less to the world, true. But what about to the Seeker?"
Zedd's heart sunk. "How do you know of the blind one?"
The Sister laughed, but there was no mirth in it.
"The same way you do. Your friend Shota is very talkative when threatened with the loss of her han."
Darken walked in front of Cara and Hali, who carried on a quiet mostly one sided conversation behind him. Captain Vorq had been most eager to do what was asked of him, and had provided Darken with an army issue dagger, which was now concealed in the top of one of his new boots.
It was very good to be armed again.
Hali had convinced Cara to remove a glove so that they could touch hands. It had been easier than it should have been, and Hali suspected Cara was coddling her in this way to make up for her treatment at the hands of Richard and Kahlan.
Hali did not need to be coddled. As much as she hated it, she had known for some time what the meaning of the man marked by the Keeper would have in her life.
She was not referring to Darken Rahl.
But, if Cara felt the need to coddle, and it coincided with Hali's desires, she would not argue.
What she felt when she touched Cara's skin filled her with a sweet victory even as her own heart broke.
"Cara," she asked, "what does Darken look like?"
Cara was surprised at the question.
"No. I want to know what he looks like to you. Because I see him the same, or I would if I could see."
Cara was silent so long that Hali thought she would not answer.
But then Cara said, "He is tall and strong. His hair is dark – black. His eyes are blue. The tunic you chose for him suits him very well."
"Those are his physical features. I want to know what he looks like."
Cara rolled her eyes heavenward, "Must you always be so mystical and, and…solemn?"
Hali pouted, affronted. She could not help it if everything she said was critically important!
"He looks like terror… and power… and inspiration."
Cara studied the impressive figure he cut and her heart beat twice.
When they reached the appointed meeting place, Richard and Kahlan were already there. They hurried forward, grim determination in every step.
Chapter 28: Kill
His brother led him to the burned out section of the woods where it seemed the wizard had made his last stand.
His dog lay in the center of the trees.
Darken approached to look down at the beast that had loved him unreservedly. She had been slit open from chest to tail, her entrails bulging through the cut, bloated and stinking. Her pink tongue hung from her mouth, swarming with insects.
Denna had been his to keep or kill. Someone would pay for this.
"We found this with her," said Richard, handing him a note and a lock of grizzled white hair. "They want you and Hali in exchange for Zedd."
"We can't do it."
Richard flared angrily, "I'm not letting them keep Zedd! I know you only care about your own skin –"
"Do not presume to understand me brother, there is not time to save the wizard if we are to seal the veil."
"I won't leave him behind!"
"If there are enough of them that they could subdue Zeddicus, we do not have a hope of defeating them without resorting to a series of skirmishes. There is not time."
"I have a plan," Cara interrupted. She studied the Rahl brothers, "But no one is going to like it."
After Cara had explained her strategy, Richard said to Darken, privately, "How do I know you aren't working with them and this is some big double cross?"
Darken tightened his jaw, the jumping muscle the only indication of the grave insult he had been dealt.
"They killed my dog."
They arrived at the place specified in the ransom note. Kahlan led Hali by a short rope, yanking her along none too gently. Hali struggled against her bonds, muttering curses under her breath. Richard rode the horse, pulling a stumbling Cara and Darken behind. They were shackled to the saddle, their chains clanking as they moved.
Zedd was visible, lying bound against a sheer rock wall that rose suddenly from the forest floor. Another body was next to him, clad in the dark red uniform of the Mord'Sith.
That explained much, if the Mord'Sith's han had been taken.
A line of Sisters of the Dark stood in their way, dacras at the ready.
"Seeker," a red robed woman said, stepping forward to stand between their party and Zeddicus.
"Sister Marianna," greeted Darken. "So lovely to see you again."
She ignored him, speaking to Richard, "We wanted only the blind one and the traitor. Why have you chained the Mord'Sith?"
"She wouldn't let us bring Rahl. We had to chain her to keep her from stopping us."
"Richard, no…" came a barely audible protest from the old man bound on a bed of leaves.
Sister Marianna nodded her understanding, and then gestured to someone hiding in the trees, "Take them."
"Wait!" objected Richard. Voice quieter, he continued, "You mentioned a trade."
"So I did. You will give me the blind woman and Rahl, and then I and my Sisters will leave, leaving you free to fetch your wizard," her expression grew hard. "If any of you try to stop us, the wizard will die."
Darken suppressed the urge to roll his eyes. Sister Marianna was always making idle threats, and was usually quite unable to follow through.
Richard nodded and two Sisters of the Dark materialized. One approached Kahlan to take possession of Hali, the other went toward Darken.
As soon as they were within striking distance Richard released the chains from the back of the saddle. Cara and Darken swung them around in quick wide arcs, Cara's fouling the Sister's legs, Darken's wrapping around her throat. He pressed a foot into her back and pulled the chain, relishing the satisfying pop that accompanied the breaking of the woman's neck. He rolled free and drew his dagger, back to back with Cara, ready to take his next victim.
In the same instant, Kahlan pressed her hand to the back of Hali's neck, immediately falling into and embracing the Con Dar, her black eyes surrounded in ghoulish red rings. She stretched out a hand, a wave of confession flowing from the motion. Sisters of the Dark stopped and turned on their allies.
But not nearly enough.
"Mistress," cried Hali, "some of them are banelings! I can feel it!"
Baneling spirits were tied to the Keeper. Immune to confession.
Richard surged forward on the horse, laying about with his sword as he shouted encouragement. The equine was not trained to battle, but its frightened jumping and kicking, shimmying from side to side, served the same purpose as the maneuvers of a warhorse. Richard cut a swath through the front line of Sisters, opening a path for his allies to get to Zedd.
More Sisters of the Dark boiled into the fight from hiding places among the trees. Cara made use of the opening Richard had left. She got to Zedd, prepared to intercept any that would try to kill him before the battle was over. Her eyes traveled to the face of the dead Mord'Sith, and her heart stopped.
An enemy used her distraction to smash something hard into the back of her skull. Her eyes rolled back in her head and she fought vainly to hold onto awareness as her vision blackened.
Then Darken was there, a spray of blood arching through the air as he sliced the offending Sister's neck, so powerful that her head only stayed attached to her body by a few inches of tissue.
Cara struggled to her feet, resisting the urge to shake her head. It would do nothing to clear it. Her hearing returned just in time for her to hear Richard's scream of "– Zedd!"
She checked Zedd's pulse as Darken kept their opponents at bay, swirling slashing a whirlwind of destruction.
"He needs Hali!" Cara screamed, looking toward the circle of confessed Sisters that protected Hali and Kahlan.
Richard was pulled from his horse, swallowed into a sea of banelings. Sister Marianna sprang up into the abandoned saddle, whipping the frightened quadruped into a frenzied gallop.
"She's getting away," exclaimed Richard from amongst the crowd of reanimated corpses.
None of them were in a position to go after her.
They had not planned for the banelings, and it was costing them.
They needed fire.
"Zedd, Zedd," Cara lightly patted his face. "We need you to throw fire."
He moaned and she noticed the Rada Han encircling his neck. He could not do it even if he were awake.
"Retreat to the cliff face," Darken said, his voice easily pitched to carry over the clamor of battle, a general's bellow. "Make them face us from one side."
All obeyed him, gaining inch by painful inch. At last they stood in a ragged line in front of Zedd, mirroring the position the Sisters of the Dark had started in. Kahlan's confessed Sisters served as a buffer, fighting and dying, cutting down the numbers that got through to fight the five of them.
At last word of their leader's abandonment seemed to flow through the horde, and pockets of Sisters and banelings fled. The ones who did not were killed – at least temporarily.
They were left surrounded in a crescent of commingling red.
The red of blood and the red of robes.
Kahlan released Hali, collapsing as the Con Dar left her. Never before had she sustained it so long. Hali, upon having her will restored, immediately felt her way along the rock wall to tend to Zedd.
Richard rushed forward to catch Kahlan as she slumped to the ground, pushing his way past the two surviving confessed Sisters of the Dark who hovered around their mistress.
Darken pressed his bloody dagger to the breast of one of the Sisters, forcing her roughly to her knees with a handful of her hair.
"What do you know of the blind woman?"
The confessed Sister looked to Kahlan, who nodded her head that she should answer the questions.
"The Keeper knows she is important to finding the stone. He wants her."
"Where is Sister Marianna going?"
"I don't know. Forgive me mistress," she directed the last to Kahlan.
"How have you been finding us?"
"Sister Marianna has an amulet made of the bones of a Rahl. She uses it to track you and the Seeker."
"Where did she get the bones?"
Perhaps from his father, Panis?
"They are the bones of a boy child –"
Cara growled, taking a step forward, her Agiels leaping into her hands. Darken pressed his dagger more firmly into the woman's breast, cutting her off before she could reveal the child's age at death.
"Which of you," he asked, voice deadly, already knowing the answer to his question, "killed the boy?"
"The boy was already dead when we found him."
"And my dog?"
"I killed the dog."
Darken began a shallow cut down the woman's skin. He would kill her by inches.
"Rahl!" protested his brother.
"Which of you killed Dahlia?" Cara interrupted his vengeance, voice thick.
The Sister looked confused, and Cara clarified, "The Mord'Sith."
"The one who killed her is already dead," the woman answered after looking to Kahlan for permission. "But I am the one who led her into the trap."
Cara's Agiels whined in higher pitch, their bloodlust increasing with her own. She met Lord Rahl's eyes, "I demand the right."
Darken considered, and then flung the confessed woman down into the dirt, granting Cara her reprisal. After all, Dahlia had been Cara's pet for far longer than Denna had been his, and she plainly felt the need to avenge their son.
It was fortunate this explanation for the boy's death had fallen into his lap. Cara's vehemence made it obvious she would not have forgiven him for snuffing out his tiny rival.
Mistress Cara was wicked and efficient, pressing her Agiels to nerve centers just long enough for maximum pain, the Sister's screams flowing one into another, a terrible symphony.
Darken kept the others from interfering, dripping dagger in hand, saying "She must face her crimes," when the Confessor protested that the woman was confessed.
He was aware of the hypocrisy of making such a statement. He did not care.
Sickening crunches were heard as Mistress Cara broke the Sister's limbs, the woman whimpering beyond pain.
Richard turned green and Kahlan felt tears slide from her eyes. They clung together, horrified but unable to look away. A monstrous understanding of why Cara was Darken Rahl's favored one flowed between them. Only Hali seemed unconcerned, tuning out the world around her as she worked to bring Zedd to consciousness.
The woman vomited and Mistress Cara slapped her for daring to be sick on her boots. She shoved both Agiels between the woman's breasts, tiring of her game. The woman found her voice again, her back arching as her muscles spasmed, uttering a keening death wail that faded into a rattle.
Richard swallowed the trickle of bile that had welled into his throat, knowing he would remember that sound until the day he died.
Cara stood panting, a depth of feeling for her son and Dahlia that she had never been capable of before her travels with the Seeker pushing her to new heights of cruelty. She lifted one booted foot and slammed it down into the dead woman's face, rendering her unrecognizable. Dishonored just as Dahlia and Cara's son had been.
Her companions shied from her and Cara could feel herself drowning in a fog of disapproval.
It was Darken who rescued her, gazing at the twisted remains as he said, "It lacks your usual finesse, but I did enjoy your enthusiasm."
She would not allow herself to feel remorse.
Chapter 29: Respect
They burned all of the Sisters of the Dark. It was not an easy feat. Sister Marianna had escaped with the key to the Rada Han containing Zedd's powers. It meant that the bodies had to be dragged into a pile and the flames set with flint and steel.
The smoke from the blaze reached into the heavens, as if searching for the Creator. The smell of death and acrid flesh would follow them for a long time.
They carried Dahlia and laid her in state in the clearing where Denna's body still lay. The Mother Confessor presided over the funerary rights, and another fire was started with the striking of flint to steel. The flames were no less hot and the smell no less pungent, regardless that the bodies burned were friends.
Kahlan stood next to Cara as Cara watched the last vestiges of Dahlia burn away.
"Did you know her?"
"We served together for many years."
Kahlan said no more. She was edgy. She was making an effort to treat Cara normally, but the signs were there for one who cared to look, in the too compassionate expression, the tense way her hands stayed clasped in front of her.
Cara had done much worse for far less provocation in the past and Kahlan had treated her with friendship just that morning. But she didn't say any of that. Her son, her unknown prince was dead, as well as her long time companion who had filled her nights when Lord Rahl was away and understood her in many ways he could not.
She did not owe an explanation and she would not give one.
Darken stood by the smoldering pile that had been his dog, his eyes trained on Cara.
"Why what, brother?"
"Why… everything. Why do you care for a dog, why did you help us, why didn't anyone know about your son?"
Darken was quiet for a long moment, and then deflected the questions, saying with an incredulous note, "Are you trying to bond with me, Richard?"
Richard opened his mouth, then shut it, lips compressing into a line as his face splotched an unattractive red.
"Nevermind," he muttered, embarrassed and disappointed and confused as to why he was so.
Cara approached Darken once his brother had gone to sit with the wizard. She bore Dahlia's Agiel in her hand, and held it out to him in offering.
"She would have been honored if you wielded it, my lord."
Darken's body tightened with lust at hearing that title fall from her lips once more.
Outwardly, he showed nothing, absently running a finger over his lips as he studied Cara.
"You wish to keep it," he stated, sure of his conclusions. "In remembrance."
Cara could not deny his words were true, but custom demanded that the Agiel be offered to the highest ranking.
After a moment of thought, Cara achieved a solution, and wondered if it was not what Lord Rahl had wanted all along. She pulled one of her Agiels from the straps on her hip and put Dahlia's in its place. Laying her Agiel across both hands, she offered it to Lord Rahl silently.
"You offer me your Agiel?"
"The one I was given the day I passed the Trials."
He took the magical weapon from her open palms, not even a flicker registering in his expression as pain shot up his arm. He slipped it through his belt, wearing it openly.
It was a symbol, and he would not hide it.
The rest looked on, but did not protest Cara's gift. Whether they feared what would happen if they tried to take the Agiel from him, or whether they respected the tenuous bond that had been forged in the fiery heat of a death struggle did not matter to Darken.
The end result was the same.
iv A heavy handed symbolic reference to all that happens among the characters in the cave.
Chapter 4: Part IV
Chapter 30: Trust
"We need to get the key to Zedd's Rada Han, and that amulet. If we don't we'll lead Marianna right to the Pillars of Creation," said Richard as he walked beside Rahl to the village to replace the supplies they had lost when Marianna stole their horse.
Cara preceded them on the path, on the lookout for threats to the House of Rahl.
"As much as I wish for the return of the bones of my son," Darken replied, knowing the effect such as statement would have on his brother. "And as tiresome as it is for the wizard to be without his powers, we are swiftly running out of time."
"Rahl…Darken, what was your son's name?"
Darken replied with the first name that crossed his mind, knowing he could afford no hesitation, "Nicholas."
Richard's body spasmed and Darken watched him out of the corner of his eye, knowing that the name he had given was the cause of his brother's disquiet and curious as to why.
Quickly changing the subject, Richard said, "Well, we can't just leave Marianna out there."
"No," Darken agreed, "we can't. But there is a solution. Call the Confessor."
Kahlan hurried forward to catch up with Richard and Rahl when Richard motioned her forward, the one remaining confessed Sister of the Dark, Alexia, following close behind like a faithful puppy.
"Kahlan," Richard said, "we have a mission for Sister Alexia."
"We?" echoed Kahlan with a hard look at Darken Rahl.
Richard smiled at her in that way that said 'trust me' and then addressed the Sister of the Dark, "Alexia, I need you to do something."
Alexia looked to Kahlan, and Kahlan nodded.
"I need you to return to Sister Marianna and make her think you escaped," Richard said. "When you get a chance, steal the bone amulet and the key to Zedd's Rada Han, and bring them back to us."
"You must do whatever it takes to convince her you are still on her side," Darken added, feeling that the confessed woman needed more specific instructions if she was to succeed. "Even if it means attacking the Mother Confessor. Stop only at a death blow. And," he stressed, "you must not attempt to take the amulet and the key unless you are certain you will be able to escape and bring them back to me."
"Us," Richard corrected.
"Yes of course, brother. Force of habit."
Alexia looked to Kahlan, who nodded and said "Go," though reluctantly.
After the Sister had disappeared into the trees, Kahlan said, "Richard, can I talk to you? Alone." She cut her eyes at Rahl.
Richard looked a trifle embarrassed, yet understanding Kahlan's hesitance to speak before Darken, he said, "Would you mind…?"
"Not at all, brother. It seems I am making the Mother Confessor… uncomfortable," he gave Kahlan a smoldering look and then went forward to join Cara.
Kahlan shivered, her flesh crawling. Rahl had an uncanny sense of how to disturb her.
"I know what you're going to say," Richard preempted. "And I don't trust him, not completely. But," he continued, "he's not so bad when he's on your side. And he's a good advisor."
Kahlan was at a loss.
Zedd watched the exchanges of the young ones from his position at the back. Hali walked with him, keeping their skin in contact to boost his strength. Without his magic to sustain him, he was an arthritic old man ill-suited to cross country treks. He did so now only with the help of the Healing Hands.
"Cara and Rahl are walking together," Zedd said to Hali. "Do you wish to join them? I will be fine without you until we reach the village."
Hali smiled her crooked smile, a wistful mistiness to her white eyes, "I am not needed there anymore."
Zedd's eyebrows rose.
Hali did not answer.
Once the village gates appeared in the distance, Zedd said, "You lied about going back to the Palace of the Prophets. About how old you are."
"In this body, yes. But I told no lies, Zeddicus. I can't help it if you jumped to the wrong conclusions."
"What do you remember?"
Zedd looked ahead to study Richard and Kahlan, and then the twin specks of dark red that were Cara and Rahl.
"You are certain that he's the one?"
"I have been waiting for centuries. Now the world is unbalanced, death has no meaning and life has no meaning without death… I have met two brothers, both marked by the Keeper, one destined to bring the world to the brink of destruction only to be stopped at the last instant by the other. Yes, he is the one. Or he had better be."
"I suppose," mused Zedd, "we must trust in the Creator. But it's difficult."
"Yes," said Hali, thinking of all that had happened to her and all that had yet to happen, "it is."
Chapter 31: Family
They stayed that night in the village inn at the insistence of the wizard, who pointed out that they wouldn't get very far after dark, it had been many days since any of them had slept in a real bed, and the innkeeper's wife was renowned for her apple cobbler.
Darken watched with appreciative horror at the amounts of said dessert the wizard was consuming. It was like watching a shadrin in a flock of lambs.
His brother, trading on being the Seeker, had charmed the innkeeper into letting them use the private dining hall that was usually reserved for wedding parties and the like. It was surprisingly considerate, as it allowed Darken to forgo disguising himself.
He spent the evening eating a plain but filling meal and drinking a rather pulpy apple cider. It was not the fare usually served to Lord Rahl, but as Darken had been eating rabbits and scavenged flora, he was disinclined to be picky. He kept an eye on Cara, hoping that she would want to take advantage of the rare chance for privacy to enjoy the pleasure of his company later in the night.
Neither of them minded an audience, but Darken had gotten rather tired of being on the wrong end of the Sword of Truth.
He could make his wishes known to Cara, of course, and she would accommodate him. But he found that the idea of her wanting him enough to ask was infinitely more pleasing. He knew she still wanted him, could read it in the way she watched him, but he wanted her to say it.
Richard slumped down onto the bench next to Darken, thumping down two mugs of ale. It seemed that even champions of light could only be grim and determined to save the world so long before spending a night drinking a pint and making bets as to whether the wizard or the healer could eat more pies.
It was very humiliating to see his destined nemesis this way.
He pushed the crock of beer Richard had brought him away. It would not do to be in anything less than control of his faculties. Partaking of fine spirits in the company of his loyal Mord'Sith as they served him was very different from being even mildly drunk in an inn surrounded by friendly enemies.
Control was very important to him, not in the least because of his long list of enemies and former position as a head of state. Control had been taught to him at a very early age by a father who disapproved of anything but strength and cunning in his heir.
Learning control of himself had stopped the various tortures inflicted on him. Learning control of others had allowed him to become great, making the world safe for himself and by extension, D'Hara.
Though not in time to save his mother.
"Come on, Rahl," said Richard, "drink up."
"If I didn't know better, brother, I would suspect you were trying to get me drunk."
Richard smiled, "Don't tell me the greatest tyrant the world has ever known is afraid of a drink."
"I'm surprised you approve of drinking, brother. Isn't intoxication on your list of unforgivable sins?"
"There's something that's been bothering me," Richard said as he leaned close to keep the others from overhearing.
He could have saved the effort, as a musician was brought in for the pleasure of the Seeker. A lively tune was stuck up, and soon was accompanied by caterwauling from Zedd as Kahlan attempted to get Cara to dance. Darken angled his body to hide his face from the musician.
"If you want advice on women, brother, my first piece would be to find one that won't enslave you."
Richard scowled an ugly scowl but reacted no further, having come to understand that Darken often baited him to steer the conversation away from topics he didn't wish to discuss. "I want to know why you have two sons named Nicholas."
"How much have you had to drink? I have only one son, and he is currently being used as a fashion accessory."
Richard was taken aback at Darken's callousness, but quickly and quietly told him of the D'Hara he and Cara had witnessed, the time ruled by Master Nicholas Rahl.
Darken was intrigued, and mystified, and vaguely alarmed.
He raised an eyebrow.
Many things suddenly made a great deal of sense. Cara's reluctance, the Confessor's hostility…
"I never lived that life," Darken said to Richard, thinking quickly. "I cannot say why I chose to name the Confessor's son Nicholas, save that I had perhaps grown attached to the idea of my heir bearing that name."
It was best to keep things simple. Only liars had detailed stories.
"You know what I think?" Richard grew grim. "I think your and Cara's son died a long time ago and you never told her."
"And why would I do that?"
"You tell me."
Darken stared into the bottom of his cider glass, as if trying to divine the answers to the universe. "What," he asked, not looking up, "are you planning to do with these suspicions of yours?"
"Tell Cara. She has a right to know."
Darken snapped his eyes to Richard's, "And what purpose would that serve other than allowing you to feel good about your moral outrage?"
An unacceptable unplanned note of desperation was left hanging in the air after his voice died away.
Disillusioned, Richard whispered, "You killed him."
"I did not," Darken put every ounce of conviction into those three words.
After all, it had not been his hand, but Egremont's that held the knife.
"I never know whether to believe you," Richard looked very much like he wanted to believe. He wanted that ephemeral wisp of humanity.
Darken saw an opportunity to bring this spiral of disaster back to manageable proportions and said, "Then consider this. If you are correct and you tell Cara, you will have destroyed our relationship for something that cannot be changed or helped. And," Darken's gaze flowed over Cara, taking in the reluctantly happy expression as she halfheartedly danced with Hali and the Confessor, "if you are wrong, you will have taken her from me once more simply because you could."
Darken gripped Richard's forearm, fingers like shackles as they dug into his wrist, "You have taken everything from me. You had our father's love before your conception, the people looked to you for a hero when it was I who governed their land and brought it to order, the empire I built is falling back into dust as it tears itself apart, you took my life from me! Cara is mine, and I will allow no one to take her, not even if it means breaking her again."
Darken breathed heavily through his nose, his eyes glittering with something unnamed. He had meant that little speech as a rather brilliant manipulation.
He was shocked to find every word was true.
Disliking the intensity surrounding Richard and Rahl, Kahlan spun over to them to ask Richard for a dance. Richard waved her off, saying he would join her in a moment. Kahlan urged him to hurry, informing him he shouldn't waste the whole night while staring pointedly at Darken.
Never one to miss an opportunity, Darken said, "Was that something about wasting the night, Kahlan? I believe I could oblige you if you are truly that eager."
To his immense pleasure, the Confessor turned several very interesting colors before glowering at him. Darken turned to make eye contact with Cara, inviting her to share in the joke, but she was wearing a masked expression. The one she only wore when she was upset with him but knew better than to show it.
Richard, apparently having lost his sense of self-preservation somewhere between his accusations and Darken's counter, clapped Darken hard on the back for that comment, muttering a warning in his ear.
Cara excused herself. Pulling up his hood, Darken escaped his brother's clutches to follow her.
When he caught her in the corridor, Darken held up a hand to stop Cara from fleeing his presence.
"I have never tolerated petulance from you, Cara. That has not changed."
"You desire Kahlan."
That was unexpected. But in light of recent revelations, perhaps it shouldn't have been.
"Why Cara," he smiled, a warmth bubbling up within him, "I believe you're jealous."
Darken moved forward to press her against the wall, molding their bodies together, "What must I do to reassure you?"
Their hearts beat once, twice, wildly in unison and then he slammed her lips to his and they began an intoxicating power struggle, each vying for dominance. Leather creaked against leather, and long shapely legs were wrapped around his waist, strong hands working the ties of his tunic. He groped for the door handle, and then they were on the floor, their passion too great to wait for them to make it to the bed.
Richard watched Darken go, an uncertain failure and melancholy sinking his soul.
"Richard," Kahlan admonished, "you must realize that everything he does is for some hidden purpose. Why are you trying so hard to make family out of him?"
"I don't have a lot of family left," Richard said. "And he said some things to me, back when he thought he was dying in the Forest of the Night Wisps, and just now. He wants a family too."
"He is a vile monster."
Suddenly feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders, Richard said, "Not any more than I am."
The next morning, Cara awoke to find arms like iron bands holding her to Darken's chest.
"Cara," he said, a faint smile twitching the corners of his lips, "it's good to have you back."
He kissed her as gently as he had the very first time she awoke that way.
Chapter 32: Secrets
Richard walked with Zedd and Hali, allowing Cara and Darken to lead. He was worried about his grandfather. With the Rada Han around Zedd's neck, he needed Hali's magic to keep him in his usual shape. Richard was conflicted. It seemed best to leave Zedd behind, but he feared what could befall him with neither his magic nor companions to protect him.
Watching Cara walk at Darken's side, a crisp militariness to her movements – the closest thing Mord'Sith got to a spring in the step – that had faded before Darken joined them, he realized Zedd wasn't the only thing that he felt conflicted about.
They seemed to make each other happy in a strange way. Like a wolf and a wolverine, they were a deadly complimentary pair. Odd, not entirely natural, but it worked for them.
Richard looked at Kahlan and found that he didn't have grounds to be judging anyone else's relationship when the woman he loved so completely could destroy him with a touch without even meaning to.
Darken had given him a lot to think about.
"Thinking deep thoughts?"
Richard started, and then looked up at Zedd. "Something I found out about Darken that may or may not be true. Something he doesn't want Cara to know."
Hali's focus was instantly on him, her white eyes drilling holes in his skull.
"And you," she said with venom, "feel it is your place to stick your nose in and ruin what I have worked so hard to achieve?"
Richard changed rapidly from soft thoughtfulness to hard accusation, "You are controlling them somehow. I knew it."
Hali snorted, something she had picked up from Cara, "I used the Healing Hands to bring their feelings to the surface and pointed them in the right direction."
Zedd wasn't sure whether to be glad he was between them or wish he was anywhere else.
"You manipulated them."
"I helped them. They would have found their way back to each other eventually in the right circumstances. Darken feels very strongly for her."
"And what about Cara? Or is all of this to please Rahl?"
Hali turned forward, eyes ahead as if she could see the people they discussed. "You act like you care for Cara and her happiness. Tell me, would telling her whatever it is you are thinking of telling her make her happy?"
"No. But it's the right thing to do."
She turned that crooked smile on him, a bitter curl of the lip, "Why?"
"Because it is... because she has the right to know how he really is before she gets involved with him."
Hali laughed at him, braying like a donkey. "Listen to yourself, Seeker. Cara knows Darken Rahl better than anyone alive. And as for their involvement," she turned serious, "it is between them. Would you wish for someone to tell you every little thing about the Confessor? Her darkest desires? Things that would make your skin crawl and taint your love for her? I can do it you know. I can tell you those things that seep up from within every time she touches me and sinks into the Con Dar."
Richard became defensive, wanting to disagree with Hali just because of her hostility, never mind that in his heart of hearts he wanted to be convinced, wanted to see Cara and Darken happy in a way they had never been before, wanted his family to be whole and complete and normal.
When had he become Darken, rather than Rahl?
"Kahlan could never do or think anything terrible enough for me to stop loving her."
"And there isn't anything that Cara could do to make Darken stop loving her as much as he's capable of it. But there are plenty of things that can drive lovers apart forever, no matter how much the heart yearns."
"You don't know what I think he did."
"And you," Hali spoke slowly, wondering if she would have to bash in his head to get him to listen, "don't know the dark unspoken things skittering around your beloved Kahlan's heart. Would you like me to tell you, knowing that she would do anything to have me not to, and it might change the way you see her forever?"
"It may be best," Zedd interrupted their increasingly heated conversation, "that you wait until whatever it is becomes pertinent, Richard." Zedd looked down at Hali, thinking of all the secrets he knew and could not yet reveal, "After all, you can always tell Cara what you know, but you can never un-say something once it has been said."
Richard's reply would never be heard, as in the distance came the sound of hoof beats and the unmistakable clang of steel being drawn.
Chapter 33: Ruse
They had enough time to hide Zedd and Hali just off the edge of the road and then take up battle stances in a line. Five roughly dressed men rode down on them, armed with a collection of D'Haran issue weapons and blades stolen from their victims.
"Maybe we'll get some horses after all," said Cara, her face aglow with battle-lust.
Darken recognized the leader of the charge and inwardly congratulated himself on a well-managed ruse.
As the pack of bandits reached them Richard leapt forward, sword in hand, dragging at the lead bandit's belt to haul him from his horse. The man clung stubbornly to the saddle and his warhorse, much too fine for a bandit, reared. Richard pulled his legs up to his chest, abs burning, to keep them away from the crushing force of powerful hooves. The instant all four feet were on the ground again, the horse lunged forward, kicking its back legs out, beginning a twisting dance at the behest of its rider to throw Richard away.
Despite his determination to keep his grip, he could feel his hands slipping. The bandit was too well seated and Richard didn't have a strong enough hold. He pushed off against the horse's side, choosing to launch himself from harm's way rather than lose his grip and be trampled.
Richard hit the ground rolling to absorb the impact, and then sprung to his feet only to be knocked into the dirt once more as the bandit he had tried so hard to unhorse slammed into him. As they began a wrestling match made more dangerous by naked swords, Richard incongruously wondered why the bandit had tried so hard to stay in the saddle if he was planning on jumping out of it a moment later.
But there was no time for odd thoughts, the Sword of Truth was squeezed from his hand, and then they tumbled, stomping horse hooves all around ready to make them into paste if they got in the way. The bandit was strong and large, he had a longer reach than Richard and he was using that to his advantage, struggling for something at Richard's belt. As the compass was pulled free Richard suddenly realized what the man was after, and more so that he had known exactly where to look for it.
Hooves slammed down narrowly missing Richard's head, crushing the hand the bandit was holding his sword in, the sword Richard had been fighting to keep from his neck. Using the bandit's shock against him, ignoring the howl of pain in his ear, Richard bent the fingers clutching the compass back, scraping it from the man's grasp. Prize in hand, he rolled away, crawling between thrashing horses.
He did not get very far before he was tackled again, the heavy bandit stretched out on his back, sword coming around to menace his throat as the man's long arms scrambled for the compass, even with horse bruised broken fingers. Richard stretched his arm out impossibly far, doing his utmost to keep the compass from the purple and green grip of the bandit on his back. The bandit's fingertips scrabbled at the edge of the case, and then the compass was open in Richard's hand.
Richard looked up as two cries were heard. The compass light pulsed blue and Richard tried to curl his fingers to close it, but was prevented by the weight on his arm. His mouth dropped open in shock as Kahlan crumpled, clutching her chest, lips turning blue. Cara barely managed to reach her in time to stop a knife to her throat.
Richard redoubled his efforts to shed the bandit on his back, but was unable to fight against the desperation the bandit felt for his goal. Then, realizing suddenly that he was going about things all wrong, he stopped fighting and let the bandit take the compass, eyes on Kahlan.
The compass only worked in the hands of the Seeker.
The blue glow dimmed and with it the blue faded from Kahlan's lips. So preoccupied with her safety was Richard, that he forgot the sword at his neck until it was pressed tight, drawing a line of blood.
He hoped he would not be so mangled that Cara would be unable to revive him.
But the death strike never came, just a gush of warmth on his back and the dead weight of the bandit falling beside him in the dirt, cut from navel to nose.
Richard rolled over to see the blood covered point of the Sword of Truth, held by Darken Rahl. They were perfectly still, staring at one another. Richard's heart beat in his throat, certain that he was about to be run through.
Then Darken used the tip of the sword to flip the bandit's sleeve, revealing a tattoo of the crest of D'Hara.
"Captain Vorq of the Third Battalion," Darken said. "This would never have happened were I still in power."
Stung at what Rahl was implying, Richard answered, "You're right. They would be wearing uniforms."
"Ungrateful as ever, little brother."
Rahl held up the compass Richard had not realized he had retrieved, saying, "I had thought to keep this, but now," electric blue eyes cut to the Mother Confessor who was standing with Cara's help, rubbing at her chest, "I think I prefer you to have it."
The compass was dropped at Richard's feet as Rahl smiled a smile so sharp Richard felt he would have preferred it if Rahl had simply leaned down and bit him.[v]
Zedd crashed loudly through the underbrush, half carrying, half carting a brittle Hali as he demanded to know why the compass had been opened.
Chapter 34: Gratitude
Darken claimed Captain Vorq's sword and large black warhorse for himself, and Richard didn't feel it was worth contesting. He was the better horseman, but he had to admit that Darken had had military training and would be able to utilize the warhorse in ways that Richard couldn't, not knowing the commands to give the animal.
Kahlan laid claim to the second best beast, unnecessarily affronted at Rahl getting the warhorse and seeming to want to prove something.
Richard rode by Zedd and Hali, who were sitting double on a swaybacked dapple gray mare, there having not been enough horses for all of them.
"What have you done to Kahlan?" Richard asked, attempting for once to remain quiet and reasonable. Hali, he had come to learn, grew more obstinate the harder he tried to get answers from her.
"Ask not what I have done to her, but rather what she has done to me."
"What," Richard shortened the reins of the mean spirited gelding he was riding to keep it from biting Zedd and Hali's horse[vi], "do you mean by that?"
"It is a result of the confession," Zedd answered before Hali could antagonize his grandson into another dispute. "Hali's powers are tied to the stone, and Kahlan's are now tied to Hali's."
Zedd cringed at the hurt in Richard's voice, scratching absently at the Rada Han around his neck, "I suspected. I didn't see any sense in bringing it up so long as you didn't try to open the compass again."
Before Richard could unload his irritation and guilt onto his grandfather, Hali interjected, "It is a protection for me. So long as the Mother Confessor's pure heart beats, the Keeper is doomed to fail. You cannot kill me with the compass now without hurting your precious Kahlan."
"You think a lot of yourself."
"You think more of her."
Richard spurred his horse into a quick trot, leaving Zedd and Hali in his dust as he caught up to Kahlan.
Zedd looked after him, and said sadly, "That boy is going to be the death of me."
Thoughtfully, Hali answered, "Me too."
Darken put his new beast through its paces, quite pleased with the way the battle had gone. The original plan had been to have Captain Vorq steal the compass for him, but this was even better. He had a fine steel sword, an exquisite warhorse almost equal to the one he used to have in his personal stable, and his brother couldn't use the compass without torturing his beloved Kahlan Amnell.
Better yet, Darken had found himself to be in the position to be Richard's savior, a reversal of roles that was quite satisfying. He would savor the dawning comprehension, grudging gratitude, and then the look of fear that had flowed through his brother's eyes as Darken stood over him with his own sword for a long time.
And no one even suspected him, save the Confessor. But she would be suspicious if he did something so simple as take a bath, Darken was sure.
A log had fallen across the path up ahead, and Darken shifted his weight, signaling his horse to prepare for a jump. Cara matched his pace, and they took the log together, landing in unison and then thundering on ahead, letting their mounts use up the momentum of the leap, turning it into a bit of a race. Darken had an advantage with the better horse, and they trickled back into a trot with Cara a half-length behind. She smiled more easily now that she had spent time with the Seeker and Darken found, as he gazed at her fierce beauty, that he had something else to thank his brother for.
Sister Alexia pushed herself hard, barely eating or sleeping in her eagerness to carry out the mission her mistress had sent her on. It took her only a few days to cover the distance a sane person would have traveled in a week or more.
Finally she stumbled on an enclave of bright red robes like her own, and fortunately Sister Marianna was among them, praying to the Keeper.
Alexia's eyes lit on the key dangling from Marianna's belt, and the place in her bodice where Alexia knew the bone amulet to be concealed next to the skin. She wet her lips, gritting her teeth against the powerful desire to please her mistress.
"Sister Alexia, you survived."
"Yes, Sister Marianna. I have returned to serve the Keeper."
Another of the Sisters protested, saying she had seen Alexia fight for the Confessor. Remembering her instructions to do whatever necessary, Alexia said, "I was not confessed. I merely pretended to be in order to get away. And," she stared into Marianna's eyes, barely able to keep her hands from tearing at her robes to obtain the key and amulet, "I know where the Seeker is going."
Chapter 35: Guilt
They rode hard all day and night, then continued on into part of the morning, stopping only when the horses were lathered in foam and Zedd had to be lashed to the saddle because he kept falling asleep.
They had a lot of time to make up.
Kahlan wiped down her horse and then tethered it by some grass with the others. Richard had gone off to find water for them and the horses. She also imagined he would want to finally get out of the shirt soaked in the blood of the bandit Rahl had killed.
She looked at Rahl, who was murmuring things in the great black stallion's ear as he rubbed its neck.
"You try so hard to hate him."
Kahlan started. She must have been deep in thought to fail to hear the blind woman's approach.
"I know what he is," Kahlan answered, face tight.
"Yes," Hali smiled that crooked smile, "you do. He is the only man in all the world that could give you children without becoming your slave. He told me of the protection his wizard created."
Kahlan did not answer and Hali groped for her shoulder, though carefully to avoid skin contact.
"Why are you doing this?"
"I do what I must," Hali continued, an unusual fluidity to her voice. "How hard it must be to stop the fantasies of a man capable of loving you because he wanted to. An intelligent ruler who fits all the criteria Confessors search for in a mate…"
Kahlan moved stiffly away from Hali's hand, "One of the things Confessors search for is guilt, and he has it in spades."
"And yet, he would not be affected by your power. How very frustrating. Tell me, how often have you wished that Richard had his immunity… or his guilt? After all, either one would do."
"You sound like him."
An expression of unrest seeped into Hali's skin, "It is the nature of what I am."
"And what's that?" Kahlan asked, eager to get some answers at last from the woman made of adamant, hard and multifaceted.
"Everyone I've ever touched," toneless voice and empty sightless eyes, vacancy radiating from a blank face. "I've touched so many, there's hardly any me left."
They sat quietly, each lost in thought.
"You try so hard to hate him," Hali said again.
"I can't do anything else. He's killed so many, he's dragging Cara back into his world and maybe Richard too… I can't do anything else."
"You could forgive. You've done it before."
Kahlan watched Rahl as he stretched himself out by Cara. He returned her stare. No doubt to make sure she didn't do anything to undermine his control of Hali.
She thought of Cara's trial at Stowcroft and the remorse she had seen at last in Cara's eyes. Would that light of good be extinguished again?
She wouldn't meet Rahl's eyes.
"No," Kahlan said to Hali. "He doesn't deserve forgiveness."
Hali stood with a wince, her knees audibly cracking. Too much time in the saddle.
"I suppose that we are both what we were meant to be. I am a healer… and you are a judge. Sweet dreams, Mother Confessor."
Kahlan could not sleep.
Chapter 36: Loved
Darken set a hard pace, knowing that the others would follow if only because they feared to let him out of their sight. The summer solstice, the day the Stone of Tears had to be placed among the Pillars of Creation was fast approaching, but with the speed of their travel now that they had horses they should make it there with one or two days to spare.
And then Hali would give him the stone and he would seal the veil and be hailed by all as the savior of the world, assured an eternal place in the Creator's light.
D'Hara would swiftly be under his rule again, and Cara would return with him. Perhaps he would allow her the honor of birthing him another heir. He had lost the taste for Confessor powers after hearing of his murderous almost-spawn.
If he was feeling magnanimous he would allow the Confessor and his brother to live and send them off to Aydindril.
It would reassure his enemies that he would be a fair and just ruler, crush the rebels before they could begin to turn the masses against him.
All would still be under his rule of course. But he saw now that he had been foolish to oppose the Seeker. It gave the people a living martyr on whom they could pin their hopes and anguish. By his very actions he had set the prophecy in motion.
This time Richard Rahl would serve under his brother, the public face of justice.
So long as he could be controlled.
Sister Alexia inched forward to the place where Sister Marianna lay slumbering. They were traveling quickly in all directions to gather the forces to complete Marianna's plan to serve the Keeper. It was Alexia's turn to keep watch while the others caught up on missed sleep.
So close. Stretch out the fingers, hold back the sleeve of the red dress so it doesn't drag, touch the key resting at Sister Marianna's waist. It's warm from the light of the sun.
A sigh and a shift, flickering eyelids. Sister Marianna most likely communes with the Keeper in her dreams. She rolls away and Alexia loses her opportunity.
Darken leaned back, dipping his hair into the cool waters of the stream they had camped near. The forests had begun to give way to marshes and the ground grew sandier the farther they went. The water he bathed in now was brackish. Soon they would reach the salt flats that led to the sea.
And the Pillars of Creation.
There was a flash of light and a sudden sucking of wind, as if air was suddenly missing. Darken opened his eyes.
"Sister Nicci… you're looking well."
She wore a black dress with a leather bodice, no longer the signature robes of a servant of the Keeper.
"I'm looking for the Seeker."
"And what makes you think that I know of his whereabouts?" Darken's mind whirred. "For that matter, how did you find me?"
"You're easy to track," she said arrogantly. "I just have to look for what isn't there."
"How cryptic. Have you been practicing?"
If he was thoroughly irritating she would leave him in peace. Hopefully before one of the busybodies he traveled with came to make sure he hadn't done anything particularly dastardly during his bath.
As if he did things just to do them. If there was no gain he would sooner save the energy.
Nicci flicked her long blonde hair over a shoulder, attempting to intimidate with a glare.
"We have something in common, Darken Rahl. Neither of us serve the Keeper anymore."
"Yes. Fickle master, isn't he? So hard to keep him happy."
"I am the most powerful sorceress in the Midlands. I can help the Seeker find the stone and protect him. If," she narrowed her eyes, "you tell me where he is."
"I don't know."
She sneered, a subtle ugly expression, "So this is the great Darken Rahl? Skinny dipping in the middle of nowhere waiting for his baby brother to save the world."
"If I have learned anything, it is never to wager against my brother. The veil will be sealed. Besides, waiting isn't so bad," he raised a hand to touch his lips, "if you know how to pass the time. Can I interest you in a bath? Though I am afraid the water's rather cold."
"Let me," she pointed a hand and he had just enough time to brace himself, eyes imperceptibly widening, "heat it up for you."
Lightning shot from her palm and arched into the water. Darken curled in on himself, jerking, spasming as the current ran through his body. Steam rose and flesh cooked, dead fish rising to the surface of the water.
He had felt pain like this once before, when covered in green flames. His skin crackled and his hair smoked, it became hard to think. His ligaments shrunk, turning his hands to misshapen claws. He opened his mouth to tell her what she wanted, anything to make this stop –
Cara dove into the path of the attack, hand outstretched to turn the lightning back at Nicci. The blue bolt of fire rebounded onto the sorceress and Cara gritted her teeth, putting every ounce of Mord'Sith magic into increasing the woman's pain.
No one harmed Lord Rahl and lived to tell the tale.
It was a matter of honor for the Mord'Sith.
And a matter of something else entirely for Cara.
Nicci stopped the flow of her magic, screaming shrilly, her hair smoking and her clothes melting to her body. Cara stalked to her, Agiel in hand, prepared to finish the job. The burned mummy muttered something in the language of magic and Cara lunged, only to strike her Agiel against a tree by the stream side.
Nicci had vanished.
Cara waded into the uncomfortably hot water, cursing the heavy boots that dragged at her feet. Lord Rahl was floating face down. She quickly turned him over and pulled him to the shore. His skin flaked off in her hands. Tiny beads of blood welled all over like perspiration, leaving a trace of pink in their wake.
The dead fish smelled.
She dragged him onto the sandy loam of the stream side. There was no response, even though she knew the grit would hurt his burns horribly. Cara had once employed that technique herself.
She searched for a sign of life, desperate to find one. He was too badly burned to save with the breath of life, and Hali would not be able to heal a dead body. She removed her gloves and placed a hand against his chest and another against his throat, uncaring that his flesh was spongy under her fingers.
"Lord Rahl," she whispered in his ear, then louder when there was no response, "Lord Rahl!"
"Lord Rahl... Darken," she swallowed, her voice hitched, a high breaking note that she could not control. "I don't want you to die."
His lips twitched.
Chapter 37: Breath
Hali barked out orders as soon as Cara returned to camp, dragging a horribly burned Darken on his own cloak.
She placed the Healing Hands on him immediately, horrified at the amount of damage, fighting hard to retain her own sense of purpose in the face of the dark confused thrashings of his mind. Hali ordered Zedd to make a soothing paste out of whatever he could find and demanded light cloth to protect Darken's burned, tattered flesh from the elements.
She wouldn't be able to heal him all at once without draining her own life force, and that was something she absolutely could not afford, not even to save her heart of hearts.
Kahlan took one look at the thing barely recognizable as Darken Rahl and set about helping without complaint. It was impossible to refuse help to a creature that wretched. She fetched her Confessor robes from her saddlebags and started to tear them, but Cara stopped her.
"Lord Rahl would not wish us to delay. He will have to be carried on a stretcher between two horses. Your dress is the best choice for that."
Cara was so uncaring, so practical, so Mord'Sith in that moment that Kahlan almost lashed out at her. But the little darting glances Cara was sneaking at Hali, the stiff straight almost military attention pose gave Kahlan pause.
Cara blamed herself for the attack and she was trying very hard now to anticipate Darken Rahl's wishes.
But was it out of love and devotion, or fear?
Kahlan knew better than to ask.
Hali said they absolutely could not move Darken until the next day.
"Just don't let him die. He'll tell the Keeper where we're taking the stone," said Richard in a strangled voice, as if that were the only reason he cared.
The way he kept reflexively gripping the hilt of the Sword of Truth told another story.
Cara stood watch that night, guarding against death and enemies both. She kept her eyes trained on the faint but steady rise and fall of Darken's chest, just as her ears were attuned to every noise of the land, searching for any that were unnatural.
Darken's breath paused a second longer than Cara had been counting them out and she prepared to lunge forward, the breath of life already gathered at the back of her throat.
But then he breathed again and she sighed, a faint white wisp flowing past her lips.
Cara's eyes ghosted over Hali, who was stretched out beside Darken, a hand on him to lend him strength even in sleep. Between Zedd and Darken, Hali was wasting away. Her green dress was already a little looser in the bodice than it had been.
Cara gazed at the rest of her companions, Richard, Kahlan, and Zedd.
She could not protect them all. As good as she was, she simply couldn't be everywhere at once. Never before had a Mord'Sith had to protect two Lord Rahls and their retinues single-handedly.
She needed reinforcements. Richard would not approve… but Darken would, and he would convince Richard of the sense of the idea.
She would go as soon as they were close enough for her to make the detour in a few hours.
Decision reached, she dipped her fingers in the bowl of water Hali had set by Darken's head and gently ran her dripping fingers over his lips.
Nicci crumpled to the ground as soon as she appeared. She didn't know where she was, she hadn't been able to grasp her magic hard enough to do anything but get away from the Mord'Sith. She should have known that Rahl wouldn't go anywhere without one of his warrior women to hide behind.
There was something particular about that Mord'Sith… Nicci had seen her before. But she couldn't remember, she was so tired.
Footsteps shushed through the sand on which Nicci lay and a familiar voice said, "Well, Sister Nicci. I have missed you," before a dacra was shoved into her blackened flesh.
Nicci knew no more as her han was ripped away.
Chapter 38: Exhaustion
With Richard's help, Cara improvised a stretcher made from sturdy branches and Kahlan's Confessor dress. They hung it between Kahlan's and Cara's horses, the animals being of the most similar height. Hali rode behind Cara in order to continue healing Darken.
They tethered Darken's black stallion to the back of Richard's saddle. Richard felt that if he rode the horse, it would be tantamount to admitting that Darken wouldn't be reclaiming it anytime soon. No one questioned him, and he didn't feel the need to share his irrational fear.
Their pace was slowed considerably, but they were still moving forward.
"Cara," Kahlan eyed the strained Mord'Sith, "you should get some sleep. You've been awake since before Nicci attacked him. Hali can keep you in the saddle."
Cara didn't even turn to look at her, "Mord'Sith are trained to withstand exhaustion when necessary."
Kahlan sighed. It didn't seem very necessary to her. She and Richard could keep everyone safe while Cara rested.
Looking down at Darken Rahl, she reevaluated her opinion. What if it were Richard laying there in the stretcher, rubbed with soothing goo and lightly covered by Hali's abandoned Sisterhood robes? Kahlan could not imagine taking her eyes from him for even a moment.
Darken ran through a maze of skeletal trees and trenches filled with green fire. He was dreaming, he knew he was. It was not possible that he was awake. But that knowledge did nothing to help him through the labyrinth he found himself in.
You have betrayed me, Darken Rahl.
The words and voice were so familiar, the same thing he had been hearing every time he closed his eyes since his return to life.
The Keeper lacked imagination.
With that thought, a chill shot down his dream self's spine and he knew the Keeper had heard and was preparing a reply.
Kahlan pulled hard on her reins to keep her horse from prancing as Rahl went into a violent seizure. Hali half hung out of the saddle, hands reaching to cup his face, unconcerned with any possible danger to herself. Cara held the back of Hali's dress in one hand, and kept a firm grip on her reins in the other. Her eyes never left Darken's face as he quieted and his lips formed a word.
Darken refused to so much as cringe away from the death pale walking corpse of his mother. The D'Haran red of her dress could not hide the red black path of the lifeblood that leaked from her body. She left a trail of it.
In life, his mother had been a rosy, soft princess of Rothenberg, all dark wavy hair and brown doe eyes. She had been given to his father as part of a treaty; a beautiful docile wife that would bend to Panis Rahl's every impulse.
Darken had never known what pierced her heart the day he found her. Many scenarios had run through his mind: Perhaps she had stood up to his father at last, and paid the price. Maybe a harder, fiercer courtesan with an eye to becoming queen had done the deed.
The most hurtful explanation was the most likely, and that was that she had plunged the knife into her own breast, leaving her son to find her in an ever spreading pool of blood.
The deepest betrayal he had ever known.
The farce of a woman opened her arms to him, smiling so he could see the black blood seeping between her teeth.
"You are not my mother," he said, voice even.
The corpse smiled wider, inhumanly wide, not so much a smile as a crack splitting her face. She pressed his face to her breast and he choked on the blood, unable to move.
Unable to wake up.
"The Keeper invades his dreams," Hali said as she straightened in the saddle once more. She removed one of her slippers and her stocking, pressing her naked foot against Darken.
"Because he's close to death?" Kahlan asked, voice small.
Hali shook her head, white eyes dim, "The Keeper tortures him every night. But now, he is not strong enough to resist as he usually does."
"Will he tell –" began Richard, who had ridden up to see what the commotion was about.
"No," Cara answered, lips pursed, eyes straight ahead. "Darken Rahl's ability to withstand is legendary among the Mord'Sith. He will reveal nothing he does not wish to, especially as he knows that the Keeper cannot actually kill him."
"There are some things worse than death," said Kahlan.
"Not for Darken Rahl."
Some time passed, and then Cara spoke quietly to Hali, who called a halt, saying she needed to reapply the salve on Darken's wounds. Zedd moved to help her, feeling more than useless, the Rada Han a heavy weight pulling him down.
Cara pulled Kahlan to the side, an intensity surrounding her that set Kahlan on edge.
"Once, I told you that I consider you a friend."
"Yes," Kahlan replied, for one panicky moment thinking that Cara knew her innermost thoughts, the dark desires that disgusted her even as she thought them.
"As a friend, I ask you this," Cara gripped Kahlan's arms, not hard enough to hurt, but with a strength and fierceness that was uncomfortable. "Protect Lord Rahl," her eyes cut to Richard. "Both of them."
Cara had never asked for help with anything before. Kahlan could do nothing but agree.
Cara held her eyes for a long time, and then leaned forward, pressing their foreheads together and for a dizzying moment Kahlan thought the Mord'Sith was going to kiss her.
Abruptly, Cara turned away and, undoing the ties that held the black warhorse to Richard's gelding, vaunted into the saddle.
"Where are you going?" Kahlan called after her as the others looked up in surprise.
"To get help," Cara said shortly before turning the horse to the east.
"Where?" asked Richard.
Cara whipped the large stallion into a gallop, and then was gone.
Chapter 39: Charge
Cara tied Lord Rahl's black stallion to some scrubby trees within sight of the temple, but far enough away to escape notice of any sentries that may be watching. Giving the animal one last pat, she straightened her spine and began a confident march to the temple doors.
She was sighted within one hundred yards of the gate surrounding the courtyard, but they did not fire on her.
Two sentries tried to block her way, demanding to know her business.
"That's Mistress Cara," she said to the impudent girl who had dared to drop her title. The weedy teen looked barely old enough to have earned her leathers.
"That's not what I hear," the young, inferior Mord'Sith replied, eyeing Cara's shorn hair.
From the day girls were chosen to enter the Sisterhood their hair was no longer cut. Cara's short locks were a sign of her loss of status, a visible reminder that she had lost a battle and not been considered dangerous enough to kill. Never mind that the one who had done it had been left choking on blood in the dust, it was Cara's disgrace.
But only if she let it be.
Quick as a snake, Cara reached for the impudent Mord'Sith's bright copper red braid, her hand flying past the startled girl's face and grasping the hair before the girl could even register an attack. Using the braid, Cara pulled down and to the side, forcing the girl to bare her neck. As soon as that exquisite sweet spot was revealed Cara drove an Agiel into the tender flesh and silently counted to three.
She let go of the gasping wretch and made eye contact with the other sentry. The brown haired Mord'Sith quickly looked down to acknowledge Cara's dominance.
"Take me to your mistress."
Garen was enjoying a massage from her slave girl and had plans for something... sweet later. Perhaps with that fiery red-head she had put on guard duty.
Garen's eyes flew open, but she made a show of turning her head slowly, her hair fanning around her.
"Cara. I suppose I don't need to ask how you got past the guards. Are they still alive?"
"I didn't feel they deserved an honorable death."
"Ah. Still breaking the custom, I see."
Garen rose from the table, unconcerned with her nakedness. She signaled the slave to bring her leathers, turning her back on Cara in a risky calculated insult.
Cara would be a difficult opponent even fully armed. Garen had no wish to fight her clad in nothing but her own skin.
Cara was silent, but Garen could feel her watching.
She always had been rather unnerving.
"Have you finally grown tired of your false lord, Cara?"
Garen heard the footsteps and was able to block Cara's first jab, but did not anticipate the second blow. Her head was slammed to the left from the impact. She licked blood from the corner of her split bottom lip with the tip of her tongue.
"The House of Rahl is in danger," Cara said, maintaining her close proximity.
"The Seeker is not the Lord Rahl. He cares nothing for D'Hara," Garen spat. Blood tinged flecks of spittle flew at Cara's face, but Cara gave no indication of even noticing it.
"It is not only Richard I am concerned for."
Garen's eyes widened, then narrowed. Cara saw the split second of surprise and Garen cursed herself.
"Darken Rahl travels with you?"
"Yes. I require a larger force to protect both the Lords Rahl."
Garen took a step back, prepared to defend herself if Cara should strike again, "I will not order my Mord'Sith to aid the Seeker."
"My Mord'Sith will do as I tell them to, for the good of the House of Rahl," Cara's hand crept toward her hip where her Agiels were strapped. Garen's eyes darted to the door, and she made a dash toward it, turning down the hall to reach her bed chamber and the weapons therein.
Cara did not even try to stop Garen's mad rush. She simply sauntered after her, confident in her success.
When Cara reached the threshold of Garen's suite, the dark haired Mord'Sith was holding an Agiel in one hand and a dagger in the other. Cara smiled a predatory smile.
The clash was quick and brutal. Garen got a few slashes in with the dagger, and one lucky hit to the inside of Cara's elbow with the Agiel. Cara put it down to her fatigue. If she were well rested, Garen would not have been able to touch her.
Cara forced herself past her weariness into that sharp plane beyond thought. Agiel made contact with temple and Garen sank to her knees, huffing with the effort of retaining consciousness. Cara finished her with a kick across the jaw.
Garen collapsed to the floor, weapons rolling from her hands.
Cara leaned down and whispered to her softly, "Who's in charge here?"
"You are," croaked the dazed Garen.
Cara placed a foot on the back of Garen's neck, shifting just enough weight to make the fallen Mord'Sith aware of the potential crushing power.
Garen got the message.
She said, "You're in charge, Mistress Cara."
[v] Reference to the Dexter series by Jeff Lindsay.
[vi] A reference to the character Peachblossom in The Protector of the Small series by Tamora Pierce.
Chapter 5: Part V
(See the end of the chapter for notes.)
Chapter 40: Circle
Sister Alexia crept among a circle of Sisters praying to the Keeper. Sister Marianna knelt at the center.
Marianna's eyes snapped open and Alexia took a step back, thwarted in her attempt to steal the key and amulet once more.
"I hear you Keeper."
I have received the soul of Sister Nicci once more into my care. But her han is gone.
"I killed Nicci and took her han, my lord. I will use it in your service," Marianna addressed the ground, then the sky, knowing that the Keeper was present in all things.
You are not as adept in the art of magic. Nevertheless, with my guidance you will prove useful.
"Anything master, I live and die by your words."
You will take the bones of the murdered Rahl-child and –
"No!" shouted Alexia, lunging forward to wrestle Marianna to the ground, scrabbling for the amulet and the key. She had to have both to please her mistress!
The surrounding Sisters were unable to aid Marianna, for if they stopped chanting and broke the circle it was possible the connection to the Keeper would break with it. Marianna and Alexia rolled, Alexia's nails bloody from her desperate scrapping at Marianna's belt and bodice.
With a triumphant cry Alexia wrenched Marianna's belt from her waist with a creaking tear as leather ties snapped or were pulled from their stitching. She began chanting even as Marianna clawed at her face and reached for a dacra. Alexia wedged her fingers into Marianna's bodice, able to touch the amulet with her fingertips, chanting faster, weaving the spell swiftly, hoping with all her being that it would work and her mistress would be happy.
Just as the spell was nearing completion Marianna threw Alexia off and Alexia lost contact with the amulet.
There was a flash and a crack as air rushed to fill the space Marianna's belt and the key to the Rada Han had existed in.
As the Spell of Sending drained away the last of Alexia's han she whispered, "Forgive me, mistress."
She collapsed heavily as Marianna's dacra struck her in the back. She was dead before she hit the ground, the level of sorcery she had just performed leeching her life force away.
"We can't wait anymore," Richard paced. "The solstice is getting too close. Cara will be able to move a lot faster than us. She'll catch up."
Hali frowned in Richard's direction, running her hands along Darken's newly restored skin.
"How does it look, Zeddicus?"
Zedd lifted the protective coverings and studied Rahl's body. The skin was a little too translucent and pinkish in patches.
"The fear of infection has passed. He should be safe to move." He looked more closely, "I think he is going to be badly scarred."
"No," Hali replied fiercely. "I won't allow it."
"If only I had this blasted thing off my neck," Zedd tugged on the Rada Han. "I could do something."
Kahlan laughed, inappropriate and wild.
They all looked at her, or in Hali's case in the direction of her laughter.
"It doesn't strike any of you as funny that we're helping the man we spent so much time trying to kill?"
Richard smiled wryly, "He said the same thing, back when I was binding a wound he got in battle defending me."
"Don't compare me to him."
Richard was surprised at Kahlan's sudden change of tone. He knew Kahlan was slow to trust, her relationship with Cara proved that, but he had thought that they were all starting to get along. Richard looked down at Rahl… Darken… Darken Rahl, and was surprised at the feeling of kinship that had developed between them.
Did he feel it too?
There was a crack and a leather belt fell from the sky, striking Zedd in the head with a thump.
"Ow," Zedd started to complain, but stopped when he realized what had fallen on him. It was the key to his Rada Han.
But where were Alexia, and the amulet?
"Nothing's changed," Richard said after Zedd's magic was restored and the implications of Alexia's failure to appear with the amulet discussed. "We'll make as much distance as we can and then camp for the night."
He lifted the fabric covering Darken Rahl, "Can you finish healing him, Zedd?"
"If Hali helps me, I can even restore his disreputable good looks."
"Good," Richard said, moving about their temporary camp, gathering a collection of small rocks and twigs. "I'll leave a trail sign for Cara while you do that. Four of us will have to ride pillion. She'll be able to catch up on that black devil."
He arranged the rocks and sticks into a pattern as Zedd and Hali gripped hands over Darken's body, forming a meshing circle of healing magic.
Chapter 41: Arise
Sister Marianna was frightened. The type of sorcery she was about to attempt was far beyond her ken, and until recently far beyond her ability.
Nicci's han had changed that.
A circle of thirteen Sisters of the Dark knelt around a pit she had dug with her own hands. They swayed, their chanting a low hum, drawing power from the blood and bones soaked in the earth.
The Keeper had directed Marianna to perform the ritual in this spot, where the lives of several innocents had been taken. Marianna did not like it. Blood soaked earth was necessary for the spell, but innocent blood? It tainted the magic.
But it was the Keeper's will.
Sister Marianna entered the circle, wearing nothing but the pentacle shaped amulet made of the bones of a murdered Rahl. Her toes curled over the edge of the pit.
The humming of the circle of thirteen rose in pitch. They swayed back and forth in an alternating pattern. Marianna could feel the magic building. The tiny hairs on her arms rose with the coiled power.
"Ex cruor, vita," she intoned. The Sisters closest to her reached out, silver flashing in their hands, and shallowly sliced the back of her calves. Thick hot blood ran over her ankles to soak the ground, drip dropping into the pit.
She knelt and dragged her fingernails through the dirt stained red, and sprinkled the russet flecks into the pit.
"Ex pulvis, viscus."
She pulled the bone amulet from her neck, snapping the chain. Hurling it down into the pit, satisfied at the muted clout of it slicing into the dirt, she whispered, growing woozy from the loss of the blood that pulsed steadily down her legs, "Ex bones, somes."
Green fire roared upward from the pit bottom, scorching Marianna's eyebrows. She persevered even as sweat rolled down her naked body, raising her arms and screaming to the heavens.
"Exsisto existo, Keeper! Ingredior nobis! Nos, victus, dico vos! Nos tribuo vos a somes, exsisto existo, Keeper! Ingredior nobis, umbra et nex!"
The green flames stretched ever upward, reaching higher and higher. They screamed, or the air screamed, and the ground groaned. The world of the living did not like this dark death magic performed with murdered bones on a ground soaked in innocent blood. It stretched the tear in the veil to a gaping, gasping wound in the fabric of reality.
And then, with a suddenness that was anticlimactic, everything went quiet. A gentle breeze wafted through the air.
Marianna peered at the pit bottom.
She couldn't see anything.
Sister Verna circled back cautiously, certain she was being pursued. A fellow Sister of the Light stepped into view and Verna struck swiftly, laying her dacra against the woman's neck.
"Sister Thea," she said once she caught sight of the woman's face. "It's been a long time."
"Please, don't kill me," for someone begging for their life, Thea seemed awfully unconcerned with the sharp edge of the magic sapping dacra.
"Why are you following me? Did the Prelate think I would be that easy to assassinate?"
"I'm on your side, Verna, I swear!" Thea's eyes were wide with sincerity, her caramel cheeks aquiver with her earnestness. "I've been searching for you for months, all the way from the Old World."
Verna did nothing to relieve the pressure on Thea's throat, not ready to be swayed, "Why?"
"To tell you the Creator has sent a new prophecy about the Seeker."
Verna glanced quickly about them, moving only her eyes. If this was a trick Thea would have others to help her, "What is this new prophecy – the words themselves, not the Prelate's interpretation."
Thea took a deep breath and closed her eyes, reciting from memory, "On the eve of the solstice, in the mask of a child, will the Keeper walk among us and by his hand will the Seeker be blindly led."
Verna pulled her dacra away from Thea's throat, horror replacing her suspicion, "The solstice is in two days."
"That's why I had to find you. So you could warn the Seeker."
"I haven't seen Richard since he left the Old World," Verna snapped, staring at her shoes. An idea struck her and she looked up. "But I think I know a way to help him."
Darken sat up with a jerk, arising with a violent wrench into the waking world. For a moment he was confused, thinking the ghost of his mother had followed him.
But it was just the Confessor.
He had never noticed the resemblance before.
She stared at him as if he was a mindless animal, and he allowed a lustful smirk to creep onto his face, wishing to hurt her, "Was there something you wanted, Kahlan?"
Their altercation was interrupted by Hali throwing herself onto Darken, pressing a kiss to his forehead, tears dripping from her eyes onto his face.
He clenched his teeth. He hated tears.
He pulled Hali into his lap, absently noting that he seemed to be completely healed from his little clash with Nicci. A quick glance around revealed that his companions had managed to continue traveling while he was convalescing. Good. They were surrounded on all sides by the salt flats. He could smell the sea.
"Where," he asked, "is Cara?"
"She went to get help," Hali answered. "At a temple."
Darken thought for a moment, and then realized what his lioness had done.
"You know where she went?"
"Yes, brother. She has gone for reinforcements."
Zedd interrupted, "How did you escape the Keeper, my boy? We healed you hours ago, but you remained firmly in his grasp."
Darken eyed Zedd, not sure how to take the moniker. A survey of the others revealed a resignedly disturbed Confessor, an oblivious brother, and a crookedly smiling Hali who was beaming at the wizard as if he had just cured her blindness.
Deciding to ignore this strange turn of events Darken answered, "I didn't escape. He released me."
The wizard peered into Darken's eyes, as if looking for signs of madness or possession, "Released you?"
"Released isn't the right word. It is more like he was suddenly no longer there."
Chapter 42: Answers
They made camp on a plateau for the night. There wasn't anything even resembling shelter nearby, so high ground was preferable. They would be able to see enemies approaching long before they got within striking distance.
Darken kept his eyes on the horizon, willing Cara to appear.
Their journey was going smoothly, quietly.
His uncanny sixth sense told him that something was definitely awry, all the hairs on the back of his neck standing at attention.
Where were their enemies?
He would feel less on edge once surrounded by Mord'Sith, his loyal Mistress Cara at his side.
Hali approached and settled near him, her feet shushing crunching in the crusty, salty sand. She leaned into him and inhaled, a poignant melancholy enveloping her.
He did not encourage her, but neither did he push her away.
"I will give you the Stone of Tears soon."
"Once we both stand among the Pillars of Creation."
She groped for his face, turning it to meet hers, resting her forehead against his chin. Her words were low and dire, "The stone must be given. If it is taken from me unwillingly…"
Darken stared into the distance without really seeing it.
"If for whatever reason I am unable to accept the stone from you… you must give it to Richard. What is most important is stopping the Keeper."
That sacrifice might be enough to earn him a place in the light. If nothing else it would delay his painful reunion with his master.
Hali's braying laugh was forced and watery, "You don't understand, Darken. The stone can only be given to you. It was given to you long ago."
He turned sharp blue eyes to her blind ones, "What, precisely, do you mean?"
"That I chose you," she replied, standing. "I can only give it to you. Anyone else must take it."
Darken kept his face blank, but those who had been traveling with him could read his foreboding in the little twitches of his lips and brow, the brightness of his eyes.
Richard took the place Hali had just occupied, though thankfully he maintained his distance.
Darken couldn't deal with another of the merry band deciding they liked him. It was extremely unnatural.
"Did she tell you what we have to do when we get to the pillars?"
"You're lying," Kahlan joined the conversation, also watching the skyline for Cara's silhouette. She would be glad to be relieved of her charge to protect Rahl, realizing for the first time what it must have been like for Cara to be ordered to protect someone that despised her.
Richard turned his head, "You can read him?"
"Of course she can't, brother," Darken answered before Kahlan could. "You don't think I ruled the Mord'Sith without undergoing their training? It is a right of passage for the heir to D'Hara. Father was most insistent."
Darken kept his voice inflectionless and even. He would not reveal a thing to these friendly foes who would most likely try to kill him as soon as he outgrew his usefulness or lost his edge.
But he could not fault them for it. After all, he would do the same.
Perhaps not to Richard. He was growing rather… fond. It was nice to be among family. If Richard proved troublesome in the future, Darken would simply bring him to heel.
By whatever means necessary.
"So you don't know what's going to happen. She didn't tell you anything."
Darken cut his eyes to the woman who had gone to sit with Zeddicus, patting the wizard's hand and talking quietly with him. All that had been demanded of her power on the journey had taken its toll, her white eyes now underscored with thick dark circles, her cheeks a little too thin. Watching the muted joy and sorrow in the wizard's expression, it occurred to him that the old man just might love her.
"You should have realized by now," Darken addressed Richard and Kahlan, "that getting answers from Hali is like squeezing blood from a stone."
Chapter 43: Brothers
"Sister Verna, your news is disturbing, but what can I and my fellow Brothers do?"
"You can send a message by journey book to all the temples in your order. Tell them to find the Seeker."
"And do what?" Brother Joseph raised his bushy grey brows in skepticism, the yellow and orange robes of his order a stark contrast to his white hair.
"Prophecies are rarely so clear," Sister Thea spoke up. "The Keeper is going to walk among us as a blind child and lead the Seeker astray."
"You must tell your Brothers to find Richard Cypher," Verna continued. "And if they see the blind one with the Seeker they must kill him."
"Verna!" Joseph protested, his eyebrows climbing ever higher into his hairline. "Ours is a peaceful order. If you are wrong, they will be killing an innocent."
"And if I am right," Vera rejoined with resolution, "then they will be putting an end to the Keeper forever. Brother Joseph," she moved forward to grasp his hands, pressing the importance of the matter. "The Creator has placed a sword in our hands. Are we going to lay it down, or raise it in battle?"
Brother Joseph deliberated for a moment that seemed to last eternity, and then, grave in voice and bearing, said, "It will be so."
Hali rode behind Zeddicus, unwilling to face Darken's questions. Zedd was only too happy to accommodate her, even as he cursed the star he was born under and the fact that one cannot be a great wizard and a normal man at the same time.
He had tried.
Richard and Kahlan rode ahead on Kahlan's horse. Kahlan had forced the fidgety gelding on Darken Rahl on the grounds that while she had to protect him, she could make him as miserable about it as she was.
Even Confessors were entitled to be passive aggressive every once in a while.
Especially to mass murdering tyrants.
The scent of the sea was growing stronger, and in the distance they could see a village near a sheer cliff face that rose from seemingly nowhere.
They were nearing the Pillars of Creation.
Darken pulled his gelding to a halt and turned the beast in a tight circle, surveying the area. He held up a hand, two fingers and thumb extended to signal the others to stop, then brought the fingers to his lips. His eyes darted around the salt flats, looking for places an enemy might possibly lay in wait.
Something was not right.
An arrow flew from behind a dune that had appeared at first glance to be flat land. All the landscape looked the same, hiding pockets for enemies to lurk.
Before anyone could react the shaft grazed Zedd's arm and entrenched itself in Hali's shoulder. Blood blossomed and she screamed, slapping Zedd's hands away when he tried to help.
Darken drew his Agiel.
Hooves thundered behind him, and he turned his useless fidgety horse again to face the new threat, only to be greeted by a wonderful pride of leather clad warriors, his Cara at their head riding his black stallion.
The Mord’Sith had seen the attack on Hali and turned their traveling pace into a battle charge. Cara raised her fist, signaling some of her Mord'Sith to break off the charge to guard the Lords Rahl. Garen and the troublesome redhead she kept with her.
It was always best to keep the troublemakers by your side. It allowed you to keep an eye on them, and if you dominated them, you dominated all.
Darken had taught her that.
Cara stood in her stirrups, an Agiel in each hand as she and her remaining warriors rounded the near invisible dune the archer was hidden behind.
The weasel, dressed as a Brother of the Light, had heard their approach and was trying to run.
He could not outrun a Mord'Sith on a warhorse, he found out.
They returned with a trussed up priest and threw him at Lord Rahl's feet.
Darken dismounted and quirked his lips upwards, "Well done."
Cara allowed a smug look to light her features and Darken admired the sharp angles of her cheekbones, the gleam in her eye. Garen dismounted and edged forward to stand slightly behind Cara, hoping to draw Lord Rahl's attention.
Darken turned to examine the groaning Hali, now lying on the ground propped against the wizard. She was very pale, almost green.
"I've never been shot before," she said quite clearly, voice hollow, eyes glassy. Darken had seen that reaction before in those he tortured.
Zedd cut away the cloth around the arrow, heedless of Hali's modesty, "It didn't go all the way through," his face crumpled in shared pain.
They all knew what that meant. Darken motioned to Cara. Cara removed her gloves and took Zedd's position, bracing Hali's shoulders.
"Hello, Cara," Hali said absently once their skin was in contact.
Darken's hand shot forward, quickly breaking off the fletching and then pushing the arrow shaft all the way through Hali's shoulder.
She passed out.
Cara watched in fascination as Hali's flesh immediately began knitting itself back together once the obstruction was removed.
Zedd hovered like a mother hen.
They laid her flat on the sand with a pack for a pillow. They would allow her to sleep until they were ready to move again.
Darken turned to Cara and quirked a brow. They did not need to exchange words.
Cara ordered the twelve Mord'Sith she had brought with her into two rows of six, organized by rank. She stood centered in front of them.
Richard came forward to stand by Darken as Kahlan looked on, both curious.
Cara knelt and the others followed suit. Garen hesitated, but after a glare from the corner of Cara's eye she complied, not wishing to be humiliated before Lord Rahl.
"Masters Rahl," Cara began, swiftly joined by twelve other voices, all blending into a frightening, wonderful, strange cacophony, "guide us. Masters Rahl, protect us. In your light we thrive. In your mercy we are sheltered. In your wisdom we are humbled. We live only to serve. Our lives are yours."
The two rows of Mord'Sith behind Cara bowed their heads as they made their vow. Cara did not.
Darken held Cara's eyes throughout the intonation and for a few beats after the voices of his Mord'Sith had died away.
No longer only his.
He inclined his head ever so slightly forward to Cara and she rose, knowing he accepted her terms.
"Rise," Darken said to Cara's subordinates.
They remained kneeling, their eyes now fixed on his brother.
Richard stared dumbly at them until Darken cleared his throat.
"Get up, please," he said.
"What now?" Richard asked.
Darken's eyes fell on the unfortunate man in Brotherhood robes lying tied like livestock in the sand.
"Now we question the prisoner."
Zedd looked on, amazed and swelling with something he thought might be pride.
Kahlan was simply amazed.
Chapter 44: Shards
"What is your preference, brother," Darken asked. "Your Confessor or my Mord'Sith?"
They stood looking down at the priest in the sand.
"Neither, if he cooperates."
Richard gently turned the man over and helped him to sit up, though he did not remove the leather thongs binding his hands and feet.
"Why did you fire on us?" Richard questioned, his voice affable and friendly, no hint given of the brutal determination that lay down by his bones.
Watching, Darken was struck again by how alike his brother and father were, despite having met only briefly long after Richard reached adulthood.
"I'm Brother Edward, Seeker. We received a journey book message from the head of our order," the man babbled, frightened out of his wits to see Richard Cypher surrounded by Mord'Sith.
And was that really Darken Rahl?
"And the message said?" Kahlan prompted.
"A Sister of the Light gave him word of a new prophecy appearing in the Palace of the Prophets. On the eve of the solstice, in the mask of a child, will the Keeper walk among us, and by his hand will the Seeker be blindly led."
"He's telling the truth," Kahlan said without being asked.
"It seems that you have interpreted the words of the Creator incorrectly," Zedd speculated. "Hali is blind, but she is not a child. She has also been with us for quite some time. I find it doubtful that the prophecy is so straightforward as to mean actual blindness."
Richard paced, "I don't believe in prophecy."
"Take it from one who knows, brother, the more you try to avoid it, the likelier you are to be causing it to come true. Nevertheless," Darken absently stroked his bottom lip with the second finger of his right hand, "I am certain it will work to your advantage somehow. After all, they always do."
Bitterness dripped from that statement and with an internal cringe Darken imagined he could hear it shattering against the ground, the jagged shards of his jealousy.
"What shall we do with him?" Cara gestured to the Brother, addressing the question to both Rahls.
Darken was inclined to kill him for his trespass, but knew his soft-hearted brother would not wish to take the life of a man who had only been trying to help.
"Let him go," Richard said.
Cara nodded to Garen. Garen did not move, ignoring Richard, waiting for Lord Rahl's orders.
Darken waited until the silence had stretched long enough for Garen to begin to fear.
"Did you not hear my brother?"
"My lord," she dissembled, an infinitesimal quiver in her voice, "I –"
He cut her off, "My brother is a Rahl. To disrespect him is to disrespect the House of Rahl, and me." He steepled two fingers of each hand together, holding them in front of his chest, a brow raised ironically. "I wonder, did you intend to insult me?"
She bowed, "No, of course not Lord Rahl. It will be done."
She went to set the man free and escort him away.
Richard and Kahlan stared at Darken in surprise.
"Why did you do that?"
"For the reasons I said."
"I never expected you to willingly allow me control over the Mord'Sith," Richard's brow wrinkled in confusion.
Darken ignored the statement, saying instead, "A piece of advice, brother. If you cannot bring yourself to be ruthless when dealing with the Mord'Sith – pretend to be."
"But Cara –"
"My Cara is special," he stared into her eyes and she flushed with pleasure.
Garen returned just in time to hear that statement. She was determined to win Lord Rahl's favor. Cara had been queen too long.
But there were two Lord Rahls now… if Garen could not have the favor of one, perhaps the other…? The Seeker was not bad looking.
They prepared to mount up and move out. The Mord'Sith had brought extra horses with them on Cara's orders, enough so that everyone had their own to ride. They relegated the fidgety gelding to being a packhorse once it became clear that Hali refused to ride by herself (with good reason) and no one wished to put up with the beast.
"Darken, may I ride with you?"
He pulled Hali up behind him, holding his mount still while she arranged her skirt. Blood still stained her green dress and it was ripped where Zedd had cut the cloth to get at the arrow, a stark contrast to the freshly healed skin visible in the hole.
The Mord'Sith fanned out around them, Cara taking the point position. Darken rode just behind them with the wizard in the narrowest part of the diamond of protection they had formed. The Confessor and his brother rode behind, and he smiled to think of how uneasy they must be being surrounded by the deadliest of D'Harans.
A village grew larger in the distance as they moved, keeping the horses at a trot. They were getting close and it would do no good to exhaust the animals when they might be called on to fight.
A high soprano rose in song, followed by a velvety contralto singing counterpoint. They sang a song of conquest, a tale of the House of Rahl. It was terrible.
And horribly beautiful.
Richard openly stared at the singing Mord'Sith, his preconceptions about them shattered. Beside him Kahlan's lips parted, her mouth hanging slightly open.
"You are surprised, Lord Rahl?"
Richard started and turned to see the dark haired Mord'Sith called Garen riding next to him, having briefly pulled her horse out of the protection formation.
She smiled seductively, "Mord'Sith serve the Lord Rahl in every way. We all develop skills to please our master." She nodded to the singing brunette soprano and the caramel skinned contralto, "Bekah and Haden are exceptional singers. They are often called on to entertain, and they know many ballads of the House of Rahl."
"What's Cara's talent?"
Garen frowned, outshone by Cara once more, "What do you think it is, my lord?"
Richard blushed and Kahlan shot them both a glare.
Garen threw her head back and laughed and it sounded cruel.
Darken was enjoying the music provided by his warriors. The ballad, the tale of an ancestor said to have tamed and ridden a dragon, was a particular favorite of his.
"Darken," Hali's voice interrupted the rise and fall of notes, her voice abrasive in comparison, "can I ask you something?"
"I've never been able to stop you before."
He could feel her crooked smile against his back.
"Will you take others into your bed? More than Cara."
"It is my right as a lord."
He did not have to explain himself to her.
"Would you allow Cara other men?"
He ignored her, hoping she would stop this inane line of questioning.
"You weren't a lord until Cara made you one again. She brought you followers and made them swear. Would honoring her above others be so bad?"
"This is neither the time nor the place."
"It may be the only time I have."
Darken was beginning to remember why he hadn't put up a fight when Hali began spending more time with Zeddicus.
They reached the village as the sun was setting. The solstice was tomorrow. The pillars were just beyond the village, by the sea. They had made it just in time.
Everyone in the village was dead.
They dismounted. Darken sent the Mord'Sith combing through the ruins of the town to look for supplies and any enemies that may still be lurking. Richard told them to find survivors.
As they entered the town square, movement caught Darken's attention. There was something alive by the well in the center of the market. He drew his dagger and nodded to his brother, who drew the Sword of Truth and began to circle around the back of the well while Darken watched the front. Cara took a ready position between them, prepared to aid either of them. Zedd and Hali stood at a distance, Kahlan in front of them with her knives held loosely in her hands.
A throwing knife flew from behind the well at Richard, but it was badly done and fell several feet short of its target. A small tow headed boy of around ten or so appeared, dragging at a sword that was both too long and too heavy for him, his face turned down as he struggled with the blade.
He was wearing the uniform of a Dragon Corps trainee.
"Stay back," he piped in the high voice of youth, not yet old enough to have a deeper tone.
"We won't hurt you. Look," Richard held out his sword in a non-threatening manner, "it's the Sword of Truth. I'm the Seeker."
Richard sheathed the sword once it became apparent that it would not sway the boy. Darken and Cara were not so cavalier. The child could be a trick.
"You're one of them."
"The banelings," the boy made a valiant effort to keep all emotion from his voice as was appropriate for a future soldier of D'Hara. "They killed my training master."
The boy gestured and Darken briefly turned his gaze to see a fallen man in the uniform of D'Hara, a pile of dismembered banelings around him.
"Why did you stay?" Richard drew slowly closer to the boy, taking care not to startle. The boy's knuckles turned white as he gripped the oversized sword harder. He must have taken the blade from the corpse of his master.
"My master said that we were going to meet my father here."
"Who is your father?"
Darken's heart started pounding.
"I don't know," the boy looked up to meet Richard's gaze.
A miniature blonde haired Darken Rahl stared at them, Cara's green eyes gazing wide and trusting from his face.
There was complete silence as everyone stopped breathing at once.
Chapter 45: Father
Cara took a step forward and then hesitated, looking at Darken. They held a conversation without words, and Cara moved to Darken's side, though she kept her eyes on the boy.
Richard took in his companion's tense indecision and said quietly to the youth, "Stay here."
Richard reached Darken and Cara at the same time as Zedd, Kahlan, and Hali, all converging for a conference.
"What's going on?" Hali asked, unable to see the resemblance between the boy and Darken Rahl.
"He's your son, he has to be," Richard smiled. "He's alive."
His faith in the immutable nature of good and family was restored.
"It's not impossible," Darken answered, though far less enthusiastically than Richard. It would not be the first time he had ordered a babe slain only to have it turn up a decade or so later ready to stab him.
But he was uneasy about this. The hairs on the back of his neck writhed with warning.
Cara's face was a blank mask, though even now she kept the child in sight, drinking in every detail of his appearance.
"Have you forgotten the prophecy?" Hali demanded after Zedd explained the appearance of the boy. She was harsh and insensitive, a sense of urgency gripping her heart. "The Keeper will walk among the living wearing the mask of a child."
"We don't know that it's him," Richard countered, aflame with indignation.
"Richard," Kahlan said gently, "you told me of a child I had once, a boy." She very carefully did not look at Rahl, "And how I thought that I could influence him to good. And how he destroyed the world we fought so hard for."
Richard gritted his teeth, the tendons standing out in his neck, "No one is hurting that boy."
He hoped his nephew couldn't hear them.
"We have more important things to do than take care of one child," Cara's voice was hollow, her eyes dead.
She knew her duty.
And she knew her heart.
"Richard –" Zedd began, but Richard cut him off, unwilling to hear any more arguments.
"No. He's coming with us."
"It would be wiser to send him to the safety of Jondralyn with an escort of Mord'Sith," Darken suggested. If the boy was his heir then he had no place in the upcoming task, and if he was… more it would get him away from Richard.
Richard turned a hard look on Darken, suspicion bringing his feelings of brotherly affection crashing to the earth, "He's not leaving my sight. I don't trust you won't order him killed as soon as they're too far away for me to save him."
Cara's eyes snapped from the boy to Richard.
Darken relented, realizing he was treading in quicksand.
"Fool," Hali snarled.
Richard returned to the boy's side. He pulled his hunting knife from his boot and offered the hilt to his nephew, "This should be better suited to you than that sword."
The young golden Rahl took it, though he was careful that their fingers did not touch and he shied away from the hand Richard tried to place on his shoulder.
Cara gathered her Mord'Sith and issued orders, all of them turning from time to time to gaze at the uncanny double of their master.
They repaired a broken fence and then released their horses in the enclosure. They would fetch them on the way back. The ground leading to the pillars was too treacherous for the equines – they might step in a hole and break a leg.
The Mord'Sith once more formed a protective wedge at the front of their company. Richard and the young master Rahl walked at the front of the diamond, Darken and Cara just behind, keeping an eye on the boy.
"He is a handsome child," Darken said.
"Yes," Cara breathed, once again lost in contemplation of the golden haired youth.
"Cara," Darken sounded almost concerned, "do not –"
Their fingertips brushed and their hearts thumped.
"It's going to be okay, Nicholas," Richard said, smiling down at his nephew to put him at ease.
The boy looked up at him, "Who's Nicholas?"
"Oh," Richard hadn't expected that. "It's what your father wanted to name you."
"Are you my father?" asked that high voice, one golden eyebrow raised in unknowing imitation of both his parents.
"Ah, no," Richard glanced back over his shoulder at Darken and Cara, understanding their desire to put off telling the boy, but unsure how to deal with it in the meantime. "But I know your father."
"What's he like?"
"He's… he's really smart, and strong. When he commanded the armies of D'Hara the territories were the closest they've ever been to being united under one ruler."
"He was a general for Lord Rahl?"
"Something like that."
"My name's not Nicholas."
"What?" Richard was startled from his troubled thoughts by the non-sequitor.
"The training masters never called me Nicholas. My name," the boy said, "is Declan."
Chapter 46: Hands
In a village by the sea, the last bastion of civilization before the Pillars of Creation perched where sky met water, bodies stirred.
No life existed there, but there was movement all the same.
A man clad in the red-black uniform of Darken Rahl's Third Battalion stirred, shaking off the excess body parts of others as he rose. All around him, villagers dusted the dirt and crusted blood from their forms. They turned as one and began a ground eating march to that massive body of salt and sand, soon to run incarnadine.[vii]
"I'm tired," Declan complained to Richard.
"I'm sorry, we can't stop," Richard didn't even look down.
"Where are we going?"
"It's very important, we're going to –"
"That is quite enough," Darken interrupted.
Richard dropped back, "Cara, why don't you walk with Declan for a while?" he urged, thinking she needed a push to get past her discomfort with the boy.
Darken's hand shot out to catch Cara's arm in an iron grip before she could process Richard's words, "No. I desire Cara by my side. Let the Confessor walk with the boy if you feel he needs a nanny."
"Why are you being this way?" Richard's voice rose in pitch, confused even in inflection.
"If you must ask, then you are either incredibly naïve or cruelly thoughtless."
Richard ignored Darken as best as he could, thinking that he was dealing poorly with his sudden returned fatherhood.
He called Zedd and Hali to walk with Declan. He wanted the boy's health checked out. Hali adamantly refused, spouting some insults and dire portents in her melodramatic way. Zedd agreed, though he was beginning to look like an old carpet, faded and much trod upon.
"Hello, sir," Declan said as Zedd approached, Hali trailing slightly behind with a death grip on Zedd's sleeve.
"Hello, young one. How are you feeling?"
"That's a silly question. I'm Dragon Corps," he puffed his little chest out with pride, an arrogant expression so like Cara on his face that it sent a warm, dreadful chill down Zedd's spine. He reached for the boy, prepared to examine him with his magic.
A sudden rumbling reverberated up from the ground.
Richard shot forward aiming to scoop Declan up as the earth yawned open, green flames reaching up to claim any that were not quick enough.
Two of the Mord'Sith fell into the ever widening pit, the rest backing away from the edges of sand falling into the maw of the underworld. Richard's momentum was too great to stop, and he plowed into Declan and Hali, jumping the gap with Declan in his arms as Hali fell into the pit, saved only by the grip she had on Zedd's sleeve.
In the bare instant that Richard was touching Declan and Hali at the same time, Declan said in a voice not his own, It is her.
Even as she dangled precariously over death, Hali turned blind eyes toward Declan, unerringly seeking out his face, "You."
"Richard!" Kahlan cried as she ran toward the crack in the fabric of reality, pushing Mord'Sith out of her way.
Richard did not answer, clawing at his vest and his shirt, panting as sweat broke out on his brow.
"No, it's too wide," Cara held out an arm to stop Kahlan as Darken helped Zedd haul Hali to safety.
Sparks of light and dark from the touches of the Hands of Healing and the Hands of Death arched over Richard's skin, sweat a sand sticky sheen on his form. He writhed on the ground, topless now, rubbing his hands over and over the mark of the Keeper, the handprint that had been burned into his flesh many months ago.
It burned again now, an eerie green glow that illuminated the skin and cast a jade shadow on Richard's face.
Declan smiled a Rahl smile.
When Richard opened his eyes, they were unseeing orbs of blackest midnight.
He did not speak, but turned his darkened eyes to dully gaze at the diminutive shadow of death.
"Take me to the Pillars of Creation."
Richard turned in the sand to allow Declan to climb onto his back, and then rose to walk onward, deaf to the calls of his former companions.
Cara ripped a bow from the shoulder of a nearby Mord'Sith, pulling three arrows free from the woman's quiver with her other hand. She planted two in the ground and then sighted with the third, her arm aching with more than muscle strain as she pulled the bowstring back past her ear.
In the back of her mind she heard the struggle as Kahlan slipped into the Con Dar and Hali subdued her, the only one in no danger of confession. A loud slap, a punch, and then a cry of "Mistress!" and a crunch as they both slid to the ground, their tears wetting the sand.
But that was not important. The target was important. Cara let out a long breath. This was the moment she always waited for, the moment when time stood still and she knew that the arrow would hit whatever she wanted it to.
The moment passed.
Cara lowered the bow, dropping it to the ground and splintering the arrow over her knee in a fit of fury and self-loathing.
"They were out of range," Zedd said, a question implied in his tone.
"No," Cara's facial muscles twitched. "I hesitated. This is what traveling with you people has done to me. Made me weak."
"Love is never a weakness, Cara, but strength."
Darken said nothing at all.
Garen sent her remaining Sisters along the edges of the fiery green slash in the earth to find a way around, seizing the opportunity to take control while weak Mistress Cara moped over her boy child. They returned with the news that it would be swifter to go to the left, up along the cliffs.
"You," Kahlan's rough rage edged voice suddenly echoed among the dunes. "This is your fault!"
She kicked Hali aside and started for Rahl, hand outstretched, forgetting in her haze that she could not confess him. She didn't make it two feet before she found herself laid flat on the ground, mouth open in a silent scream as multiple Agiels were driven against her. Sand filled her mouth, unpleasant against her gums and getting stuck between her teeth.
She grasped an ankle, releasing her power. The Mord'Sith fell to her knees, convulsing with confession.
The doomed Mord'Sith turned on her Sisters, her last moments of life giving Kahlan the seconds she needed to get out of the crush, standing to find Rahl.
He had retreated to stand behind Cara.
Cara stood, Agiels at the ready.
Kahlan drew her knives.
"Get out of my way."
"He started this whole mess. He should be dead!"
Before the situation could deteriorate any further, all combatants found themselves unable to move, frozen in space by wizard magic.
"If anyone is to blame for everything, it is I," Zedd said, looking every single second of his age.
He stared into Darken's eyes, "I have done you all a great disservice, starting from the very moment I put the scales out of balance."
Hali, not included in Zedd's spell, came forward to place a Hand on his arm.
The confessed Mord'Sith died while still in the grip of the magic, hanging like a puppet with its strings cut, tears drying on her face.
"There is still hope," Hali said, "as long as the Mother Confessor's heart is pure."
Kahlan wailed, at last acknowledging the darkness that had been plaguing her.
She found that as soon as she stopped hiding from it, she was free.
Chapter 47: Fury
Sister Marianna rushed forward, her movements brisk and efficient as she led a group of Sisters of the Dark to meet the Keeper.
They knelt before the Seeker, controlled by the Keeper's mark, the Keeper sitting astride his puppet's shoulders.
"Keeper," Marianna said, "we felt your presence. Everything has been done as you wish. We are prepared to bring the underworld to the land of the living."
Good. All that is left is the stone.
Richard knelt to allow the Keeper to get down, the mark of the hand on his bare chest dulling slightly when he lost contact with the Keeper's earthly form.
Give me the Stone of Tears.
"I do not have it, master," his voice was completely without tone, flat and lifeless.
The Keeper whirled on him, his face a mask of rage, a contorted expression Richard had seen somewhere before, if he could only remember.
The protector has not yet given it to you? Why?
"She couldn't give it to me. She said I have to take it."
Then you will.
Kahlan climbed along the narrow goat trail. It was the only path on the cliff side and the quickest way to get beyond the trench of death the Keeper had opened in the ground.
Despite the precarious path and the difficulty of the climb, she felt lighter than she had since Darken Rahl came back into their lives, making it next to impossible to ignore parts of herself that she had buried so long. How could she when he flaunted his darkness openly and encouraged Cara to do the same?
But he was right, in a way. Kahlan wasn't all light. She was dark too.
And that was okay.
Hali had said that they were what they were meant to be. At the time Kahlan had taken it as a chastisement for those seeds of darkness dwelling in her heart, her unrelieved hatred of Darken Rahl for less than noble reasons.
One a healer. One a judge. One to forgive, one to punish.
They would find Richard. They would save life. She would cooperate with Darken Rahl for Richard's sake. She would never like him.
And that was okay.
Zedd watched Hali as they climbed, knowing that his time with her was coming to an end.
"Don't frown, Zeddicus, you'll get wrinkles," she teased, her strange sense of those around her no longer impressing him.
It only made sense.
I love you, he thought, seeing no point in saying the words aloud.
Hali grasped his hand and he knew joy.
Cara led their party, Darken right behind her. His presence was overwhelming and reassuring, a flaring aura of power at her back.
She knew he was furious. So was she.
They crested the last dune, the land falling steeply down before them to the sea and the Pillars of Creation.
There was an army in their way.
Chapter 48: Blood
They surveyed the enemy forces from atop the crest of a dune. The ocean lapped at the land, an incongruous calming sway of sound.
They were in full view of the army of the damned, but their enemies did not advance. They wouldn't have to. They stood between the Stone of Tears and the Pillars of Creation.
They knew that the rag tag force for light would have to come to them.
"There are screelings patrolling the pillars, mistress," a Mord'Sith reported to Cara, a spy glass to her eye.
"Our goal must be to get the stone to the pillars," Darken said. "Everything else is secondary."
He waited for a snarky comment from the Confessor, but it never came.
"There aren't enough of us for a head on assault," Cara turned trusting eyes to Darken, remembering well his tactical brilliance. "And we have a time limit."
But it was not Darken who provided the answer, but Zedd.
The old wizard pulled a two faced compact mirror from his robes and said, "I have an idea."
Garen led four Mord'Sith along the sand, straight into the arms of the enemy. Cara, Darken Rahl, the wizard, the healer, and the Mother Confessor stood clearly silhouetted behind them against the sky on the dune overlooking the sea.
A ripple passed through the forces amassed by the Keeper and banelings parted to allow Sister Marianna to step through.
"We have come to join the Keeper," Garen said before Sister Marianna had a chance to interrogate them.
"This is a trick."
Garen held up a hand, two fingers and thumb extended to forestall Marianna's speech, "This is no trick, I assure you. We are Mord'Sith. We prefer to be on the winning side."
She smiled, a slight upward twitch of the lips.
Marianna stared for a hard moment. Then, "I will take you to the Keeper. He will decide what to do with you."
They followed her through the Keeper's army, the shortest blonde at the back of their line keeping hold of the leather belt of the tall brunette in front of her.
The Keeper's force was a swarming horde of banelings, Dark Sisters, screelings and monsters of the underworld no mortal had a name for. Shadows moved under their feet, whispering false promises and prizes.
They reached the Pillars of Creation, Declan standing on a dais beyond a flight of temple stairs, Richard at his side, the green hand on his chest glowing still.
Marianna bowed her head, "Master, these women wish to serve you."
"You would betray Darken Rahl?" the Keeper asked in a child's voice.
"He is a weak master," Garen answered, her four Mord'Sith fanning out around her. "He is no longer worthy of our services."
A horn sounded in the distance, the specks that were Darken Rahl's forces rushing down the dune to engage the first line of the Keeper's army.
"They are attacking, master," Richard said in a hollow voice.
"Let them come," Declan answered. "Bring me the blind one, preferably dead."
Richard drew his sword.
A percussive blast of fire from the front line blew at least fifty banelings apart, the result of a magical bomb Zedd had created for the Mord'Sith.
The short blonde Mord'Sith lunged forward, pulling a hidden dacra from her leather. She plunged it into Marianna's side, a cloud of green light surrounding them as the Mord'Sith inhaled Marianna's stolen han.
Fire and ice streamed from the tall brunette's hands, picking screelings from the pillars.
Garen and the red braided Mord'Sith at her side drew two Agiels each, fighting back to back the banelings that turned to aid their master, a deadly graceful dance done by masters.
The fifth Mord'Sith flung her head back, then raised her hands. All the Sisters of the Dark in range sank to their knees, intoning as one, "Command me, Confessor."
Richard advanced on the pair fighting at the base of the stairs, and Garen met him, turning aside sword strikes with her Agiels as the red head kept the rest of the Keeper's forces from interfering.
A screeling jumped from the cliff face to their left, slamming into the back of the tall brunette wielding magic. As she fell a small golden object clattered from her leather, flung against the stairs.
The Mirror of Omtressis broke.
Suddenly it was Zedd lying in the sand screaming as a screeling tore at his back. Hali ran up the stairs, her braided hair crackling with the static of the han she had just absorbed, green skirts flying around her legs. Darken fought his bewitched brother as Cara held banelings at bay, and Kahlan directed Sisters of the Dark to wade into the army from within the ranks, the red circles of the Blood Rage around her eyes.
It was Kahlan's control of the Con Dar that turned the tide. With the acceptance of herself had come a greater command of her power. She rode the beast of her rage.
Hali reached the center of the dais, kneeling to run her hands along the stone until she felt it. A depressed carving of the magical symbol that represented the proper order of the world, mirrored triangles surrounded in a ring, carved into the stone at the center of the Pillars of Creation. She could not sense the Keeper, he had fled or hidden. That did not matter. All that mattered was that balance be restored.
She had to call forth the stone. But she needed the one it was meant for.
Darken turned to avoid a lunge, maneuvering to get to a higher stair, the long reach of Richard's sword dangerous, especially combined with the uneven footing of the staircase. A quick glance told him that Cara would not be able to help him – she was defending the base of the stairs on her own.
Sparks sprayed as Richard's sword scraped against stone were Darken had stood only a moment before. Darken took the opportunity to strike his brother across the face with an Agiel, bringing the other up to turn away Richard's return strike, locking his Agiel against the hilt of the Sword of Truth, arm straining. The only thing that saved him was that he had gained the height advantage. With the weight of his body behind the press of Agiel to sword, Darken forced Richard to his knees, a head butt sending the Seeker tumbling down the stairs to the clash Cara was engaged in.
Darken hesitated a moment, but Hali's insistent calling of his name made his decision and he ran up the stairs to join her on the dais.
"Take my hands," she said as soon as she heard his steps ring against the stone.
He did, and she closed her blind eyes, exhaling slowly, blocking out the chaos around them. A golden light came into being at the center of her chest, spiraling outward to entwine them both.
The Sword of Truth arched through the air, thrown from the middle of the stairs by the Keeper's spellbound servant, narrowly singing by Darken's head as it slammed down between Hali's breasts.
White eyes went wide in shock and she stumbled back, releasing his hands, transfixed by the sword like a needle through cloth.
She fell back, and Darken caught her, holding her dead weight. She made an odd sound, a hiccoughing cough. Blood trickled from betwixt her teeth.
"Hali," he said, as softly as he was able, "where is the stone?"
Fat white tears leaked from her eyes, and with shock he realized that they were turning a bloodshot, muddy brown.
"Darken?" she choked out, bringing up a hand to touch his face.
It dropped before it could reach him, her brown eyes going dim.
"Hali!" he shouted at her, all semblance of control gone, shaking her lifeless form viciously. "Tell me where the stone is!"
Then Richard was there, knocking him away to be slammed into a pillar.
Hali crumpled to the ground, her limbs bending at unnatural angles. Richard pulled the sword from her chest and blood sprayed in pulsing gouts through the air, the metal no longer in place to stop it. Darken was frozen as he watched the thick red-black lifeblood flow from the gap in Hali's breast, the ever widening pool soaking the stone and seeping into his heart, conjuring the image of another woman lying in a circle of red.
Richard advanced on him, blood blackened sword raised. Darken snapped, his Agiels suddenly in his hands as he ran at his brother, screaming his rage.
This time there was no contest. Richard had the longer weapon, but Darken was a blur, a striking snake, moving in and around his brother, delivering stinging blows. Richard was under geas, a mindless puppet led by the glowing hand of the Keeper. Darken was driven by fury. And something else.
It wasn't a weakness, but strength.
Their clash seemed to last hours, taking them all over the dais. Burning thirst and aching exhaustion sank into Darken, becoming part of him. Richard came on, tireless, unable to feel the wounds inflicted on him.
At last Darken saw his chance. He dropped to the ground, sweeping out a leg. Richard, having swung his sword back for a chopping blow, overbalanced and fell. As he did, Darken leapt to his feet, wincing at the pain that jarred up his calf from the ankle he had twisted earlier in their battle, and brought both his Agiels whistling down, buzzing with vengeance, to strike the center of the green hand that held his brother captive.
Richard screamed an unholy scream, his body shaking as if electrified. Pain like none he had never known arched up Darken's arms from the Agiels and a hoarse yell echoed in his head. He realized it was his voice.
The green hand pulsed once, twice, turning black. Darken held on, his mind a blank. The black faded from Richard's eyes and he collapsed, quiet.
Darken forced his fingers open, unable to pull the Agiels away from Richard's chest. With a wrench he stumbled away, leaving behind a patch of skin from both his palms.
They bled sluggishly. He barely felt the throb.
He limped back to Hali's body, slumping to his knees to search her for the stone, careless and numb with pain.
He could see Cara running up the stairs, her lips forming words, but he could not hear her. He couldn't hear anything.
Something hard plunged sharply into his back and he blinked, falling forward.
Why couldn't he move?
A squelching twist and yank and he remembered how to feel pain. A red haze formed at the edge of his vision.
Small hands pushed his useless body from Hali's corpse and then he saw his own face looking back at him.
Declan held a bloody knife, and before Darken's eyes he thrust young fingers into the cavernous hole in Hali's chest, slopping slurping in her blood.
There was a wet tear as the boy yanked and removed his hand, clutching Hali's heart.
Blood smeared up to his elbow, Declan brought the abnormal organ to his lips. It was white, though obviously still a heart, shimmering with a faint blue light.
He ate it, blood gushing down his chin like the juice of an apple.
The sky was torn with lightning and an ill gale of wind swirled, throwing sand, spraying salt water, and shaking the earth.
Fire sprouted from newly forming trenches as the underworld fought its way through the insubstantial shreds of the veil. The stone of the dais moaned as a crack ran along the center, neatly dividing the symbol of the world.
Cara burst onto the dais, her eyes mad. She charged toward them and Darken thought she was beautiful.
Declan turned his blood coated goblin face to her and raised his hands, black death gathered in his touch.
Cara was not allowed to leave him again.
With no time to think, Darken found a reservoir of strength he had not known he possessed and staggered to his feet, falling on the boy, the Hands of Death against his throat.
The Keeper could not bear the flesh of sacrifice, the spell that had given him this body performed on ground soaked with unwilling blood. He exploded from the child's body, shredding skin, a great dark light that rained laughter like razors, flowing down, down the green path of fire to the realm of the underworld.
The only realm now. The only realm that would ever be.
Darken blinked and Cara's green eyes were right before his, the white wisp of life against his face.
Everything went dark.
Richard woke from one nightmare into another. He was stiff all over, as if every muscle in his body had shrunk.
He had been able to see and feel all while under the Keeper's control, but as if from far away, powerless to stop it.
A clatter of footsteps, thunder shook the world, and Kahlan was at his side, pulling his face against her breast.
He looked up at her, shocked to see the red around her blackened eyes, "Kahlan, the Blood Rage –"
"I control it now."
Richard looked down at his blood soaked hands, a sudden great understanding of his brother flowing through him, a terrible epiphany.
He jerked, but Kahlan held him down, turning to look over her shoulder. Richard followed her gaze to see Cara kneeling in a pool of blood two inches thick, Hali, Darken, and Declan grotesquely piled around her. She leaned down to breathe life into one of them, then the other.
"It isn't working," she moaned, crying openly, unashamed. "Why isn't it working?"
"I couldn't stop it," Richard said as hollowly as if he were still ensorcelled, unable to process the enormity of what he had done. "I wasn't strong enough."
"It wasn't you," Kahlan reassured him, rocking him as if he were a babe.
Cara howled her grief to the broken sky, the evil wind whipping her hair around her face.
The blood of the healer, death's shadow, and the man who served them both crept together, a sluggish red swirl trickling into the symbol of balance cut into the dais, flowing down the crack in the stone, topped by the tears of the woman who had loved them all.
A golden light pierced the clouds.
Chapter 49: Tears
Darken stood in a garden untouched by time. Light flowed down, upwards, outwards, everywhere.
He was dreaming. He knew he was.
His first dream free from the Keeper since he made his deal of the damned those many years ago.
A clearing of the throat and he turned.
Hali stood there, dressed serenely in a gown of light pale pink. Her eyes were a clear brown. Her hair fell in smooth pale gold curtains. Her smile was straight and even, perfect.
"You aren't Hali," he said.
He had found her more beautiful covered in blood and blind.
She glided to him, inhumanly graceful, a swan flowing across water. When she reached him she extended a hand, stopping just short of touching his face, hesitating, waiting, wary.
She pulled away, using the extended hand to gesture behind him.
There stood his son as he had last seen him, blonde and handsome, a lighter reflection of himself.
"No. I'm Nicholas," the boy came forward and studied him for a moment.
Darken waited, heart pounding, for the recrimination he felt in the air.
Nicholas wrapped his arms around Darken's waist and whispered into his chest, "I forgive you, father."
I forgive you, Darken Rahl.
He had heard the Keeper's voice many times. It rattled the bones, a painful vibration that shook souls from their moorings. The Creator's voice hurt too, but it was a saccharine piercing pain in his chest, as if his heart was overfull, straining for some kind of release.
"Do you forgive me?"
He returned his son's embrace, placing a large hand on the top of his boy's head.
Something he would never get to do in the waking world.
The Creator joined them, pressing a chaste kiss on Darken's brow. At that moment his heart spilled over, a red hot pressure behind his eyes as he was enveloped by the greatest joy and sweetest sorrow he had ever known.
He took in two short gasping breaths, his lips trembling. He tasted salt and realized tears ran down his face.
How he hated tears.
Chapter 50: Stone
Awareness, like a fog, crept to his mind, interrupting the assurances of the Creator. Content to let his focus come in its own time, he drifted on the top of consciousness, skimming the edge of the waking world.
He could feel sand against his skin. His head ached. His teeth were grimy, and a bitter acid had taken up residence in his throat.
So he was alive.
Rustling and footsteps, the sounds of waves pounding. He could smell the sea.
He opened his eyes and immediately shut them against the light, holding his breath to keep his captor from knowing of his awareness.
Opening his eyes the tiniest of slivers to allow them to adjust, he observed his surroundings. A beach on the edge of the world, the Pillars of Creation the backdrop. He himself was laying on the sand by the surf, the blood sticky rag of his tunic his only covering.
All of these things he took in within a moment. It was the woman with her back to him that captured his attention. With shorn, somewhat tangled blonde hair, she was wearing the garb of a Mord'Sith. She was not wearing the protective leather corset and her bodysuit was undone, baring her throat, but there was no mistaking what they identified her as.
"Cara," he said, an uncharacteristic tremor in his voice. He stood on shaky legs, limping, to cleave her to his chest, a hard, desperate, thankful embrace which she returned fully, leaning up to kiss him with hunger she hadn't exhibited since her days as a trainee.
Eventually they both had to breathe, something he had never expected to do again.
"How?" he asked once he could be bothered to think.
Cara got a far off look in her eyes, as if visiting some place where others could not follow, "The blood, it was everywhere… A beam of light came from the sky, and then," she paused, searching for the words, burying her face in his neck to reassure herself that he really was alive. "It was like the air got thick, and things changed. The veil was sealed, the banelings melted away, the trenches closed –"
"It would be easier to show you."
She led and he followed, ascending the steps of the Pillars of Creation once more.
The air was thick with Night Wisps.
"They were the screelings," came the voice of the Confessor, sitting to the side with a troubled Richard.
Darken paid her no attention, transfixed by what he saw at the center of the dais.
It was Hali. She stood there, clothes ripped, hands clutching at her gaping wound, a grisly contrast to the blissful crooked smile on her face.
A statue, a prism. Little beams of golden light refracted through her, giving the pillars an ethereal quality.
Zeddicus stood before her, gazing forlornly into her crystal white eyes.
Darken approached, reached out a hand to touch and was surprised at the little tingle of light that zipped up his arm. His heart beat twice.
Richard moved to stand behind him, his face shadowed.
"Who was she, truly?" Richard asked, joining them in their contemplation of the woman enshrined for all time.
"She was you," Kahlan answered. "And me...Zedd, and Cara. She was everyone she ever touched."
"She was the stone," said Zedd.
"She," Darken added, pushing the words passed his lips, his tongue reluctant to relinquish them, "was my friend."
There was a note of finality to that statement. The greatest eulogy one could ever hope to receive.
They slept that night among the pillars, Hali keeping watch over them all.
In the morning it became apparent that the journey was over. All that was left was to go home.
Where was that?
Darken found Cara sitting against Hali's statue. Before he could speak she held out a fist, opening it to reveal bones, burnt black, melded into an amulet.
"His body broke apart," she said. "This was all that was left."
She offered it to him.
Wordlessly, he took it. Ripping a loose leather tie from his tunic, he strung it through the back of his son's bones.
He tied it around Cara's neck, pressing his forehead to hers.
"Stay with me."
He wasn't sure if it was an order or a request.
She entwined her fingers with his.
The moment was broken by the shushing sounds of Richard's footsteps.
"We're going to escort Kahlan to Aydindril."
"Where will you go?"
Richard eyed their clasped hands, "Not alone."
They stared at one another, a sea hawk calling in the distance, and Darken wondered if this would be the moment when it all came crashing down.
But Richard merely extended a hand and Darken grasped it, gripping each other's wrists in the manner of warriors the world over.
"We'll see each other again," Richard said, surety radiating from his tone.
"As what?" Darken raised a brow.
"Brothers," Richard smiled.
And with that cryptic remark he walked away, back toward Zeddicus and Kahlan and the sole surviving Mord'Sith, Haden, who had sworn to look after the wizard.
Turning to face the direction that would lead him back to where he began, Cara at his side, the ebb and flow of the sea sucking at his boots, Darken lifted his foot.
And took a step.
This scene art by melt_in2_me
[vii] An oblique reference to Macbeth.
The name Hali means: Sickness, The Beginning, Precious Stone, Servant of the Patient (1001 Baby Names, 4th Edition)
Translation of Marianna's spell: "From blood, life. From dust, flesh. From bone, body. Arise, Keeper, arise! Walk among us! We, the living, call you! We give you a body, arise Keeper! Walk among us, shadow of death!"
The title is both a reference to the phrase “you can’t squeeze blood from a stone” and the fact that Hali is the Stone of Tears.
Blood from a Stone has been recc’d by the Seekers of Fic, and on The People’s Palace.
In the 2011 LOTSEEKERFIC AWARDS, Blood from a Stone took the following:
1st Place Best Original Character – Hali
1st Place Best Portrayal of Darken Rahl
2nd Place Best Portrayal of Zedd
1st Place Best Alternate Universe – Rare Pair Het
2nd Place Best Drama – Rare Pair Het
This story is picked up again in its sequel, Son of Blood.