Reversal of Fortune

A/N - This fic was written as a response to the prompt at Peoplespalace live journal - What might have happened if Darken had actually killed Zedd at the end of "Puppeteer" in the first season. How might the loss of Zedd have affected Richard, Kahlan and Darken?

I took this and ran with it because I love imagining the "what ifs"

Standard Disclaimer: I own nothing related to the Sword of Truth novels by Terry Goodkind or "Legend of the Seeker". I make no profit.

Thanks to Meridian_Rose for being an awesome Beta.

Warning for violence and character death


Revenge is a dish best served cold (Pashtun proverb)

Darken Rahl seethed with fury as he strode through the empty corridors of the great Palace of Tamarang. Terrified retainers and servants, sensing the turn of the tide, had scurried for safety in every nook and cranny.

"Those incompetent fools under your command couldn't track down one child." Darken glared at his loyal general, eyes sharp with blame. "The third Box of Orden was almost in my grasp." He clenched his fists in frustration. "I should have cut the cursed birthday cake!

"Queen Milena will pay dearly for this, as will that pestilent daughter of hers."

General Egremont had to tread carefully, an art perfected over the years. The little girl's escape was a distressing setback, and he shared Lord Rahl's displeasure, but all was not lost. "My Lord, the woods around the palace are thick and there are countless caves to provide cover. Also, I'm certain the Seeker and his Confessor were lying in wait. No doubt they are protecting the girl as we speak, and-"

Darken's stare froze the general in mid-sentence. This was not the best time to remind Lord Rahl of his enemy's proximity. Egremont scrambled to find the right tack.

"Don't forget, Lord Rahl, you still have the First Wizard in your power as well as the other two Boxes of Orden," Egremont's voice gained confidence. "Your enemies can't do anything with a single box, and they will be vulnerable without his help and protection."

Darken didn't answer. He was still furious, at the Wizard, at Egremont, his soldiers, Queen Milena, his brother, and most of all - although he would never admit it aloud - at himself.

The two men continued on in silence until they reached the entrance of the treasure room, where the great Zeddicus, with gleeful scorn, proceeded to throw Darken's humiliation back in his face.

"The great Darken Rahl, Master of D'Hara, was defeated not by the Seeker nor by the First Wizard, but by a ten-year old girl."

Darken's vision went red.

The Seeker, or the third box, might not yet be in his grasp, but he could still strike a deadly blow to Richard's pursuit.

Pulling Egremont's sword from its scabbard with a two-handed grip, Darken swung it round in one fluid motion, taking the Wizard's head off in one clean stoke. Blood spattered the walls and began to pool on the floor around the still-twitching body.

Zeddicus might have saved Richard's life at Brennidon, but he would never aid the Seeker again.

Panting with exertion and unspent fury, Darken wiped the Wizard's blood off his face. He was taking no chances. Stalking up to the prone figure, he drove the blade into the Wizard's chest, indifferent to the gore already soaking his robes.

Stepping back, he turned to Egremont. "Fetch Queen Milena and Princess Violet," he ordered, his voice a promise of more violence to come.

When the monarch was hauled into his presence, full of apologies and empty assurance, Darken wasted no time in dispatching her with a quick slice of his dagger. He considered doing the same with the loathsome heir, but she deserved a more fitting doom for making him suffer through her birthday party.

He would send the princess to a place where she would be surrounded by the pretty baubles she adored.

With hands still covered in Milena's blood, Darken shoved the hysterical girl over to Egremont. "Get her out of my sight. Send her with the next group of slaves to the jewel mines in Athanasia." The general nodded his assent, pushing Violet at one of his underlings.

Darken's gaze fixed on the wizard's lifeless form. "Burn the bodies, and don't leave until they are nothing but ash. I want no trace left behind." He looked down at his hands and robe with distaste. He was a fastidious man. "Order a servant to bring hot water." He wished to avail himself of a bath, but dare not put himself in a defenseless position in a palace not his own. Queen Milena had been a tyrant, but she might still have a few loyal retainers who might seek vengeance, and, of course, the resistance was everywhere.

There was one additional task to perform before departure. Darken proffered a blood-caked hand toward Egremont. "Give me my journey book," he demanded.

Opening the journal to an unblemished parchment, Darken dipped his quill in Milena's blood and scribed directives to the Mord'Sith and his D'Haran troops, posting them far and wide to search for the Seeker.

This time they would not fail him.

Before closing the book, Darken scrawled a coda, smiling to himself. He was well aware that Richard and his Confessor had scavenged a journey book from a murdered D'Haran officer, yet his foes would probably not be able to decipher the writing without the wizard's help.

But if they could, so much the better.

I will find you.

The words bled into the parchment – a crimson promise.

Let them read and ponder.

The Keep of Endron was not too far distant. Darken could be there by the morrow's eve if they rode hard. Lathering the blood from his face and hands with warm soapy water, he wondered if GIller had made any progress with the Sha'Kiah, or with the potion that he had mentioned in his last missive.

Egremont spoke true. Darken not only had his two Boxes of Orden, but several other cards left to play.

Thank the Keeper that he had his own Wizard of the First Order. Giller might yet gain him the power of confession, though that might not be necessary if Darken obtained Orden.

A prize still well within reach.

The stars of Amulous were almost in perfect alignment, an event which only occurred once every century.

Giller would know what to do.

The wizard would not fail him.

His brain teeming with plans, Darken plotted his next move.

oOo

"My Lord, you mustn't push too hard, or he'll wake from the trance," Giller warned nervously as Darken paced around the narrow cell. The room was Giller's sanctuary, where he practiced his own dark arts. A large window was placed high in the wall. Through its clear spelled panes, the light of the crescent moon and three bright stars spilled into the room, bathing Darken and his Wizard in a silver glow.

Darken waved Giller's words away, impatient to get on with the spell. It was galling that his own magic was so weak that he had to depend on the skill of another.

It had been surprisingly easy for Mistress Denna to discover the Seeker's whereabouts. He had thought the Seeker would have proved more of a challenge, but should never have under-estimated his Mord'Sith.

Raw from her failure to break Richard, Denna had been desperate to prove her worth, and so she had. It was unfortunate that his enemy had managed to hide the box, but that would soon be remedied.

Darken's men, accompanied by the fierce Mistress Cara, now had his brother and the Confessor surrounded at a safe distance, hidden, but, as ordered, had as yet made no move.

Richard would never reveal the location of the box under duress. The truth would have to be coaxed out of him.

Giller, and the heavens, would provide the means to that end.

The Spell of the Lying Moon.

Without their wizard to discern the significance of the alignment of moon and stars, Darken's foes would be ignorant of the danger hanging over them, encircling them.

When the hour was ripe, Giller had chanted the incantation, sending Richard into a trance, granting Darken the ability to enter his dreams, assuming any appearance he chose.

But the Seeker had proved resistant to the first attempts, suspicious of every approach.

Darken supposed he had the Confessor to thank for that.

Kahlan Amnell.

He had gleaned her name from Richard's thoughts, as well as the fact that his brother was in love with her.

The fool!

It was difficult to push past the Seeker's obsession with the Confessor, to make him forget, but as the trance deepened, her image began to fade as Richard regressed further back in time.

Finally weakening under Darken's persistent mental onslaughts, the Seeker began to let slip bits and pieces of tantalizing clues. The tyrant had found the perfect conduit in the semblance of a young woman called Anna, whose memory still lurked in Richard's mind. Even the urgent pleading of the Confessor was unable to counter the power of a youthful infatuation.

Through constant gentle reminders of how much Anna and Richard had once meant to each other, how they had planned a life together, how they had trusted each other, Darken finally lured the vital knowledge from his brother's thoughts.

The box lay buried under an Algar tree, only a few leagues west of Trollsbridge. It should not prove difficult to find. Algars were rare in that region.

He was incredulous at his brother's carelessness.

The most precious artifact in the world – buried in the dirt and abandoned.

Conveying new directives by journey book, Darken now ordered Cara and his men to close the noose and capture their quarry. The Mord'Sith had a rada'han ready to clamp around the Confessor's neck, but he had instructed her not to approach until his men had the woman secure.

This Kahlan Amnell might succeed in confessing a few soldiers in the ruckus, but they were expendable, and each had orders to kill any afflicted companions.

Darken would not permit his most valued Mord'Sith to be confessed in any skirmish that might ensue, and the Confessor would put up a fight. The woman seemed to be quite skilled with a dagger, but alone she could never prevail or hope to escape.

The Seeker would be too groggy to put up a struggle when the Sword of Truth was ripped from his grasp. Giller's spell might be fading as the night crawled by, but it would be hours before his brother fully recovered from the effects of the trance.

Darken briefly considered letting Richard sink further into the spelled coma, never to awaken, but he would allow his brother to live – for now.

Richard would submit to Darken's supremacy. He would understand the folly of the witch-woman's arrogant prophecy.

The Confessor, like the Wizard, had been Darken's sworn enemy for years.

She would see her hopes ground into the dust – before he granted her mercy.

The mercy of adoring her Lord and Master.

With the Power of Orden, and the Seeker as his minion, Darken could bring an end to the resistance and this endless war.

He had always desired peace – at whatever cost.

But it was too early to celebrate. Darken wouldn't feel safe until he possessed the box and had it secured at the People's Palace.

After dispatching Mistress Denna and a squadron of troops to Trollsbridge, he spent the waning hours of night pacing and fretting outside the Keep, hardly daring to believe that all the years of plotting and bloodshed were going to be rewarded at last.

Finally, towards dawn, the cadence of hoofbeats announced Denna's arrival.

Dismounting gracefully, the Mord'Sith approached her Lord, cradling a leather satchel in one arm. Halting before him with a dramatic flourish, she raised her hand in command at the officers trailing in her wake. At the gesture, the men followed the Mord'Sith's lead as she knelt crisply before her master, fist clasped over her heart.

Denna did have style.

"Very theatrical, Denna," he drawled, motioning her to rise. "I hope this is not meaningless posturing."

"I have not failed you, my Lord." She was glowing in triumph. "I've brought you victory." Denna proffered the satchel, a delicious weight in his hands.

Darken's heart pounded in his chest, but he was careful to hide his excitement.

"You've done my bidding, Mistress Denna, as you are sworn to do." The Mord'Sith flushed at the quiet rebuke. Her arrogance needed to be kept in check .

There was only one master here.

But Darken would not deny her the opportunity to bask in his glory. "Still -you have done well. You will be properly rewarded once I've determined that the box is authentic," he assured her, a predatory gleam in his eyes. She met his gaze and nodded slightly in acknowledgment, a slight smile tugging at her lips.

Carefully, hardly daring to breathe, he opened the leather flaps and reached into the satchel. At the moment of contact, he felt the surge of the box's magic meeting his own.

Soon, very soon, all would bow down before him in worship, not out of fear – but love.

At that moment, making Darken's triumph complete, Mistress Cara and the mounted officers of his Third Battalion thundered up to the keep. Sliding out of the saddle every bit as gracefully as had her Mord'Sith rival, Cara swaggered up to him, dragging a dazed and hobbled Richard behind her.

"Lord Rahl," Cara announced, even more dramatically than Denna, "I give you – the Seeker." With that, she flung Richard down in the dust to sprawl at Darken's feet.

"What about the Confessor, Mistress Cara? Did you let her escape?" he queried, his lips quirking in amusement. Every proud line of her body pronounced the utter defeat of his enemies.

Cara gestured at two of the officers, and the Confessor was hauled forward. The woman's hands, like Richard's, were bound, and a rada'han adorned her slender neck. The woman's white garment was shredded and stained, her face streaked with dirt, blood and tears.

Despite her disarray and exhaustion, Kahlan Amnell carried herself like a queen.

She was magnificent.

Approaching the Confessor like a cat toying with its prey, Darken cupped her face in his hand, firmly but gently. He didn't want her bruised and battered more than she already was.

His fingers felt scorched by her hatred.

There was fear in her, too, and despair, but she disguised it well.

"You haven't won yet, Rahl," she snarled. "Even without Richard, or Zedd, or me, there will be others who will carry on the fight."

He smiled at her show of defiance. "Perhaps, he said smoothly, "although when the world learns that the Seeker is now my most devoted servant, I think it likely that the resistance will lose heart."

Strong, brave, beautiful and a Confessor – a heady combination.

They might have a future together.

Once Darken possessed the Power of Orden, there would be no more hatred, only love. The Confessor would be honored to share his bed, and his name.

"So you are the fearless Confessor," he said, almost tenderly. "Kahlan Amnell." He said the name slowly, as if tasting it, relishing every syllable. "I'm honored to meet the woman who has sought my death for so many years."

"My Lord - I thought you might want this." It was Cara, sounding strangely peeved at his rapturous scrutiny of his captive. The Mord'Sith unbuckled a heavy object from the saddle of her steed, and presented it to her master.

The Sword of Truth.

Reverently, Darken hefted the legendary weapon – the symbol of all who had once defied him.

Now it belonged to him.

The Seeker and Confessor belonged to him.

And – once he gained Orden – the entire world would belong to him.

"Mount up," Darken ordered, his voice hoarse with feeling, unusual for him, perhaps it was merely the relief of having nothing more to fear. "We leave for the People's Palace. Mistress Cara, provide Wizard Giller with a horse, he's coming with us."

oOo

They arrived at the palace after two days of hard travel. Darken had pushed them relentlessly, with the ruthless assistance of his Mord'Sith. The company had barely cantered into the courtyard before he jumped from the saddle and hurried toward for the spelled chamber that sheltered his treasure.

"Cara, Denna – bring them – now. I've waited long enough."

He was exhausted, filthy, exultant, and would not delay this moment of ultimate victory any longer.

Removing his newest prize, Darken held the small box in his shaking hands, still finding it almost impossible to believe that it was real. He gestured at Cara and Denna, a silent command.

"Unbind them," he ordered, as his brother and the Confessor were dragged to his side. Darken didn't want them restrained for this wondrous occasion.

Richard and Kahlan sagged as the ropes fell from their wrists. The Seeker struggled weaky against Denna's iron hold, glaring at the tyrant with rage – and dread. "You won't get away with this, you monster," he croaked, too thirsty and exhausted to spit more than empty threats.

"And who will stop me, brother – you?" Darken had enjoyed telling RIchard about their conniving father, reveling in his shock and disbelief. Perhaps now the Seeker would understand how he had felt all these years, living under the doom of his father's betrayal, tormented daily under the prophecy of fratricide.

"No, Richard, you can't stop me," he mused, "and in a few moments you will regret you ever tried. You will gladly lay down your life for me, just as you will share my happiness that Kahlan will be my queen."

The Confessor sobbed in denial. For the first time, he took no pleasure in her tears.

Darken was beginning to tire of his own gloating.

Richard and Kahlan's hatred had entertained him for a short while, but that, too, was wearing thin. He had shed so much blood to get attain this final victory, he was beginning to weary of it.

He wanted to put an end to the hatred, the fear, the anger and the bitterness.

After this day, there would be no more conflict. For the first time in his life, Darken would know love.

Taking a deep breath, he pushed the jeweled boxes together.

And time seemed to stop.

Light flowed around and through him, his skin felt on fire as his magic merged with that of Orden.

Engulfed by the overwhelming power pulsing into his body, Darken lost all sense of his surroundings, forgetting his petty triumphs and grievances. For an endless second of ecstasy, he was everything, was everywhere, standing outside of time, the past, present and future spiraling around him in flames.

Then the white fire ebbed and Darken returned to awareness, still himself, yet utterly transformed.

He and the Power of Orden were one.

Closing his eyes, Darken gloried in the warmth and light that burned within.

How had he ever endured the cold barren waste of that former life?

Now - it was time to share this perfection.

Turning to his brother, Darken opened his eyes, fixing Richard with a shining gaze. "Kneel before me, brother." His voice was soft with something akin to affection.

Awed, Richard stared at his brother, and loved - no - adored him. "Yes, my Lord," he murmured, dropping to his knees.

He would serve Darken Rahl for the rest of his days. Nothing could compare to the total devotion he felt toward the man standing before him.

"Richard, no," Kahlan's voice, thick with tears, rang out in protest.

Darken felt a stab of pity at her grief, wanting to ease her suffering. He longed for all to share his elation.

"Look at me, Kahlan," he commanded, his tone coaxing rather than harsh. Brute force was a thing of the past. "You have nothing to fear. I'll never hurt you." She kept her eyes stubbornly averted as he stroked her cheek. "Look at Richard. He loves me now, and so will you. Don't you want to be with Richard again?"

"Please, don't," she sobbed.

"Look at me." Darken's voice urged, his gentle insistence gradually overcoming her resistance. "I won't ask you to kneel, just look at me. I only want you to be happy."

Giving up the fight, Kahlan raised her eyes – and worshipped.

Darken pulled them both into his loving embrace. "We're a family now. You'll never leave me, and I'll always protect you."

The Seeker and his Confessor cried with joy as they basked in the reflected radiance of Darken's light.

Darken Rahl conquered the three territories with barely a whimper of resistance, and by using Orden so sparingly than it surprised even him. Richard's devotion and loyalty quelled many who had once opposed his rule.

Darken's own benevolence did the rest.

The former tyrant had no further need for cruelty. Any and all opposition withered under his Orden-drugged gaze.

Darken's marriage to Kahlan Amnell, officiated over by Richard Cypher Rahl, was celebrated far and wide, and if there were a few dyspeptic D'Haran critics and mutterings from the Midlands, they kept their grumbles to themselves.

When Queen Kahlan Rahl gave birth to a male Confessor, Nicholas Rahl, who was not only allowed to live but was named as the heir to the throne, no voices were raised in dissent.

Lord Rahl knew what was best for his people.

Every Confessor, including the queen's own sister, had been brought to heel in adoration, as had the Sisters of the Light and the Sisters of the Dark.

It was an era of peace and prosperity.

The dawn of a new age.

oOo

Ten years later -

Eight-year old Nicholas Rahl never tired of staring at the Boxes of Orden.

How could three little boxes control the world? As often as Father tried to explain, the young prince couldn't figure it out.

When Nicholas was a baby, Father always kept the boxes hidden behind a magical barrier, with armed guards at the door.

Father still talked about how important it was to keep the boxes safe, and was always careful to say the spell after he left them – Father loved looking at the boxes almost as much as Nicholas did.

But the guards didn't seem very interested in guarding them after Father would leave.

Maybe it was boring – standing outside of the entry all the time.

He wondered if that was why the guards wandered off to flirt with the servants after Father left the room.

Nicholas had tried to tell Father about the soldiers. He didn't want to get them in trouble since they joked with him and told him stories, but they shouldn't leave the boxes all alone.

Father had only laughed and mussed his hair, saying that Nicholas worried too much. The boxes are safe in my palace, Father had said. Everybody loves us.

Then he tried telling Mother, but she just shushed him and told him to listen to Father.

Father is always right, she had said. He loves us so much, and we love him, don't we Nicholas?

Nicholas did love his father but didn't understand what that had to do with the boxes being left alone.

Uncle Richard always told him that Father knew best, and that Nicholas shouldn't fret about the boxes so much.

Uncle Richard used to be a hero that people called the Seeker. Nicholas thought that must have been exciting, but when he asked for tales of adventure, Uncle would just say that it all happened long ago, and wasn't important any longer.

I'm so much happier now, Uncle would say. We're all so much happier now.

Nicholas wasn't sad, but there wasn't much excitement in a palace where everybody was so happy all of the time.

He was a Confessor and Mother had taught him some Confessor rules, most importantly – be very careful and control your feelings. He wasn't supposed to touch anyone when he got mad, which rarely happened in any case.

Nicholas had finally decided that, if nobody else was interested, he would be the protector of the boxes. Several times every day, he walked through the barrier to ensure their safety.

It made him happy that he could do something so important.

oOo

Nicholas was so engrossed in his mission that he hurt one of the women who took out the soiled linen. She was tottering in the hallway under an armful of dirty sheets when he dashed around the corner and collided with her.

"I'm sorry, I didn't see you." Nicholas reached out a hand to help her to her feet. Mother always told him to be polite, even to the servants. Many of them, she had explained, used to be slaves until father, in his merciful majesty, had set them free.

He wondered if this woman might have been a slave, but there was no polite way to ask, so he picked up the sheets, and offered to carry them.

"Thank you, young Master," she muttered, holding up a gnarled hand to cover her mouth. She only had three fingers on her hand. Nicholas didn't mean to stare at her, but he couldn't help it.

"What happened to you?" he blurted, knowing Mother would think him ill-mannered, but sometimes you had to ask if you were going to find out about things.

"I lost them…in an accident…where I used to work," she answered haltingly. Peering at her over the pile of laundry, Nicholas for the first time noticed her face. A scar ran down from her forehead across the ruin of her nose and split her upper lip. Her few teeth were chipped and yellow.

"What happened to you?" he repeated in shock, forgetting that he was being rude. "What kind of accident?" Nicholas didn't have much experience of the world, but this didn't look like an accident. "Tell me."

Her eyes flashed back at him before going cold. He tried to read her, but her gaze was opaque, almost lifeless. For a moment he had had a queasy sense that she wanted to strike him, but then she looked away. "I was beaten – by my former master," she whispered. "I don't want to talk about it. I'm happy now. Your father has made me very happy by allowing me live here." Something in her voice rang false, but Nicholas couldn't pin it down.

He wished he could see her eyes again, but she kept them averted, as if ashamed. He felt bad for her.

"Maybe my father could make it better. He has magic, you know. I do, too, but I'm still learning how to use it. My mother is a Confessor. I am, too." Nicholas knew he was jabbering, he always talked too much. "I'm not a healer though."

"Don't bother your father," the woman snapped before bobbing her head in deference. "Please! I don't like talking to people, and I would be afraid of him." She wasn't much more than a girl, really, now that he studied her.

"You needn't be afraid of Father. Everybody loves him." Nicholas reassured her. "What's your name? How old are you. How long have you lived here?"

Too many questions, Nicholas. You ask too many questions. He could hear Mother's voice in his head.

"Rose, my name is Rose," she whispered. "I grew up on a farm near the boundary. When the resistance came, they killed my parents and took me away. I was sold to the man who did this," she gestured at her face.

"I'm twenty years old, Master Rahl, and I've lived here for six months. Now, does that answer all of your questions?" Her lips curved in a twisted grin.

Boot heels echoed down the stairwell at the end of the hall. One of the guards must be returning. Nicholas shook his head with disgust. "They're supposed to be protecting the boxes, but they never pay attention," he confided to his new acquaintance.

Rose glanced toward the steps. "What sort of boxes need to be protected?" She let out a tortured sound that might have been a laugh.

What boxes!

Surely everybody knew about the boxes.

"The Boxes of Orden," he explained patiently. "Haven't you heard about them? They're made of magic and Father keeps them in that room – I call it the magic room." He pointed to an iron door a few feet from where they stood. "I protect them sometimes. Do you want to see them?"

Rose fidgeted, uncertain, but when two soldiers rounded the corner, she grabbed the sheets away from Nicholas. "I'll get in trouble if I'm seen here, Master Rahl. I have to go."

Before she scurried away, he grabbed her by the sleeve. "Rose, come back tomorrow and I'll show you the boxes. I promise"

The woman jerked her arm away from his grasp, and fled down the hall.

oOo

Seeking to learn more about his new friend, Nicholas managed to worm scraps of information from the lower scullery maids, who seemed dismissive and incurious. They could tell him little more than he already knew. Rose was a former slave who had been badly treated, and who, six months before, had sought shelter at the palace, offering to perform the most menial tasks in exchange for food and a warm place to lay her head at night.

No one seemed to know or care what the maimed servant had done during the nine years after Father freed the slaves. Nicholas wondered if people had kept hurting her even after she was released from bondage. Maybe they had mocked her tortured face.

Determined to make up for her past misery, Nicholas set about winning Rose's trust. Gradually, over the next few weeks, they became closer. The servant would listen quietly while he described his exploits, his adventures with Ethan, his tedious studies, his many pets, and, of course, the boxes, occasionally nodding her head in solemn agreement when he would say something important.

He had been surprised when she asked whether his parents knew that he spent so much time wandering around the palace.

There was nothing to fear. Father kept everybody safe and happy.

He and Rose always met in the hallway near the magic room at times when Nicholas knew it would be unguarded, and he would proceed to escort her in to see the boxes.

Rose seemed to love looking at them as much as he did.

Father was teaching him the spells which allowed him to get close enough to actually touch the relics, although no one was to ever – ever – pull them apart. Everybody's happiness depended on the boxes staying together. Nicholas didn't understand how that worked, but Father had looked so stern that it must be true.

oOo

Nicholas was excited. He would be nine years old on the morrow, and Father, Mother and Uncle Richard would give him presents and there was going to be a grand party.

" - And there will be acrobats and clowns and magic tricks – not real magic, just pretend - and animals and cake and sweets and puppets and presents and…" his voice trailed off at Rose's strangled harsh laughter.

He had forgotten. Rose wouldn't be able to attend the party. He shouldn't have talked about it.

"I'm sorry, Rose. I wish you could be there, too. Maybe if I ask Father – "

"No! I don't want to come to your stupid birthday party," she rasped, her twisted features flushed with anger.

"I only meant that, well, tomorrow is my birthday, too, and it makes me sad when I think about my parents." Rose had softened her tone. "I meant no disrespect, Master R – Nicholas."

"I'm sorry, Rose," Nicholas repeated. He didn't know how to cheer her. "I'll get you a present. What would you like?"

"I think I'd like to see the boxes now, Nicholas. That would be the best present you could give me."

Rose had never asked to see the boxes before. He was always the one who invited her. It seemed a little strange, but he wanted to make her happy.

As on so many days previous, Nicholas led her into the magic room and over to the plinth, only this time Rose didn't lag behind as usual, but walked by his side. Ignoring the twinge of unease that began to form in the pit of his stomach, he murmured the incantation that allowed them through the final barrier.

Transfixed as always at the proximity of the power that held Father's kingdom together, he stretched out a tentative hand - not to touch, he knew better than that - but just to feel the warmth that radiated from the boxes.

"The boxes are mine." Rose's voice rang out with clear cold certainty.

Nicholas looked over at her anxiously.

Was she playing a game?

Before he could tell her that the boxes were not something to joke about, the servant shoved him away from the plinth, grabbing a fistful of his hair in one stunted hand and backhanding him with the other. There was a sickening crack as a jolt of agony shot across his face. He would have gone sprawling if he hadn't been held upright in her claws.

Before he could recover his senses, the second blow caught him on the jaw, then the third struck him on the forehead, at the same moment as she released her grip. The force of the last strike bounced him against the wall.

He was scared.

Why was she so angry?

"I said they're mine, you Confessor brat," Rose hissed. "Your father took them from me."

The boxes!

He was supposed to protect the boxes.

What would father say when he found out Nicholas let her in the room?

Reeling, dazed with pain and shock, spitting out the blood filling his mouth, Nicholas struggled to his feet and lurched forward. He needed to use the one power at his command to stop this creature who he had thought a friend.

Reaching out with shaking hands, he sought to confess her, but he was so wobbly on his feet that she easily evaded his touch. Circling Nicholas like a cat, she positioned herself between him and the pedestal.

"Now," she announced calmly, "I'm taking what's mine." Through his clouded vision Nicholas saw Rose approach the plinth.

No!

Where were the guards?'

Why had he ever let her near the boxes?

He wanted Father. Why didn't he come?

"Stop. You can't touch the boxes. Please don't," his voice caught in a ragged sob. If something bad happened, it would be his fault.

"Who will stop me, Master Nicholas Rahl, you?" Rose mocked, caressing the jeweled objects. "I don't think so. You're just a weak little boy."

Then –she lifted the smallest box from its niche.

Nicholas shut his eyes against the white glare, as the air seemed to be sucked out of the room. After the glow faded, there was only a great emptiness where the magic used to be.

Rose stood by the plinth, fondling the box with interest. "It's such a small thing to have such power. Don't you agree, Nicholas?" She was humming to herself.

"Put it – " he halted, realizing that was the last thing he wanted her to do. Only Father could put the Boxes back together. He wondered if he could still get close enough to confess her.

"Oh, I'm going to put it back," Rose answered his unspoken demand. "But not yet." Still crooning to herself, she set the box down on the rim of the pedestal and reached into her sleeve.

Nicholas crept up behind her, daring to hope that she had been too engrossed in her treasure to notice his approach. He was almost within arm's reach when she whirled around, the dagger glinting in her hand. He was quick enough to dodge her feint, but lost his balance, skidding to the floor.

Rose was on him in a flash, her knee in the small of his back pinning him to the marble.

"Just be patient, Nicholas Rahl," she murmured into his ear. "You and I are going to surprise your father. I'm certain he's already on his way."

oOo

Terrified, immobilized, helpless, he began to cry.

He wished Father would hurry.

Darken Rahl was conferring with First Advisor Richard Cypher Rahl about grain shipments from East Granthia when he felt the power leave him. The warmth and light that had invigorated him for the past ten years was just - gone.

Richard felt it, too. Darken could see it in his brother's eyes – the stirring of someone waking from a long sleep, looking back at him with dawning suspicion and distrust. He felt his old self begin to stir in response, the jealousy, the fear, the anger.

Orden had deserted him.

Who had torn the boxes asunder?

His mind bent to one purpose, he shoved his way through the throngs of petitioners and retainers, racing toward the stairs.

Darken had to get to them first. If he could put the boxes back together the world would be set right again before anyone knew the difference.

He couldn't lose everything gained over the past decade. Already, Kahlan's love, like Richard's, would be turning to hatred.

Only Nicholas would still love him.

Nicholas!

His heart in his throat, cursing at the absence of his guards, Darken threw open the door to Orden's chamber.

It took a moment for his mind to register what his eyes beheld.

His perceptions had dulled over the years, had become sluggish under the constant intoxication of Orden.

But then his vision cleared.

His son, his only child, hung in the grip of a madwoman, the blade of her dagger pressed against his throat. Darken had never seen her before.

One of the boxes balanced precariously on the edge of the plinth he had ordered constructed for this purpose so many years ago.

"What is this? Who are you," he demanded, forcing the words out through his teeth. "Release my son!"

The madwoman's maimed features twisted in a grotesque smile. "Don't you recognize me, Lord Rahl? Your son and I share the same birthday. I was hoping you would ask me to the party tomorrow."

Darken searched his memory, but could find nothing that connected with the creature threatening his son.

"Father, help me," Nicholas's face was streaked with tears and blood, his voice barely more than a whisper.

For the first time in years, Darken was engulfed by rage. It pulsed through his blood, threatening to drown reason. Fear followed close behind, just as overwhelming and unreasoning.

He couldn't let the feelings take over or he was lost. Struggling for control, he tried to draw on the calm and gentle reason that had been his mainstay over the past ten years.

Why would anybody want to hurt his boy?

"Please, if I've done anything to harm you or yours, don't take it out on my son," he said, his voice shaking with the effort to stay calm. "Tell me your grievance and I'll do my best to make amends."

The blade pricked his son's throat, drawing a small bead of red. Nicholas whimpered.

"How does it feel to see somebody hurting the person you love, and to be helpless to protect them?" the madwoman asked.

Darken eyed the boxes. He could fix this if he could only get to them. But the woman stood only inches from the plinth and he was at least eight feet away. Without Orden, it might as well have been ten leagues. His own magic still ran through his veins, but he hadn't used it in years.

She must be referring to some past injury inflicted on her.

Dakren had hurt so many people in the past. How could he be expected to remember them all?

He had changed. Orden's magic had changed him. Didn't that count for anything?

"Please tell me what you want." He tried to reason with her. "Do I know you? Have we ever met?"

The madwoman eyed Darken with perverse amusement. "You came to my ninth birthday party, Lord Rahl, in Tamarang. Don't you remember the puppet show? Don't you remember Reuben?"

The blade drew a line across his son's flesh, with just enough pressure to break the skin.

The memories flooded over him.

Queen Milena of Tamarang.

The birthday party.

The cake.

The Wizard's trickery.

The false Box of Orden.

Darken's own anger and humiliation.

He had murdered the queen in front of her own child, condemning the girl to slavery in the mines, a fate he had intended to lead to suffering and death.

The princess's injuries could attest to her suffering, yet she had managed to survive.

His heart screamed in silent protest. It wasn't the same.

Princess Violet had been a spoiled selfish monster. She had only received her just desserts.

Nicholas was innocent.

He should not have to pay for his father had done.

Darken was willing to bargain. "Princess, I can't undo the past, but I will give you anything you want – titles, money, lands, anything – just release my son."

"I want for nothing, Lord Rahl." Violet's voice dripped with distain. "Everything I could ever desire is within my grasp." Her glance lit upon the boxes then slid to Nicholas.

"My life for his," Darken pled, no longer caring about dignity or pride, not reflecting that his old self would never have made such an offer.

If he lost his son, there was nothing left.

Life without Orden would be a stark wasteland of being hated, being hunted. He didn't want that again.

Nicholas loved him, but without Darken, the boy would still have his mother, he would have Richard.

His brother and Kahlan might hate the father, but Darken knew that, even freed from Orden, they would still love the child.

"My life for his," he repeated, heedless of the wetness on his cheeks.

Let her take her revenge.

Wasn't that enough?

Violet mused for a moment, humming under her breath, appearing to consider his offer. "I'm sorry, Lord Rahl," she finally stated," that's just not good enough. I don't want your worthless life. There is only one thing you can give me that I value."

"Anything! Just say the word, and it's yours. What do you want?"

Violent smiled as she slit his son's throat. "Your suffering," she replied.

Released from her clutches, Nicholas slid to the floor, blood beginning to pool around his small body.

"No!"

With an anguished scream, Darken launched himself across the room.

One part of his mind ordered him to regain Orden at any cost, commanded him to push the woman out of the way and grab the boxes.

But his son was the world. Nothing else mattered.

Kneeling on the floor, cradling Nicholas in his arms, robes darkening with blood, Darken searched his child's face hopelessly for any sign of life.

"Rahl! You're not getting the boxes." Richard yelled, barreling into the room before drawing up short at the sight of his nephew.

"Nicholas?" he gaped at the boy, then at Darken, trying to comprehend the impossible.

"Who did this? What-"

"There isn't time, Richard. You have to get to the boxes," Darken shouted, retaining enough presence of mind to urge his brother to do what he could not. "Don't let her use them."

If anybody could be trusted with Orden, it was Richard.

But his brother, overcome by grief and pity, moved too late.

Humming to herself, Violent picked up her box - the box little Rachel had smuggled out of her palace so many years before - and pushed it snugly against the others.

Then the world went white.

It was the dawn of a new age.

END