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Rotting human flesh glistened in the sunlight, discolored by the bruised hues of putrefaction. The sunken eyeballs had turned to jelly. The jaws hung slack, gaping unnaturally wide because of the hideous scars that had slashed the cheeks all the way back to the hinge of the jaw.
Nicci did not at first smell the decay in the thin, cool mountain air. Dressed in her trim black travel dress, she stood back and regarded the four severed heads propped on high wooden poles, two on each side of the rocky road.
“The preservation spell is fading,” she said clinically, not afraid. The sight of death had never impressed her. “I don’t know how long these heads have stood here as a warning, but they will fall apart soon. More birds and flies will come.” The chill breeze ruffled her blond hair as she turned to her companions.
Next to her, Nathan Rahl propped a hand on the ornate pommel of his sword as he stepped closer to the gruesome display. Formerly a prophet and a wizard, Nathan had lost both of those abilities after the star shift, when Richard had sealed the veil of the underworld. That fundamental change in the universe had eliminated prophecy and reset the rules of magic, with as-yet-unknown consequences.
“I thought the Norukai were ugly enough in life.” He stroked his clean-shaven chin with thumb and forefinger. “Death has not improved their appearance.”
Nicci remembered when the ruthless scarred raiders attacked the fishing village of Renda Bay. The brutal slavers had killed many, burned part of the town, and seized captives. Their ships, featuring fearsome carved sea serpents at their prows, had been sleek and powerful, their midnight-blue sails guided by magic.
To make their faces look more like serpents, the Norukai intentionally slashed their mouths wider, sewed up their cut cheeks, and tattooed scales on their skin. Through wild and unbridled use of magic, Nicci had driven the hideous raiders away from Renda Bay, while Nathan and their young companion Bannon had fought with swords. Defeated, the Norukai had retreated out to sea.
A question loomed before them as Nicci and her companions descended the faint road out of the high country. Why were these severed heads here, so deep inland on the far side of the mountains? That made no sense to Nicci.
“I hate the Norukai,” Bannon muttered as he stared. His low voice sounded much like the growl emitted by Mrra, the restless sand panther who paced near the rotting heads. “I hate them for what they did to the poor people of Renda Bay, but I hate them even more for when they raided Chiriya Island and took my friend Ian.” His voice hitched. “And they tried to take me, too.…” He wiped perspiration from his freckled forehead and pulled back his long red hair.
With an angry kick, Bannon knocked down the nearest pole. The uprooted pole fell over slowly, and the severed head tumbled to the ground, striking a rock beside the trail with a hollow crack. The jaw split open and fell off. With the preservation spell disrupted, the long-stalled decay set in swiftly, making up for lost time.
Nicci watched the stinking skin liquefy and run off the skull like tallow. The eyeballs pooled and glistened, then also soaked into the dirt, leaving only a stain of putrefaction.
Having knocked down the head, Bannon at first looked queasy; then his face hardened with satisfaction. He turned toward the other three poles, reaching out to do the same, but Nathan held up a hand.
“Now, my boy, perhaps we should think this through. Whoever placed this warning must have done so for good reason. And as you well know, the slavers are no friends of ours.” His nostrils narrowed, but he did not seem at all bothered by the ghastly sight or repulsive stench. “It suggests that whoever stuck these heads on the posts might be our allies … or at least the enemies of our enemies. We wouldn’t want to spark their ire.”
Bannon nervously rested his hand on the hilt of his serviceable sword, Sturdy. “Sweet Sea Mother, I wasn’t thinking.”
“Not thinking—ah, that is the bane of many an adventurer,” Nathan said with a supportive smile. “And we have many adventures ahead of us.”
Nicci said in a harder tone, “My companions should always think before they act. It will save us a great deal of trouble in the long run.”
Beside her, the sand panther ventured close to the remains of the now-disintegrated head, curled her whiskers in a disgusted sniff, and growled again. Her long tail lashed from side to side. The symbols branded into Mrra’s tan hide bore a strange resemblance to the exotic letters scrawled on the warning placards at the base of the other poles.
Without further comment Nicci gazed down the switchbacked mountain road, a path once well-traveled but now overgrown. The road hooked around outcroppings and wound over the next ridge, descending toward their destination—an unexpected and magnificent city they had glimpsed from the high pass of Kol Adair … a wondrous place that seemed to vanish and reappear like a mirage.
The smell of decay turned her stomach sour. “Rather than stopping for a midday meal, I suggest we eat pack food as we walk. We have miles to cover before nightfall.”
“I am indeed excited to find the city,” Nathan said. “Even if we still don’t know what we need to do when we get there.”
“But we’re willing to try,” Bannon said. “If it helps you get your gift back, we can all celebrate.”
Nathan swung his pack down off a shoulder to remove some of the dried meat they had carried since Cliffwall. “Don’t forget, my boy, finding that city might also be an important part of Nicci’s mission to save the world.”
The sorceress made an unkind sound, glancing back at him with her piercing blue eyes before striding away from the three remaining heads. “I never put too much stock in what a witch woman commands me to do. Predictions and pronouncements may well come true, but never in the way one expects.” She looked at the white-haired former wizard. “You assumed you would be able to use magic again the moment we reached Kol Adair, but that turned out to be only a first step.”
“Ah, but now we know the truth of Red’s statement,” Nathan said. “We assumed … and assumptions benefit no one. Her words in my life book promised that from Kol Adair I would behold what I need to make myself whole again. I simply didn’t pay close enough attention. Now we understand the true meaning of what she wrote.”
“Or at least the next step of what she meant,” Nicci said. Thoughts of the mysterious witch woman filled her with distaste.
Before they had departed from the Dark Lands on their long mission, Red had written in the mysterious book she gave to the old wizard:
Future and Fate depend on both the journey and the destination.
Kol Adair lies far to the south in the Old World. From there, the Wizard will behold what he needs to make himself whole again. And the Sorceress must save the world.
“Your part seems pretty clear,” Bannon said as he caught up to Nicci. “Your mission is to save the world. What could be more important than that? We have to follow instructions.”
She paused on the path while Mrra ranged into the hills, hunting on her own. Nicci said to the young man, “The right sort of person doesn’t need an obscure prophecy to tell her to save the world. The right sort of person would do it because it is the proper thing to do. She would do it for Lord Rahl.…” Nicci squared her shoulders, brushed dust from the black fabric of her billowing skirts. “And I am the right sort of person.”
A powerful sorceress and former Sister of the Dark, Nicci now swore her life and her abilities to the cause of Richard Rahl. She loved him like no other, and would never love any other, but she had resigned herself to the fact that his one true love was Kahlan. It was a love against which no other woman, including Nicci, could ever compete.
But Nicci could still give him her unwavering loyalty.
Back in D’Hara, Richard and Kahlan were both concerned when Nathan proclaimed that he wanted to help the people in the war-torn Dark Lands. The old wizard had been imprisoned in the Palace of the Prophets for a thousand years, considered too dangerous to be free. But after escaping, he had fought hard on behalf of D’Hara. He had asked to be sent off on an adventure with the excuse of calling himself the roving ambassador for D’Hara.
Though the tall, handsome wizard was no fool, in many ways he was like a child in search of excitement. Knowing he was bound to get into trouble, Richard had asked Nicci to accompany him as his bodyguard and protector. She would do whatever Richard asked her to do, even if it cost her own life. Nicci had realized that her best way of serving the man she loved, and saving herself, was to go away—far away—and be independent. She would help rebuild the world, secure and strengthen the far-flung corners of the D’Haran Empire. In that way she would help Richard. In that way she could love Richard.
Eventually the D’Haran peacekeeping army would spread south to establish beachheads and outposts. In the meantime, Nicci was like a scout, a one-woman vanguard strong enough and confident enough to take care of problems in these outlying territories. If she did her job properly—and she intended to—Lord Rahl and his army would not need to intervene.…
The pines thinned as the hills opened up, and the terrain became chaparral, rolling grassy slopes scattered with ferocious thistles that were nearly as tall as trees; the enormous purple thistle flowers attracted fat bumblebees. Islands of low, dark-leaved oaks filled the hollows and ran up some hillsides. A spray of grasshoppers clicked and leaped out of the way as the travelers trudged through tufts of grass. A snake slithered away in the underbrush, curling and coiling as it disappeared into a thicket.
With Mrra ranging ahead, the three travelers spent most of that day descending the primary ridge. They camped for the night in a sheltered valley by a fast-running stream. Bannon managed to catch five small trout, and even though it was barely enough to make a meal for the three of them, the young man tossed the two smallest fish to Mrra. The sand panther regarded him with cautious gratitude, then tore into their silvery scaled sides.
Nathan hunched close to the crackling fire Nicci had ignited with her magic. “How many days do you think it’ll take for us to reach that city, Sorceress?”
“You’re assuming the city even exists,” she said. From Kol Adair, they had seen the elaborate skyline, the high towers, the geometrical rooftops … but then the image had vanished. “It could just be an illusion, or a projection from elsewhere.”
Nathan shook his head, sank his chin into his hand. “We must believe it is real! That’s what I beheld from Kol Adair, as Red’s words said—therefore, it is required to exist. The witch woman said so. We will keep walking as far as we need to.” His azure eyes turned away, as if in shame. “I have to get my gift back, and at present that is our only clue.”
Bannon spread his cloak on the ground and curled up on the soft leaves near the stream. “Of course we’re going to the city, so let’s get rested.” He yawned. “Shall I take the second watch?”
Nicci arranged a sleeping spot for herself. “No need,” she said, as Mrra locked feline eyes with her own. She and the sand panther were spell-bonded, connected in ways no one else could understand. “Mrra will guard us, so we can rest well. No harm will come to this camp. She’ll warn us of any danger.”
* * *
Next morning, they toiled up the tree-covered slope to the next ridge, regaining the hard-fought elevation they had lost the day before while descending into the valley. They worked their way back and forth up the steepening path to the crest. Nicci was sure the mysterious city should be just past this last ridge, on the broad plain that extended beyond the foothills.
By noon, after fighting their way through trackless oaks and sparse spruce, they topped the high point. Once the trees cleared enough for them to get the full view, they looked ahead as the vista opened out before them.
“Dear spirits!” Nathan whispered. Bannon stared, rubbed his eyes, and continued to stare.
Beyond the foothills they could see an open plain that ended abruptly at a sheer drop-off to a wide river, as if the landscape had been torn and then separated vertically.
But there was no city. No city at all. The great and fantastical metropolis they had seen from Kol Adair was not there.
The plain was not empty, however. What they did see was an army—a vast army that spread across the foothills and the plain in a blur of human figures in numbers to rival the largest force Nicci had ever seen when she served Emperor Jagang. She knew full well how much destruction such an army could cause.
She squinted into the distance, taking in the alarming sight. “That must be half a million fighting men.”
Bannon touched the hilt of his sword, as if considering how many of them he could fight single-handedly. “Then I’m very glad you’re here to save the world, Sorceress.”
Copyright © 2017 by Terry Goodkind