The Pillars of Creation loomed over their tiny group, ghostly sentinels affording a sense of serenity and calm in the aftermath of battle. The Keeper had been defeated and the veil between the world of the living and the Underworld repaired.
Tomorrow, Zedd knew, duty would call once again, and he, along with his companions, would take up the burden of rebuilding a ravaged world that only yesterday had hovered on the edge of total destruction.
But for now, on this star-lit evening, with the ancient columns standing as silent witness to both the sacrifices that had been made, and the promise of a new beginning, they could be permitted a few hours to reflect on the past, and to hope for better days to come.
Zedd pretended not to notice when Richard and Kahlan wandered off into the dark beauty of the night to enjoy what had been denied to them for so long. They had earned their happiness, and he wished them joy. Tomorrow they would set out for Aydindril where Kahlan would become the Mother Confessor in truth.
Richard faced the heaviest choice of all. As the true Lord Rahl, Zedd's grandson had responsibilities to his land and his people, obligations he felt he had already discharged by saving the world. The boy, no – the man - had fought so hard as the Seeker, he had become the inspiration to so many. Who could blame him for wanting to follow Kahlan to Aydindril?
Zedd's heart ached for his grandson. Richard was still so young, and his dearest hope of a simple life with Kahlan and their children was something that he would never have.
Cara, of course, would follow Richard , whatever choice he made. Zedd gazed over at the Mord'Sith, a small lonely figure crouched by the fire, watching over them all, as she had for so many months. The wizard hadn't missed the infinitesimal spasm of longing and loss that had flitted across her face when the lovers had walked away. He prayed that one day she would not feel so alone, but would never offend her fierce pride by presuming to comfort her.
Finally, reluctantly, Zedd's attention fixed, as it so often did in recent days, on the newest member of their band, the man who even now had the arrogance to lounge against the stone base of the Pillars. The Wizard scowled at the effrontery.
The monster had no right to even touch the sacred marble. It was a wonder the Creator did not strike him dead at the insolence.
Before Zedd and his companions set out on the morrow, they had another decision to reach.
What, in the name of all that was just, were they going to do with Darken Rahl?
If left behind, the man was certain to stir up unrest in an attempt to regain power. He might no longer carry the Rahl bloodline or Rahl magic, he might no longer be the Keepers servant, but the former tyrant had a charisma all his own, and Zedd knew he was capable of drawing loyal followers back to his side.
But Rahl would be a constant thorn in everybody's side if they dragged him along on their journey.
Kahlan hated him with good reason, but might want Rahl to stand trial for war crimes at Aydindril. She might argue for taking Rahl with them for that reason alone. The Wizard couldn't argue against her reasoning.
Zedd was certain that Cara despised her former master, although more than once he had been puzzled and a little disturbed by surreptitious glances exchanged between the Mord'Sith and Rahl over the days since the tyrant had joined forces with them.
Richard, his kind-hearted grandson, distrusted the brother who had pursued him since the day he was born, but had accepted Rahl's presence more willing than the others. He seemed to cling to a rather naïve hope that, someday, they might be a family.
As for himself – Zedd hated Darken Rahl with a fury that dwarfed Kahlan's. He had hated him for decades.
Had hated him since the man had been a squalling infant , already pre-destined to bring ruin and destruction to everything that was good and noble in the world.
The wizard didn't like pondering overmuch on the years he had detested Rahl. It made him uncomfortable in ways he refused to examine.
It had been Zedd's primary mission in life to wipe out Rahl and everything he stood for.
In West Granthia, that goal had been accomplished, only to unleash more pain and suffering when Orden's magic ripped the veil and opened the rift to the Underworld.
In spite of all Zedd's efforts, the man just refused to stay dead.
It was infuriating.
Zedd had to admit Rahl had fought ferociously by their side in the final battle, but only to save his own skin. If there was one thing the tyrant feared, it was falling back into the Keeper's clutches.
Why couldn't he have just been killed in the melee? Better men than he had lost their lives. But knowing the man's infernal cunning, even if he had died, Rahl would probably have found a way to come back again.
To add insult to injury, Rahl had saved Zedd's life the day before, cutting down one of the Keeper's minions when the wizard's magic had failed him amidst the carnage, and had seemed quite put out when the wizard hadn't expressed gratitude for his sacrifice.
Even now, through the distance and darkness that separated them, Zedd could feel Rahl's gaze burning into his flesh as if the creature could read his thoughts.
"What is it, Rahl?" he growled, determined not to let himself be discomfited by the scrutiny. "If you're expecting thanks from me, you'll be waiting for an eternity."
"Not at all, Zeddicus," Rahl said quietly, his voice silky with false camaraderie. "Since I dispatched you – or at least thought I had done – at Tamarang, my action yesterday was only a balancing of the scales. I'm sure the Creator will take note accordingly."
This was too much.
As loath as he was to engage any further with his enemy, Zedd wanted to set matters straight between them once and for all. Heaving himself to his feet, joints creaking with effort, he strode over toward the Pillars where he towered over Rahl for a few satisfying moments, forcing the other man to look up at him.
Rahl's maddening smirk remained firmly in place as he met Zedd's glare without flinching. He seemed completely unfazed by the wizard's threatening stance. Oddly though, the smile didn't reach Rahl's eyes, which were dark with some unreadable emotion.
In any other man, it might have looked like regret, but Zedd knew that was impossible. Rahl was incapable of remorse.
The wizard, knowing that any attempt at intimidation was wasted on his foe, lowered himself to the ground, close enough to observe Rahl, but keeping a careful distance between them, as if to avoid contamination.
"I suppose you're gloating at the thought of basking in the Creator's light," Zedd snapped, irritated with how Rahl could get under his skin with so little effort.
"I'm not a fool, Zeddicus, " the tyrant said quietly, studying the wizard. "My Mord'Sith are decimated, I have no magic, my prospects are dim, to say the least. But at least I'm alive, and while there's life, there's hope." Even in tattered bloody peasant's garb, even with his dark hair matted and filthy, Rahl managed to look regal. "I don't take the Creator's forgiveness as casually as you seem to believe."
"Forgiveness!" Zedd spat, the blood rushing into his face. "In your mouth, that word is an obscenity. The Creator will never forgive your unspeakable crimes."
"Really, Wizard?" Rahl's smile had vanished, but his voice was edged with irony as he regarded Zedd with feigned awe. "While your reputation is impressive, I wasn't aware that the Creator consulted you before making her decisions as to who is, or is not, worthy of forgiveness."
Zedd chafed at the jibe, but didn't give ground. "There are some crimes that can never be forgiven and you have committed all of them. Becoming a baneling in service to the Keeper." Rahl's expression hardened. Clearly he had not expected Richard to divulge that information. "The murder of thousands of innocent men, women and children, the unleashing of plagues, the slaughter of infants…" Zedd's voice faltered over the last words as he recalled the horror of Brennidon, the chaos of Richard's rescue, the guilt at abandoning his daughter.
"Yes – the massacre. I had to protect myself. If I had only known which child, it would never have been necessary." Rahl's voice cut through the clamor of Zedd's memories. "I could have brought Richard to me, raised him as my brother. So much misery could have been averted."
"And you expect me to believe that lie?" Zedd was sputtering with anger. "You would have murdered my grandson at his mother's breast, and my daughter, too, if you had been given the chance."
"Yet I didn't murder your daughter, Zeddicus, or my sister, even though I knew their whereabouts for years. I had them watched, even protected, from afar, but I never harmed them." Rahl's cool demeanor was beginning to desert him.
"Until you needed Jennsen, you mean. Then you were quick to send Denna after them." Zedd's voice broke as a sob caught in his throat. "Denna – who murdered my child."
Why had he initiated this encounter? This was supposed to be a night to celebrate victory, not to wallow in old griefs.
"That was never my intent," Rahl insisted. "I would have welcomed my sister. I would not have harmed her mother." He was rubbing at his hands, as if trying to wipe away the blood he had spilled. "Even knowing Tarralyn was your daughter, I would not have harmed her."
He sounded as if he almost believed it.
Zedd shook his head in disbelief. The man was a consummate liar, or else completely deluded. "You wanted the Boxes of Orden. All else was immaterial. You would have waded through the blood of anybody who stood in your way to get your hands on them."
"I had to protect myself!" Rahl's eyes glittered in the darkness, his features contorted with bitterness. "The Boxes of Orden wouldn't have been necessary if Shota's cursed prophecy hadn't set everything in motion, if it hadn't set my own father against me."
"That prophecy helped us save the world." Zedd declared hotly. "The Seeker brought hope to the victims of your tyranny."
If nothing else in life was certain, the fact of Richard's destiny was beyond dispute. The wizard believed this with every fiber of his being.
All the same, Rahl's next words sliced through him like a knife.
"That prophecy led Carracticus Zorander to murder me in my cradle when I was but a few weeks of age. You accuse me of unleashing a plague, and I don't deny it, but how do you justify infanticide committed by your own father?" Too agitated to remain still any longer, Rahl had lurched to his feet and began to pace, no longer looking at Zedd, his eyes seemed directed inward, at a past that had never stopped pursuing him.
Momentarily stunned by the monster's accusation, Zedd struggled to regain the moral high ground.
Unbidden, visions of Zedd's long-ago argument with his father rose before his eyes, the recollection of his younger self's horror at his father's actions.
On that night, Zedd had been appalled by a prophecy which decreed that his friend's small child had to die because of what he might one day become.
An innocent babe, less than a month old.
The child's ultimate fate was a detail Zedd had consigned to oblivion after Panis disguised himself and murdered Zedd's father. Friendship turned to hate, and vengeance against the House of Rahl had become the lodestone of his existence. From that day forward, he had hated the child as much as he hated the father.
Zedd had rejoiced when Panis had been murdered by his son. He had only wished the man had died at his own hands.
Then, only weeks ago, Darken Rahl's himself had appeared to Zedd and Thaddicus from the Underworld with the news that Panis Rahl was still alive, and the wizard's thirst for revenge had been renewed.
Now, in hindsight, Zedd shuddered at the memory of the monks he had killed with wizard's fire at the monastery, murdered for the crime of granting sanctuary to a man he hated. At the time, Zedd had not spared them a second thought.
Darken Rahl was not the only person with innocent blood on his hands.
But how had Darken Rahl discovered the truth of his childhood death?
Even Zedd had not known that the infant had died. He had always assumed that once Carracticus died, the illness had left the child's body. It was only after he and Panis had been reconciled that his old friend had confided his deepest regrets as he lay dying.
Of course - Rahl would have been waiting for his father in the Underworld to seek his own vengeance upon his father. He had probably taken great delight in torturing every secret out of the poor old man.
Out of the corner of his eye, the wizard noted that Cara was reacting to the raised voices and was heading their way. Turning toward her, Zedd motioned that everything was under control and there was no need for concern.
At that moment he wanted nothing more than to join her and return to the warmth of the fire, but he couldn't walk away – not yet.
Zedd didn't intend to let himself, or the man before him, off that easily. But before he could let fly his next accusation, Rahl forestalled him.
"I see that my dear brother informed you about my bargain with the Keeper, Zeddicus. But were you aware that my youthful transaction was not the first time I met my old master?" Hidden by the night, Rahl had approached so stealthily hat Zedd almost jumped at the sound of his voice. The man was so close that his breath was hot against the back of the Wizard's neck.
Speechless, Zedd could only shake his head.
"When Carracticus spelled me, my father, in his pride, took no action to save my life. Instead, he allowed me to die in front of his eyes, then had me revived by one of his Mord'Sith." Rahl's tone was as inflectionless as if he were talking about the weather. "I met the Keeper at a very young age, Zeddicus. Years before I became a baneling."
"Are you trying to excuse the murder of your father, your dabbling in dark sorcery, by blaming it on dying as an infant?" Zedd spluttered, finding his own logic totally wanting. He was still trying to come to grips with what Rahl was telling him about his old friend.
The friend he had forgiven for murdering his father.
Could the Keeper have first tried to claim Rahl as an infant? And if so, could it have had anything to do with Zedd's role in the child's conception?
He was not responsible for what had happened after the child's birth, and as a matter of fact didn't want to listen to any more of Rahl's puny excuses, but the man kept talking anyway.
"I only know that until my death in West Granthia, I never knew what it was to sleep without nightmares. I know that a shadow pursued me every day of my waking life." Rahl sounded exhausted, he had sunk back down to the ground, his back propped up again against the base of the Pillars. "After I was revived, my father thought me tainted, corrupted beyond redemption. He put on a show of affection in front of the servants and his men, especially General Timrack, who thought he could do no wrong."
Rahl let out a mirthless bark of laughter. "But he couldn't fool my mother. She knew, and she tried to help, but it did no good. Mother never mattered to him, anyway, and she died before my sixth birthday, leaving me alone with him – alone with the man who was already telling me that he was going to sire a son who would kill me. It was the bedtime story he recited to me every night, right before my nightmares joined me in sleep."
Zedd felt as if the ground was shifting under his feet as he tried to grab after the certainties that had defined his life for years. He lowered his body to sit next to his old enemy, no longer concerned that Rahl's corruption would bleed over into him.
The moon had now risen in the night sky, throwing the shadows of the Pillars into relief. Gazing over at the man he had hunted and hated for so long, Zedd was struck at how young Rahl looked. Gone was the habitual smirk, the guarded hooded demeanor. For a moment he caught a glimpse of the lonely boy under the façade of the man.
The Wizard had a sudden aching vision of an infant alone in a crib, abandoned, wailing endlessly, hopelessly in the cold dark night, crying for a comfort longed for but never bestowed, grieving over a desolation not even understood. Somewhere inside the man, that infant still wailed.
"But your father loved you. He was so proud when you were born." Zedd insisted, telling himself he wasn't trying to comfort Darken Rahl, he was just trying to make sense of what he was hearing.
"But that was before my father knew about the prophecy, wasn't it, Wizard? Once he confronted Carracticus in your guise, once he was told about Shota's prophecy, his mind and heart started to turn against me. The damage was done." Rahl's expression hardened and the boy he had once been disappeared. "You father succeeded in making the prophecy come true."
Another memory – this time of Zedd's younger self promising his good friend, Panis Rahl, that yes, he would be proud and happy to raise Darken Rahl and train him in the secrets of magic. At that time, the boy was newborn, healthy, and they were all so hopeful about his promising future.
"I didn't understand. There was so much I didn't understand." Zedd murmured to himself.
What would have happened if I had ignored my father and stayed? I could have saved Darken Rahl from my father's magic. He would never have died. His father would have loved him. I would have trained him. He could have been a good man, a great leader.
Everything could have been so much different.
But then Richard and Jennsen would never have been born, and how could Zedd regret that, even though their birth had involved the deception and betrayal of his own dear child, forcing her to live out the remainder of her days in fear and loneliness?
There were no easy answers.
Maybe there were no certainties.
Except for one.
Darken Rahl could never be told about the role Zedd played in his conception. No good could come of it, and there had already been too much misery. The morrow must be a day of new beginnings not past regrets. He could only hope that Panis had never divulged the matter to his son. But who knew what a man might reveal under torture?
For what seemed like hours, the two men sat together in silence, listening to the wind blowing through the ancient monuments and to the distant crackling of Cara's fire. Rahl seemed emotionally depleted, almost relieved, but Zedd was wrestling with another question.
"Darken," he began, then stopped, shocked at the slip of the tongue. He had never used Rahl's given name since the child was a few days old. But for some reason, now, the word felt – right.
Darken looked up quizzically at the unfamiliar appellation, then nodded.
"You hated your father, and perhaps you had your reasons. I remember your anger when you discovered he had escaped you. But once he was my good friend, and we made our peace before he died. I need to know – " Zedd hesitated, unsure of how to continue. He wasn't sure he did need to know, not if this man beside him was to be an ally in the future, but if he didn't ask, he would always wonder.
"Zeddicus, if there's something more, please hurry. It's getting cold and Cara's fire looks tempting." Darken's tone, while light, held an undercurrent of unease. Zedd could tell that he was already beginning to regret his revelations of the evening.
"Were you waiting for your father in the Underworld when he arrived?" Zedd asked, feeling more and more as if he had no right to ask this question.
"Of course. After all those years, do you think I was about to miss that opportunity." Darken's eyes were carefully averted despite the flippant tone.
"What did you do when he – got there?" This really was none of Zedd's business. It felt wrong to ask.
Still gazing into the distance, Darken didn't reply for a long moment, and Zedd was willing to accept that silence. As the Wizard braced himself against the tree to get to his feet, Darken finally spoke.
"First, I told him to rise. Then, he told me to do my worst to him, that he was prepared." The younger man's voice was so soft it was barely audible.
This was what Zedd had been afraid of, what he didn't want to know. He steadied himself, vowing that he would try to understand. Darken was no longer a creature of the Underworld, a servant of the Keeper. What he had done to his father in that incarnation didn't negate what he had done to help them in defeating the Keeper.
"Then I – " Darken's voice faltered slightly before he continued. "Then I put my arms around him and told him that I forgave him, and I asked him if he forgave me."
Zedd was rocked back on his heels. He, like Panis, had expected the worst, and it wouldn't have surprised him if Darken had complied, not after tonight. But this – he could never have expected this. It went against everything Zedd thought he knew about Darken Rahl.
There was a chance, of course, that he was lying. But somehow this didn't feel like a falsehood, and it didn't sound like something Darken would fabricate. He would do almost anything to avoid the appearance of weakness, of vulnerability.
Zedd had intended to ask nothing further, but he couldn't let it rest there. He had spent this evening re-assessing the measure of the son, now he had to take the measure of the father – the man he had once considered his closest friend.
"And what did your father say, Darken?" The name still tasted strange on his tongue, but he would get used to it.
Once more the lost boy looked out at him through the mask of the ex-tyrant of D'Hara. "He didn't say anything. I waited and waited. I thought at first Father was just afraid, then that it was hard for him to speak to me. Finally, I realized that Father's silence was his answer, nothing had changed between us. So I turned and walked away. I never saw him again." Darken's face was completely expressionless, his tone without inflection, his eyes hooded and impenetrable once more, but each word carried such a weight of sadness that Zedd felt his chest constrict.
"I'm sorry." The words escaped Zedd's lips without conscious thought. The phrase was so incomprehensible when addressed to a fiend, yet so inadequate when spoken to the man.
He was sorry – for everything. Looking back Zedd could see where he might have averted catastrophe, but at the time how could he have known?
Richard believed in second chances. There was no doubt in Zedd's mind about what his grandson would do if he were here.
Zedd had once offered Denna a second chance even after she had murdered his child and grandchild.
Perhaps he owed Darken no less.
As monstrous as Darken Rahl's crimes, by failing the helpless child he had once been, by abandoning him to the mercy of forces outside of his control, Zedd shared responsibility for what he had become.
While he couldn't change the past, he could change the future.
Zedd suffered under no illusions. Distrust and suspicion would linger. Anger and resentment would still flare.
But he had to take the first step.
Peering over toward the campsite, Zedd took note of Cara determined stance as she looked their way. She would be heading over at any moment.
He knew the words that had to be said.
The final question that had to be asked, impossible and unbelievable as it seemed.
He owed it to the boy, and he owed it to the man.
"Yes, Wizard, what is it?" The old Darken had returned, brusque, impatient. He, too, had noticed Cara's approach.
Meeting Darken's cautious gaze with his own, Zedd took a deep breath before forging into the unknown.
"I forgive you, Darken. Can you forgive me?"
The words fell gently, almost silently, like water in the desert.