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Chapter no 26 – Dreams and Portents

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Murtagh and Thorn stared at each other, an unspoken question hanging between them. What or whom would dragons or Riders fear?

“If Galbatorix and Morzan came here,” said Murtagh, “perhaps all of the Forsworn did.” He looked at the silhouettes of the dark rooftops and at the moonlit tip of the Tower of Flint. His discovery of the clasp put everything Bachel had said during the banquet into a new light. And yet he remained uncertain. Was he making unfounded assumptions? His gut told him there was something to Bachel’s claims of fate and prophecy. He just didn’t know what or to what degree. Perhaps his desire to learn more about her and the blackened land was a foolish one.

He turned back to Thorn. “Maybe you’re right. Maybe we should leave.

What say you?”

Thorn blinked, his surprise evident. In all their time together, Murtagh had never before suggested abandoning whatever goal they were pursuing. Thorn dug the tips of his claws into the cracks between the flagstones. If this is the place that Riders feared to tread—

“Which it might not be.”

Thorn’s nostrils flared. If it is, we must know, for the sake of the hatchlings at Mount Arngor. Anything dangerous enough to threaten the Riders of old could destroy the next generation of dragons. Stay on the hunt, search the spoor. There are old secrets here, I can smell it.

“All right. But we have to be smart about this. There’s no point in getting ourselves killed.”

With Thorn following, Murtagh made his way around the northeastern corner of the temple. Behind it lay a swath of cropped turf that, despite the time of year, was soft beneath his feet. A path led across the grass to a small grove of pinetrees set against the base of the foothills.

As Murtagh approached the trees, he noticed the air growing warmer. It was damp too, and the smell of brimstone again rose up to meet him. The ground around the trees was crusted black, similar to the area in front of the village, and tongues of steam drifted from the earth. And yet it was not barren. The grove seemed a garden of sorts. By the moonlight, he saw blueberry bushes and flowers—their blossoms closed and drooping downward for the night—and a vast assortment of mushrooms arranged in pleasing patterns.

He thought of the secret garden in the catacombs of Gil’ead and wondered.

Thorn hesitated at the mouth of the grove, but the path was wide—the villagers had trimmed the lower levels of branches—and there was room for him to walk without scraping the trees. So he followed Murtagh, and Murtagh was glad for the company.

“Remind me to brush out your footsteps when we head back,” he murmured.

A sense of acknowledgment came from Thorn.

The heart of the grove was even darker than inside the Tower of Flint. Murtagh finally relented and whispered, “Brisingr.” The werelight he created was a tiny wisp, no brighter than a dying coal. But it was enough to see where to place his feet.

The path wound between the trees, past beds of well-tended, well-weeded plants—mostly herbs and berries—until it reached the foothills.

There, Murtagh beheld an even greater darkness yawning before them, like a wound cut into the side of the hills. At first his eyes refused to make sense of the absence. Was he looking at something? Into something? Was it a shadow?

Unable to understand, he increased the flow of energy to the werelight and allowed it to brighten until—

He saw.

An open mouth of stone and earth gaping before them. The cavern was large enough that Thorn could have easily fit within, and the interior was a mysterious black depth, swimming with impenetrable shadows and unquiet with ominous sounds: the click of a falling stone, a heavy influx and outflux of heated air—as if the mountains themselves were breathing, slow and labored—the high-pitched squeaks of fluttering bats, and even, Murtagh imagined, the low, nearly inaudible groans of the earth’s massive weight as it settled and shifted, constantly seeking to further collapse into the tumbled ruins time made of all things.

Along both sides of the gaping cavern was stonework of a kind with the rest of the village, and set within the stonework, a mirrored pair of iron rings, each as wide as Murtagh was tall. The rings were so stout, they could have held even Thorn, and by the wavering werelight, they appeared dark and rusted and stained black with what resembled dried blood.

An altar made of cut basalt stood to the left of the cavern, which seemed odd. Murtagh felt it would have been more impressive—and more visually pleasing—to center the altar on the opening. Compared with the altar in the cathedral at Dras-Leona, this one appeared crude, unfinished even. Still, it had a rough presence that made Murtagh think of ancient rites and sacrifices performed to appease an unkind god.

The stench of brimstone was stronger than ever. A thick wave of it rolled out of the cavern, hot and unpleasant, and Murtagh gagged at the reek of rotten eggs. He covered his nose and mouth with his sleeve.

Thorn tasted the air and then wrinkled his snout and hissed. He said, I smell old meat and flowing water and…His scales prickled. And the stink of men. They are—

Footsteps sounded from the cavern, faint but approaching, as two or more people climbed out of the black depths.

Back! said Murtagh, alarmed. He snuffed his werelight and retreated as quickly and quietly as he could.

Our tracks! Thorn said as he did likewise. The footsteps were growing louder.

Murtagh hastily whispered, “Vindr!” and a small stream of wind swept smooth the path as they rushed through the grove.

Glancing over his shoulder, Murtagh thought he glimpsed a group of robed figures through the trees. His pulse quickened. Had they spotted Thorn? It was dark, and the grove was dense, so maybe not. Maybe.

The two guards were still in their enchanted sleep when he and Thorn hurried into the courtyard.

“Up, up!” said Murtagh.

Thorn crouched low, and Murtagh climbed onto his neck. He held on tightly, and the dragon lifted him high enough to scramble onto the temple’s skirt-roof and thence into his chambers.

As he did, Thorn curled up by the far side of the courtyard.

Just in time. Peering out the north-facing window, Murtagh saw four men, hooded and somber, walk past the temple and disperse among the streets of the village.

He let out his breath. Then he returned to the courtyard window and looked back at Thorn. Bachel has much to explain, he said. And I want to know what the Dreamers find so important about that cave.

Thorn snorted. Whatever it is, I think the fumes from below rot their minds. Murtagh scratched at his forearm, troubled. You might be right. Either way,

I’d like to know the truth. Although, in this case, he wondered if the truth might be as dangerous as ignorance.

He and Thorn forwent the sharing of their true names. There was too great a risk of being overheard in Nal Gorgoth, even if they confined themselves to the privacy of their minds.

Keep a close watch tonight, said Murtagh.

That I shall. If there’s the slightest thing amiss, I’ll wake youThank you.

Then Murtagh ended the spell he was using to keep the guards asleep. The two men snorted and stirred but did not open their eyes; they were

genuinely tired, and he thought it likely they would slumber straight through until morn.

Lastly, Murtagh closed the shutters to his bedroom, cloistering himself in the pregnant darkness.

 

 

Murtagh lit the taper by the bed and then went to the washroom and did his best to cleanse himself of the crow dung. Even with the help of some magic, he wasn’t entirely successful. He hoped he didn’t smell enough to arouse Bachel’s or Grieve’s suspicions.

Shirtless, he sat on the edge of the bed. The mattress was stuffed with wool, not straw. An unexpected luxury. He held Saerlith’s clasp, which he had also washed, and studied it by the flickering candlelight.

If the Dreamers had been allied with Saerlith or the other Forsworn, did the partnership mean so little to them that the villagers would leave Saerlith’s clasp to sit like a piece of rubbish in the Tower of Flint? Or had it been dropped and forgotten, the result of some accident?

Questions. So many questions.

In the back of his mind, Murtagh felt Thorn’s thoughts grow strange and disjointed as the dragon passed into a troubled slumber. As always, Murtagh wished he could soothe Thorn, but he feared to wake him, so he sat and kept to himself, and the dragon’s dreams only worsened Murtagh’s own unease.

He leaned back with a sigh.

A day, two at the most. That was what he’d allow. If, by then, he and Thorn didn’t find answers to the many questions Bachel and Nal Gorgoth raised, it would be time to apply force—by words or by action—and pry loose the information.

Murtagh shivered and reached for his shirt.

The chambers were cold and getting colder. He considered lighting a fire, but he was tired and didn’t want to deal with tending the flames

through the night. So he wet his fingers, pinched out the taper, and burrowed under the sheepskin and blankets.

After a few minutes, he turned the sheepskin wool-side down. There. Then he pulled the blankets up to his neck and closed his eyes as warmth gathered around his body.

It took him some time to quiet his thoughts enough to sleep. He wanted to rest; tomorrow, he suspected, would be trying, and it was important to be as sharp as possible in the event that their time in Nal Gorgoth came to violence. But he couldn’t stop thinking about the Tower of Flint, Saerlith’s clasp, and the cavern sitting like a great gluttonous toad behind the temple.

 

 

Whirling darkness swallowed him, and in the center of it, at the bottom of an impossibly deep hole, at the very heart of the widdershin void, lay a formless horror— ancient and evil and from which emanated a constant, merciless hunger: never sated, all-consuming, with a particular glee for the sufferings of creatures caught between the gnashing of teeth.

His mind fled the horror, but it was a deadly riptide, more powerful than the Boar’s Eye between the Southern Isles of Uden and Parlim, and the harder he tried, the slower he moved….

Fear filled him. Icy, coursing fear that froze his veins and chained his limbs and turned his stomach to acid. His heart fluttered, and for a moment seemed to stop, and in the grips of his terror, he cried for help as he had when a child: “Mother!”

Then Thorn’s mind touched his own, and the gaping horror receded, and for a time Murtagh felt himself lost in the vast landscape of Thorn’s thoughts.

They were flying, higher and higher, until the ground faded from sight, and above and below were the same: a perfect sphere of sky, with nowhere to land and only clouds for cover. A flock of eagles screamed past, talons extended to tear out eyes, and then they were gone, and it was impossible to tell which direction was up and which down.

A timeless while passed, and then a thunder of dragons rose about them: dragons of every shape and color, their scales flashing, their wings thudding until all the air

vibrated like a drum. For an instant, hope and companionship, but only an instant. The dragons turned on them and attacked them and tore at Thorn’s flesh until his wings were tattered remnants and he plunged from the pale sphere of the sky into the heated depths of the earth, where the dirt was heavy and pressing and the only solace was pain and hate and the steady drip of their own hot blood.

Nasuada stood in front of him. Her dress was ripped and stained, and across her forearms, he saw the cuts and bruises Galbatorix had forced him to inflict upon her, and with them, the bloody tracks where the burrow grubs had chewed their way beneath her skin, and his guilt knew no bounds. “Why?” she said. “Why, why, why? Tell me…why?”

A disjunction, and then a battlefield stretched before them, from their feet to the smoke-smudged horizon. Humans and Urgals and elves struggled in their thousands: a sea of heaving bodies intent on inflicting pain on one another.

Zar’roc was in Murtagh’s right hand, and his shield in the other, and Thorn stood beside him. They roared together and strode forth into maddened conflict. And Murtagh swung his sword with abandon, and he felt the familiar shock of impact as the blade sliced through flesh and bone, and his foes fell before him. A wall of rippling flame shot out ahead of him as Thorn sprayed the collected warriors with liquid fire. The smell of burnt hair and crisping skin filled the air, and the combatants screamed as they cooked in their armor.

Murtagh continued forward, Zar’roc lighter in his hand than ever before. And he killed, and he killed, and with each kill, he felt growing power.

A cloud of crows wheeled above the battlefield, and in the distance, hidden by the smoke but in presence felt, Bachel watched. And Murtagh knew she watched with approval.

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