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Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

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BOOK: Naked Empire
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Jennsen peered from one grim face to another. “What do you mean the races aren’t the worst of it?”

Cara pointed with her Agiel. “That…that figure. That man.”

Frowning in confusion, Jennsen looked back and forth between Cara and the blowing sand.

“What do you see?” Richard asked.

Jennsen threw her hands up in a gesture of frustration. “Black-tipped races. Five of them. That, and the blinding blowing sand is all. Is there someone out there? Do you see people coming?”

She didn’t see it.

Tom pulled the bow and quiver from the wagon and ran for the rest of them. Two of the races, as if noting Tom running in with the bow, lifted a wing and circled wider. They swept around him once before disappearing into the darkness. The other three, though, continued to circle, as if bearing the floating form in the blowing sand beneath them.

Closer still the races came, and the form with them. Richard couldn’t imagine what it was, but the sense of dread it engendered rivaled any nightmare. The power from the sword surging through him had no such fear or doubt. Then why did he? Storms of magic within, beyond anything storming across the wasteland, spiraled up through him, fighting for release. With grim effort, Richard contained the need, focused it on the task of doing his bidding should he choose to release it. He was the master of the sword and had at all times to consciously exert that mastery. By the sword’s reaction to what the currents of sand revealed, there could be no doubt as to Richard’s conviction of the nature of what stood before him. Then what was it he sensed from the sword?

From back by the wagon, a horse screamed. A quick glance over his shoulder revealed Friedrich trying to calm them. All three horses reared against the rope he held fast. They came down stamping their hooves and snorting. From the corner of his eye, Richard saw twin streaks of black shoot in out of the darkness, skimming in just above the ground. Betty let out a terrible wail.

And then, as quickly as they’d appeared, they were gone, vanished back into the thick gloom.

“No!” Jennsen cried out as she ran for the animals.

Before them, the unmoving shape watched. Tom reached out, trying to stop Jennsen on the way past. She tore away from him. For a moment, Richard worried that Tom might go after her, but then he was again running for Richard.

Out of the dark swirling murk, the two races suddenly appeared, so close Richard could see the quills running down through their flight feathers spread wide in the wind. Swooping in out of the swirling storm of dust to rejoin the circle, each carried a small, limp, white form in its powerful talons.

Tom ran up holding the bow out in one hand and the quiver in the other. Making his choice, Richard slammed his sword into its scabbard and snatched up the bow.

With one smooth motion he bent the bow and attached the string. He yanked an arrow from the leather quiver Tom held out in his big fist.

As Richard turned to the target, he already had the arrow nocked and was drawing back the string. Distantly, it felt good to feel his muscles straining against the weight, straining against the spring of the bow, loading its force for release. It felt good to rely on his strength, his skill, his endless hours of practice, and not have to depend on magic.

The still form of the man who wasn’t there seemed to watch. Eddies of sand sluiced over the shape, marking the outline. Richard glared at the head of the form beyond the razor-sharp steel tip of the arrow. Like all blades, it fell comfortingly familiar to Richard. With a blade in his hands, he was in his element and it mattered not if it was stone dust his blade drew, or blood. The steel-tipped arrow was squarely centered on the empty spot in the curve of blowing sand that formed the head.

The piercing cry of races carried above the howl of the wind.

String to his cheek, Richard savored the tension in his muscles, the weight of the bow, the feathers touching his flesh, the distance between blade and objective filled with swirling sand, the pull of the wind against his arm, the bow, and the arrow. Each of those factors and a hundred more went into an inner calculation that after a lifetime of practice required no conscious computation yet decided where the point of the arrow belonged once he called the target.

The form before him stood watching.

Richard abruptly raised the bow and called the target.

The world became not only still but silent for him as the distance seemed to contract. His body was drawn as taut as the bow, the arrow becoming a projection of his fluid focused intent, the mark before the arrow his purpose for being. His conscious intent invoked the instant sum of the calculation needed to connect arrow and target.

The swirling sand seemed to slow as the races, wings spread wide, dragged through the thick air. There was no doubt in Richard’s mind what the arrow would find at the end of a journey only just begun. He felt the string hit his wrist. He saw the feathers clear the bow above his fist. The arrow’s shaft flexed slightly as it sprang away and took flight.

Richard was already drawing the second arrow from the quiver in Tom’s fist as the first found its target. Black feathers exploded in the crimson dawn. The bird tumbled gracelessly through the air and with a hard thud hit the ground not far from the shape floating just above the ground. The bloody white form was free of the talons, but it was too late.

The four remaining races screamed in fury. As the birds pumped their wings, clawing for height, one railed at Richard with a shrill scream. Richard called the target.

The second arrow was off.

The arrow ripped right into the race’s open throat and out the back of the head, cutting off the angry cry. The flightless weight plummeted to the ground.

The form below the remaining three races began to dissolve in the swirling sand.

The three remaining birds, as if abandoning their charge, wheeled around, racing toward Richard with angry intent. He calmly considered them from behind feathers of his own. The third arrow was away. The race in the center lifted its right wing, trying to change direction, but took the arrow through its heart. Rolling wing over wing, it spiraled down through the blowing sand, crashing to the hardpan out ahead of Richard.

The remaining two birds, screeching defiant cries, plunged toward him.

Richard pulled string to cheek, placing the fourth arrow on target. The range was swiftly closing. The arrow was away in an instant. It tore through the body of the black-tipped race still clutching in its talons the bloody corpse of the tiny kid.

Wings raked back, the last angry race dove toward Richard. As soon as Richard snatched an arrow from the quiver an impatient Tom held out, the big D’Haran heaved his knife. Before Richard could nock the arrow, the whirling knife ripped into the raptor. Richard stepped aside as the huge bird shot past in a lifeless drop and slammed into the ground right behind him. As it tumbled, blood sprayed across the windswept rock and black-tipped feathers flew everywhere.

The dawn, only moments ago filled with the the bloodcurdling screams of the black-tipped races, was suddenly quiet but for the low moan of the wind. Black feathers lifted in that wind, floating out across the open expanse beneath a yellow-orange sky.

At that moment, the sun broke the horizon, throwing long shadows out over the wasteland.

Jennsen clutched one of the limp white twins to her breast. Betty, bleating plaintively, blood running from a gash on her side, stood on her hind legs trying to arouse her still kid in Jennsen’s arms. Jennsen bent to the other twin sprawled on the ground and laid her lifeless charge beside it. Betty urgently licked at the bloody carcasses. Jennsen hugged Betty’s neck a moment before trying to pull the goat away. Betty dug in her hooves, not wanting to leave her stricken kids. Jennsen could do no more than to offer her friend consoling words choked with tears.

When she stood, unable to turn Betty from her dead offspring, Richard sheltered Jennsen under his arm.

“Why would the races suddenly do that?”

“I don’t know,” Richard said. “You didn’t see anything other than the races, then?”

Jennsen leaned against Richard, holding her face in her hands, giving in briefly to the tears. “I just saw the birds,” she said as she used the back of her sleeve to wipe her cheeks.

“What about the shape defined by the blowing sand?” Kahlan asked as she placed a comforting hand on Jennsen’s shoulder.

“Shape?” She looked from Kahlan to Richard. “What shape?”

“It looked like a man’s shape.” Kahlan drew the curves of an outline in the air before her with both hands. “Like the outline of a man wearing a hooded cape.”

“I didn’t see anything but black-tipped races and the clouds of blowing sand.”

“And you didn’t see the sand blowing around anything?” Richard asked. “You didn’t see any shape defined by the sand?”

Jennsen shook her head insistently before returning to Betty’s side.

“If the shape involved magic,” Kahlan said in a confidential tone to Richard, “she wouldn’t see that, but why wouldn’t she see the sand?”

“To her, the magic wasn’t there.”

“But the sand was.”

“The color is there on a painting but a blind person can’t see it, nor can they see the shapes that the brush strokes, laden with color, help define.” He shook his head in wonder as he watched Jennsen. “We don’t really know to what degree someone is affected by other things when they can’t perceive the magic that interacts with those other things. For all we know, it could be that her mind simply fails to recognize the pattern caused by magic and just reads it as blowing sand. It could even be that because there is a pattern to the magic, only we can see those particles of sand directly involved with defining the pattern, while she sees them all and therefore the subordinate pattern is lost to her eyes.

“It could even be that it’s something like the boundaries were; two worlds existing in the same place at the same time. Jennsen and we could be looking at the same thing, and see it through different eyes—through different worlds.”

Kahlan nodded as Richard bent to one knee beside Jennsen to inspect the gash through the goat’s wiry brown hair.

“We’d better stitch this,” he told Jennsen. “It’s not life-threatening, but it needs attention.”

Jennsen snuffled back her tears as Richard stood. “It was magic, then—the thing you saw?”

Richard stared off toward where the form had appeared in the blowing sand. “Something evil.”

Off behind them, Rusty tossed her head and whinnied in sympathy with inconsolable Betty. When Tom laid a sorrowful hand on Jennsen’s shoulder, she seized it as if for strength and held it to her cheek.

Jennsen finally stood, shielding her eyes against the blowing dust as she looked to the horizon. “At least we’re rid of the filthy races.”

“Not for long,” Richard said.

His headache came slamming back with such force that it nearly took him from his feet. He had learned a great deal about controlling pain, about how to disregard it. He did that now.

There were bigger worries.

Chapter 7

Around midafternoon, as they were walking across the scorching desert, Kahlan noticed Richard carefully watching his shadow stretched out before him.

“What is it?” she asked. “What’s the matter?”

He gestured at the shadow before him. “Races. Ten or twelve. They just glided up behind us. They’re hiding in the sun.”

“Hiding in the sun?”

“They’re flying high and in the spot where their shadow falls on us. If we were to look up in the sky we wouldn’t be able to see them because we’d have to look right into the sun.”

Kahlan turned and, with her hand shielding her eyes, tried to see for herself, but it was too painful to try to look up anywhere near the merciless sun. When she looked back, Richard, who hadn’t turned to look with her, again flicked his hand toward the shadows.

“If you look carefully at the ground around your shadow, you can just make out the distortion in the light. It’s them.”

Kahlan might have thought that Richard was having a little fun with her were it not about a matter as serious as the races. She searched the ground around their shadows until she finally saw what he was talking about. At such a distance, the races’ shadows were little more than shifting irregularities in the light.

Kahlan glanced back at the wagon. Tom was driving, with Friedrich sitting up on the seat beside him. Richard and Kahlan were giving the horses a rest from being ridden, so they were tethered to the wagon.

Jennsen sat on blankets in the back of the wagon, comforting Betty as she bleated in misery. Kahlan didn’t think the goat had been silent for more than a minute or two all day. The gash wasn’t bad; Betty’s suffering was from other pain. At least the poor goat had Jennsen for solace.

From what Kahlan had learned, Jennsen had had Betty for half her life. Moving around as she and her mother had, running from Darken Rahl, hiding, staying away from people so as not to reveal themselves and risk word drifting back to Darken Rahl’s ears, Jennsen had never had a chance to have childhood friends. Her mother had gotten her the goat as a companion. In her constant effort to keep Jennsen out of the hands of a monster, it was the best she could offer.

Kahlan wiped the stinging sweat from her eyes. She took in the four black feathers Richard had bundled together and strung on his upper right arm. He had taken the feathers when he’d retrieved the arrows that were still good. Richard had given the last feather to Tom for killing the fifth race with his knife. Tom wore his single feather like Richard, on his arm. Tom thought of it as a trophy, of sorts, awarded by the Lord Rahl.

Kahlan knew that Richard wore his four feathers for a different reason: it was a warning for all to see.

Kahlan pulled her hair back over her shoulder. “Do you think that was a man below the races? A man watching us?”

Richard shrugged. “You know more about magic than me. You tell me.”

“I’ve never seen anything like it.” She frowned over at him. “If it was a man…or something like that, why do you think he finally decided to reveal himself?”

“I don’t think he did decide to reveal himself.” Richard’s intent gray eyes turned toward her. “I think it was an accident.”

“How could it be an accident?”

“If it’s someone using the races to track us, and he can somehow see us—”

“See us how?”

“I don’t know. See us through the eyes of the races.”

“You can’t do that with magic.”

Richard fixed her with a trenchant look. “Fine. Then what was it?”

Kahlan looked back at the shadows stretching out before them on the buckskin-colored rock, back at the small bleary shapes moving around the shadow of her head, like flies around a corpse. “I don’t know. You were saying?…About someone using the races to track us, to see us?”

“I think,” Richard said, “that someone is watching us, through the races or with their aid—or something like that—and they can’t really see everything. They can’t see clearly.”


“So, since he can’t see with clarity, I think maybe he didn’t realize that there was a sandstorm. He didn’t anticipate what the blowing sand would reveal. I don’t think he intended to give himself away.” Richard looked over at her again. “I think he made a mistake. I think he showed himself accidentally.”

Kahlan let out a measured, exasperated breath. She had no argument for such a preposterous notion. It was no wonder he hadn’t told her the full extent of his theory. She had been thinking, when he said the races were tracking them, that probably a web had been cast and then some event had triggered it—most likely Cara’s innocent touch—and that spell had then attached to them, causing the races to follow that marker of magic. Then, as Jennsen had suggested, someone was simply watching where the races were in order to get a pretty good idea of where Richard and Kahlan were. Kahlan had thought of it in terms of the way Darken Rahl had once hooked a tracer cloud to Richard in order to know where they were. Richard wasn’t thinking in terms of what had happened before; he was looking at it through the prism of a Seeker.

There were still a number of things about Richard’s notion that didn’t make sense to her, but she knew better than to discount what he thought simply because she had never heard of such a thing before.

“Maybe it’s not a ‘he,’” she finally said. “Maybe it’s a she. Maybe a Sister of the Dark.”

Richard gave her another look, but this one was more worry than anything else. “Whoever it is—whatever it is—I don’t think it can be anything good.”

Kahlan couldn’t argue that much of it, but still, she couldn’t reconcile such a notion. “Well, let’s say it’s like you think it is—that we spotted him spying on us, by accident. Why did the races then attack us?”

Dust rose from Richard’s boot as he casually kicked a small stone. “I don’t know. Maybe he was just angry that he’d given himself away.”

“He was angry, so he had the races kill Betty’s kids? And attack you?”

Richard shrugged. “I’m just guessing because you asked; I’m not saying I think it’s so.” The long feathers, bloodred at their base, turning to a dark gray and then to inky black at the tip, ruffled in the gusts of wind.

As he thought it over, his tone turned more speculative. “It could even be that whoever it was using the races to watch us had nothing at all to do with the attack. Maybe the races decided to attack on their own.”

“They simply took the reins from whoever it was that was taking them for the ride?”

“Maybe. Maybe he can send them to us so he can have a peek at where we are, where we’re going, but can’t control them much more than that.”

In frustration, Kahlan let out a sigh. “Richard,” she said, unable to hold back her doubts, “I know a good deal about all sorts of magic and I’ve never heard of anything like this being possible.”

Richard leaned close, again taking her in with those arresting gray eyes of his. “You know about all sorts of things magic from the Midlands. Maybe down here they have something you never encountered before. After all, had you ever heard of a dream walker before we encountered Jagang? Or even thought such a thing was possible?”

Kahlan pulled her lower lip through her teeth as she studied his grim expression for a long moment. Richard hadn’t grown up around magic—it was all new to him. In some ways, though, that was a strength, because he didn’t have preconceived notions about what was possible and what wasn’t. Sometimes, the things they’d encountered were unprecedented.

To Richard, just about all magic was unprecedented.

“So, what do you think we should do?” she finally asked in a confidential tone.

“What we planned.” He glanced over his shoulder to see Cara scouting a goodly distance off to their left side. “It has to be connected to the rest of it.”

“Cara only meant to protect us.”

“I know. And who knows, maybe it would have been worse if she hadn’t touched it. It could even be that by doing what she did, she actually bought us time.”

Kahlan swallowed at the feeling of dread churning in her. “Do you think we still have enough time?”

“We’ll think of something. We don’t even know yet for sure what it could mean.”

“When the sand finally runs out of an hourglass, it usually means the goose is cooked.”

“We’ll find an answer.”


Richard reached over and gently caressed the back of her neck. “Promise.”

Kahlan loved his smile, the way it sparkled in his eyes. Somewhere in the back of her mind she knew that he always kept his promises. His eyes held something else, though, and that distracted her from asking if he believed the answer he promised would come in time, or even if it would be an answer that could help them.

“You have a headache, don’t you,” she said.

“Yes.” His smile had vanished. “It’s different than before, but I’m pretty sure it’s caused by the same thing.”

The gift. That’s what he meant.

“What do you mean it’s different? And if it’s different, then what makes you think the cause is the same?”

He thought about it a moment. “Remember when I was explaining to Jennsen about how the gift needs to be balanced, how I have to balance the fighting I do by not eating meat?” When she nodded he went on. “It got worse right then.”

“Headaches, even those kind, vary.”

“No…” he said, frowning as he tried to find the words. “No, it was almost as if talking about—thinking about—the need not to eat meat in order to balance the gift somehow brought it more to the fore and made the headaches worse.”

Kahlan didn’t at all like that concept. “You mean like maybe the gift within you that is the cause of the headaches is trying to impress upon you the importance of balance in what you do with the gift.”

Richard raked his fingers back through his hair. “I don’t know. There’s more to it. I just can’t seem to get it all worked out. Sometimes when I try, when I go down that line of reasoning, about how I need to balance the fighting I do, the pain starts to get so bad I can’t dwell on it.

“And something else,” he added. “There might be a problem with my connection to the magic of the sword.”

“What? How can that be?”

“I don’t know.”

Kahlan tried to keep the alarm out of her voice. “Are you sure?”

He shook his head in frustration. “No, I’m not sure. It just seemed different when I felt the need of it and drew the sword this morning. It was as if the sword’s magic was reluctant to rise to the need.”

Kahlan thought it over a moment. “Maybe that means that the headaches are something different, this time. Maybe they aren’t really caused by the gift.”

“Even if some of it is different, I still think its cause is the gift,” he said. “One thing they do have in common with the last time is that they’re gradually getting worse.”

“What do you want to do?”

He lifted his arms out to the sides and let them fall back. “For now, we don’t have much of a choice—we have to do what we planned.”

“We could go to Zedd. If it is the gift, as you think, then Zedd would know what to do. He could help you.”

“Kahlan, do you honestly believe that we have any chance in Creation of making it all the way to Aydindril in time? Even if it weren’t for the rest of it, if the headaches are from the gift, I’d be dead weeks before we could travel all the way to Aydindril. And that’s not even taking into account how difficult it’s bound to be getting past Jagang’s army all throughout the Midlands and especially the troops around Aydindril.”

“Maybe he’s not there now.”

Richard kicked at another stone in the path. “You think Jagang is just going to leave the Wizard’s Keep and all it contains—leave it all for us to use against him?”

Zedd was First Wizard. For someone of his ability, defending the Wizard’s Keep wouldn’t be too difficult. He also had Adie there with him to help. The old sorceress, alone, could probably defend a place such as the Keep. Zedd knew what the Keep would mean to Jagang, could he gain it. Zedd would protect the Keep no matter what.

“There’s no way for Jagang to get past the barriers in that place,” Kahlan said. That much of it was one worry they could set aside. “Jagang knows that and might not waste time holding an army there for nothing.”

“You may be right, but that still doesn’t do us any good—it’s too far.”

Too far. Kahlan seized Richard’s arm and dragged him to a halt. “The sliph. If we can find one of her wells, we could travel in the sliph. If nothing else, we know there’s the well down here in the Old World—in Tanimura. Even that’s a lot closer than a journey overland all the way to Aydindril.”

Richard looked north. “That might work. We wouldn’t have to make it past Jagang’s army. We could come right up inside the Keep.” He put his arm around her shoulders. “First, though, we have to see to this other business.”

Kahlan grinned. “All right. We take care of me first, then we see to taking care of you.”

She felt a heady sense of relief that there was a solution at hand. The rest of them couldn’t travel in the sliph—they didn’t have the required magic—but Richard, Kahlan, and Cara certainly could. They could come up right in the Keep itself.

The Keep was immense, and thousands of years old. Kahlan had spent much of her life there, but she had seen only a fraction of the place. Even Zedd hadn’t seen it all, because of some of the shields that had been placed there ages ago by those with both sides of the gift, and Zedd had only the Additive side. Rare and dangerous items of magic had been stored there for eons, along with records and countless books. By now it was possible that Zedd and Adie had found something in the Keep that would help drive the Imperial Order back to the Old World.

Not only would going to the Keep be a way to solve Richard’s problem with the gift, but it might provide them with something they needed to swing the tide of the war back to their side.

Suddenly, seeing Zedd, Aydindril, and the Keep seemed only a short time away.

With a renewed sense of optimism, Kahlan squeezed Richard’s hand. She knew that he wanted to keep scouting ahead. “I’m going to go back and see how Jennsen is doing.”


As Richard moved on and Kahlan slowed, letting the wagon catch up with her, another dozen black-tipped races drifted in on the air currents high above the burning plain. They stayed close to the sun, and well out of range of Richard’s arrows, but they stayed within sight.

BOOK: Naked Empire
10.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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