Chapter no 46 – Creatures of the Dark

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

The air in the cave was hot and stifling, and the heat seemed to be increasing as Murtagh descended along the cut-stone stairs. He did not remember it being so warm during his previous venture into

the warren hidden beneath Nal Gorgoth. It must be because of the black smoke, he thought. But, of course, that failed to answer the question of what caused the black smoke itself.

As he hurried downward, he dipped his mind into the ruby mounted within Zar’roc’s pommel. A fair amount of energy remained stored within the faceted gem. Less than he’d hoped, but more than he’d feared.

He debated casting a spell to light his way, but he didn’t want to make himself an obvious target. Besides, he remembered the glowing fungus that populated the depths of the caves. He could wait for that dubious illumination. Better to be a hunter stalking in the dark than prey standing in a moonlit clearing.

Beads of sweat began to run down his brow and into his eyes. He wiped them away with the inside of his forearm, the rings of mail hard against his skin. Fighting was hot work, and the sweltering temperature of the cave only exacerbated the lather he’d worked up on the surface. As did the corselet of mail. Iron rings were the very opposite of a cooling fabric.

With his outstretched consciousness, he detected a flicker of life ahead of him, off to the side of the stairs. A man, he thought, but—

A whirring noise crossed the cave, and an arrow bounced off the air in front of his nose.

Murtagh flinched. Even after long acquaintance and deep familiarity with magic, instinct still made him react as if the arrow had been about to hit him. It was a sobering realization to know that, were he not a spellcaster, he would have just died.

He did not dwell on the thought.

Kneeling, he placed Zar’roc on the stairs and felt about until his fingers found a small, sharp chip of rock. He held it up on the palm of his hand and whispered, “Thrysta!”

The rock shot through the air, faster than any eye could see, and—aimed by his will—intersected with the consciousness of the cultist who had shot the arrow.

A flat smack echoed through the cave, followed by the unmistakable sound of a body falling.

Grimly satisfied, he continued onward.



When Murtagh arrived at the vast, slime-lit cave at the bottom of the stone staircase, three more Draumar came rushing out of the shadows to attack him.

The lead cultist jabbed a spear at his hip. Murtagh parried and lunged and ran the man through. Zar’roc pierced the man’s leather-scale armor as if it were no thicker than gossamer.

He withdrew blade from flesh, pivoted, and cut the next Draumar through the neck. The man’s head fell to the ground amid a shower of green blood and bounced away, hair flying in a tangled mess.

A high clang jarred Murtagh’s hearing as he caught the spear of cultist number three on his shield. The man jabbed again, his face a rictus of anger. Murtagh sidestepped and neatly chopped off his right arm.

The cultist howled and staggered back.

Murtagh gave him no quarter. He followed up with two quick thrusts: one between the man’s ribs and one up under his chin.

“Pathetic,” said Murtagh as the cultist collapsed. Grieve had been formidable enough, but if this was the quality of Bachel’s ordinaries, Murtagh was far from impressed. They had neither technique nor magic, only blind faith to fuel their violence. Tornac would not have approved.

A frown settled on Murtagh’s brow. Why were the cultists bothering to attack in such limited numbers? They had to know they stood no chance of stopping him.

They’re trying to delay me, he realized. Either so Bachel could escape or so the witch and her minions might prepare for his coming.

With a flick of his wrist, he shook the blood off Zar’roc’s blade. In a detached manner, he noted the liquid’s unusual appearance; it resembled the dark, iridescent green of the water beetles he would find around Urû’baen. Somehow the sickly glow emanating from the membranous slime on the cavern’s rocks had altered the color of the gore. His skin didn’t look normal either; it appeared horribly unhealthy, as if the slime-glow had leeched him of all vitality.

He hurried along the path of flagstones, eager to reach the Well of Dreams.

His steps quickly brought him to the three tunnels bored into the far wall of the enormous cave. As before, he took the central one, and rushed down the tunnel shingled with scalelike tiles.

Extending his mind, he searched for Bachel and her retinue. But he felt no tickle of thoughts, and his inner eye saw no bright sparks of being amid the surrounding darkness.

When he broke into the marble-clad chamber that housed the Well of Dreams, he found it empty, devoid of motion, save for the flames flickering in the alcoves along the walls. The well itself was open, the grated cover pulled aside to expose the shaft that plunged into unknown depths.

The stench of brimstone poured out of the well with sickening strength. Even as Murtagh took a step toward it, a column of black smoke erupted from its depths, billowed against the arched ceiling, and then ascended

through narrow slits cut along the crown of the ceiling, and which he had not noticed before.

They built this in expectation of the smoke, Murtagh thought. He tried to imagine what lay below. Heated vents full of molten stone, or something of that like. He had heard of such things among the Beor Mountains: places where the mountains breathed fire, and hot smoke and ash often made the surroundings miserable to endure.

He risked a quick glance over the lip of the well. The hole beneath seemed bottomless. For a moment, his balance wavered, and he imagined falling and falling…forever lost in the bowels of the earth.

With an oath, he pulled himself back and looked around. “Where are you?” he muttered.

Once more, he reached out with his mind. When he was assured that no one (and no thing) was close enough to ambush him, he closed his eyes and focused on his inner eye.

He had to range farther and deeper than he expected before he again located Bachel’s white-hot spark of consciousness. She was below him— almost directly underneath the top of the well—and at such a distance, he thought it would take a rock many seconds to fall to her.

“Blast it.” He eyed the human-sized doorways leading out of the chamber. The prospect of getting lost underground appealed to him no more than it had in Gil’ead. But there was no helping it; he had to find Bachel and stop her from escaping.

Right. He started toward the corresponding doorway. Most folks were right-handed, so if either passage was to lead somewhere important, he guessed it would be that one. And if he were wrong…He wondered how difficult it would be to use magic to blast his way straight through the rock. Even Thorn would struggle to muster enough energy to burrow more than a short distance. Rock was heavy, and no amount of chanting in the ancient language would change that.

He ran onward.



The warren of tunnels beneath the marble-clad chamber was far more complicated than Murtagh had feared. If not for his ability to sense Thorn’s mind—even at a distance—he would have quickly ended up hopelessly turned around.

Not far from the chamber, he again found himself in passages large enough for Thorn to have moved through. The wending shafts ran in seemingly random directions, through chambers natural and otherwise— many times he chanced upon what appeared to be shrines or altars or abandoned guardrooms—but always they led downward.

Although the slime-glow was often bright enough to illuminate his path, more than a few of the spaces were as black as the void between the stars. To keep the patches of blinding darkness from unduly slowing him, Murtagh relented and created a red werelight that floated some feet above and in front of his head. The combination of colors from the werelight and the slime painted objects the most hideous shades. So much so that he sometimes had difficulty recognizing the substance of what he saw. He nearly altered the werelight to the pure white of the sun’s noonday radiance, but he valued his night eyes too much.

The air grew thicker as he descended, until it lay heavy and moist in his nose, throat, and lungs, and it took a conscious effort to breathe. At times, clouds of smoke wafted over him, and then he was grateful for his wards, for they seemed to filter some of the stench.

The weighted presence Murtagh had felt in the village was even stronger in the caves. It pressed in around him like old honey, and he had an unaccountable urge to crouch and hide or else to flee far, far away. There was nothing concrete to which he could attribute the feeling, but it was as inescapable as the stifling air.

His attention began to wander, and his vision too. Focusing on any one thing for more than a few seconds seemed…not impossible, but his gaze kept slipping, and a few steps later, he would find himself wondering what he had been looking at and what he had been thinking about.


He shook his head to clear his mind. The motion was a mistake. The world tilted around him, and he fell to one knee, planting his shield against the ground for balance.

After a moment, he felt stable enough to stand.

Could there be drink in the air? Mead or strong spirits sprayed in a fine mist? He tasted the air: brimstone and nothing more. Nevertheless, he cast another ward to purify the air around himself.

It didn’t help.

Concerned, he staggered onward.

Phantasms began to plague him: flashes of shimmering rainbow colors, dolorous moans that snaked through the tunnels, and—rare at first, but then with increasing frequency—visions that appeared before his eyes and that, for those timeless moments, seemed as real as the rocks.

He saw Tornac standing before him, wooden waster in hand. The swordmaster had just been assigned to Murtagh, and they were about to spar…. The clash, when it came, was quick, and the outcome was Murtagh on his backside with a bruise forming across his left ribs. He expected scorn and derision from Tornac. Such had always been his lot at court. But no ridicule was forthcoming. Instead, Tornac walked over to him, offered a hand, and in a matter-of-fact tone said, “It’s a start.”

The lack of rancor opened Murtagh’s heart. He was slow to admit it to himself, but at that moment, he learned to trust, and he clung to Tornac’s instruction—no, his leadership—as the only steady rock in a storm-tossed life.

Murtagh blinked, disoriented. Whatever strangeness was affecting him, he wasn’t about to turn back. “Is this what you count on protecting you, Bachel?” he asked, his voice small in the vastness of the cave. “Well, it won’t. This I swear.”

With dogged steps, he continued.

—black-sun plain scoured by a howling wind that chilled flesh to bone…A man lay hunched in the barren dirt, arms wrapped around his head as he rocked back and forth, screaming in a high, broken tone—

The tunnel Murtagh was following angled steeply downward. His steps quickened as, relieved, he allowed himself to be pulled along by the descent.

He kept his gaze fixed forward, hoping to see the tunnel’s end, for it ought to lead him close to where Bachel was waiting, if not the very location.

—a thunder of dragons flew past, so numerous that they blotted out the sky. Their scales flashed with every conceivable color, a profusion of terrifying beauty, and the air beat like a drum from the force of their mighty wings—

Murtagh broke into a trot. He tried to block out the visions by reciting a scrap of verse. It helped for a time, but then his attention wandered for an instant and—

—Nasuada lay before him, chained to the ashen slab in the Hall of the Soothsayer, even as the prisoners had been held upon the altar in Nal Gorgoth. The pleading in her eyes was as loud as any speech, but they each had their roles to play, and he could not help her. The king commanded, and he obeyed, and she suffered because of it. They all suffered.

“No, no, no,” Murtagh muttered. He banged the rim of his shield against his forehead. The impact helped dispel the images still playing behind his eyes.

The tunnel opened up into yet another cave. As with so many of them, it was lit by slime, and ranks of purple-capped mushrooms edged a small pond far to his right. Rings spread across the surface of the water, as if something had just jumped into—or out of—the pond.

A thicket of larger mushrooms stood before him, like so many stunted, unwholesome trees.

As he picked his way between the woody stems, a sharp chittering caught his ear. He stalked quietly between the mushrooms and soon saw…an odd shape crouched over the body of a fallen cultist.

As the red glow from the werelight touched the creature, it twisted to

look at him with the face of a nightmare. A glistening black tongue as long and thick as his arm lolled from narrow, shrewish jaws, which were too thin to entirely contain the muscle. Loose, sagging skin as pink and pale as a piglet—bare of fur, save for an occasional white bristle sprouting from warty growths—hung in repulsive wrinkles over protruding bones. From the narrow skull stared lidless eyes no bigger than a fish egg and seemingly too sensitive to bear the soft glow of the werelight, for the creature squinted and

recoiled as if in pain. Most disturbing of all were the beast’s front paws, or rather…hands. It had long, humanlike fingers with broken, grime-packed nails smeared with the blood of the dead cultist, and the fingers opened and closed as if to squeeze the life from another unfortunate victim. Dragging behind the beast was a thick rope of a tail, as limp as a dead earthworm.

Revulsion filled Murtagh. The creature—the fingerrat, as he thought of it

—seemed wrong in a fundamental manner, as if its very existence were a perversion of all that was good and right.

He reached out to the fingerrat’s mind. What he discovered only increased his aversion: a gnawing hunger dominated the animal’s consciousness, and all it seemed to think about was the pleasure of eating the warm man-flesh below it and its anger at being interrupted. The others would be coming soon, and—


More chittering sounded in the shadows. A horde of pale fingerrats crept closer, feeling their way with their long fingers, their tails sliding across the cave floor like so many scaleless snakes.

The creature squatting over the corpse uttered a descending moan— Murtagh recognized the cry as one of the many sounds he’d heard filtering through the underground complex—and it returned to tearing at the body, using its tongue to flense skin and muscle from the man’s chest.

“Begone with you, foul creature!” Murtagh shouted, and sprang forward, waving Zar’roc.

The fingerrat shrieked like a pained infant as it cowered. Then it hissed, showing rows of translucent needlelike teeth, and—with shocking speed and agility—jumped toward Murtagh’s throat.

He fell back and slashed the air in front of him, hoping to hit the creature.

Zar’roc struck, but Murtagh’s edge alignment was off, and the hilt twisted in his hand, and he almost dropped the sword.

He staggered as the fingerrat crashed into him and hot blood gushed over his corselet of mail. Teeth snapped at his throat, stopped only by his

wards. Then he threw the creature off, and it fell to the ground, nearly cut in half, squalling and thrashing in its death throes.

The stench of offal made him gag. No help from his spells there.

The squeals of the wounded beast did nothing to deter its approaching kin. They continued to crawl closer through the mushroom thicket while uttering harsh laughing sounds that raised the hair on Murtagh’s neck. Something seemed desperately wrong with the creatures, as if they were half mad from living underground, or else so crazed from the constant smoke that they had no sense of self-preservation.

“Don’t do it,” said Murtagh, keeping Zar’roc at the ready. “I’ll kill you


More of the fingerrats appeared out of the darkness. How many were

there now? Thirty? Forty? He tried to count, but it was impossible to keep track of any one individual as they moved amongst themselves.

“Naina,” Murtagh said, and the werelight above him flared in intensity until it was so bright, it banished all shadows beneath it.

The fingerrats screeched and spun in circles as if a bee had stung them on their sunken flanks.

“Begone!” Murtagh cried again. It was a mistake. The sound of his voice focused the attention of the creatures; they turned toward him, tongues extending like so many feelers, bleached whiskers twitching, knobbed hands reaching.


The horde rushed him, their hands and paws scrabbling against the dirt and stones of the cave floor.

Murtagh struck down the lead rat, but then the rest of the creatures swarmed him, snapping and clawing and lashing him with their heavy tongues. His wards flared, and his strength ebbed with alarming speed as the spells struggled to protect him.

He tried to speak, but the warm hide of a fingerrat pressed against his face, preventing him from uttering a sound. Nor could he draw in a breath.

The animals smelled of must and musk and warm dung. Enough! He focused his will and, with his thoughts, said, Kverst!

The bodies of the fingerrats dropped from him like so many sacks of flour.

Murtagh shuddered. It would not have taken much more to deplete his immediate reserves of stamina, and then his wards would have failed in order to keep him from losing consciousness. If the fingerrats had pressed but a little harder, or if he had hesitated a few seconds longer, they would have overcome him.

A sense of satisfaction filled him as he stared at the mound of bodies. He had no love for such slaughter, but had he the time, he would have hunted down the rest of the carrion eaters and seen to it that their like never bothered another person.

More chitters sounded in the distant shadows.

But not now. He reduced the brightness of the werelight to its previous level and hurried away. Maybe the corpses of their kin would distract his inhuman pursuers, give them enough food that they would not bother following him. It was a hope.

As he trotted along, Murtagh reviewed all the animals he knew of in Alagaësia. He had never heard of such grotesque beasts. Had they a name in the ancient language, he was ignorant of it, and none of the old stories spoke of creatures of that kind.

Do they only live here, or in all the places where the Draumar worship? Was there a chance he might have encountered fingerrats somewhere beneath Gil’ead? The possibility disturbed him.

Still, he ran. And though the chitters faded, they never entirely vanished. Twice more, a fingerrat darted out of the darkness and attempted to bite him. Both times he slew the creature with a single blow from Zar’roc.

Murtagh couldn’t shake the feeling that he was trapped in a waking nightmare. The constant sounds echoing around him—and now he began to question whether some came from other creatures stalking through the underground warren—the seemingly endless tunnels, the shimmering distortions floating before his eyes, and the heat and sweat and crushing sense of presence…all of it combined to give him a pounding pressure at the back of his skull and a conviction that he couldn’t trust anything around him.

—a body of a dragon draped across the land, spikes as tall as mountains, teeth as long as towers, blood flowing like rivers across the withered plains—

He shook his head and pressed on.

Amid the chitters and moans, a new set of sounds became noticeable: a scissorlike slicing and a tiny tapping as of iron nails dancing across stone.

He froze when something large and angled ran out of a side passage and darted halfway up the curved wall of a tunnel. The thing stopped and clung there, unnaturally still.

“Naina,” Murtagh whispered, though he almost didn’t want to see whatever the creature was.

The werelight brightened to reveal…what, Murtagh didn’t know. The creature was the size of a large wolf. A very large wolf. But it more resembled an insect than any furred or feathered animal. It had four double-jointed legs with spikes at the joints, and then another set of legs—or rather, arms—held close against its narrow chest, just beneath its mouth, which was a butcher’s collection of cutting blades. Similarly, the arms ended in razor-sharp pincers, and the creature opened and closed them with the same slicing sound Murtagh had heard moments before. Flat, tick-like head, segmented body, jagged limbs: all of them were clad in black plates of naturally grown armor, no different from a beetle’s shell. The creature had no eyes to speak of: only a double row of pits—no bigger than seeds—along both sides of its head.

The monstrosity looked as if it were made out of sawtoothed lengths of shadow welded into an unlovely whole that reminded Murtagh entirely too much of a spider.

Murtagh straightened from his crouch. He didn’t feel like cowering before this particular horror. “I don’t like you,” he said in a matter-of-fact voice. “If you attack me, I will kill you.”

The creature cocked its head and mashed the blades in its mouth. Then

it darted down the wall of the tunnel and—before Murtagh could do more than take a half step back—skittered out of sight.

“Shade’s blood,” Murtagh muttered. How many unnatural horrors lurked beneath Nal Gorgoth?

Gooseflesh prickled across his neck and arms as he hurried onward.

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