Read Naked Empire Online

Authors: Terry Goodkind

Tags: #Fiction, #Fantasy, #Epic

Naked Empire (7 page)

BOOK: Naked Empire
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Tom handed a waterskin down to Kahlan when the bouncing wagon rattled up beside her. She was so dry that she gulped the hot water without caring how bad it tasted. As she let the wagon roll past, she put a boot in the iron rung and boosted herself up and over the side.

Jennsen looked to be happy for the company as Kahlan climbed in. Kahlan returned the smile before sitting beside Richard’s sister and the puling Betty.

“How is she?” Kahlan asked, gently stroking Betty’s floppy ears.

Jennsen shook her head. “I’ve never seen her like this. It’s breaking my heart. It reminds me of how hard it was for me when I lost my mother. It’s breaking my heart.”

As she sat back on her heels, Kahlan squeezed Jennsen’s hand sympathetically. “I know it’s hard, but it’s easier for an animal to get over something like this than for people to do the same. Don’t compare it to you and your mother. Sad as this is, it’s different. Betty can have more kids and she’ll forget all about this. You or I never could.”

Before the words were out, Kahlan felt a sudden stab of pain for the unborn child she had lost. How could she ever get over losing her and Richard’s child? Even if she ever had others, she would never be able to forget what was lost at the hands of brutes.

She idly turned the small dark stone on the necklace she wore, wondering if she ever would have a child, wondering if there would ever be a world safe for a child of theirs.

“Are you all right?”

Kahlan realized that Jennsen was watching her face.

Kahlan forced herself to put on a smile. “I’m just sad for Betty.”

Jennsen ran a tender hand over the top of Betty’s head. “Me too.”

“But I know that she’ll be all right.”

Kahlan watched the endless expanse of ground slowly slide by to either side of the wagon. Waves of heat made the horizon liquid, with detached pools of ground floating up into the sky. Still, they saw nothing growing. The land was slowly rising, though, as they came ever closer to distant mountains. She knew that it was only a matter of time until they reached life again, but right then it felt like they never would.

“I don’t understand about something,” Jennsen said. “You told me how I shouldn’t do anything rash, when it came to magic, unless I was sure of what would happen. You said it was dangerous. You said not to act in matters of magic until you can be sure of the consequence.”

Kahlan knew what Jennsen was driving at. “That’s right.”

“Well, that back there pretty much seemed like one of those stabs in the dark you warned me about.”

“I also told you that sometimes you had no choice but to act immediately. That’s what Richard did. I know him. He used his best judgment.”

Jennsen looked to be satisfied. “I’m not suggesting that he was wrong. I’m just saying that I don’t understand. It seemed pretty reckless to me. How am I supposed to know what you mean when you tell me not to do anything reckless if it involves magic?”

Kahlan smiled. “Welcome to life with Richard. Half the time I don’t know what’s in his head. I’ve often thought he was acting recklessly and it turned out to be the right thing, the only thing, he could have done. That’s part of the reason he was named Seeker. I’m sure he took into account things he sensed that even I couldn’t.”

“But how does he know those things? How can he know what to do?”

“Oftentimes he’s just as confused as you, or even me. But he’s different, too, and he’s sure when we wouldn’t be.”


Kahlan looked over at the young woman, at her red hair shining in the afternoon sunlight. “He was born with both sides of the gift. All those born with the gift in the last three thousand years have been born with Additive Magic only. Some, like Darken Rahl and the Sisters of the Dark, have been able to use Subtractive Magic, but only through the Keeper’s help—not on their own. Richard alone has been born with Subtractive Magic.”

“That’s what you mentioned last night, but I don’t know anything about magic, so I don’t know what that means.”

“We’re not exactly sure of everything it means ourselves. Additive Magic uses what is there, and adds to it, or changes it somehow. The magic of the Sword of Truth, for example, uses anger, and adds to it, takes power from it, adds to it until it’s something else. With Additive, for example, the gifted can heal.

“Subtractive Magic is the undoing of things. It can take things and make them nothing. According to Zedd, Subtractive Magic is the counter to Additive, as night is to day. Yet it is all part of the same thing.

“Commanding Subtractive, as Darken Rahl did, is one thing, but to be born with it is quite another.

“Long ago, unlike now, being born with the gift—both sides of the gift—was common. The great war then resulted in a barrier sealing the New World off from the Old. That’s kept the peace all this time, but things have changed since then. After that time, not only have those born with the gift gradually become exceedingly rare, but those who have been born with the gift haven’t been born with the Subtractive side of it.

“Richard was born of two lines of wizards, Darken Rahl and his grandfather Zedd. He’s also the first in thousands of years to be born with both sides of the gift.

“All of our abilities contribute to how we’re able to react to situations. We don’t know how having both sides contributes to Richard’s ability to read a situation and do what’s necessary. I suspect he may be guided by his gift, perhaps more than he believes.”

Jennsen let out a troubled sigh. “After all this time, how did this barrier come to be down, anyway?”

“Richard destroyed it.”

Jennsen looked up in astonishment. “Then it’s true. Sebastian told me that the Lord Rahl—Richard—had brought the barrier down. Sebastian said it was so that Richard could invade and conquer the Old World.”

Kahlan smiled at such a grandiose lie. “You don’t believe that part of it, do you?”

“No, not now.”

“Now that the barrier is down, the Imperial Order is flooding up into the New World, destroying or enslaving everything before them.”

“Where can people live that’s safe? Where can we?”

“Until they’re stopped or driven back, there is no safe place to live.”

Jennsen thought it over a moment. “If the barrier coming down let the Imperial Order flood in to conquer the New World, why would Richard have destroyed it?”

With one hand, Kahlan held on to the side of the wagon as it rocked over a rough patch of ground. She stared ahead, watching Richard walking through the glaring light of the wasteland.

“Because of me,” Kahlan said in a quiet voice. “One of those mistakes I told you about.” She let out a tired sigh. “One of those stabs in the dark.”

Chapter 8

Richard squatted down, resting his forearms across his thighs as he studied the curious patch of rock. His head was pounding with pain; he was doing his best to ignore it. The headache had come and gone seemingly without reason. At times he had begun to think that it just might be the heat after all, and not the gift.

As he considered the signs on the ground, he forgot about his headache.

Something about the rock seemed familiar. Not simply familiar, but unsettlingly familiar.

Hooves partially covered by long wisps of wiry brown hair came to an expectant halt beside him. With the top of her head, Betty gently butted his shoulder, hoping for a snack, or at least a scratch.

Richard looked up at the goat’s intent, floppy-eared expression. As Betty watched him watching her, her tail went into a blur of wagging. Richard smiled and scratched behind her ears. Betty bleated her pleasure at the scratch, but it sounded to him like she would have preferred a snack.

After not eating for two days as she lay in misery in the wagon, the goat seemed to come back to life and begin to recover from the loss of her two kids. Along with her appetite, Betty’s curiosity had returned. She especially enjoyed scouting with Richard, when he would let her come along. It made Jennsen laugh to watch the goat trotting after him like a puppy. Maybe what really made her laugh was that Betty was getting back to her old self.

In recent days the land had changed, too. They had begun to see the return of life. At first, it had simply been the rusty discoloration of lichen growing on the fragmented rock. Soon after, they spotted a small thorny bush growing in a low place. Now the rugged plants grew at widely spaced intervals, dotting the landscape. Betty appreciated the tough bushes, dining on them as if they were the finest salad greens. On occasion the horses sampled the brush, then turned away, never finding it to their liking.

Lichen that had begun to grow on the rock appeared as crusty splotches streaked with color. In some places it was dark, thick, and leathery, while in other spots it was no more than what almost appeared to be a coat of thin green paint. The greenish discoloration filled cracks and crevasses and coated the underside of stones where the sun didn’t bleach it out. Rocks sticking partway out of the crumbly ground could be pulled up to reveal thin tendrils of dark brown subterranean fungal growth.

Tiny insects with long feelers skittered from rock to rock or hid in holes in the scattering of rocks lying about on the ground that looked as if they had once been boiling and bubbling, and had suddenly turned to stone, leaving the bubbles forever set in place. An occasional glossy green beetle, bearing wide pincer jaws, waddled through the sand. Small red ants stacked steep ruddy mounds of dirt around their holes. There were cottony webs of spiders in the crotches of the isolated, small, spindly brush growing sporadically across the ever rising plain. Slender light green lizards sat on rocks basking in the sun, watching the people pass. If they came too close, the little creatures, lightning quick, darted for cover.

The signs of life Richard had so far seen were still a long way from being anything substantial enough to support people, but it was at least a relief to once again feel like he was rejoining the world of the living. He knew, too, that up beyond the first wall of mountains they would at last encounter life in abundance. He also knew that there they would again begin to encounter people.

Birds, as well, were just beginning to become a common sight. Most were small—strawberry-colored finches, ash-colored gnatcatchers, rock wrens and black-throated sparrows. In the distance Richard saw single birds winging through the blue sky, while sparrows congregated in small skittish flocks. Here and there, birds lit on the scraggly brush, flitting about looking for seeds and bugs. The birds disappeared instantly whenever the races glided into sight.

Staring at the expanse of rock and open ground before him, Richard rose up, startled, as the reason it looked unsettlingly familiar came to him. At the same time as the realization came to him, his headache vanished.

Off to his right, Richard saw Kahlan, with Cara at her side, making their way out to where Richard stood staring down at the astonishing stretch of rock. The wagon, with Tom, Friedrich, and Jennsen, rumbled on in the distance to the south. The dust raised by the wagon and horses hung in the dead air and could be seen for miles. Richard supposed that with the races periodically paying them a visit, the telltale of the dust didn’t much matter. Still, he would be glad when they reached ground where they could at least have a chance to try to remain a little more inconspicuous.

“Find anything interesting?” Kahlan asked as she wiped her sleeve across her forehead.

Richard cast a few small pebbles down at the stretch of rock he’d been studying. “Tell me what you think of that.”

“I think you look like you feel better,” Kahlan said.

Her eyes on his, she gave him her special smile, the smile she gave no one but him. He couldn’t help grinning.

Cara, ignoring the smiles that passed between Richard and Kahlan, leaned in for a gander. “I think Lord Rahl has been looking at too many rocks. This is more rock, just like all the rest.”

“Is it?” Richard asked. He gestured at the area he’d been scrutinizing and then pointed at another place by where Kahlan and Cara stood. “Is it the same as that?”

Cara peered at both areas briefly before she folded her arms. “The rock over there that you’ve been looking at is just a paler brown, that’s all.”

Kahlan shrugged. “I think she’s right, Richard. It looks like the same kind of rock, maybe just a little more of a tan color.” She thought it over a moment as she scanned the ground, then added to her assessment. “I guess it looks more like the rock we’ve been walking across for days until we started encountering a little bit of grass and brush.”

Richard put his hands on his hips as he stared back at the remarkable stretch of rock he’d found. “Tell me, then, what characterized the rock in the place where we were before—a few days ago, back closer to the Pillars of Creation?”

Kahlan looked over at an expressionless Cara and then frowned at Richard. “Characterized it? Nothing. It was a dead place. Nothing grew there.”

Richard waved his hand around, indicating the land through which they were now traveling. “And this?”

“Now things are growing,” Cara said, becoming increasingly disinterested in his study of flora and fauna.

Richard held a hand out. “And there?”

“Nothing is growing there, yet,” Cara said in an exasperated sigh. “There are a lot of spots around where nothing is growing yet. It’s still a wasteland. Just have patience, Lord Rahl, and we will soon enough be back among the fields and forests.”

Kahlan wasn’t paying attention to what Cara was saying; she was frowning as she leaned closer.

“The place where things begin to grow seems to start all at once,” Kahlan said, almost to herself. “Isn’t that curious.”

“I certainly think so,” Richard said.

“I think Lord Rahl needs to drink more water,” Cara sniped.

Richard smiled. “Here. Stand over here,” he told her. “Stand over by me and look again.”

Cara, her curiosity aroused, did as he asked. She looked down at the ground, and then frowned at the places where things grew.

“The Mother Confessor is right.” Cara’s voice had taken on a decidedly businesslike tone. “Do you think it’s important? Or somehow a danger?”

“Yes—to the first, anyway,” Richard said.

He squatted down beside Kahlan. “Now, look at this.”

As Kahlan and Cara knelt down beside him, leaning forward, looking closely at the rock, Richard had to push a curious Betty back out of the way. He then pointed out a patch of yellow-streaked lichen.

“Look here,” he said. “See this medallion of lichen? It’s lopsided. This side is round, but this side, near where nothing grows, is flatter.”

Kahlan looked up at him. “Lichen grows on rocks in all kinds of shapes.”

“Yes, but look at how the rock over where there is lichen and brush growing is spotted all over with little bits of growth. Here, beyond the stunted side of the lichen, there is nearly nothing. The rock almost looks scoured clean.

“If you look closely there are a few tiny things, things that have started to grow only in the last couple of years, but they have yet to really begin to take hold.”

“Yes,” Kahlan said in a cautious drawl, “it is odd, but I’m not sure what you’re getting at.”

“Look at where things are growing, and where they aren’t.”

“Well, yes, on that side there’s nothing growing, and over here there is.”

“Don’t just look down.” Richard lifted her chin. “Look out at the boundary between the two—look at the whole pattern.”

Kahlan frowned off into the distance. All of a sudden, the color drained from her face.

“Dear spirits…” she whispered.

Richard smiled that she finally saw what he was talking about.

“What are you two mooning over?” Cara complained.

Richard put his hand behind Cara’s neck and pulled her head in to look at what he and Kahlan were seeing.

“That’s odd,” she said, squinting off into the distance. “The place where things are growing seem to stop in a comparatively clean line—like someone had made an invisible fence running east.”

“Right,” Richard said as he got up, brushing his hands clean.

“Now, come on.” He started walking north. Kahlan and Cara scrambled to their feet and followed behind as he marched across the lifeless rock. Betty bleated and trotted after them.

“Where are we going?” Cara asked as she caught up with him.

“Just come on,” Richard told her.

For half an hour they followed his brisk pace as he headed in a straight line to the north, across rocky ground and gravelly patches where nothing at all grew. The day was sweltering, but Richard almost didn’t notice the heat, so focused was he on the lifeless expanse they were crossing. He hadn’t yet gone to see what lay at the other side, but he was convinced of what they would find once they reached it.

The other two were sweating profusely as they chased behind him. Betty bleated occasionally as she brought up the rear.

When they finally reached the place he was looking for, the place where lichen and scraggly brush once again began to appear, he brought them to a halt. Betty poked her head between Kahlan and Cara for a look.

“Now, look at this,” Richard said. “See what I mean?”

Kahlan was breathing hard from the brisk walk in the heat. She pulled her waterskin off her shoulder and gulped water. She passed the waterskin to Richard. He watched Cara study the patch of ground as he drank.

“The growing things start again over here,” Cara said. She absently scratched behind Betty’s ears when the goat rubbed the top of her head impatiently against Cara’s thigh. “They start to appear in the same kind of line as the other side, back there, where we were.”

“Right,” Richard said, handing Cara the waterskin. “Now, follow me.”

Cara threw up her arms. “We just came from that way!”

“Come on,” Richard called back over his shoulder.

He headed south again, back toward the center of the lifeless patch of rock, the small group in tow. Betty bleated her displeasure at the pace of the hot dusty excursion. If Kahlan or Cara shared Betty’s opinion, they didn’t voice the complaint.

When Richard judged they were back somewhere in the middle, he stood with his feet spread, his fists on his hips, and looked east again. From where they stood, they couldn’t make out the sides of the lifeless stretch, the places where growth began.

Looking to the east, though, the pattern was evident. A clearly defined strip—miles wide—ran off into the distance.

Nothing grew within the bounds of the straight strip of lifeless desert, whether going over rock or sandy ground. To either side the ground with widely spaced brush and lichen growing on the rock was darker. The place where nothing grew was a lighter tan. In the distance the discrepancy in the color was even more apparent.

The lifeless strip ran straight for mile after mile toward the far mountains, gradually becoming but a faint line following the rise of the ground until, finally, in the hazy distance, it could no longer be seen.

“Are you thinking what I’m thinking?” Kahlan asked in a low, troubled voice.

“What?” Cara asked. “What are you thinking?”

Richard studied the confused concern on the Mord-Sith’s face. “What kept Darken Rahl’s armies in D’Hara? What prevented him, for so many years, from invading the Midlands and taking it, even though he wanted it?”

“He couldn’t cross the boundary,” Cara said as if he must be having heat stroke.

“And what made up the boundary?”

At last, Cara’s face, framed by the black desert garb, went white, too. “The boundary was the underworld?”

Richard nodded. “It was like a rip in the veil, where the underworld existed in this world. Zedd told us about it. He put the boundary up with a spell he found in the Keep—a spell from those ancient times of the great war. Once up, the boundary was a place in this world where the world of the dead also existed. In that place, where both worlds touched, nothing could grow.”

“But are you so sure things wouldn’t still grow there?” Cara asked. “It was still our world, after all—the world of life.”

“It would be impossible for anything to grow there. The world of life was there, in that spot—the ground was there—but life couldn’t exist there on that ground because it shared that same space with the world of the dead. Anything there would be touched by death.”

Cara looked out at the straight, lifeless strip running off into the wavering distance. “So you think what?…This is a boundary?”


Cara looked from his face, to Kahlan, and again out to the distance. “Dividing what?”

Overhead a flight of black-tipped races came into sight, riding the high currents, turning lazy circles as they watched.

“I don’t know,” Richard admitted.

He looked west again, back down the gradual slope running away from the mountains, back to where they had been.

BOOK: Naked Empire
13.32Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

Other books

A Colder War by Charles Cumming
The Predator by K. A. Applegate
Dust On the Sea by Douglas Reeman
Faking Perfect by Rebecca Phillips
Play Me Backwards by Adam Selzer
Ghostwalkers by Jonathan Maberry
Sinners and Saints by Ambear Shellea
The Mysterious Commission by Michael Innes