CHAPTER 18  

CHAPTER 18

THE TRAIL was WIDE enough to allow Richard and Kahlan to walk side by side after they left Adie's place. Clouds hung thick and threatening, but the rain held off. Both wrapped their cloaks tight. Damp, brown pine needles matted the path through the forest. There was little brush among the big trees, allowing an open view for a good distance. Ferns covered the ground in feathery swaths through the trees, and dead wood lay in it here and there as if asleep in a bed. Squirrels scolded the two of them as they hiked along, while birds sang with monotonous conviction.

Richard picked at the branch of a small balsam fir as they walked past, stripping the needles between his thumb and the crook of his first finger.

"Adie is more than she seems," he said at last.

Kahlan looked up at him as they walked. "She is a sorceress."

Richard glanced sideways at her in surprise. "Really? I don't know exactly what a sorceress is."

"Well, she is more than us, but less than a wizard."

Richard smelled the aromatic fragrance of the balsam needles, then cast them aside. Maybe she was more than he, Richard thought, but he wasn't at all sure she was more than Kahlan. He remembered the look on Adie's face when Kahlan had grabbed her by the wrist. It had been a look of fear. He remembered the look on Zedd's face when he had first seen her. What power did she have that could frighten a sorceress and a wizard? What had she done that had caused thunder without sound? She had done it twice that he knew of, once with the quad, and once with Shar, the night wisp. Richard remembered the pain that had followed. A sorceress greater than Kahlan? He wondered.

"What's Adie doing living here, in the pass?"

Kahlan pushed some of her hair back over her shoulder. "She became tired of people coming to her all the time, wanting spells and potions. She wanted to be left alone to study whatever it is a sorceress studies; some sort of higher summons, as she called it."

"Do you think she will be safe when the boundary fails?"

"I hope so. I like her."

"Me too," he added with a smile.

The trail, climbing sharply in places, forced them to go single file at times as it twisted along steep rocky hillsides and over ridges. Richard let Kahlan go first so he could keep an eye on her, make sure she didn't wander off the path. At times he had to point out the trail, his experience as a guide making it plain to him, but not to her unpracticed eye. Other times the trail was a well-defined rut. The woods were thick. Trees grew from splits in the rock that pushed up above the leaf litter. Mist drifted among the trees. Roots bulging from cracks provided handholds as they climbed the abrupt inclines. His legs ached from the effort of descending extreme drops in the dark trail.



Richard wondered what they were going to do once they reached the Midlands. He had depended on Zedd to let him know the plan once they crossed the pass, and now they were without Zedd, without a plan. He felt kind of foolish to be charging into the Midlands. What was he going to do once they crossed over? Stand there and look around, divine where the box was and then be off after it? Didn't sound like a good plan to him. They didn't have time to wander about aimlessly, hoping they would come across something. No one was going to be waiting for him, waiting to tell him where to go next

They reached a steep jumble of rock. The trail went straight up the face. Richard surveyed the terrain. It would be easier to go around, rather than climb over the jut of rock, but he finally decided against it, the thought that the boundary could be anywhere making up his mind. There must be a reason the trail went this way. He went first and took Kahlan's hand, helping to pull her up.

As he walked, Richard's thoughts continued nagging at him. Someone had hidden one of the boxes, or Rahl would have it already. If Rahl couldn't find it, how was Richard to? He didn't know anyone in the Midlands; he didn't know where to look. But someone knew where the last box was, and that was how they had to find it. They couldn't look for the box; they had to look for someone who would be able to tell them where it was.

Magic, he thought suddenly. The Midlands was a land of magic. Maybe someone with magic could tell where the box was. They had to look for someone with the right kind of magic. Adie could tell things about him without ever having seen him before. There had to be someone with the kind of magic that could tell him where the box was without ever having seen it. Then, of course, they had to convince that person to tell them. But maybe if someone was hiding their knowledge from Darken Rahl, he would be glad to help stop him. It seemed there were too many wishes and hopes in his thoughts.



But there was one thing he did know: even if Rahl got all the boxes, without the book he wasn't going to know which box was which. As they walked along, Richard recited the Book of Counted Shadows to himself, trying to find a way to stop Rahl. Since it was an instruction book for the boxes, it should have a way to stop their use, but there was nothing like that in the book. The actual explanation of what each box would do, directives to determine which box was which, and how to open one, took up only a relatively small portion at the end of the book. Richard understood this part well, as it was clear and precise. Most of the book, though, was taken up with directions for countering unforeseen eventualities, resolving problems that could prevent the holder of the boxes from succeeding. The book even started out with how to verify the truth of the instructions.

If he could create one of these problems, he could stop Rahl, since Rahl didn't have the book to help him. But most of the problems were things he had no way of bringing about, problems with sun angles and clouds on the day of opening. And a lot of it made no sense to him. It spoke of things he had never heard of. Richard told himself to stop thinking of the problem, and to think of the solution. He would go through the book again. He cleared his mind and started at the beginning.

Verification of the truth of the words of the Book of Counted Shadows, if spoken by another, rather than read by the one who commands the boxes, can only be insured by the use of a Confessor . . . . .

By late afternoon, Richard and Kahlan were sweating freely with the effort of the hike. As they crossed a small stream, Kahlan stopped and dipped a cloth in the water and used it to wipe her face. Richard thought it was a good idea. When they came to the next stream, he stopped to do the same. The clear water was shallow as it ran over a bed of round stones. He balanced on a flat rock as he squatted to soak a cloth in the cold water.

When he stood up, Richard saw the shadow thing. He froze instantly.

Off through the woods there was something standing partly behind a tree trunk. It wasn't a person, but was about that size, with no definite shape. It looked like a person's shadow standing up in the air. The shadow thing didn't move. Richard blinked and squinted his eyes trying to tell if he was really seeing what he thought he was seeing. Maybe it was just a trick of the dim afternoon light, a shadow of a tree he mistook for something more.

Kahlan had continued to walk along the trail. Richard came quickly up behind her and put his hand on the small of her back, below her pack, so she wouldn't stop. He leaned over her shoulder and whispered in her ear.

"Look to the left, off through the trees. Tell me what you see."

He kept his hand on her back, kept her walking along as she turned her head, looking off to the trees. Her eyes searched as she held her hair back, out of the way. Then she saw the thing.

"What is it?" she whispered, looking back to his face.

He was a little surprised. "I don't know. I thought maybe you could tell me." She shook her head. The shadow remained motionless. Maybe it was nothing, a trick of the light, he tried to tell himself. He knew that wasn't true.

"Maybe it's one of the beasts Adie told us about, and it can't see us," he offered.

She gave him a sidelong glance. "Beasts have bones."

Kahlan was right, of course, but he had been hoping she would have agreed with the idea. As they moved quickly down the trail, the shadow thing stayed where it was and they were soon out of sight of it. Richard breathed easier. It appeared that the bone necklace Kahlan wore, and his tooth, had hidden them.

They ate a supper of bread, carrots, and smoked meat as they walked. Neither enjoyed the meal. Their eyes searched off into the deep woods as they ate. Even though it hadn't rained all day, everything was still wet, and occasionally water dripped from the trees. The rock was slick with slime in places, needing care to be crossed safely. Both watched the surrounding forest for any sign of danger. They saw nothing.

The fact that they saw nothing began to worry Richard. There were no squirrels, no chipmunks, no birds, no animals of any kind. It was too quiet. Daylight was slipping away. Soon they would be at the Narrows. He worried about that, too. The idea of seeing the things from the boundary again was frightening. The idea of seeing his father again was terrifying. His insides cringed at what Adie had told them, that those in the boundary, would call to them. He remembered how seductive their calls were. He had to be prepared to resist. He had to harden himself against it. Kahlan had almost been pulled back into the underworld when they were in the wayward pine, the first night he knew her. When they were with Zedd and Chase, something had tried to pull her in again. He was troubled that the bone might not protect her when they were that close.

The trail leveled out and widened, allowing them to walk side by side again. He was tired from the day's hike, and it would be another night and day before they could rest. Crossing the Narrows in the dark and when they were exhausted sounded like a bad idea, but Adie had been insistent they not stop. He could not question a person who knew the pass as well as she. He knew that the story of the gripper would keep him wide awake

Kahlan looked around at the woods, turned to check behind. She stopped suddenly, grabbing his arm. In the trail, not ten yards behind, stood a shadow.

Like the other, this one did not move. He could see through it, see the woods behind, as if it were made of smoke. Kahlan kept a firm grip on his arm as both of them walked ahead in a sideways fashion, watching the shadow thing. They rounded a turn in the trail and were away from it. They walked on faster.

"Kahlan, do you remember when you told me of the shadow people that Panis Rahl sent forth? Could those be shadow people?"

She gave him a worried look. "I don't know. I have never seen one; they were in the last war, before I was born. But the stories were always told the same, that they floated along. I never heard anyone say they stood still like that."

"Maybe it's because of the bones. Maybe they know we're here, but can't find us, so they stay still to search."

She wrapped her cloak tighter, obviously afraid of his idea, but didn't say anything. In the gathering night they walked along, close to each other, sharing the same troubling thoughts. Another shadow stood at the side of the trail. Kahlan gripped his arm tight. They passed slowly, quietly, keeping their eyes on it. It didn't move. Richard felt like panicking, but knew he couldn't; they had to stay on the trail, had to use their heads. Maybe the shadows were trying to make them bolt, to run from the trail, and cross over accidentally into the underworld. They looked around, behind, as they went. When Kahlan was looking the other way, a branch brushed her face. She jumped against him with a start. She looked over and apologized. Richard gave her a reassuring smile.

Pine needles held droplets from the rains and mist, and when a light breeze swayed the branches, water from the trees above rained down. In the near darkness they had a hard time telling if there were shadow things around them or if it was just the dark shapes of tree trunks. Twice, they had no trouble telling; they were close to the trail and there was no doubt what they were. Still the shadows did not follow or move, but stood as if watching, even though they had no eyes

"What are we going to do if they come for us?" Kahlan asked in a tense voice.

Her grip on his arm was becoming painful, so he pried her fingers off and put her hand in his. She gave his hand a squeeze. "Sorry," she said with a self-conscious smile.

"If they come for us, the sword will stop them," he answered confidently.

"What makes you so sure?"

"It stopped the things in the boundary."

She seemed satisfied with the answer-he wished he were. The forest was dead quiet, except for a soft rasp he couldn't quite figure out. There were none of the usual night sounds. Dark branches swayed near them with the breeze, making his heart race.

"Richard," Kahlan said quietly, "don't let them touch you. If they are shadow people, their touch is death. Even if they are not shadow people, we don't know what would happen. We must not let them touch us."

He gave her hand a squeeze of reassurance.

Richard resisted the temptation to pull the sword. There might be too many for the sword, if the sword's magic even worked against shadows. If there was no other choice he would use the sword, but for now, his instincts told him not to.

The woods were getting darker. Tree trunks stood like black pillars in the murk. Richard felt as if there were eyes everywhere, watching. The trail was beginning to traverse a hillside, and he could see dark rocks rising up to their left. Runoff from the rains trickled through the rock. He could hear it bubbling and dripping and splashing. The ground dropped away on the right. The next time they looked back, there were three shadows, barely visible in the path behind. The two of them kept moving. Richard heard the soft scraping sound again, off in the woods to either side. It wasn't a sound he was familiar with. He could feel, more than see, that there were shadow things on each side and behind them. A few were close enough to the trail that there was no doubt what they were. The only way that was clear was ahead.

"Richard," Kahlan whispered, "do you think you should take out the night stone? I can hardly see the path." She was gripping his hand tightly.

Richard hesitated. "I don't want to until we absolutely need it. I'm afraid of what might happen."

"What do you mean?"

"Well, those shadows haven't come for us yet. Maybe because they can't see us, because of the bones." He paused a moment. "But what if they can see the light from the night stone?"

Kahlan bit her bottom lip in worry. They strained to pick out the trail as it twisted to go around trees and boulders, over rocks and roots, cutting its way across the hillside. The soft scraping sound was nearer, all around. It sounded like . . . It sounded like claws on rock, he thought.

Two shadows stood ahead, close, the trail between them. Kahlan pressed tight against him and held her breath as they squeezed past. She buried her face against his shoulder when they were even with the shadow things. Richard put his arm around her, holding her tight. He knew how she felt. He was terrified, too. His heart pounded. It seemed they were going too far with each step, getting in too deep. He looked behind, but in the darkness there was not enough light to see if the shadows were standing on the trail.

Abruptly, an inky black shape loomed up before them. It was an enormous boulder, split down the middle.

The Narrows.

They pressed their backs up against the boulder, at the split. It was too dark to see the trail anymore, or if there were any shadow things close. They couldn't follow the trail through the Narrows without the light of the night stone; it was far too dangerous. One wrong step in the Narrows and they were dead. In the stillness the scraping sound was closer, and all around them. Richard reached into his pocket and pulled out the leather pouch. He loosened the drawstring and dumped the night stone into his palm.

Warm light flared into the night, lighting the woods around, casting eerie shadows. He held the stone out, to see better.

Kahlan gasped.

In the warm yellowish illumination, they could see a wall of the shadow things, hundreds of them, not an inch between any two. They formed a half circle less than twenty feet away. On the ground were dozens and dozens of hump-shaped creatures, almost looking like rocks at first. But they weren't rocks. Gray armor bands interlocked across their backs, jagged spikes poked out around the bottom edge.

Grippers.

That was what the sound was, their claws on the rocks. The grippers were moving with an odd, waddling gait, their humped bodies swaying from side to side as they struggled forward. Not fast, but steady. Some were only a few feet away.

For the first time, the shadows began to move, floating, drifting, tightening their ring.

Kahlan stood frozen, her back against the boulder, her eyes wide. Richard reached across the split, grabbed a fistful of her shirt and pulled her into the opening. The walls were wet and slick. The tightness of the space made him feel as if his heart were coming up in his throat. He didn't like tight places. They backed through, turning occasionally to check their way. He held the night stone out, lighting the shadow things as they came. Grippers crawled into the split.

Richard could hear the sound of Kahlan's rapid breathing echoing in the confining, dank space. They continued backing up, their shoulders sliding against the sides of the rock. Cold, slimy water soaked their shirts. In one spot they had to duck down and turn sideways because the crack narrowed, almost closing together, open just enough for them to pass down low. Forest debris fallen into the split lay in the dampness, decomposing. The place smelled of sickening rot. They continued moving sideways, and at last reached the other side. The shadows stopped when they reached the opening in the rock. The grippers didn't.

Richard kicked one that got too close, sending it tumbling through the leaves and sticks on the floor of the split. Landing on its back, it clawed at the air, snapping and hissing, twisting and rocking, until it righted itself. When it did, the gripper rose up on its claw-tipped feet and let out a clicking growl before coming on once again.

Both turned quickly to follow the path. Richard held the night stone out to light the Narrows trail

Kahlan drew a sharp breath.

The warm light illuminated the hillside where the Narrows path should have been. Spread out before them as far as they could see was a mass of rubble. Rocks, tree limbs, splintered wood, and mud, all tumbled together. A slide had recently plunged down the hillside.

The Narrows trail had been swept away.

They took a step beyond the rock to have a better look.

Green light of the boundary came on, surprising them. They stepped back as one.

"Richard ...

Kahlan clutched his arm. The grippers were at their heels. The shadows floated in the split


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