New Beginnings

Darken had only moments—to think all his schemes for stopping Richard Rahl should have narrowed to this one impossible second—

Who knew what the magical maelstrom was doing to Kahlan at this very moment? Her and Cara's attempts to sabotage Richard Rahl claiming the power of Orden were heroic, but so far unsuccessful—

There was a flash, and then Cara pulled her agiel from Richard Rahl's neck and stared in what looked almost like temporal displacement—

There was no time—regretfully leaving Zedd to his own devices, and hoping Cara would protect him from the other Mord'Sith, Darken raised the Sword of Truth over his head—

And brought it down, not through Richard Rahl's chest (how could he bear to slay his own baby brother?) but through the middle of the Boxes of Orden.

Green fire, agonizing pain—only alleviated by Darken's firmly held conviction that his cause was just.

Dimly, he recognized that the Sword of Truth protected him somewhat—he accepted the mixed blessing without further analysis.

He could only pray the destruction of the Boxes of Orden would ensure a better world for Kahlan and their unborn daughter, not to mention Zedd, Cara, and the rest of the Midlands.

Ought he to have killed Richard Rahl?

He feared the answer.

Kahlan was shaken by the sudden jolt, as the power of Orden broke—her own concentration shattered, and she fell backward, away from Richard Rahl. Long seconds, while she was too disoriented to sit up.

Then she curved a protective hand over her stomach, for reassurance, and crawled to Darken's side.

His breathing was labored, and his skin had an unhealthy greenish tinge. Gently, she tugged the Sword of Truth out of his hands, noticing his palms were badly burned.

Hot tears filled her eyes. It just wasn't fair! After all they had been through together, to lose everything now?

They were going to be married, they were going to have a baby—

She'd never let herself hope for those things, while she was in Aydindril. But she'd always known she wanted them.

And secretly, she'd always known she'd wanted them with Darken.

She couldn't bear it if he died.

"Kahlan?" It was Richard Rahl, now standing hesitantly a little ways away, in the crowded clearing. The Mord'Sith were recovering their senses, closing in…

Kahlan was in no mood to register her enemy's use of her given name, or that odd hesitancy.

One hand curled around the hilt of Darken's Sword, without her conscious volition, and she turned to face the man who'd killed her lover, her eyes suddenly filled with blood instead of tears—

"Stay away from him," she ordered, in a voice entirely unlike her own. She glared indiscriminately at them all—Richard Rahl, Jennsen Rahl, the Mord'Sith, Mistress Cara, and even Zedd.

New strength seemed to fill her, and her power was everywhere, dancing like lightning on her skin.

They would pay for what they had done to Darken.

Cara felt weary—impossibly so, since she and Richard had returned to the exact moment they had left—although there were subtle differences.

Denna had not been part of Lord Rahl's chosen guard for this particular mission. She was disgraced and missing, and possibly dead, although one shouldn't indulge hope too far.

That red-haired waif was Lord Rahl's sister, also not supposed to be present.

Further, Darken looked at least a decade younger than he was supposed to, although he would have been handsome as ever if not for the faintly greenish cast to his skin. Also, he was dying.

Discounting Richard, who was staring in horror at his Confessor (what was she doing at Darken's side? Surely anything she could do now would be overkill?), Cara ran forward, dropping to her knees beside Darken.

The Confessor glared at her, but unaccountably didn't kill her—Cara was almost sorry, recognizing at a glance that here was a woman who would prove a worthy opponent, and also that those red eyes could betoken nothing good—

But she was filled with a desperate, aching sorrow she barely understood. Had she known helping Richard might bring about her own Lord Rahl's death? Of course, but what choice had she had? The thought of remaining in that past, alive with ghosts she didn't care for, not to mention Darken's father, had filled her with horror.

Removing her agiel from Richard's neck had been common sense—was she eager for another desperate slide sideways through time?

But because of her actions, Darken was dying.

Cara barely listened to the chaos around them, guessing her Sisters to be fighting Richard and his Confessor—they would do better to retreat and wait for a tactical moment, of course, but try explaining that to the newest and bloodthirstiest of Cara's sworn Sisterhood—

"My Lord?" she asked, tenderly. She drew her agiel and set it inches from her own chest, waiting for him to give the order for her to kill herself, for the treachery that had cost him his victory.

They would die together—it would be romantic.

Or should she wait, try to smuggle him away from the Seeker and revive him, when the poisonous green worked its way all through his blood?

"Everyone, STOP!" It was Richard, bellowing over the sounds of battle—Cara turned reluctantly, to see her Sisters fighting one another, the Confessor pointing threateningly at Richard, the Wizard looking completely lost—Denna and Lord Rahl's sister had disappeared (wise woman, Denna—but why had Lord Rahl's sister suddenly materialized—?)

"Kahlan," said Richard. "You're in the Con Dar. I need you to calm down and listen to me. What are you doing with Rahl, why was Jennsen here, why in the name of the Creator are you protecting him—and what the Underworld IS GOING ON?"

All, Cara was forced to acknowledge, extremely good questions.

Richard would never forget the moment Kahlan turned on him, protecting Darken Rahl of all people—

He felt the waves of Confession streaming from her like heat from a cooking fire, engulfing the Mord'Sith behind him—luckily, since otherwise they'd all be killed for sure, never mind the Boxes of Orden, twisted into strange shapes and flickering with eerie green fire, or Darken Rahl struggling to breathe, hovered over by both Kahlan and Cara—

Zedd was standing well back, looking…disapproving?

Richard hoped Kahlan was refraining from Confessing him out of the love they shared, but doubted it—her eyes were entirely red, blood streaming like tears down her cheeks, and her hand curled toward him in a strange frustration, as though she could physically bend him to his knees, the devoted phrases of the Confessed on his lips—

Richard was horrified. He felt like he'd just woken in a nightmare, and was prey to an irrational sense of foul play—this was not how he'd left things, subjective weeks and objective seconds ago.

"Everyone STOP!" he shouted, and Kahlan glared at him even more ferociously—the Mord'Sith didn't pay him any attention, and he had a horrid suspicion that they were killing each other—

Helplessly, Richard burst out with every question that had been tormenting him since he'd seen the hatred in Kahlan's beautiful eyes turned against him. "—and what the Underworld," he finished strongly, "IS GOING ON?"

"Richard," said Darken Rahl.

Instantly, Kahlan dropped Richard's Sword and bent over the prone body of the man Richard had thought, last time he checked, was their arch-enemy, her hair falling in a curtain around his face. "Darken?" she asked tenderly.

Richard wanted to pick up the Sword of Truth, but something told him more violence would be a mistake. (It was Kahlan's eyes…)

Instead, he moved closer, reflecting that Cara was unlikely to attack him, after all they'd been through together…Now that he got a better look, he saw Darken Rahl was much younger than he remembered.

That convinced him, more than anything else, that more had changed than he would have thought possible.

"Promise me," Darken Rahl said hoarsely. "You will leave Kahlan and Zedd alone—I swear, if you harm them, I will haunt you."

"What?" Richard said blankly. He wasn't the one who was going to harm Kahlan and Zedd—had the world gone completely insane?

"Are you not Richard Rahl, scourge of the Midlands and tyrant wizard-king of D'Hara?" Zedd asked mildly.

Richard Rahl—or rather the kind-looking young man who seemed to have replaced him—repeated himself more strongly. "What?"

"I thought as much," Zedd murmured, in somewhat scholarly—satisfaction would be too strong a word, but certainly something was different about this Richard Rahl. In fact, there was something in his face that seemed familiar—Taralynn's buried goodness, emerging in her son at last? Where had Zedd seen Richard Rahl before—under much different circumstances than that night in his cell—?

Unfortunately, the other one—that girl, Jennsen Rahl, the one he would never, ever admit was his granddaughter—had faded into the trees. This was hardly the easy victory she had imagined, no doubt.

But why had Darken hesitated? If only he'd killed Richard Rahl, they would be done with this, once and for all—

"My name is Richard Cypher," said this other Richard Rahl. "And I'm the Seeker of Truth." He eyed the Sword, abandoned on the charred grass, somewhat wistfully.

"I," Darken said drily, then had to pause for a wracking cough, "am the Seeker of Truth. Lord Richard Rahl."

Zedd, watching Richard Cypher, did not at once realize Cara's consternation—"Queen Nila—" she said, meeting Richard Cypher's eyes, clearly stricken—

Zedd shut his own eyes against a sudden storm of memories, long-buried—Panis, Nila, Darken, Taralyn

The Queen—yes! Richard knelt beside Darken Rahl, Cara scrambling out of his way, although she laid a hand on his arm—

"Haven't you done enough?" Kahlan demanded bitterly.

"What are you doing?" asked Zedd. That cool, professional tone was almost more heart-breaking than Kahlan's hostility—Richard had known Zedd all his life, and now—

"I can heal you," Richard told his arch-enemy, looking down into bright, intelligent blue eyes.

"Why would you do that?" Darken Rahl asked, still surprisingly coherent for someone in whose veins ran the green fires of the Underworld.

Luckily, since Richard had no answer (save the identical fear and sorrow on Kahlan and Cara's faces—he would make Kahlan happy if it tore the heart from his chest, and as Cara was always telling him, he couldn't resist a damsel in distress), Zedd asked practically, "How? Do you have any idea of the power it would take to exorcise the Keeper, after that show of misguided heroics?"

Richard didn't, but he didn't care. In his (admittedly, brief) experiments with his magic, he had yet to find a limit to his powers. Besides, he had a nasty feeling it wouldn't be the last time he had to exorcise the Keeper. A divinely hostile interest in his quest would explain a lot.

He spread his hands over Darken Rahl's chest, not quite touching, and shut his eyes.

It was harder to concentrate, this time. For one thing, Kahlan's mistrust had really shaken Richard. He knew this wasn't the world he had left, that something had happened to change everything—but this was Kahlan. Even now, her power remained a harsh scrape across his inner senses, a pulling energy beside him. He wasn't sure why it had yet to drag him under.

He called the green fire from Darken Rahl's veins—it ignited his own, but he suppressed it. This was no harder than becoming the Seeker had been—both times, he had been faced suddenly with a new and impossible situation.

But this time, when Richard opened his eyes, he saw life returned, given instead of taken. It was such an intoxicating feeling—saving a life—that Richard could almost forget that this was Darken Rahl.

Darken sat up, feeling light-headed. His fingers clutched the Sword of Truth, which he used as a prop to rise to his feet.

Instantly, Kahlan was in his arms, weeping and nearly knocking him to the ground again—"Thank the Creator, you're all right," she murmured, over and over. "I thought I lost you."

Darken stroked her hair soothingly, gratitude that she was safe—or as safe as anyone could be, in a world that still had Richard Rahl in it—rendering him temporarily speechless.

"I know I've lost you," murmured Cara, and Darken looked at her sharply. The wistful note in her voice sparked something within him, though he wasn't sure what. Their deal had been purely business—he did her the justice to believe she honestly thought he would make a better Lord Rahl than Richard, and before today would have agreed in an instant, seeing as how he could hardly do worse—but nothing in that would justify her sorrow.

Her fear, perhaps—Richard Rahl still lived. Or did he? The man who'd ordered the attack on Kahlan's home, Zedd's execution, Darken's torture at Denna's hands, would hardly have helped them now.

Hesitantly, Richard held out a hand. Equally hesitantly, Darken took it. "I really am the Seeker of Truth," Richard said with forced lightness. "I think we need to talk."

"So if, in your reality," Darken said slowly, after Richard finally ran down, his story occasionally corroborated by a few low-voiced words from Cara, "I am the tyrant that you are in mine—"

At his side, in the circle of five around the flickering fire, Kahlan shook her head vehemently, as though she could not believe it—beyond their circle, the dark water glinted with the light of the coming dawn. They would have to think about food, soon.

Strange, to think he might eat with his brother, just as though they were a family—but it wouldn't do to discount his sister. She remained firmly from this reality, after all—what might she do, to get her own Richard back?

"—where do you suppose Richard Rahl, and his Mistress Cara, are right now?" Darken asked.

Richard looked stricken. "Kahlan—" he gasped.

She glared at him, even now only conditionally reconciled to his bewildering shift from enemy to ally.

Cara laughed, bitter and almost hysterical.

What was the logical next step? Darken pictured himself dragging them all home to Mother—"Look who I found on my travels!" Or ought he to arm-wrestle Richard for the throne of D'Hara?

But he wanted to go home, for the wedding, at least. He pulled Kahlan closer against him, telling her without words how thankful he was. More than Richard or Jennsen, the siblings he barely knew, she was his family.

"I love you, Kahlan," he whispered against her hair.

"And I love you," she whispered back. There were still a few drops of blood drying on her cheeks, grass stains and ash on her skirts—she had never been so beautiful.

Darken curved a hand over her stomach, source of their secret joy—and caught Richard looking at him with eyes blazing with jealousy.

The first light of dawn burst over the horizon, picking up the gold in Cara's hair, the sparkle of the Sword of Truth, smoothing the wrinkles briefly from Zedd's face—it was not an ending, in spite of the clearing full of dead bodies and the remains of the Boxes of Orden they'd left behind.

It was a beginning. But a beginning of what?

Elsewhere…no, elsewhen, Mistress Cara decided. Definitely an elsewhen. This was the same clearing in which Lord Richard Rahl had put together the Boxes of Orden, and then Lord Darken, Lord Rahl that would be, had raised his Sword, too far to do anything in time, and his Confessor had put her hand around Lord Rahl's throat—

Cara had known it was too late, but something about Lord Darken made her unable to hesitate, and she had pressed her own agiel to Lord Rahl's neck—

And now they were here. In the middle of nowhere. Even the sky was gray.

"Come," Lord Rahl ordered. "We must determine the cause of this…extremely unfortunate detour."

It didn't take them long to come across the pathetic remnants of civilization—at Lord Rahl's airy hand wave, Cara took over the task of getting the first old man they'd met to tell him everything he knew.

"Lord Darken Rahl and Queen Kahlan, eh?" Lord Rahl mused, his tone deceptively mild. "I knew he was trying to usurp my place…but who would have thought those two hopeless do-gooders would make such a mess of things, letting a male Confessor rule…?" He fell silent, and Cara knew he was wondering what had happened to Lady Jennsen—the one person he cared for more than anyone.

She felt as hurt as if Lord Darken and his Confessor had betrayed her trust on purpose—they were supposed to be good for D'Hara! What had they been thinking—?

Had she been wrong to trust them—Lord Darken—in the first place?

So it now appeared—and who knew what she might gain, if she could convince Lord Rahl her interruption had been accidental—he would hardly have wanted to be Confessed, even had he possessed the power of Orden—Denna was not here, and Cara was. Perhaps this was her chance to be First Mistress, after all?

If they found a way to return to their own time, of course.

"We will journey to the People's Palace," Lord Rahl decided. "I will see this usurper of my rightful throne for myself."

Jennsen was dead, of course—Richard was grateful to find her buried in the family crypt, if a little confused as to why the Seeker would grant her even that honor.

The Palace was deserted, except for an old woman wearing a Rada'Han, who greeted Richard like an old friend, and only eyed Mistress Cara askance in the way anyone familiar with the Mord'Sith would.

Mistress Cara was a problem Richard meant to solve, but not until he could return to his own time. He sensed that he had kept her subordinate for too long—she needed a greater challenge.

Perhaps, he thought as he listened to the old woman's recitation of his heroic deeds (all of which were either unfamiliar, or performed by his despised brother Darken, the Seeker), and her plan for how he might ensure this future never came to be, he might even turn his brother's allies, the Wizard and the Confessor, to his own purpose. It seemed that in this world, they served him, after all.

There was no need to reveal his true identity to them—let them think they had recovered their precious, naïve Seeker of Truth. And with the Confessor, the Wizard, and Mistress Cara by his side—he knew a way to gain more power than even the Boxes of Orden would ever have given him.

I will avenge you, Jennsen, he thought, in the direction of her tomb. I will give you a funeral pyre worthy of you—that I swear.

The world would never know what had happened.

And Richard Rahl smiled, in anticipation of the day he would bring about his inner vision—all the world mourning, as he did.

"My Lord?" Mistress Cara inquired diffidently.

Richard said, "I have a plan," and marveled at the understatement.

Darken Rahl might have decided to join the family business, but Richard had been born and raised here.

And that would make all the difference.