Chapter 33

"Why use magic when a locked chest will do? Now a magically locked chest is another matter entirely. That which is touched by great magic is permanently changed in ways we may never know."

– Zeddicus Zu'l Zorander, Lectures in Modern Wizardry.

Richard smiled bemusedly at Minder Laire as Zedd bustled into the tent and proceeded to drop a heavy chest beside Richard's pack. It seemed a plain simple wood chest two feet long by one foot wide with heavy iron casings and locking mechanism. Its contents were definitely not so simple. And Richard suspected Zedd had added some magical protection to it as well, considering what it contained.

Dusting his hands, Zedd turned to them looking expectantly. Richard merely nodded at the healer, who smiled briefly in return before gathering her kit and departing with a quick bow.

"So, how are you feeling?" Zedd asked as he gently grasped Richard's hands, carefully looking over the bandages and his skin.

"Fine Zedd," Richard said resignedly allowing his grandfather to continue his inspection of his arms, thankful he'd already put his trousers and sleeveless undershirt back on before his grandfather had finished attending to the bodies of the Lodi. He knew the marking on his forehead stood out in angry relief, a bloody red pattern, if the wounds on his hands, feet, and chest were any indication.

Seemingly satisfied Zedd peered at him closely. "Really?"

Richard smiled weakly, knowing his obvious fatigue wouldn't pass unnoticed. Gesturing to the chunk of wood that had become an impromptu stool, Richard sank down to his bedding with a relieved sigh, muscles sore and head aching. "All things considered, yes."

Zedd merely nodded silently, watching him for a time. Richard waited him out patiently already guessing at what his grandfather wanted to say.

"So, how did you do it?" He asked waving his hand vaguely towards the chest. "Open a rift."

"I don't know," Richard answered honestly. At the skeptical look, he sighed, deciding to give to his concerns. "I think I still possess a little of the magic the Eternal."

Zedd nodded knowingly. "More than a little I'd wager. You shouldn't have been able to do that. No one should be able to do that."

"I know," Richard said quietly. "The question is what do I do?"

"I'm afraid I have no answers for you."

Richard nodded, expecting that answer. He scratched his chin as he noted the old man's lingering gaze. "Zedd have there been anything odd happening in the Midlands these last few years? Magically odd I mean."

"Quite a few," Zedd replied with a nod. "We've been keeping track of them at the Keep."

"I'll need to see the reports after I've settled business in D'Hara."

Suspicion once more settled into Zedd's face "Why?"

"Because I need to fix my mistakes," Richard replied. He nodded over at the chest. "I need to find the rest of the barren wolves and the other creatures that the Eternal brought forth. That and other things. I've overheard the men talk about Tamarang, about what goes on there. And other places."

"Ah, thinking like a wizard."

"And a leader."

"And a leader," Zedd agreed. "But why so soon?"

Richard took a deep breath, letting it out slowly. "I'm not certain how long I'll be here. Alive, I mean."

"What exactly do you mean by that?"

"Zedd, this body was recreated through magic, dark magic," Richard said. "Surely you've noted the changes in my appearance since we left the Northlands."

"I have. Before tonight I could barely even see the symbols on you skin anymore," Zedd allowed. "But it could simply mean you were healing. That vile woman's magic bleeding away."

"I don't think it's that simple." Richard held out his left hand to his grandfather, wiggling the fingers. "What's missing?"

Zedd leaned over and peered closely before sitting back with evident surprise. "The glyphs are gone. Is the larger one on your palm gone as well?"

Richard shook his head. "I'm not sure how it works, but I think—I think when I use the Eternal's power, particularly in taking life, it heals this body, heals me. But at the same time, I can feel the power lessen afterwards. Like I lose part of the power in exchange."

"Curious. And dangerous," Zedd looked speculatively at him. "It does seem to affect you quite strongly, weaken you each time. You fear it may kill you?"

"I don't know, but I don't think I have much time in this world," Richard said. "I fear I may only have a half life."

"Richard, no. There's no way to know what will happen," Zedd cautioned. "Don't allow your fear to dominate your thoughts."

"I'm not afraid to die, Zedd. I just don't want leave you or Kahlan or the children or Cara or…I don't want thing left unfinished like before."

"And so long as you live your life you won't, my boy."

"But…"

"Not buts, Wizard Rahl. Let me give you some advice I learned from a gentle wise man. All we can do is make the best choices we can and move forward with each step."

"Who said that?"

"You did." Zedd replied with an impish grin.

Richard furrowed his brow. "I don't remember saying that."

"Well," Zedd drawled. "I might have paraphrased a bit."

The men chuckled to themselves.

"Zedd, please don't tell Kahlan about this. I don't want this between us."

"Secrets rarely keep their silence. Especially with Confessors."

"Please, Zedd."

"Very well."

"Thank you."

Zedd rose to his feet, smoothing out his long robes. "Well I should get some rest. I'll not be keeping the Mother Confessor waiting outside any longer. I'm surprised she's given me this long with you."

Richard smiled at that. "Good night, Zedd."

The flaps of the tent didn't even flutter close before Kahlan and Cara swept in, each looking concerned.

"I'm fine," Richard told them before either could even ask. The two women exchanged annoyed looks, Kahlan surprisingly gesturing towards Cara.

The Mord-Sith nodded at her with what looked suspiciously like a grateful smile. "Lord Rahl, I wanted you to know that none of the men were seriously hurt. A few maybe unable to perform their duties for a couple of days but the healers assure me they will all recover."

"Good, I'll see to them tomorrow," Richard looked unhappy at hearing of those injured.

"A contingent of Mord-Sith and four Minders arrived while Minder Laire was attending to you. We need to attend to the ceremony soon to welcome the new sisters," Cara said ignoring the questioning look Kahlan gave both of them as Richard nodded his understanding.

"Where are they gathered?" He asked.

"The People's Palace," Cara replied, pausing to glance over at Kahlan before continuing. "The ceremony may take more time than usual given the number involved."

"How many Sisters?"

"Twenty-one."

Richard blinked in astonishment earning a confirming nod from the Mord-Sith at his questioning look.

"It has been a number of years, Lord Rahl," Cara reminded him gently.

"Of course, send word for them begin preparations. We'll return to the palace at the next new moon."

Cara seemed surprised at the timing. "So soon after we arrive in Aydindril?"

"I should be sufficiently healed by then to partake in the ceremony. If not, we'll defer it another month. The sooner it is done, the better." Richard said earning a pleased look from Cara.

"As you wish, Lord Rahl."

"Anything else, Cara?"

"No Richard. Bethe and Elaine will be outside if you need them," she informed him.

"Thank you, Cara. Get some rest."

"And you." She smiled briefly at Kahlan as she left the tent.

Once the flaps of the tent swished closed behind Cara's departure, Kahlan moved to sit next to him on his bedding instead of the chunk of wood serving as a stool. She took one his bandaged hands in her own, seemingly inspecting it for a moment.

"So you're all right?"

"I will be," he assured her, enjoying the planes and shadows of her face cast by the nearby oil lamp.

"I was worried," she admitted, looking at him, allowing him to see her fear. "I was afraid I'd lost you again so soon after we got you back."

"I'm sorry. I didn't mean to scare you, but the wolves needed to be dealt with," he said. Seeing her look he explained his reasons. "The wolves would have gathered to attack sooner or later. They were being drawn by Nokai's presence. And my own."

"So that's it? No more barren wolves?"

"Not in this area. I still need to find the few that are out there," he replied. "I can feel them, not many. But some. And not for a time. I need to recover and deal with some issues in D'Hara."

"Like the Mord-Sith?"

He heard the unasked question and the shock at knowing that he employed the Sisters of the Agiel as the House of Rahl had done for generations. "Yes, like the Mord-Sith. They're necessary Kahlan. I can't explain it now, but know that they are necessary."

Seeing his determined expression, she nodded allowing the topic to pass for now.

"Nokai was very beautiful," she noted. "Are the Lodi really dead? All of them?"

"Yes, she was." Richard replied sadly. "The Lodi are not all dead but the bloodlines are so weak I doubt any Lodi will remain in another generation or two. At least ones that can shape shift."

"I'm sorry," she said giving him a gentle hug before resting her head on his shoulder. "I know she was your friend."

She noticed the heavy chest Zedd had brought earlier. "Is that them?"

"Yes."

"What will you do with it?"

"Lock it away in the Wizard's Keep for now. Until a better solution can be found."

"I'm sure you'll find one. You always do."

"Hmm. Not always." He yawned.

"You're tired. I should go."

"I'd like it if you would stay." He said tiredly. "Just to sleep." He added hastily, earning a small laugh from her.

"All right," she decided. She settled in beside him resting her head on his shoulder. In minutes they were both laying there, content, neither sleeping. Richard huffed an amused sound.

"What?" Kahlan asked, unable to stop the giggle that arose from her.

"I thought this would feel…"

"Awkward?"

He chuckled softly. "Yeah."

She rose up on one elbow, looking down on him with a hopeful smile. "And is it?"

He smiled back warmly. "Not at all. You?"

Kahlan allowed herself to slip down beside him again, reveling in the warmth of his body. "No, it feels right."

Kahlan smiled as she felt his lips brush her forehead. "Love you."

"Love you, too."

He tread through the familiar idyllic forest the sound of the pond guiding him to his destination. As he came into the small glen he was not surprised to find the familiar woman standing at the pond, staring at it.

"I was wondering if you would come here, Richard," she said.

He shook his head in bemusement at the silky tone, knowing it for the deception it was, as he came to stand beside her.

"Why wouldn't I? I created it after all," he noted simply.

He saw her lips twist into a sneer at his words. "You're a fool."

"Maybe," he conceded. "But you—you're…"

"A monster?" She tilted her head slightly at that looking him over, blue eyes glittering with malevolence. "What does that make you, Skinflayer?"

"I don't know, but I'm not yours to command."

"You will always be mine, Richard, my Skinflayer so long as my magic courses through you." She laughed gently. "If not you, then your descendants will serve me."

Richard turned to look at her finally and shook his head. "No. I intend to eradicate the magic we unleashed, Eternal. It will end with me."

The Eternal looked uncertain for the first time. Frightened even. "If you do as you say, you will die."

"We all die Eternal. Even you."

"I am as Eternal as the Creator and the Keeper! I was old when they were but mere idle thoughts! You think to destroy me? Impossible." The Eternal laughed cruelly at that.

Richard nodded at that. "Perhaps, but is it any more impossible than knowing exactly what you are?"

The Eternal's laughter ended at that, suspicion flaring on the face it bore.

Richard smiled a little. "Didn't think anyone could figure it out did you?"

"I won't go back!"

"I wouldn't know how to send you back anyway," Richard replied. He shrugged. "I'm just going to ensure you can't manifest again."

"We shall see, Richard Skinflayer." She turned away from him to stare out into the forest. "You had so much potential."

"So did you."

At his words, the Eternal seemed uncertain. A flash of brief wonder and hope passed over familiar features before settling into a spiteful mask of anger and hate. For that brief moment Richard hoped the Eternal would come to understand his reasons, to see what It's own path could be.

"I will haunt you the rest of your days and nights," she promised. "You will suffer."

And the moment of hope passed. Perhaps someday the Eternal would understand. But it would not be today.

Richard nodded at her words resolute in his decision. "So long as no others suffer from your hands, that is enough. But it is here you will abide for eternity."

"Never," she hissed. "You will suffer, Richard! I will whisper into your mind all the evil and misdeeds of the world until you see it for what it is. You will come to despise life."

Richard shook his head sadly. With one last look over his shoulder he walked away. "I'm sorry, Eternal. When you understand, call me. I will come."

The last thing Richard remembered as he came out of the haze of sleep was the sounding of the Eternal's screams. He sighed heavily as he opened his eyes, blinking in surprise at seeing Kahlan's concerned face above him. It was disconcerting given the Eternal had chosen her form, her face to haunt him.

"Are you okay?" She asked, gently running a hand over his forehead.

He nodded slowly. "Sorry, I didn't mean to wake you."

"You didn't," she assured him. "You're all right?"

He smiled slightly. "I will be, once we get home."

Fin.