Queen of the Damned
"I'm so sorry, Kahlan," Richard said sincerely. "But I thought you should know the truth."
He stood before her—her hero. Her Seeker. She had dreamed of the man who would save them all long before she'd met him—but ever afterward, heroism, bravery, and pure goodness had no longer been abstract, but instead wore his face.
He was holding Cara's hand, as if they were truants from Kahlan's staid, mature authority—she felt old and ugly, miserably aware that no man could prefer her to Cara's blatant sexuality even had it not been for her powers, the powers that meant she and Richard could never be—
"You love her," Kahlan said dully, the certainty of her doom weighing heavily upon her heart—
Richard smiled—the smile that never failed to catch at Kahlan's heartstrings. "I do."
"I warned you I would have him," Cara said, smiling predatorily, and Kahlan wished she could fool herself into thinking Cara had poisoned Richard's mind somehow, tortured him as Denna had—would this betrayal then hurt less?
But no—Richard's thoughts were still his own.
"And now that Richard and I have found one another, we don't need you," Cara added matter-of-factly, for all the world as if she were discussing the weather.
Kahlan felt her eyes fill with blood, and was for once thankful for the onset of the Con Dar—
"You will never have him," she said, reaching out to grasp Cara's neck—
"Kahlan, no!" Richard cried, and suddenly it was his skin under Kahlan's grasping fingers instead of Cara's—"Command me, Confessor," he said, as Kahlan fought to call her power back, miserably aware it was too late—
"NO!" Cara screamed. "I'll kill you for this, Kahlan!"
Kahlan shut her eyes and waited, almost longing for Cara's agiel to touch her heart—she deserved it. What had she done?
"You will never harm my Mistress!" Richard shouted, and Kahlan opened her eyes in time to see him plunge the Sword of Truth into Cara's chest, the love in his eyes turned to blind hatred—
"Richard?" Cara gasped, and something ached in Kahlan's heart that even now she herself was only a secondary consideration. Cara had always loved Richard—Kahlan had been, at best, an extension of him, and at worst, an un-looked-for encumbrance. They really would have done better without her.
"Have I pleased you, Mistress?" Richard asked brightly, ignoring Cara's dead body.
Kahlan pressed her fingers over her mouth. "How could you, Richard?" she asked shakily, although of course she knew. The man who stood before her was not her Richard—he was a mindless slave, and would be until she died and he could hate her in peace.
"What have you done?" Zedd was there, shaking Kahlan by the shoulders until her teeth rattled in her head—"I trusted you! I thought you had maturity."
Kahlan could only stare at him in horror—and then banelings surrounded them, and before she could breathe a word of warning one of them stabbed Zedd through the back—he crumpled, desperately murmuring healing spells, while Kahlan drew her daggers and let her tears fall as freely as the blood—
She took Richard with her on the quest, after they buried Zedd and Cara. The compass still worked and they traveled faster by keeping away from villages. Kahlan didn't think she could stand meeting anyone.
Her eyes were dry now, and she had a plan—she would help Richard save the world, and once the Veil was repaired she would slit her wrists (she was afraid her hands would shake if she tried to thrust her dagger into her own chest). Set Richard free—in time, his heart would heal from all the wounds she'd dealt him and Cara's death, and he would live a long, happy life without her. The prospect hurt, but at least she would not drag him down with her into the darkness of her despair.
They found the Stone of Tears at last, but just as Richard was about to pray over it and seal the Rift, Darken Rahl appeared, miraculously resurrected from the dead. He was smirking, and there was something substantial in the way he stood, appraising them. Kahlan felt dread settle in her stomach, not sure why she was so certain Rahl was alive.
Her skin tingled, as though at the approach of a storm.
"Richard, my dear brother," Rahl purred, and at once Kahlan was reminded that Richard was one of the cursed, evil Rahls and that someday he might become an even greater tyrant than the one standing before them—
Zedd had thought it might be so…
Of course, had it not been for Kahlan, he would have lived a happy life in Westland, never dreaming of duty or destiny, but she had Confessed him and he had killed Cara for her (worst of all, a tiny, treacherous part of her, the part that had hated Cara on sight for making Richard want to champion her, had enjoyed it—not because her sister's murderer had deserved to be executed, but because Richard had done it for Kahlan, instead of the Mord'Sith bitch he'd brought on their quest as though she were a lovable stray)—and perhaps Richard, maddened by grief, would turn evil, seize the throne of D'Hara and force the Midlands to bow down before him—
"If you do not at once give me the Stone of Tears," Rahl said, "I will kill your Mistress."
At that moment, Kahlan felt the subliminal whine of an agiel inches from her chest; startled, she caught a glimpse of short blonde wisps of hair mingling with her own dark locks, as an arm with muscles like iron hooked around her neck—
"Cara?" she gasped, and Cara tightened her grip.
"I am Mord'Sith," she said. "Did you really think you could trust me? Take me in, turn me 'good again'? Undo all the horrible suffering I endured until I was as weak as you are—a fool for love? Never."
"Richard, no!" Kahlan cried, but it was too late—helplessly, Richard held out the Stone of Tears to Darken Rahl.
The Seeker will give the Stone of Tears to the Enemy of the Light.
"Thank you," Rahl said politely, his fingers closing around the Stone.
Instantly, the skies opened—torrential rains and hurricane force winds threatened to blow them all away, whirling Kahlan's skirt up around her knees and mingling further her hair with Cara's.
"AT LAST, MY VICTORY IS AT HAND," the Keeper's voice boomed, from nowhere and everywhere at once. "YOU HAVE PLEASED ME, DARKEN RAHL. CHOOSE YOUR REWARD."
"Master," Rahl replied. "I have only one favor to request—that you spare the Mother Confessor's life, so that I may take her as my Queen."
Kahlan's blood ran cold. How could this be happening? Her only consolation was the prophecy—surely, surely the Keeper would not let her live.
"AS LONG AS THE MOTHER CONFESSOR'S PURE HEART BEATS, I AM DOOMED TO FAIL," the Keeper protested.
"Her heart is not pure," Rahl snorted. "This woman did that which she swore never to do—made the man she loved a slave. In so doing, she caused the tragic murders of two people closer to her than her own flesh and blood and inadvertently sabotaged the Seeker's quest, dooming all her beloved people to eternal torment. All because she was jealous. She makes my tyranny look like the most gentle of leadership. She is truly fit to be a Rahl."
"PERHAPS," the Keeper conceded. "BUT WHAT OF THE SEEKER, AND THESE OTHERS—YOUR MORD'SITH, YOUR SOLDIERS, YOUR SLAVES? NOW THAT I HAVE WON THE LAND OF THE LIVING, I HAVE NO FURTHER NEED OF BANELINGS—AND I CANNOT GRANT YOU THE SEEKER'S LIFE."
"No need," Rahl said disdainfully. "He is nothing to me but an inconvenience."
Kahlan drew breath to scream as Richard shuddered suddenly, stiffening—she could almost see the Keeper's hand closing around him—
And as she inhaled, Cara's agiel touched her heart. She screamed and screamed, but the agony of the agiel was as nothing to the agony of watching Richard die, and knowing it was all her own fault.
Even death was denied her—the Keeper would not take her soul.
Just before the end, Richard whispered, "Kahlan?" and he was her own dear Richard again.
It made his death even worse, somehow.
Kahlan stared in numb horror at his lifeless body, too stunned even to feel it when Cara removed her agiel from Kahlan's skin and stepped back.
"I WILL PERMIT YOUR SLAVES TO REMAIN IN THIS, WHICH IS ALSO MY DOMINION," the Keeper said magnanimously.
Rahl thanked Him courteously, before approaching Kahlan.
"And now, my Queen," he said, gently brushing a lock of her hair from her cheek. "Shall we adjourn to the royal bedchamber?"
"Never," Kahlan said defiantly, and whirled, her hand around Cara's throat in an instant—
But at the release of her power, nothing happened.
She stared in abstract shock at her palms—now her powers deserted her? It seemed ironic.
"I'm a baneling, remember?" Cara smiled cruelly. "Your powers don't work on me, witch."
"Please," Kahlan whispered, more to herself than to Cara, Rahl, or the eerily watching Mord'Sith. "Let me die."
"Now, now, Kahlan," Rahl said conversationally, wrapping his arms around her from behind and inhaling the scent of her hair. She felt dirty at his touch. "We both know that's not what you really want."
Kahlan struggled, but she felt weak, as though she were slowly suffocating—the air was noxious with the smoke from the fires of the Underworld, surrounding her, poisoning her…
"I…will never…be…your Queen," she gasped, and he spun her around to face him.
"You are just like me," he said. "You'll survive—you want to live. At whatever the cost."
"No, I don't," she protested, startled to find that, if she breathed the same air he did, she no longer felt as if she were choking. "And you are not even a king anymore—your Empire is gone."
"Guess again," he said, and gestured—
Out of the fog emerged hundreds, hundreds of hundreds of thousands of banelings, D'Harans, Sisters of the Dark—and nowhere was there a friendly face. They all hated Kahlan—she thought she recognized men and women she'd killed…
And then she knew, with sudden, terrible certainty, that she had condemned the Midlands, all those she loved, to misery and torment—while the Keeper would let D'Hara flourish, loyal to Him—none more so than Darken Rahl. The future of the world stretched bleakly before Kahlan, and she thought how disappointed the Creator must be in Her children. Perhaps She had already abandoned them.
Perhaps She had never existed at all.
"You are so beautiful," Rahl was saying now. Gently, as though Kahlan were made of glass, he brushed a lingering tear from her cheek. "Don't worry, Kahlan," he said. "It's all right now. You never have to be afraid again. I'll take care of you…"
Kahlan gave in, then, more tears pricking at her eyes—she was just so tired…she lifted her face to his, and he kissed her, and all else receded until there was only the two of them—
That last betrayal, not only of Richard, Zedd, Cara, and all the people of the Midlands, but of herself, was the sweetest of all, and Kahlan rejoiced in defeat—
And she knew that Darken Rahl was right, her heart was not pure. She had made this happen—and she was pleased. At last, the struggle was over—she was finished.
She was a monster, but she was finally free.
"No, no, no…" Kahlan gasped, tossing and turning—and then she sat bolt upright in her bedroll and stared wildly around, eyes open impossibly wide—
There was no green smoke, no army of banelings, and no Darken Rahl.
Heart still racing, she tried to calm down.
Zedd snored, and Richard did not turn around from where he stood on the other side of the campsite, keeping watch. So Kahlan hadn't cried out loud enough to be heard.
She wasn't sure whether she was glad or sorry to spare the others her nightmares. (Secretly, she wished Richard would come and comfort her—tell her she was being ridiculous.)
"Bad dream?" Cara asked sleepily, propping herself up on an elbow and blinking at Kahlan from her neighboring bedroll.
Kahlan nodded, still shaken.
"I…you muttered Darken Rahl's name in your sleep," Cara said carefully.
Kahlan took a deep breath. "Well, I…" she said, and then gestured helplessly.
"Were you dreaming about the alternate reality where you married him?" Cara asked. "It was a place of nightmares—I remember."
It came to Kahlan that Cara was trying to sympathize. Her heart rate slowed a little. "Every nightmare I have that isn't about Confessing Richard, or the end of the world, or Richard dying, or…" she hesitated on the words, falling in love with you and leaving me, and finished, "is about that alternate reality." Or, in some cases, all of the above, she thought ruefully. At least this time she'd managed to wake up before she'd borne Rahl's son, a male Confessor Underworldbent on destroying them all…not that, in her most recent nightmare, he would have needed to do much.
"If it helps," Cara said after a pause. "I understand you were a magnificent Queen."
Kahlan sighed. "It's a role I have no ambition to play," she said, not quite truthfully.
"You should get some sleep, unless you want to be useless tomorrow," Cara informed her practically. "Richard can't stay out of trouble, so you would do well to be on your guard."
"I can't sleep," Kahlan shrugged. "Maybe I'll let Richard end his watch early."
"Nonsense," Cara said decisively. "Your watch isn't until nearly dawn. That way you can make breakfast."
Kahlan smiled in spite of herself. "As long as someone washes the dishes," she teased.
"I'm not your scullery maid," Cara muttered, quietly enough that Kahlan could pretend not to have heard. "Here," she said gruffly, holding one of her agiels out to Kahlan hilt first.
Kahlan raised her eyebrows and made no move to take it.
"The pain helps me sleep," Cara said, a little defensively.
"Thank you," Kahlan said graciously, "but I think I'm all right now." And she lay back down, forcing her hands to uncurl and lie peacefully over her ribs.
"Goodnight, Kahlan," Cara whispered, sinking back down into a curled ball. (She liked to sleep on her side, knees tucked under her arms and toes buried under the thickest nest of blankets Kahlan had ever seen.) "Sleep well."
"Goodnight, Cara," Kahlan replied, and resolutely shut her eyes. Immediately, Richard's face appeared before her inner vision, his eyes swirly black and his expression one of utter, mindless devotion.
It would be a long night until Richard finally woke Kahlan for her watch, just before dawn.
Kahlan slowed her breathing, the exercise automatic after years of training in Aydindril, and stole one last glance at the sleeping Cara and Richard's perfect, distant profile before she shut her eyes again—disregarding the warm tears tickling down her cheeks and wetting her hair…
Her nightmares were waiting for her.