Chapter 64Sacrifice

The journey down into the valley took less time than either one of their small company had estimated. Richard was surprised with the ease of their approach. Somehow, he had built up this anticipation of a harder struggle to reach the home of the Chimes of Death. It seemed reasonable to assume that such fierce and angry beings, such as these, would hold up in a dark and forbidding place. But that's not what greeted them. Quite the opposite, actually.

The Ovens, as it was called, teemed with life. Tall green trees, noble pines and regal ash, dotted the gentle slopes. The occasional craggy stone littered the ground, soft moss and lichen growing up the sides. There was a damp moistness that clung in the air, partly due to the graceful fall of water cascading over the high peak of the massive tall pillar of black obsidian rock jutting up into the air. The waterfall was serene and glorious in its sheer power to tame the mighty rock from whence it surged over and down into the waiting pool of crystal clear water. Richard wished that Kahlan were with him to enjoy such a magnificent sight.

The roar of the cascading water could be heard long before they even fully descended down into the valley. It would be deafening up-close. Despite the lack of any obstruction, Richard still remained cautious as they approached. What they hoped to achieve here was something that was going to require not only skill and fortitude, but an extreme amount of luck as well.

Cara jogged in front of him, her cloak flapping behind her like a cape as she skipped up the gradual natural steps honed out of the rock. She perched herself up on the jagged stone, looking out ahead. Cadelf took up the rear, the old monk barely watching his footing as he rummaged through his pack.

Stopping just at the base of the large rock formation, Richard heaved in a deep breath, welcoming in the brief reprieve from their vigorous pace. Cadelf halted behind him, slumping against the rock face, closing his eyes and wiping the sweat from his brow. Filling his lungs with the crisp cool air, taking note of the dampness in the air, Richard let his muscle relax from the tension he'd been holding in since they had first caught sight of the towering obsidian monolith that signaled the location to the Ovens.

"See anything?" he hollered up at Cara.

The Mord'Sith narrowed her eyes, squinting into the distance, her long braid flowing over her right shoulder. He smiled, remembering when her hair had been shoulder length. He was glad she'd chosen to grow it back out once he had become the Lord Rahl. It still baffled him, the concept of what he'd done, how he'd assumed the role of leader, and not being able to remember. There were bits and pieces that past through his subconscious—memories, but they were fleeting… and never enough.

"No… nothing, just… just more trees and rocks," she called down, letting out a sigh. She flung her braid back, and gracefully bounced down the rock, once again taking advantage of the naturally honed steps in the stone. Puffing out a short breath, when she reached the bottom, Cara brought her hand up to tuck some loose blonde strands behind her ear. "We sure this is the place?"

"Positive," asserted Cadelf in a voice that brokered no argument. He held up the book, now closed. "All the signs point to this valley, and that obsidian pillar looks like it came straight from the very depths of the Underworld."

Cara inclined her head with a slight smirk. "Can't argue with you on that, monk," she said, her eyes wide with amazement that she was actually agreeing with the aged scholar.

Richard watched the exchange with amusement, his hand resting comfortably on the hilt of his sword. Cara noticed his smirk and shot him a small glare. He ignored her and simply shook his head before turning around to look off into the distance. Just beyond the top of the trees he could make out the glistening water plunging off the peak of the obsidian pillar.

"We should continue while we still have light," he said, glancing back at his companions. "I don't know about you, but I really wouldn't want to trudge through this forest so close to the den of death."

Brother Cadelf nodded gravely. "Your words are more true than you know, Lord Rahl," he said, enigmatically.

Richard knitted his eyebrows, unsure of the man's meaning. He was becoming tired of the old man's mysterious riddles. But, then again, Richard hadn't liked riddles. Kahlan and Zedd had informed him of his aversion to such things early on. Pet peeves, such as those, according to the wizard, had nothing to do with his memory, and were just a part of his personality. Though, Richard still wished he could remember it, rather than relying on others to tell him that it was something he didn't like.

Cara took a swig from her waterskin, and held it out, offering it to him. Richard took it with a nod, swallowing a quick sip of the cold water before giving it back, letting out a sigh of relief. She paused, and then tentatively offered some to Brother Cadelf. The monk smiled, appreciatively, and took a long gulp. After refastening the waterskin to her belt, Cara gave a brisk nod and then marched onwards.

Richard exchanged a grin with Cadelf before following her lead.

They walked slowly through the forest undergrowth. At some points the ferns grew to the height of his waist, and he had to watch it footing, especially when they were close to trees. The gnarled roots of an old ash yawned and snarled across the ground like an untamed river flowing through a dale. Clumps of mushrooms dotted the base of the tree, and for a moment, Richard pondered stopping to collect a few, knowing that they had precious few ingredients left to add to their nightly stews.

But the quest was approaching its end—at least that is what he hoped. So, he shrugged off the idea and continued on without a second glance.

The closer they got, the louder and more deafening the thunderous roar of the waterfall became. Richard felt a tight knot in his chest, worried about what the price that needed to be paid to stop the Chimes was. Shota had a gift with prophecy. However, her visions were never really that clear, and always seemed to have layers upon layers of meaning. It was never really easy to understand her. She could say one thing, but mean another.

There was one thing that was certain, though. Shota never really lied. Maybe she bent the truth, but she never outright lied to him. She had an agenda, but then again, everyone had an agenda. At the moment, Richard believed that her agenda aligned with theirs. The Chimes would be affecting her capabilities as much as they were affecting Zedd's and Nathan's, not to mention his own. The Chimes had also taken away his beloved Kahlan's confessor powers.

It would only take a little while long before the Chimes would consume all power held by the gifted, leaving the world bereft of magic. Having little to no memories of his youth, where he'd—according to Kahlan and Zedd—grown up without magic, Richard found it difficult to comprehend how he'd even survived. Magic seemed to be inherently bound in this world. And it was not all evil. Most of it was good and honest. It was only twisted into foul deeds by but a few some… like the Emperor, and Dark Rahl before him. Those who used it for hate where the true criminals.

The forest opened up before them, and Richard slowed as he took in the scenery around him. The soft breeze and the gentle sway of the trees had a calming effect on him. He closed his eyes, and listened to the sounds of the forest—what little he could hear over the din of the waterfall. Birds chirped and squirrels chattered, jabbering away as they harvested nuts for the winter. An owl hooted in the distance, and the hammering of a woodpecker worked its way through the cornucopia of noise.

And then it was silent… saved for the thunder of the waterfall.

Richard opened his eyes, and paused in the clearing, the tall grass nipping at his knees. Cara sensed his halt, and looked over her shoulder, narrowing her eyes at him in confusion.

"Richard?"

"They're here," he said, feeling it. "I can sense their presence in this place."

"They?"

"The Chimes, madam Mord'Sith… the Chimes!" Brother Cadelf hollered, looking worried. His frown deepened, displaying the numerous wrinkles that lined his face. His ice blue eyes scanned the clearing, anxious and concerned.

Cara dropped a hand to the pommel of her short-sword, her eyebrows slowly drifting together as she glanced around the clearing with guarded eyes. "I hate this," she grumbled. "How can we defend ourselves against unseen forces?"

"Anything is possible, my Mord'Sith friend," Cadelf shuffled closer to the group, as he had been at the edge of the clearing when they'd all come to a halt. "The Lord Rahl has proven that more than anyone else."

"Uh?" Cara's gaze flicked over to Richard.

"He found a way to love a confessor without becoming confessed, did he not?" Cadelf stated the obvious. "If a man can do such a thing, I wager he can do anything he sets his mind to."

"True," a wiry grin cut across Cara's face, though she kept her fingers tightly wrapped around the hilt of her short-sword.

Richard shook his head, pulling himself out of his thoughts. He eased his hand off the handle of the Sword of Truth. Unlike many things in the world at present, its magic was still strong and potent. He wondered if that had something to do with how it had been created.

"We should keep moving," he said, his voice steadier than he had expected. "We're almost there."

Cadelf inclined his head, running a hand over the white bristles on his chin. "We should be safe until we reach their sanctuary. Though the drain of magic has sapped much of the world, it has not all been consumed. The Ovens is strong in the subtractive magic.

Shifting his cloak, Richard shivered in the cool breeze as he adjusted his pack and forced his legs to move. They felt stiff, as if he'd been standing in place for years, when it had just been a matter of minutes. He clenched his jaw and glared ahead, stalking past Cara, who wore a dumbfounded expression. She pursed her lips and raised her sword a short distance out of its scabbard before letting it fall back into place, checking to make sure it wasn't stuck.

The old monk moseyed on past Cara, mumbling under his breath as he adjust his pack, once again ruffling through it in search of something. His cowl had been pulled up over his head, hiding his features.

Cara took up the end of their party, cautiously glancing over her shoulder, before continuing on into the dense underbrush of the forest.

XXX

Richard stood on the jutting rock, leaning forward on one foot as he gazed out at the sight before him. The water cascaded off the sheer face of the obsidian monolith, splashing and thundering down into the pool below. The water remained serene and calm, except for the small ripples caused by the waterfall. The air was thick with damp moisture, and he had to work his lungs harder with each breath, but it was not that difficult.

The chill was gone, as well. He had not expected that, but figured he should have, considering the name given to this place.

The Ovens.

It literally was like an oven. Vapors of white steam puffed out from around the dark rock from where it was touched by the cold water, generating a billowing cloud of white that was reminiscent of mist, minus the chill.

Cara stood behind him; her cloak pushed back, hands on her hips. She stood ramrod-straight, alert and watchful. This was the home of the Chimes of Death, the dangerous ethereal beings that had begun the consumption of all magic from the world of the living.

Not far behind, Cadelf sat on a fallen moss covered log, nose buried in the red leather-bound book, the word Kai'taug emblazed in golden lettering. He watched as the old scholar's ice blue eyes scanned across page after page. The clergyman had been flicking through the yellowed pages of the old tome for the last thirty minutes, rechecking facts before they headed off into the Ovens.

"I don't like this place," Cara stated blandly, though there is a hint of a waver to her voice. He glanced over his shoulder, noting the worried expression ghosting over her features.

"Neither do I, Cara," he concurred, stepping back away from the water. He placed a hand on her shoulder and gave her a comforting squeeze.

Richard moved past her and stopped before Cadelf, giving the old monk a hard stare. "Almost finished?"

"Just a few more pages, Lord Rahl," Cadelf replied, never taking his eyes off the page he was reading. "Almost there."

Cara huffed, rolling her eyes as she crossed her arms over her chest. She grumbled something under her breath, but he didn't catch it. He let it slide. They were all in a great deal of stress.

The thud of the book closing snapped Richard's attention back to Brother Cadelf. The monk heaved himself up from his seat on the fallen log, slipping the book into the folds of his habit, pulling his cowl up over his head. "I've got it," he informed them with pursed lips. Richard narrowed his eyes, trying to read the blank expression on the man's face. He gave up with a shrug and turned back to look up at the obsidian monolith.

"Where to, Monk?" Cara questioned, quirking up an eyebrow.

Cadelf trudged down a muddy path alongside the glimmering pool of rippling water, his brown habit and cloak bustling around him. Raising a hand, he pointed towards the base of the rocky obsidian cliff. "There," he glanced back over his shoulder, gracing Cara with a tight smile. "Behind the waterfall there should be an opening."

"Great… another cave," the Mord'Sith groused, gritting her teeth and rolling her eyes as she adjusted the pack on her shoulders.

Cadelf looked towards Richard, and stared at him for a long beat before giving a slight nod, and clearing his throat. "Let's hurry. I fear our presence won't go unnoticed."

They skirted the fringe of the pool, staying close together as they hiked around the occasional jutting rock and fallen tree. Scattered throughout the surrounding area, Richard found evidence of recent fires. He'd known that there would be. One of the Chimes—Sentrosi—was the embodiment of fire.

The wind rustled some nearby leaves, startling him. He was reaching for his sword, and hesitated, feeling the tightness in his chest… the worry, the fear. Vasi was the wind. He cast an anxious glance toward the rippling water. Reechani was water. The three sisters… the three Chimes of Death. Richard was completely aware of their power. And unlike others, he respected that power. He was very much conscious of the fact that they'd encountered the Chimes a number of times on their journey. He did not think they could survive another encounter, especially in a place such as this, where the Chimes were at their strongest.

Cadelf clambered over a craggy formation of rocks, slick with wet lichen and moss. "Watch your footing, Lord Rahl," he hollered back. "It get slippery from here on."

Narrowing his brow, Richard clenched his jaw tight, using his hands to secure a grip before following the old monk. They were now much closer to the waterfall. He could feel the castoff from the spray hitting his face. The roar was deafening, rendering all other sounds indistinguishable from the din of the cascading water.

Cara nearly slipped at one point. She scowled and remained sullen for the rest of the trek through the rocks. Richard told her to use both hands to get a better hold, but she refused, insisting on keeping one hand near her sword at all times.

As they got closer, the stone became smoother, making it easier to walk. However, Richard still took his steps with caution, as the stone was still slick and wet. He tugged his cloak tighter around his frame, trying to shield himself from the blast of cold water. It did little to help. They all were already soaked to the bone. Cadelf's cowl stuck to his head, making him look almost like a wraith from the netherworld.

"Behind the waterfall!" the old scholar shouted over the cacophony, gesturing exaggeratedly with his hands.

With careful steps, they made their way along the face of the obsidian stone, slipping behind the sheet of water and into the damp dank cavern beyond. Cara grumbled, wringing out her long braid. Cadelf pushed his cowl back and shuffled further into the darkness. Richard followed him, dropping one hand down to the hilt of the Sword of Truth, an uneasy feeling settling in the pit of his stomach.

The darkness was forbidding, yet comforting at the same time. A strange oddity. Squinting in the blackness, Richard could barely make out the round smoothed stone ahead of them. He approached cautiously, glancing over at Cadelf as the old man stopped to catch his breath. Richard patted him on the shoulder, impressed at how the man had remained so steady and calm during their hike through the rocks. It had been difficult finding footing, yet Cadelf had been firm and resolute in leading the way.

"What is that?" Cara called out, taking up the rear of their small company.

Richard approached the curved stone, reaching out to run his fingertips along its surface. It was flat at the top and gave way to nothing, like a wall. He pushed up slightly on his toes and looked over the edge. A gasp left his mouth as he jumped back.

"Richard!" Cara was alert, halfway through unsheathing her blade.

He held up a hand to reassure her that he was fine. He took a deep breath, and moved closer again, giving his discovery another examination. It was a well, nestled into the interior wall of the cavern. But not just any ordinary well.

"It's a Sliph Well," Richard informed them, arching his neck to look back at his companions. Cara raised her eyebrows. Cadelf, however, appeared nonplussed by the revelation. Richard zoned in on that. "You know?"

"I… suspected," Cadelf confessed. "The Ovens is not a natural formation. It was created long ago, by the same wizards who brought life to the Chimes. It was supposed to be a prison, of sorts, a place to hold their weapons until such time as they needed to release them."

"It had the opposite effect, though," Richard finished with a nod of his head. "The Ovens became a sanctuary for the Chimes. A place of refuge instead of a cage."

"Great," harrumphed Cara. "So what do we do now?"

Cadelf favored her with a wiry grin, and shuffled around her, pointing towards an opening in the rock, barely visible in the dim light. "We climb the steps up to the peak of the pillar, and do what must be done."

And pay the price, Richard thought glumly as they drifted away from the Sliph well and began the climb up the spiral staircase that had been carved out of the stone.

XXX

Cara staggered back against the wind. Richard reached out to steady her. She stiffened, slightly offended at his assistance, but still inclined her head in thanks. Now on steady feet, Cara took a couple of steps out onto the flat top of the obsidian rock, flicking her eyes around for any sign of danger. Richard and Cadelf wandered off to the edge, gazing down at the valley below.

Sucking in a quick breath, Cara worked at stabilizing her rapid heart beats. The climb up the interior stairwell had been more difficult than she had anticipation. It wasn't the exertion required to make the actual physical climb that had sapped her strength. Memories from her youth—from her training—had assaulted her. Images and memories of being locked away in a small dark chamber had bombarded her, shattering her calm… rodents biting at her toes.

She had been so afraid back then. The rats had been like monsters… little monsters that kept nibbling at her. But then she grew courage, and killed them. She was strong. Not weak.

She was Mord'Sith.

Turning on her heels, Cara walked up alongside Richard to gaze down at the pool. The source of the waterfall was to their left—runoff from the mountains. She closed her eyes and let the wind caress her face. Slowing her breathing, she allowed herself to imagine Benjamin's hand gliding up her cheek, his touch tender and loving. Spirits, she hoped he was okay. When they got back from this blasted quest, she was going to haul him off to their bedchambers and curl up under the thick duvet with him for a good week.

The sharp sound of steel rang through the air, startling her out of her pleasant thoughts. Cara opened her eyes, shocked to see Cadelf gripping the Sword of Truth in his hands, holding the blade at Richard. She mentally admonished herself for not paying attention and getting lost in her thoughts of her lover.

"Cadelf!" Richard shouted, confusion and hurt mixing in his voice. "What are you doing?"

"I'm sorry, Lord Rahl," Cadelf stammered, his face wrought with regret and remorse. "I wish there was another way. I read the instructions over and over, searching… but there was no other way."

Cara reached for her sword.

"Don't move!" the old man jerked the blade towards her, before turning it back to Richard.

Richard raised his hands in surrender, clearly growing frustrated. "I thought you were our friend, Cadelf?"

"I am, Lord Rahl… I am!" Cadelf asserted, shaking his head vigorously. "Spirits knows I wish it could be different, but I am just a servant to the designs of fate."

Cara stepped closer to Richard, wanting desperately to shield him from the madness that had gripped Brother Cadelf. The old man's eyes were wide and frightened, and she felt a worry course through her veins at the look of determination in his eyes. Whatever it was that he was planning, there was nothing she would be able to do to prevent it.

"Lower the sword," she growled, leveling him with a glare.

"I cannot," he quivered slightly, glancing at her before returning his gaze to Richard. "Forgive me, Lord Rahl."

"Cadelf!" Richard screamed.

Cara grabbed him by his arm, pulling him back, ready to dive in front of him and take the blow. But nothing happened. At least, not as she expected. She watched in horror as Cadelf turned the sword upon himself and drove it down into his chest. He cried out, blood spurting from his mouth as he dropped to his knees.

"NO!" Richard pushed her aside, jumping forward to catch the old man as he fell backward.

Cara stood fixed in place, confusion wracking her mind as to what just happened. She couldn't accept it. It made no sense.

"Why?" Richard questioned, tears freely flowing down his chest as he cradled the dying man in his arms. "Why would you do this?"

"I… knew from the beginning that one of us would not survive," Cadelf choked out, struggling through his explanation. "It was written in the texts. Someone had to pay the price for the deep magic needed to vanquish the Chimes and banish them from our world." He coughed up some blood, shaking as his eyes struggled for focus. Ragged breaths left his lips as he shook his head. "Had to be done. Had to be done. I was… the logical choice. Do not blame yourself, Lord Rahl…"

"Cadelf!" Richard shouted, clutching the man closer to him.

Cadelf groaned in pain. His eyebrows knitted together as he fought to hold on for a little while longer. "Blood of the willing is required… so I offer mine freely, without hesitation or doubt," he wheezed out, his eyes skidded up. With a trembling hand, he reached up and touched the side of Richard's face. "Don't be sad, Lord Rahl. It is my time. The Creator awaits me with opened arms. And I must go to her."

"We need you," Richard choked out in a sob. "Spirits, we need you!"

"Please, don't cry," his breath rasped in his throat. "It is a noble sacrifice I do."

Cara dropped down behind Richard, leaning against his back as she fought the tears welling up in her eyes. She had tried to harden her heart, but she'd been unsuccessful. The damn old dodger had found a way into her heart, just like the wizard Zedd. Both had become like grandfather figures to her. She could not lose them.

"Cara," Cadelf called out to her, raising a hand.

She did not even hesitate, grabbing his hand and lacing their fingers together. He smiled up at her, weak and tired.

"I think I shall miss you most of all," he murmured, before going still.

Cara's eyes welled over with tears and she ducked her head, releasing her restraint and letting it all out. Richard gently lowered Cadelf's down, laying him out on the ground, reaching up to close his eyelids. If it were not for the blood and the paleness of his face, it would have looked as if the old monk had simply gone to sleep. Cara assumed that that was true, in a manner of speaking. Cadelf was now in that eternal slumber.

Richard sighed, his anguish evident in his slumped shoulders. He slowly wrapped his fingers around the pommel of the Sword of Truth, before pulling it out with a shudder. He let the sword drop to the ground, the metal clanging as it hit rock.

Looking up, Cara saw the same tears in his eyes. She reached up with a shaky hand and wiped the droplets from his cheek. He quivered, biting his lower lip before gazing at her with his soulful brown eyes. Gripping his shoulders, she pulled him into a fierce hug as they both grieved for the loss of their friend and companion.

For the first time in a long while, Cara found herself praying to the good spirits. Ever since she'd been broken and taken up the mantle of a Mord'Sith, she had given little credence to such things. But now, of all times, she surrendered to the need, hoping beyond hope that Cadelf's sacrifice would not be in vain.

XXX

The three of them soared through the wind, letting the feel of it soothe them. They'd consumed so much, and in such a short time. They felt overwrought with it, the energy it brought them. Like the corporal beings, they'd gorged themselves to the brim, stuffing their non-existent bellies until they were beyond full. It was a high for them, consuming the magic of others, almost flavorful.

The infant had been particularly tasty. The woman, not so much. They sampled her. She had no bite, no flavor. They wanted a kick, something to boost them up and send them soaring in the waves of ecstasy. And that small squirming riddle of flesh in her arms had provided them with an empowering and savoring treat.

They consumed it, ravishing all they could fine until it was sucked dry, with nothing but an empty shell. It was nothing now, like most things in the world of the living—devoid of magic. It had startled the three of them, when they'd first sensed it. They had not expected to feel such strong power within a tiny thing. Yet mortals were deceptive like that. Large things could come in small packages. So, they took it; had their fill and then some.

Now, however, they were filled with distressing feelings. Their home was under attack, being invaded by outsiders. Intruders had to be stopped. There was nothing more important than protecting the home they'd dwelled in since the beginning of their existence. Nothing could stop them from defending the place that protected them when they were at their weakest.

The threat… had to be neutralized.