Cara dodged, but not quickly enough to avoid the razor-sharp claws which dug into her cheek. She would have reached up to wipe away the blood trickling down her face if not for the armload of hissing ferocious felines she was rescuing from doom. Her leathers, which had withstood the onslaught of every weapon known to man and demon, were already marred with scratches and bite marks.
At least she was better insulated than Richard, whose face, arms, chest and shoulders were a mass of scrapes and bites. A enraged tabby had reduced his shirt to tatters, before scrambling up to the same branch from whence the Seeker had retrieved her only seconds before.
Indeed, once returned to the safety of solid ground, most of the kittens resolutely climbed the nearest tree, where they would resume their piteous howling.
Not every cat reclaimed its perch. Some of the animals prowled underfoot, and despite their would-be saviors careful attempts to walk around and over them, Cara and Richard had both taken nasty falls after taking a wrong step.
The howling was positively deafening. It might have been her fevered imagination but Cara could swear that the cats were multiplying before her eyes.
She had been fighting the urge to start stunning the animals with her agiels, but knew RIchard would be horrified at the very idea of harming a helpless kitten.
Helpless! There was nothing helpless about these creatures, their cute and cuddly appearance belied a determined effort to foil Cara and Richard's every move.
"Cara – what are we going to do?" Richard screamed into her ear as he tried to grab onto the recalcitrant escapee again, but the cat had ascended out of reach. "I keep rescuing them, and they just climb back up again. Then they cry for me to fetch them again."
The Mord'Sith turned on him in exasperation, but seeing his woeful expression, stopped the sharp words that sprang to her lips.
She could hardly blame the Seeker for what she had brought down on them all. But she did blame him, perhaps unfairly, for caring so much.
"For Creator's sake, Richard! The cats climbed the trees on their own, and most of them are clambering right back up as soon as they're released. If the pestilent creatures want to be up a tree, then we should walk away and forget about this - mission."
"But I can't forget about it, Cara. They need me, and I haveto help them. You sent me to rescue all of kittens, and I have to do it." Blood, and tears of frustration, streaked down Richard's face as he tried to make her understand. The Sword of Truth had been tossed onto the grass, having proved useless since using it only frightened the animals, forcing them higher into the trees.
He was right. Cara had sent him on this insane mission, and the magic of the amulet had somehow lent her the power to not only make the cats appear out of thin air, but to compel Richard to obey her orders.
Not to mention the fact that the amulet had already turned Zedd into little more than a ravenous empty stomach, and Darken and Kahlan into swooning love-struck idiots.
Besides, there was no walking away. Not only were there thousands of kittens swarming around them, but they were still lost.
Stuck in this cursed valley where magic worked backwards.
Where were the others? This task was daunting, but at the very least Kahlan, Darken and Zedd could lend three welcome set of hands.
"I'll be right back!" Cara yelled at Richard, her voice barely carrying over the yowls. "I'm going to get help."
He nodded back at her, eyes looking wild and slightly desperate, before she turned and stomped back toward the clearing.
When she emerged from the forest, Cara was so furious she was seeing red, or maybe it was just the blood streaming into her eyes from the newest scratch on her forehead.
Darken and Kahlan were lolling in each other's arms , nuzzling and murmuring sickening gibberish Cara didn't even want to imagine. The lovers were completely oblivious to the kittens crawling around their entwined bodies until Kahlan broke off an impassioned kiss when a fluffy ball of fur wriggled its way between them.
The Mother Confessor smiled in delight. "Oh, look, Darken. Isn't he just the sweetest little thing? I've never had a pet. Let's take him with us. I just love cats, don't you?"
"No!" For the first time, Darken snapped at his lady-love, then his expression softened at her crestfallen face. "I mean," he added more quietly, "it's not that I don't like them, it's just that I've never had much luck with them. It's a long story…"His voice trailed off. This was clearly a subject he did not want to pursue.
He glanced around him, for the first time seeming to notice that their new little companion was not alone. "Where did all these cats come from?"
Darken's famed memory had either started to fail him, or he had been too focused on his brother's earlier attack to pay heed to Cara when she had sent Richard on his rescue mission, and later so engrossed with Kahlan's caresses to notice the ear-splitting noise surrounding them.
Love was truly blind – and deaf.
Cara didn't have patience for their silliness. "Both of you, come with me – now. Richard and I need your help. We can't gather up all these animals on our own."
Darken's glanced at her as the words began to penetrate his love-drunk daze. "Why should I do anything to help my brother?" he demanded. "He was trying to murder me in cold blood less than an hour ago. "
"I stopped him from hurting you, and now it's your turn to return the favor – not for Richard, for me." Cara snapped.
"But you serve the trueLord Rahl now, Cara. How can my puny efforts be of any use?" Darken was enjoying himself, and Cara found her hand reaching for her agiel. If he wouldn't come voluntarily, then she would prod him into the forest.
Yet, although she could force him to accompany her, Cara couldn't force him to be useful. She had a sudden vision of Darken, behind Richard's back, gleefully picking up every single kitten that haddecided to stay on the ground and deliberately putting it back up in a tree, stopping occasionally to toss a stray cat in Richard's direction and smiling as he watched it claw and bite his brother.
She might as well admit it. When it came to the kitten patrol, Darken was a lost cause.
To Cara's relief, Kahlan was bestirring herself, pulling her tattered dress back over her shoulders as she struggled to sit up.
"Maybe she's right, sweetheart, "Kahlan turned her alluring blue eyes on Darken. "There are an awful lot of cats wandering around. I think we should help."
Her lover was, surprisingly, proving to be a hard nut to crack on the kitten issue, and refused to be swayed.
"It's Richard's problem. Let Richard deal with it." Darken glowered at Kahlan's back as she rose to her feet and approached Cara. "I can't believe you're choosing that fool over me after everything I've offered you – a palace wedding, a red wedding dress, a wedding ring with a pink sapphire as big as a – "
Kahlan stopped in her tracks and whirled around to face him, eyes bright with excitement. "A ring! Darling, you didn't need to do that. I'd love you if you were the poorest man in D'Hara or the Midlands. But – can I see it? Where is it?"
Cara almost screamed with vexation.
Dear Spirits, would the insanity never stop!
Darken didn't have a farthing to his name, much less a sapphire ring, and when had Kahlan started caring about baubles anyway?
"I don't have the ring with me right now. It's in one of the Mord'Sith temples," Darken explained, happy to have Kahlan's interest again. "There are a fewMord'Sith who remained loyal to me." He glared over in Cara's direction before returning his attention to the Mother Confessor.
Kahlan would have run back to Darken's side then and there if Cara hadn't latched onto her arm, almost dragging her toward the woods. "I'll just be a few minutes, darling. After we get these pesky cats taken care of, I'll never leave you again. But I'm still not wearing red at the wedding."
As they entered the canopy of trees the pandemonium of feline angst swept over both women. Just as they spotted Richard, looking more bedraggled than ever, Kahlan stumbled over a marmalade tomcat, almost pitching headlong into a thorn bush again. Cara managed to catch the Confessor before she hit the ground, then proceeded to shove her toward Richard.
They were in the midst of a crisis, and she didn't have time to spare.
"Kahlan's going to help us, Richard. You show her what to do and I'll go back and get Zedd." Cara turned on her heel and headed back for the clearing.
Ignoring Darken completely, she marched over to where Zedd sat hunched over the cooking pot. At Cara's approach, the Wizard turned and grinned at her with anticipation.
"Did you bring more rabbits or maybe a squirrel, Cara? I'm afraid I ate the last of the stew. The rest of you had already left, so I thought it shouldn't go to waste, but now I'm starving again." Noting her empty hands, he frowned, annoyed at being deprived of nourishment. "I'm afraid there isn't any fruit left either," he added, gesturing toward the surrounding foliage which had been stripped bare.
How could one man have devoured a week's worth of food in a few hours?
"No, Wizard, I didn't bring you food. You've already eaten enough for twenty men. Richard and I need your help. There are all of these cats trapped up in the trees and we can't - "
"What happened to you, Cara? Have we been attacked? You look like you've been fighting an army."
A wave of exhaustion swept over her. "Zedd, please – just come with me. We need your help"
"Cara, I'm sorry, but I'm so weak with hunger I can't even stand up. I wish I could help you fight – whatever it is you're fighting, but I can't go on until I regain my strength. "Zedd started to apologize further, but was distracted by two black kittens who had ambled over to them and were sniffing at his empty bowl, drawn by the scent of rabbit.
Zedd regarded the small creatures intently, a speculative gleam in his eyes. Scooping up one of the furballs in his large hand, he reached for his knife with the other. "Cara, you brought food after all. You shouldn't play tricks like that on an old man. If you'll just go to the stream and fetch some more water, we can get another delicious stew going."
The kitten meowed in alarm as Cara yanked it to safety. "Zedd – you can't hurt any of the cats. Richard is rescuing them, and he won't be happy if you start eating them." She cradled the small animal against her breast, and crouched down to retrieve its companion.
She was scrambling for ways to distract Zedd from thoughts of cat stew when Richard's frantic shouts rang through the air.
"Caaaraaa! Help! It's Kahlan. Something's wrong with Kahlan."
"Don't hurt any cats, Zedd." With those parting words, Cara plunged back into the forest, still clinging to her two tiny passengers. Darken was close on her heels.
Both of them barreled through the undergrowth until they almost collided with Richard, bloodier than ever, carrying the Mother Confessor in his arms.
"What did you do to her?" Darken snarled, reaching for the woman he loved. Richard pulled back, and for a moment Cara feared that another fight was going to break out with Kahlan caught in the middle.
"I didn't do anything to her. She's just so upset about the kittens that she started crying and can't seem to stop." Richard's voice was shrill. He seemed at his wit's end.
As was Cara. But she would never show it.
Without another word, Darken snatched Kahlan away from Richard, burying his face in her tangled hair. She wrapped her arms around his neck, raising her eyes to his adoringly. "Take me away from here, darling. I can't do this anymore. These awful creatures. They scratch and bite, and they have so much hair and fur, and, and ….Ah – ah – ah - chooo!" The elegant Mother Confessor sneezed into Darken's face.
And kept on sneezing and sneezing, her face growing redder and her eyelids puffier by the minute. Tears streamed down her cheeks.
"Didn't know….was …-lergic," she croaked, soaking Darken's face and rags with tears and snot. "Never was before…just too many of them." Uncaring of anything but Kahlan's welfare, Darken ran back to the clearing, not sparing a glance at either Cara or Richard.
"Keep an eye on Zedd. Don't let him eat any kittens," the Mord'Sith yelled at Darken's retreating back, knowing it was pointless. Darken would be too wrapped up with taking care of Kahlan to care about Zedd – or the cats.
Feeling Richard's gaze burning into her, Cara turned to face him, noting his stricken expression. He was a mess – one eye was swollen shut, scratches reamed his body, bite marks dotted his hands and arms. His shirt and trousers hung in shreds. His eyes looked wild and a little unfocused.
"I'm supposed to save all of the kittens, Cara. Is Zedd trying to hurt them? You have to go back and stop him."
"Richard, I can't do everything. I can't help you if I'm with Zedd."
The Seeker shook his head, and almost absently plucked another cat off an over-hanging branch, setting it gently on the ground, then trod wearily over to the adjacent oak, summoned by mournful cries. The just-rescued feline scampered back up to its perch where it promptly resumed meowing for help.
Cara leaned against the tree, pressing her forehead into the rough bark, forcing down the treacherous sob that rose in her throat. Every muscle in her body ached with fatigue.
In her years as a Mord'Sith, fighting for Darken Rahl and for the Seeker of Truth, Cara had often faced impossible odds and had always met them without flinching.
But this ever-accelerating descent into madness was something new – this world where everything was turned on its head.
She had caused it to happen.
Instinctively, as in all moments of stress, her hand went to her agiel, where, underneath her holster, she felt the lump formed by the amulet. She had shoved it inside her leathers once the kitten catastrophe had begun.
A kernel of hope began to form.
How could she have been such a fool?
The answer to all of their problems had been at her fingertips the whole time.
Pulling out the stone, Cara balanced it carefully in her hand, then closed her fist around it and shut her eyes, taking a deep breath, centering herself.
I want everything to be as it was, make us as we were before, she thought with fierce intent. I take it back – all of it.
There was no answering jolt of magic.
The amulet felt cold and inert, powerless.
Cara opened her eyes and looked around.
Nothing had changed.
The cats still yowled, Richard still trudged hopelessly from tree to tree.
She was sure that back as camp Darken and Kahlan would be happily cuddling and talking about weddings, while Darken tenderly wiped Kahlan's nose with his rags.
Zedd would be thinking about food.
This green thing in her hand was just a useless rock.
She sensed, rather than heard, the echo of mocking laughter as she continued to study the object.
Something had drawn Cara to notice it, to pick it up from the riverbed. The engraved runes must have some meaning. She could only hope that Zedd would know their significance.
Now that the amulet's magic seemed to have disappeared, so had her reluctance to reveal its existence.
"Richard," she called back over her shoulder," I have to check up on Zedd. I'll be back as soon as I can." The Seeker was so engrossed in his mission she doubted if he even heard her.
Racing back to camp, Cara clutched the stone against her chest. If Zedd didn't have the answer, then nobody would.
She only hoped she got to him before he ate one of the cats.
Richard would never forgive her if one of them met its doom.