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Authors: Terry Goodkind

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BOOK: Severed Souls
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“No, I don't think so. One of them put his hand on me—as if to get my attention. They didn't bare their teeth. I don't think they came to try to take my soul.”

“Are you sure?”

“Pretty sure.”

“Did they say anything?”

“They said that they wanted me to bring them their dead.”

Kahlan's mouth opened in wordless surprise. Richard studied the place where they had been before again looking around for any sign of the five. In the gloom he couldn't see any footprints.

Kahlan hugged her arms to herself as she finally stepped closer. “Richard, there's no one there.” She gestured off toward the trees. “And nowhere to hide until you get back into the woods. How could they have vanished?”

Dozens of soldiers of the First File, his personal guard, rushed out of the darkness to form a protective perimeter. Each of the big men had a weapon to hand, ready for pitched battle. It looked as if he were suddenly standing in a steel porcupine.

“Lord Rahl,” one of the officers asked, “what is it? What happened?”

“There were five people here—just a moment ago.” Richard gestured with his sword. “They came up behind me and were standing right there.”

The soldiers briefly scanned the darkness, and then, without further word, at least a dozen men dashed away into the woods to search for the intruders. Although dawn was starting to bring a weak gray light to the quiet forest, it was still dark enough that Richard knew it would be easy to miss someone hiding in such dense woods. All the strangers would have to do would be to crouch in the darkness among thickets of bushes or saplings and they could easily be missed.

But he didn't think these five were crouching and hiding.

He knew otherwise.

He knew that they had vanished.

 

CHAPTER

2

“What is it?” Nicci called out as she pushed her way through the tight ring of towering soldiers. Her gaze quickly swept over his sword, probably checking to see if it was bloody. Despite the size of the men and their fearsome weapons, Nicci's gift probably made her more deadly than all of the men put together. Had his own gift been working, he would have been able to see the aura of her power shimmering around her.

“Five people came up behind me as I was standing watch,” Richard told her as Zedd rushed in through the gap Nicci had created. “I didn't know they were there until one of them touched my shoulder.”

Nicci did a double take. “They walked right up and one of them touched you?”

Like Nicci, the old wizard looked incredulous. Though Richard knew his grandfather well, from time to time he was amazed at what Zedd was able to do with his ability, as well as his uncanny knowledge about the most arcane of subjects.

“People?” Zedd peered to each side behind Richard and Kahlan. “What people?”

The young Samantha and her mother, Irena, rushed up behind Zedd. Despite only being in her mid-teens, Samantha had proven to have remarkable abilities as a sorceress. Richard didn't yet know much of anything about her mother's gift, but if Samantha was any indication, her mother was potentially quite formidable.

Despite the knowledge, abilities, and power of the people gathered around him, they were in a dangerous land that put all of them at risk. The fact that five people had been able to walk right up on them, and then vanish, only served to highlight the perils of the Dark Lands.

“Are you all right, Lord Rahl?” Irena asked with a look of concern as she reached out to touch Richard's arm.

He nodded as Nicci subtly but protectively stepped in close enough to move Irena aside.

“They snuck up behind you?” Nicci tilted her head toward Richard. “Five people snuck up behind you?”

Exasperated that he was being ignored, Zedd waved an arm. “What five people?” he demanded again before Richard could answer Nicci. “Where are they?”

Richard gestured behind in frustration. “They were right there, and then they were gone.”

Zedd cocked his head as his bushy brow drew down. He peered intently with one eye. “Gone?”

“Yes, gone. I don't know where they went. I didn't see them come and I didn't see them leave. When I turned back around to keep an eye on them they were simply gone.”

Samantha lifted her chin, sniffing the air. Her features had yet to fully take on the more sharply defined form of full adulthood. The soft contour of her nose wrinkled.

“What's that smell?” she asked, rather urgently, before Zedd or anyone else could say anything more. “It's fading now, but it seems like I remember it from somewhere.”

Everyone looked around, distracted by the strange question and her tone of alarm.

Kahlan frowned. “Now that you mention it, I remember it from somewhere, too.”

Richard methodically studied the shadows, still looking for any sign of the five strangers. “It's sulfur.”

Samantha pushed some of the matted mass of her black hair back from her face as she peered up at him. “Sulfur?”

“Yes—the smell of death,” Richard said, still gazing off into the darkness, still looking for any sign of the strangers.

“No,” Kahlan said, tapping a thumb against the handle of the knife sheathed at her belt as she tried to recall. “The spirits know I've been around that stench enough. This was certainly unpleasant, but it's not the smell of death. It's something else.”

“That's not what he means,” Nicci said in a dark and disquieting tone as she shared a knowing look with Richard when he turned back to them.

“It's the smell of the world of the dead,” Richard said in an equally somber voice to all the faces watching him. “Like a doorway to the underworld itself was briefly cracked open.”

Everyone stared back.

“The underworld!” Samantha snapped her fingers. “That's where I remember the smell from. It was when I was trying to heal you and the Mother Confessor. When I got near that poison of death deep in you both, I smelled that smell.”

Irena, having moved around behind Samantha, put a hand on her daughter's shoulder as she leaned in. “Poison? What poison?” Her expression had turned suspicious. It was an expression that seemed to go naturally with the creases in the center of her brow and her mass of black hair. “What was my daughter doing anywhere near anything to do with the underworld?”

“Jit, the Hedge Maid, had captured Kahlan and me,” Richard said, “but before she could kill us I was able to plug our ears with some wads of cloth and then break the restraints on the evil that resides inside her kind. When I did, she involuntarily let out a cry that called death to her. That was how I was able to kill her so that we could escape.

“Unfortunately, some of that sound was still able to get through. Now, that opening to the world of the dead is embedded within us. When Samantha healed our other wounds, she came near to that boundary rooted deep within us. That's what she is remembering.”

“Samantha wouldn't know anything about such matters,” Irena insisted as her gaze shifted from her daughter back to Richard. “She's too young. She has no business even attempting such things yet. She still has too much to learn before going near such dark forces.”

As Samantha tilted her head back to look up at her mother, her eyes glistened with tears at the terrible memory. “It was the only way I could heal their wounds. I had to do it or they would have died. Lord Rahl is the one meant to save us. He helped save many of the people of Stroyza.

“I had to do it or they would have died. He guided me in what I needed to do. It was then, when I was doing the healing, that I felt that terrible darkness of death deep within them. That's when I smelled that awful smell.”

“She's right,” Zedd grumbled unhappily. “I recall a hint of that same odor from when I started healing the both of them back before we were attacked and captured. I recognized it at the time as the stagnant stench of the darkest depths of the world of the dead.” His eyes turned away. “I've encountered that singular smell before.”

Nicci hooked a long strand of her blond hair back behind an ear as she scanned the darkness among the trees. She seemed lost in her own thoughts, or else she was using her ability to try to sense if someone or something was hiding out there.

“When you are near to the boundary to the underworld, when death is near,” she said in a quiet voice that seemed to come from some dark place within her, “you could sometimes smell it, smell the world of the dead beyond the veil.”

Irena glanced around at the grim expressions. “When death is near…? The world of the dead? Here? Now? What are you all talking about? It's likely to be nothing more sinister than a sulfur spring nearby. There are a number of such places in the Dark Lands. Most likely the breeze carried a whiff of a sulfur spring in this direction, that's all.” She cast a deliberate glance in Nicci's direction. “I think we're letting ourselves get carried away by groundless fears.”

Nicci's flawless features took on a ill-humored cast as her gaze settled on the woman. “I was once a Sister of the Dark. I suffered that stench often enough when the Keeper of the underworld visited us in our sleep, when he came to us to direct us to do his bidding. That's why the Mother Confessor thought of it as a memory from a dream. When she sleeps, the sights and sounds of the conscious world fade into the background. In that state, she is nearer to the boundary to the underworld now rooted within her.”

Samantha's jaw hung open. “You were a Sister of the—”

“Hush,” her mother cautioned from behind in a low voice as she put both hands on the young woman's shoulders to add emphasis to the order.

Samantha's mother looked shaken by the revelation that Nicci was once a Sister of the Dark. Richard knew that many people who lived in remote places, like Irena and her daughter, were superstitious and avoided speaking out loud of things they feared lest they call those mysterious dangers to themselves. There was nothing more terrifying than the Keeper of the underworld. Richard knew Sisters of the Light who called the Keeper “the Nameless One” for fear of calling him forth.

Richard also saw the shadow of suspicion in Irena's dark eyes. Women who had given themselves over to such dark forces never returned to the light. Yet Nicci had.

“Sulfur smells similar, but it's not exactly the same as the stench from the world of the dead. Considering my past allegiances, I could hardly mistake sulfur for the haunting stench of the underworld. When I touched Richard and Kahlan before, to heal them, I recognized all too well that death itself is growing in them both.”

Hearing the unmistakable tone of authority and experience in Nicci's voice, Irena didn't argue.

The creases in Zedd's face drew tight as he looked around in alarm. “Where's Cara?”

Richard's grandfather knew that the Mord-Sith wouldn't be far when there was any sort of danger to Richard and Kahlan.

The words felt like a knife to Richard's heart.

“Cara is gone,” he said in a quiet voice as he looked back into his grandfather's hazel eyes.

Zedd's brow drew down. “Gone? What do you mean, gone? She was here when we set up camp.”

“She left earlier in the night.”

When Zedd saw the look on Richard's face he closed his mouth, leaving his questions for later. Zedd had been there when Cara's husband had been brutally killed by the half people. Cara had been there as well. Richard could see in his grandfather's eyes that he suddenly made the connection to the reason she had left.

Irena eyed the dark shapes of trees emerging as dawn crept up on them. With the same wiry figure and the same mass of long black hair framing a face of delicate features, she looked like an older version of Samantha, if somewhat more tense. Samantha by contrast had faced terrible dangers with bravery and resolve. He knew that part of that was because she was young.

It occurred to Richard that, living in the Dark Lands her whole life and being an experienced sorceress, maybe Irena had experienced far more than her daughter and had good reason for being anxious. Irena would have seen things that Samantha had yet to see, understood things that Samantha had yet to comprehend. The older woman would have spent well over twice Samantha's years surviving the dangers of such a rugged and remote place.

Irena knew, too, of the barrier to the third kingdom being down. Being the sorceress of the village of Stroyza, she had been responsible for watching over that barrier in case it was ever breached and warning others if it was. She probably knew at least some of the terrors from beyond the wall to the north that her people had watched over for thousands of years.

Richard wondered just how much she knew about the barrier and the third kingdom that had for so long been locked away beyond, a realm where the world of life and death existed together in the same time and place. He needed to have a long talk with the woman to find out just what she knew.

“We should be away from this place,” Irena murmured as she watched the shadows.

The mention of the half people had set her on edge, and for good reason. Her husband had been killed by the half people—devoured before her eyes in an attempt to steal his soul for themselves.

With the barrier to the third kingdom down, the unholy half dead—beings without souls—had now been loosed on the world of the living, attacking anyone they could catch, devouring their flesh in a deranged attempt to capture a soul for themselves. When that barrier had been breached after holding evil back for thousands of years, Irena had left her village to warn people of what was happening. She hadn't made it far. After killing her husband, the half people had taken her captive. After attempting to use her for their occult purposes, they would have eventually devoured her as they had so many others. Fortunately, Richard had managed to free her along with all the soldiers, Zedd, Nicci, and Cara before that could happen.

BOOK: Severed Souls
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