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There was once a woman who was not a woman, who had never been a girl; who was both immeasurably finite and infinite, traced out in impossibly precise delineations and stretching into neverending expansion.

There was once a woman who peered with timeless eyes down, down, down, and saw.

There was once a woman who began as a mere pinprick of light in a universe of light, who would grow to know the sensation of being the water that drowns rather than the breath that is smothered.

*

Sometimes Zedd simply calls her Mother, and the way that he looks at her, Kahlan feels in some deep, wordless part of her herself that it is more than just her status as a Confessor.

It is not often, and hardly more than a flash across his features, but sometimes it seems the words dry up on his tongue and a terrifying remembrance freezes his features.

Mother, he would say, and she would feel that he wanted to bow to her, that he wanted to profess something for which he had no words, great Mother.

*

Alongside the woman lived a crone who was not a crone, who had never been a woman, who had certainly never been a girl. The crone watched the tides of time and laughed, for they were as predictable as the pull of negative energy into positive space, for they were as unpredictable as reactions still waiting to come into being.

The crone peered up, up, up into the light of the woman and knew that they were one and the same.

Alongside the woman lived the crone who came first, who pulled the woman from her own bone and tendon and flesh, who shaped the woman not in her own image but in forms yet unshaped and languages yet unspoken.

*

“Kahlan,” Richard says, his hands gripping her shoulders, “Kahlan, wake up. It’s just a bad dream.”

Kahlan opens her eyes and the sky opens up to her, vast and overpowering and luminous. She is humbled; awareness is so tremendous it threatens to crush her, threatens to crack her down the middle like earth rent after a tectonic shift. Richard is tiny beside her, reduced down to hardly a grain of being.

“Kahlan,” he says, and the bluntness of his fingernails score her skin. She turns her head and looks down, down, down at him -- he is so far away, his words undulating like stretched waves across thick, dense air -- and the space behind her eyes is wide and open. She cannot find the boundaries of her own immenseness.

She feels this could engulf her, feels energies stir inside her like a growing current. Yet she knows they will not consume her. It frightens her to have such certainty.

*

The woman kneaded her hands into the crone’s belly, vortices in her palms and explosions bursting at her fingertips.

What will grow from our union? The woman asked, her thumbs pressing against the edge of rib. All around them was not darkness, but the absence of it. Pinpricks of existence danced wherever they touched.

That remains to be seen, the crone answered, smiling in a spare fashion. She caressed the woman’s face, lazily, a casual gesture of longtime familiarity, and then pulled her close, until what little definition they had began to blur as they twined and entwined into each other.

*

“The time is long overdue, Zeddicus,” Shota says. She is not recriminating, merely factual; it is unspoken that he has erred grievously and to speak of it now would serve no purpose. She knows, as she ever does, that what has been done cannot be undone, and what is yet to be done still awaits. “You must prepare him.”

“How can I?” He says, the arch of his spine curved in preemptive defeat as he paces the grass. The world is bright around them; to every edge there is a glow. “No mortal can ever be prepared to love the unknowable.”

Shota takes two steps forward; she reaches up and wraps four fingers around the back of his neck, drawing him in to face her. He looks at her with a barely held-in remembrance; were he to release it, he would fall to his knees.

“You managed quite well,” she says, granting him an indulgent smile.

“I don’t know that I would use the world ‘well,’” he grumbles, and she laughs, because he is predictable as the leaves changing colors with the shift of the season. She would not have him any other way.

*

The crone and the woman slept in perpetuity along raw mountains and raging oceans; the woman’s hair spread like riverine fingers all across the freshly-birthed land, the crone’s limbs began to fossilize into a skeletal topography.

Movement continued in their absence that was not absence and was not sleep; mass revolved and transmuted and cohered once more.

The crone’s belly closed over the place from where the pinprick of darkness had emerged. It had hardly existed until the crone and the woman looked upon it. They settled naturally as the darkness took on light and morphed and grew. The harsh light of the young sun shone on.

*

“What’s happening to me?” Kahlan whispers against Cara’s jaw, her fingers digging into the tight muscles of Cara’s upper arms.

The forest groans all around them, as if the trees were being pulled up towards the sky by their very roots. She exhales, slowly, drawing herself in, in, in; she feels as if she’s spreading relentlessly, as if she’d propagate beyond all reason if left unchecked.

“Nothing you can’t handle,” Cara says. The leather of her gloves plays in Kahlan’s hair, teasing strands apart.

“How can you know that?” Kahlan asks, pulling back to look at Cara’s face.

Cara’s smile is precise and minute, and that of one who will always know more than she chooses to share. “I have my ways,” she says, and her leather creaks as she pulls Kahlan flush against her.

*

The woman woke to find the crone above her, cradling the woman’s face in her leatherbark hands.

It is done, the woman whispered, rejoicing to feel how everything had shifted. At the edges of her perception lay territories undefined, shapes and compositions and textures she did not know. The sensation of ignorance was strange, and pleasing.

Beneath her a world stretched, new.

But there is more, the crone said, and she brought the point of one sharp nail to her tongue and pricked the very tip of it. Blood welled like a fat raindrop. Let me show you.

The woman opened her mouth and took in the crone’s gift. It tasted of change.

*

“Wouldn’t you like to go home?” Cara says, idly running her fingertips over Kahlan’s hair. They lie in a field in the morning sun, half-clothed, Kahlan nestled in the crook of Cara’s arm.

“Home?” Kahlan exhales a half-laugh. “I don’t even know where that is, anymore.”

Cara smiles like she has all the time in the world. “Oh, I think you do.”

Kahlan stills, in body and in breathing. The moments pass by and she lies stiff in Cara’s hold, every muscle drawn to its capacity.

“Stop fighting it, Kahlan,” Cara says. Her tone is soft but her words are laced with amusement and a vague sense of threat. “It is time.”

Kahlan inhales, sharply. She stays where she is, small and contained and held together by bone and muscle and flesh.

*

There was once a youth who was not a youth, who did not understand what it was to be a girl, who had never been a newborn; who came into existence seemingly of her own accord, whose presence signaled a shift in the balance that the streams of time had not deigned to let even the crone see.

She looked out, out, out into a world raw and new and ripe for the picking and she stepped forward, ready to claim it for her own.

There was once a youth who began as a mere pinprick of darkness in a universe of darkness, who would grow to know the sensation of being the fire that engulfs rather than the branch that is burned.

*

Shota appearing in Kahlan’s dreams is no strangeness in comparison to the strangeness that has been plaguing her life, the internal tears she’s felt in her own definition of self since she first descended into the Con’Dar and discovered wells of power roiling and stretching and fighting to find outlet.

Shota speaking of Cara is a strangeness, an unexpected one, and sets Kahlan off-kilter.

“You would have me trust her?” Kahlan asks, amidst the field of red flowers. To every edge there is a glow. There is a single tree in the middle of the field, its shape curving thinly towards the sky. She crosses her arms and leans back against it.

“She is still an unknown element.” Shota’s half-smile is far too knowing. “Yet you would give the girl your body and not your faith?”

“I think that I gave you both,” Kahlan says, reaching out and pulling Shota towards her; Shota does not resist, smiling against Kahlan’s lips. “A long time ago.”

“And I think you would do it again,” Shota says, her leatherbark hands catching on Kahlan’s skin.

Kahlan sighs into her touch and knows that, yes, she would.

*

The youth stood in the middle of a jagged tear she’d just ripped through the earth; the soil had fallen away from her hands like rain. The winds howling across the plains tasted gritty and rich against her tongue.

She looked up at the sky and smiled. So tender and rich, she said. Then she reached down, grabbing a handful of soil, breaking it apart in her fingers. And so very delicate.

She stepped on the crumbled dirt as she walked towards the horizon where lush hills and the beginnings of life were stirring.

*

“Don’t,” Kahlan says, circling her fingers around Cara’s wrist, stopping Cara’s progress. This is not how things are between them; it is Kahlan who touches, Cara who is touched. Nothing else is safe.

“Oh, come now,” Cara says, nibbling at Kahlan’s earlobe, her voice deceptively soft. “This doesn’t even begin to scare you.”

Kahlan begins to deny it, but then Cara’s other hand is snaking up her waist, her thumb swiping roughly across Kahlan’s breast, and all she can do is shake her head, because this should scare her, she should be afraid that she could hurt Cara. It’s supposed to be true.

“Don’t worry,” Cara goes on, soothingly, her glove tracking a hot path up the inside of Kahlan’s thigh, “you still have plenty of time to be frightened.”

*

This is folly, the crone said. They stood in a hollowed-out valley, mountains girding them. The new sun had softened its light, brushing the canopy of trees and slicing through the branches in sharp shafts of brightness. This young one, she toys with you.

Better me than this world, the woman said, her hand pressed to the ground. Every minute shift in the geologic organism beneath her reverberated through her palms, up her arm, down her spine.

There will be a price to pay, the crone said. She had the look of one who knew her words would not be heeded, but was bound to speak them nonetheless.

I must protect what is ours, the woman said. She rose, brushing her hands together, looking once more upon the fruits of their union. This is the only way.

And then she, who had once been both immeasurably finite and infinite, began to draw in, in, in.

Come with me? the woman asked, leaning her forehead against the crone’s, sighing tremulously. She trembled in the crone’s arms as her form distorted and morphed, as her enormity resisted contraction, resisted limitation and form and mass.

You would be a fool to think I would not, the crone said. She leaned in, finding the woman’s lips, a soft kiss of parting that soon became flesh.

Two naked women walked out of a field some time later, following a set of freshly-trod footsteps. In the coming weeks, red flowers grew all along the path they left behind, like drops of blood dangling at the end of stems.

*

“Kahlan, come look,” Richard says, and he starts walking towards her even before he’s finished his sentence, an air of excitement about him. Kahlan smiles; even in this dark and stale tomb, he carries an air of childlike innocence about him. Treasure, some glinting and some filthy with the march of time, fills every corner of the room like a watchful dragon. Dust stirs as he walks.

“It’s about Confessors,” he explains as he holds a tiny black book up to the light, showing it to her. The cover is inscribed with a language she does not know, yet the back of her throat goes dry when she looks at it.

“What does it say?” She asks, taking a step backwards. There’s a pressure behind her eyes.

“Here,” he says, and opens the volume to the first page, face settling into an expression of concentration as he waits for the words to swim into a configuration that makes sense. “A great Mother long ruled the lands with peace and goodwill in her heart. But she suffered gravely, for she was afflicted with spasms, with wracking shudders that would shake her body near to breaking. She was a vessel of power that had no mouth to pour out the water; some say she was no vessel, but a Goddess, and others still say that she was the Mother Creator herself, come down into flesh to watch over her children.

One day, the great Mother descended into the bowels of the earth with only her most trusted advisor at her side, a witchwoman whose name was lost to time even then. It is said that inside the earth the great Mother forged tools of metal that would release her from her pain, that would create channels she could use to alleviate the great tidal forces that moved within her.

The great Mother became the first Mother Confessor and her witchwomen became the source of all magic. Their powers were gifts to the world that spread through their blood, and to this day protects us st--Kahlan? Kahlan, are you all right?” He drops the book, taking three large strides to reach her, putting his hands on her shoulders.

“No,” Kahlan says, shaking her head. Her hands grip the stone walls, her knuckles bloodless and her pulse pounding a rapid tattoo of remembrance in her wrists.

*

The woman’s wrists were encircled in metal, metal that was there not so much to restrain her as to protect all that was around her. The crone stood before her with a thin needle poised between her fingers.

This will not be the last life you live, the crone said, notching the needle to slide in. Nor will it be hers.

I know, the woman said, and exhaled as she watched the needle, as she felt the tip of it press against her new blood. Do it.

As you wish, the crone said, and slid the needle home.

The woman did not scream as the crone's steady hand drew out her power tendril by agonizing tendril. Her eyes went first black, and then red.

*

“I don’t know what to do for her,” Zedd says, feeling her temperature. Kahlan hears him as if he’s speaking through water, feels the touch of his hand on her forehead only in the vaguest sense, all the nerves of her skin deadened.

“You can’t do anything?” Richard says, and she feels the faint vibrations in the ground as he paces around her. His voice is ragged, as if he’s asked this question many times, and plans to ask it many more.

“If I try to heal her I may kill us both,” Zedd says patiently, and a part of Kahlan tries to rouse at that, to say, no, don’t risk yourself, but then she feels a pressure on her shoulder, gripping hard.

“Leave her be,” Cara says, near Kahlan’s ear, “she’ll come back when she’s ready.”

Yes, Kahlan thinks, drifting off, I will.

*

Who are you? the woman asked different bodies and lifetimes later, her eyes searching the crone’s restlessly, knowing she ought to see something there but unable to place it.

No one important, the crone said, and laughed, the richness and depth of her voice belying her words. Now, come, the witch said, slipping her arm around the young Confessor’s waist and guiding her through the hall towards the royal chambers, we have much work to do.

*

Shota does not need to announce herself with Zedd; as she approaches, his stance changes, becomes somehow pliant and open in a way that only she is attuned to. She caresses his fingers, so long and almost weightless, like a bird’s bones.

“He has no fear,” she notices, seeing how the boy watches over Kahlan as she sleeps, how he notes every tremble and twitch of her eyelids as she dreams.

“He hasn’t the common sense for that,” Zedd says wryly.

“It would be like a pebble trying to understand a mountain,” Cara says, appearing out of nowhere. She’s leaning against a tree, arms crossed over her chest, all insolence and insult and allure. “Pointless.”

“And which are you, child?” Shota says. The air thickens noticeably when they make eye contact, an invisible energy sizzling as their presences intermingle.

“Neither,” Cara says, smiling her most arrogant smile, sparks around the edges. “I’m the tremors in the earth that crack the mountain’s mantle.”

“Isn’t that comforting,” Zedd says. Cara laughs and disappears as quickly as she appeared, and Shota sighs, tracing her fingernails in circles on Zedd’s palm. She watches Cara stand over Kahlan for some time.

*

You cannot go on like this, the witch said, her hand cool against the Confessor’s burning forehead. You cannot save them from themselves.

But if not I, then who? the Confessor said. Her breathing sounded feverish and shallow; she felt the room pulsate with the forces churning within her.

One of their own, the witch said. Her eyes were distant, unseeing in the here but keenly seeing in the there.

The Confessor shook her head. No mortal could bear the burden.

The witch’s eyes narrowed, as though she were trying to peer through a dampening fog. Her hands stroked restlessly over the Confessor’s hair. True. But the bearer need not be quite mortal nor quite... other than mortal.

The Confessor felt a small kernel of hope stir. She turned to look at the witch. What do you see?

Blood, the witch said, and then she smiled. We only need mingle the blood.

*

Kahlan dreams of faces that she’s never seen, places she’s never been, chants she’s never sung, power that was never hers.

Even as she tells herself this, she knows it for a lie, and though she tries she cannot turn away from her own mind. The lifetimes move through her relentlessly, unstitching her piece by piece until she no longer desires escape, until the only thing she tries to hold onto is her name. Everything else she lets falls away.

*

This changes everything, the Confessor said, watching the rows upon rows of women clad in white walk through the torch-lit halls. Each a drop of her blood, each a daughter.

My children will balance them, the witch said. They stood at the highest vantage point in the Confessor’s temple. The witch’s children had their own temples, deep underground, and the Confessor knew they would never deign to wear robes that would so publically identify them. Knowing the blood that flowed through their veins, the Confessor was not surprised; the witch’s power was defined by its subtlety.

And the rumors of the North? The Confessor asked. There had been reports of women with braided hair who could turn magic back on its source, who could breathe life back into those recently perished, of a Huntress who led them and had a prince bent to her will.

Nothing but whispers, the witch said, but the Confessor heard the veil in the witch’s dismissiveness. But she let the witch divert her worries, lay a hand around her waist, guide her to her bedchamber. Diversion became distraction, and eventually distraction became temporary forgetfulness. Why the witch gave her these gifts, she did not know, but she accepted them with gratitude.

*

Kahlan opens her eyes.

Cara is above her; in the periphery of Kahlan’s vision, she hardly has lines. She is barely-contained chaos, firmly-rooted stillness.

“Time to wake up,” Cara purrs, one of her hands sliding down Kahlan’s front, palm settling against Kahlan’s sternum.

“For all of us,” Kahlan says, expanding her lungs underneath Cara’s weight.

“Mmm, I like the sound of that.” Cara says, grinning invitingly.

“And the others?” Kahlan says, feeling her heartbeat wheel wildly. What was once a survival reflex is now a measure, an indicator of how time grows short, of how what once held has degraded.

“Only one way to find out,” Cara says. She leans down and kisses Kahlan, harshly, for longer than either of them should be able to go without breathing. Kahlan hates to admit that she relishes it.

After a time, they rise and they leave the campsite, walking into a field of red flowers.

*

Kahlan links hands with Shota and Cara. They stand in a circular formation, a warm breeze building around them. Zedd kneels behind Shota; Richard behind Kahlan; Darken Rahl behind Cara. They are silent and somehow everything that has passed between them seems suddenly irrelevant. There is a permeating sense of inexorability, that they have all been here before and they will all be here again.

Cara is fire and tremors and shattering and she is glorious, glorious as Kahlan never knew her to be, and as Kahlan sees her for the first time she understands that Cara was never separate, but essential. Cara throws her head back, laughing, and storms sing in the skies.

Shota is rock and forward motion and stillness and she is beautiful, beautiful as Kahlan always knew her to be, and as Kahlan looks at her with new eyes she understands that Shota is as old and as wise as time itself. Shota smiles in the raging wind, calm, and the ground begins to crack beneath them.

As they intermingle, Kahlan feels herself called forward; she is earth and emergence and expansion and she is overwhelmed with the sense of rightness of their joining, in this union of opposites that were never truly in opposition. They merge as naturally as they separated, and Kahlan’s energy spreads and spreads as she creates new, fertile places where they can root, where they can find sustenance for their new form.

Creation, destruction, perpetuation, around and around and around; she is dissolving in love for these women, in the strength of their unity. Kahlan opens her eyes to the vast and luminous sky and as she forgets her name, it engulfs her.