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By Terry Goodkind
Tom Doherty Associates Copyright © 2014 Terry Goodkind
All rights reserved.
"Bring us our dead."
At the same time as he heard the voice, Richard felt the touch of an icy hand on the back of his shoulder.
He drew his sword as he spun.
As it cleared its scabbard, the blade sent its distinctive ring of steel through the hushed, predawn air. The power contained within the weapon answered the call, inundating him with rage in preparation for a fight.
Standing in the darkness right behind where he had been on watch were three men and two women. The dying campfire burning in the distance off behind him cast the faintest flicker of reddish light across the five stony faces. The gaunt figures stood passively, shoulders slumped, arms hanging limp at their sides.
Besides the hint of impending rain, the air carried the smell of wood smoke from the fire back at camp, the scent of balsam trees and cinnamon ferns growing nearby, their horses, and the musty smell of the damp leaf litter matting the ground.
But Richard thought he also detected a trace of sulfur.
Even though none of the five looked or acted threatening, having the crackling power from the ancient weapon he held in his fist thundering through him had his heart hammering. Their passive poses did nothing to ease his sense of threat or his readiness to fight should they make a sudden move to attack.
What concerned Richard more than anything, though, was that he had been watching and listening for any sound or movement in the predawn stillness — that was the whole point of standing watch — and he hadn't heard or seen the five come up behind him.
In such a dense, uninhabited woods it was unimaginable to him that not one of them had made a sound by stepping on a twig or crunching any of the dry leaves and bark scattered about on the ground.
Richard was more than used to being in the woods and it was virtually impossible for so much as a squirrel to sneak up on him, much less five people. When he had been a woods guide he had played the game of sneak-up with other guides. He was well practiced at it and it had developed in him a kind of sixth sense for any living thing near him. People rarely if ever successfully snuck up on Richard.
Yet these five had.
The trackless wasteland of the Dark Lands seldom saw travelers. It was far too dangerous a place to take any chances. Any traveler would know that and not tempt trouble by sneaking up on a camp.
Richard was but one wrong word or sudden move away from unleashing his restraint. In his mind, the deed was already done, every move calculated and decided. If they did anything wrong he would not hesitate to defend himself and those in camp behind him.
"Who are you?" he asked. "What do you want?"
"We have come to be with our dead," one of the two women said in the same sort of emotionless voice as the man who had spoken first.
The gazes of all five seemed to be staring through him.
"Bring them to us," the second woman said in the same disembodied tone. Like the others, she looked to be little more than skin and bones.
"What are you talking about?" Richard asked.
"Bring us our dead," one of the other men repeated.
"What dead?" Richard asked.
"Our dead," a different man said in a voice equally devoid of emotion.
The circular answers were getting him nowhere.
Back in the camp behind him, Richard could hear a soft, calculated commotion as soldiers of the First File, awakened by the sound of his sword being drawn, threw off their blankets and sprang to their feet. He knew that they would be snatching up swords, lances, and axes at the ready near where they had been sleeping. These were men who were always prepared for trouble.
Without taking his eyes from the five any longer than necessary to snatch quick glances to either side in order to watch for other threats, Richard knew that the soldiers behind him would be giving hand signals for defensive positions. As distant as they were, as careful as they were, he could hear a footstep here, the rustle of leaves there, the squish of mud underfoot to the side as some of them moved swiftly through the forest to surround the strangers.
These men were the best of the best — experienced soldiers who had worked hard to join the elite corps of the First File. They all had seen years of combat. A number of their ranks had already given their lives after coming to the Dark Lands in order to help get Richard and Kahlan safely back to the palace.
Unfortunately, they were all still a very long way from home.
"I don't know who you are talking about," Richard said as he watched the distant gazes of the five people before him.
"Our dead," the first woman said in a lifeless voice.
Richard frowned. "Why are you telling this to me?"
"Because you are the one," the man who had touched him said.
Richard lifted his fingers one at a time, flexing them in a wavelike motion, readjusting his grip on his sword. He looked from one blank face to another.
"The one? What are you talking about?"
"You are fuer grissa ost drauka," another man said. "You are the one."
Goose bumps tingled up the back of Richard's neck. Fuer grissa ost drauka meant "the bringer of death" in the ancient language of High D'Haran. It was a name prophecy had given him. Very few people, other than Richard, knew the dead language of High D'Haran.
Perhaps even more disconcerting was how these five would know that it referred to him.
Richard kept the point of his sword toward the five, making sure none of them could approach any closer, even though none of them tried. He wanted to be sure he had fighting room should he need it.
"Where did you hear such a thing?" he asked.
"You are the one — you are fuer grissa ost drauka: the bringer of death," one of the women said. "That is what you do. You bring death."
"And what makes you think that I can bring you your dead?"
"We have long sought our dead," she said. "We need you to bring them to us."
"Bring us our dead," another man repeated, for the first time with a trace of dark insistence that Richard didn't like.
It seemed to make some kind of sense to the five people, but it didn't make any sense to Richard, other than in a decidedly perverse way. He knew the three ancient meanings of the term fuer grissa ost drauka and how they applied to him.
These five were using it in an entirely different way.
Behind him, he could hear Kahlan racing back toward him. He recognized the unique sound of her boot strikes and stride. She had been sharing some quiet time with him before dawn and had only moments before started back toward the camp. As she came rushing up behind him, Richard held his left arm out to make sure she stayed out of the way should he need to use his sword.
"What's going on?" she asked as she came to an abrupt halt not far away.
Richard stole a quick glance back over his shoulder. The tense concern of her expression did nothing to diminish the flawless beauty of her familiar features.
Richard turned back to the five to keep his eye on them.
They were gone.
He blinked in surprise and then looked around. He had looked away for only a fraction of a second. It was impossible, but all five people were gone.
"They were right there," he said, half to himself.
There was nowhere they could have hidden in the brief time he had glanced back at Kahlan. The sloping, rocky ground where they had been didn't offer any cover. It was a few dozen feet to the closest trees. That was why Richard had picked the spot — it was open enough that no one could hide or sneak up on them.
He saw that the decomposing leaves and forest debris that had drifted in across the ground where they had been standing beside the exposed ridge of granite ledge looked untouched. He would have heard them move. They would have disturbed the leaf litter. They couldn't have taken a single step without making a sound, nor could they have gotten out of his sight and to cover that fast.
"Who?" Kahlan asked as she leaned to the side, peering around him.
Richard stretched his arm out, pointing insistently with his sword. "Only seconds ago there were five people standing right there."
The small bits of sky that could be seen through gaps in the heavy forest canopy were beginning to turn a leaden, muted gray tinted red by the approaching dawn. Kahlan knew better than to discount what Richard said he had seen. She scanned the near darkness to both sides.
"Were they half people?" she asked, the worry evident in her voice.
Richard could still feel the icy sensation from where one of the men had touched his right shoulder.
"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?"
"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.
"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." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Severed Souls by Terry Goodkind. Copyright © 2014 Terry Goodkind. Excerpted by permission of Tom Doherty Associates.
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