Love is Fleeting

The next morning dawned bright and warm. Nicci stretched lazily, saw Richard was still asleep beside her, and brushed a strand of hair off his cheek. It was getting longer; soon, Richard would have to cut it, unless he wanted to look like his brother.

Nicci's brow furrowed at the thought of Darken Rahl, and how he was doubtless even now searching for them, but she wouldn't let anything mar her happiness today.

Getting up, she started making breakfast (stew from what was left from last night; it was too bad food was one of the elemental exceptions to spontaneous conjuring) and checked on the Wizard. He was still asleep, but he would wake soon; his injuries, with her help, were nearly gone.

At this thought, it belatedly occurred to Nicci that she should be dressed; she went back to where Richard slept, gathering their clothes along the way, and piled them on the ground. Then, with a decisive gesture, she magicked all the dust and dirt and blood and worse from the garments. She even changed the color of her gown, from black to a deep blue, before putting it on.

By the time the Wizard stirred, Richard was awake and dressed, and Nicci was just serving the stew. "Zedd!" Richard exclaimed happily, but the Wizard didn't answer, just gulped down all the stew Nicci gave him.

Richard seemed disappointed, and Nicci wished she knew more about how to treat residual Mord'Sith related trauma. But that was one thing she'd never been called upon to deal with, even when she was a true Sister of the Light.

At last, they were on their way. Nicci didn't know where they were going, and she didn't much care—she had no home, not anymore. She never wanted to see the Prelate again, and her own village, where she had been born, hadn't survived the centuries.

As long as they were headed far from Rahl and his Mord'Sith, and the bewildering, infuriating Mother Confessor, Nicci was happy.

Nicci was nearly dizzy with joy; as they walked, Richard took her hand, while the Wizard shuffled along behind them. It should have felt silly, but Nicci's skin hummed from just that much contact.

Nicci stopped herself from planning their future together (in a house with a white picket fence, with lots of children and a garret for the Wizard) but only just.

The thought of children coincided with a strange, gathering sort of feeling from her midsection. Nicci put a hand over her stomach, trying to figure out if she were hungry or ill—but the feeling was neither. It was more as though all her power had elected to migrate from her hands to her middle—

Not her stomach, Nicci realized—her womb! Was she pregnant? And if she was, how could she possibly know already?

Fascinated, Nicci paid even less attention to where she was going, confident Richard wouldn't let her fall.

Until he stopped, suddenly, and the Wizard stepped on the hem of Nicci's dress, and the wood was full of the sounds of soldiers, armor clanking as they drew their weapons—

Nicci's hands danced with lightning as she tensed—how dare these people (D'Harans? Random villagers on a Sister-of-the-Dark hunt? She'd quit the Keeper, for the Creator's sake!) interrupt her idyll with Richard?

Richard had drawn his Sword, face drawn and muscles tensed, and Nicci knew he would fight for her, instead of against her—

Before any of them could move, a hooded man rode forward. Nicci waited, sensing this was the leader. As he dismounted, she felt the power building in her palms, itching for release.

The man held up a hand. "Please, we're all friends here," he said, in a low, cultured voice. The accent caught at Nicci's attention like a hangnail on silk. "I simply wish to speak to you—both."

Richard didn't lower his sword, but Nicci didn't reach out with her powers and fry the man where he stood. She would regret her moment of hesitation ever after.

The man stepped forward more, until he was just a few feet away from them. And he lowered his hood.

Nicci barely registered anything but his eyes—they burned with a deadly force that chilled her to the bone. And she found she couldn't look away.

Panicking, Nicci threw mental wards around her most secret self—where her love for Richard, her hopes about her possible pregnancy, her guilt and self-doubt and bitter self-loathing for all she'd done in service to the Keeper, dwelt.

Just in time—the man's hypnotic eyes seared her soul, and Nicci was helpless as he ripped control from her body.

She was a prisoner, watching as he made her come to him. As he stroked her hair.

Deep inside her protected thoughts, Nicci screamed, Richard!

But he couldn't hear her. And she thought she must despair.

The morning started off well—when Richard woke he stared around desperately for Nicci, but she was there, making breakfast. Her dress was clean and sparkling, and blue today, and she was humming.

Richard grinned at her. She gestured to his clothes, which were also clean and sparkling, though their usual color.

Zedd even woke up for breakfast—"Good morning, Zedd!" Richard tried, hoping to get some response from his grandfather. Still nothing, but he wouldn't give up hope.

Richard no longer had the benefit of the compass telling him where to go, but it seemed perfectly clear that they should visit Aydindril, because if Kahlan had decided not to take her duties as the Mother Confessor seriously, it would be up to Dennee to help Richard lead the Resistance against Darken Rahl.

If they started soon enough, they might be able to stop him before he got too big a foothold back in D'Hara.

It was a plan, and Richard knew the approximate way to Aydindril; he was pleased Zedd seemed to be feeling better, walking on his own, although Zedd still hadn't said anything.

What Richard wouldn't give right now for even a lecture on control, on leaving Kahlan and Cara in Rahl's clutches, anything!

He took Nicci's hand, glad some good had come of all this. Today, she was more beautiful than ever—her hair shone like the sunlight, but the real change was in her eyes. Richard had never seen her look so happy before.

The soldiers surrounded them quickly—Richard was instantly alert, drawing his Sword—how had they appeared like this? Richard supposed the soldiers must've had help from some sort of powerful magic—

But powerful enough that even Nicci could sense nothing?

The leader stepped forward. "Please, we're all friends here. I simply wish to speak to you." And at last he tore his eyes from Nicci. Jealousy and mistrust filled Richard's veins like poison. "Both."

And then he lowered his hood.

The man was nothing special in appearance—features regular. Richard noted the tattoos covering his bald head—a swooping eagle, a twisting snake, and a third eye in the center of his forehead, so he looked like some strange, alien creature—

His eyes were locked on Nicci's.

And then Nicci walked forward, and he put a hand on her hair and she didn't cause lightning to strike him where he stood, and Richard got a cold feeling in his gut. Either this was some old friend of Nicci's—but Nicci had no old friends, everyone she'd once known was either dead or wanted to see her that way—

Or—or what? Had he done something to her?

"Come, my love," the man said coolly. "There is nothing to interest us here."

Richard's blood boiled, and the Sword glowed red. "Who are you?" he demanded, keeping himself poised to strike—but how could he avoid hurting Nicci?

"I am Jagang. Emperor Jagang," said the man. "And you are useless to me, young Rahl. I could take your companion, but he looks dead on his feet." And he turned to one of the soldiers. "Kill them."

Richard sprang forward and swung the Sword at Jagang's head—but Jagang was faster; locking eyes with Nicci again, he seemed to communicate with her without words—

She looked at Richard and smiled a truly cruel travesty of a smile, lips pulled back in a feral grimace—and Richard knew, knew to his bones, that this wasn't Nicci—Jagang had done something to her, some powerful magic—Nicci had a cruel streak, but he'd never seen her look like this

And then, in a flash of light, Jagang and Nicci were gone.

The soldiers closed in, and with a howl of rage, Richard fought them, fury burning through his blood and making his Sword burn—

When at last it was done, Richard surveyed the carnage, looking for something that would identify this Jagang.

There was nothing.

And there, in the lonely clearing, with the dead and a mute Wizard who might or might not ever recover his sanity, Richard felt despair.

Nicci was gone. Kahlan was gone. Cara was gone. Even Zedd was gone, in all but body. He'd lost everything, so quickly.

And he hadn't even told Nicci—hadn't told her he loved her.

Richard threw back his head and screamed at the sky: "NOOOOOOOO!"