Chapter no 48 – To Hold the Center

Murtagh (The Inheritance Cycle, #5)

Apale glow appeared ahead of Murtagh—spilling out from behind a fold of rock—and his pulse quickened. At last! Bachel was near. He could feel her. And not just her, others besides. Thirteen of them,

by his count.

He readied himself with a long, slow breath and a drawing in of his mind. Bachel might not have a legion of Eldunarí to command, as had Galbatorix, but she was no less dangerous. Murtagh had no intention of underestimating her. She’d gotten the best of him before; it wouldn’t happen again, regardless of her source of power. That he swore to himself.

He spared a quick thought for Thorn and then continued.

His boots were soft against the stone as he rounded the fold of rock. Beyond it, he beheld a vast, circular chamber that looked as if it had been scraped out of the granite by a great millstone. He hardly noticed the slime-veined walls, for a cluster of white crystals thrust upward at various angles from the ground. The crystals were semi-opaque and translucent along their sharp edges, and they varied in size from small protrusions no larger than the thorn of a rose to enormous pillars as thick around as an aged oak. Large or small, the crystals glowed with a natural radiance, white and pure and beautiful to behold.

In the center of the chamber lay a wide clearing with a gaping hole at its heart: a void twenty paces across that opened to yet further depths.

At the height of the chamber was another opening, and he had a sense that it led up, up, up to the Well of Dreams. For all his walking, he’d merely ended directly below where he’d started.

Bachel stood waiting for him by the void.

He hardly recognized her. The witch still wore the enchanted half mask that transformed her aspect to that of a dark, draconic being. But she had exchanged her dress for a suit of armor that encased every inch of her body, and the armor was made not of leather or metal but rather of dragon scales.

The scales were reddish black and glimmered with an oily sheen. They emitted a dim glow, dying embers still pulsing with contained heat. The scales must have come from an old dragon, for some looked to have been cut from even larger pieces. Seeing the armor, Murtagh realized that the leather garb the cultists had donned for the festival of black smoke had been made to resemble Bachel’s fantastic suit.

In her hand, the witch held the Dauthdaert Niernen. Its blade matched the light from the slime along the walls.

Six acolytes stood to Bachel’s left and six to the right, as if two great wings extending from she who served as their central body. The impression was marred slightly by the pair of acolytes who held Alín between them, their hands firm around her arms and wrists as they kept her kneeling upon the stone.

A reddened bruise discolored Alín’s cheek, and blood spotted one corner of her mouth, but her neck was unbowed and desperate hope filled her eyes as she beheld Murtagh. “My Lord!” she cried.

Dark rage gripped Murtagh as he saw her plight. He welcomed the emotion, knowing it would serve him well in the fight to come.

The acolytes carried neither swords nor spears but tall stas of knotted wood, each embellished with strange carvings. For the oddest moment, Murtagh was reminded of Brom. Then the cultists stamped the butts of their stas against the ground, and the sound echoed again and again from the domed ceiling, and they began to chant in a low chorus that filled the chamber with building urgency.

Murtagh picked his way between the crystals, careful to avoid their sharp edges.

As he approached, Bachel lifted Niernen and pointed the lance at him. She seemed entirely unafraid, and she said, “I am impressed, Murtagh son of Morzan. The power of Azlagûr’s dreams drives to madness most who venture into the depths below Nal Gorgoth.”

“But not you or your servants.”

“I am the Speaker. I am Azlagûr’s chosen mouthpiece. His protection grants certain privileges to me and those I choose as my attendants.”

Murtagh wasn’t so sure about that. He aected a casual expression and spun Ithring in his hand as he paced forward, keeping a close watch on the cultists. “What of those…things in the caves? Are they your doing as well?”

Beneath the mask, Bachel’s mouth twisted with amusement. “Not mine, Kingkiller. Mites and fleas of Azlagûr are they. Useful tools, nothing more.”

He nodded in a pretense of understanding. The twelve acolytes couched their stas toward him as he stopped some ten paces in front of Bachel. If he could somehow maneuver behind them, he could drive Bachel toward the hole in the floor, and it would limit her movement….

A column of thick black smoke jetted up through the hole, as loud and fast as a giant waterfall, only in ascent. Heat followed, so intense that Murtagh fell back a step, and the stench of brimstone was overwhelming.

Bachel seemed unaected. She extended Niernen and let the tip of the lance enter the flow of smoke. The glow from the blade illuminated the dense haze from within, giving it an unearthly hue.

Then, just as suddenly as it had started, the torrent ceased, and what remained continued upward, lifted by the heated currents of air. It vanished into the shadows above, but Murtagh knew that, in a few minutes, it would arrive at the surface and thence would seep through the ground and into the polluted air around Nal Gorgoth.

“What is this place, witch?”

Bachel drew herself up, eyes bright with fury, and her mask lent her voice terrifying power. “You will address me by my rightful title, desecrator! This place is Oth Orum, the hidden heart of the world, the very center of

all being, and your presence is an aront to Azlagûr Himself. No outlander has set foot here, not in all the thousands of years the Draumar have guarded it. To come here unconsecrated is to invite death, and death you shall have unless you realize your error and kneel before me.”

“I shall not kneel. Not to you. Not to Azlagûr. Not to anyone.”

Bachel’s fury increased, but she mastered herself and, in a cold tone, said, “Why, Kingkiller? I have oered you everything, and still you scorn me.”

“No, you have taken, not oered.” Murtagh did not blink as he met her gaze. “I am my own man. By my will, I make my way. I will let no one steal that from me, least of all you, witch. Surrender now, or I swear the worms will feed on you this very day.”

“Desecrator!” she declared. “Defiler! You will rue those—”

The ground shook beneath them, and a thunderous rumble echoed through the caves and tunnels. Flakes of stone fell from above, and billows of grey dust clouded the chamber.

Murtagh dropped into a half crouch, alarmed. Was this Bachel’s magic again?

But no, the witch and her minions staggered, as if surprised, and then Bachel laughed, low, throaty, delighted. “Do you feel that, Kingkiller?! Do you? That is Azlagûr come to purge the unbelievers! He shall sweep aside the unworthy, like maggots before the flame! Submit!”

Worry gnawed at Murtagh’s confidence. He still did not fully understand the forces he was dealing with; whatever lay at the bottom of the hole, it was concerning.

Raising Ithring, he pointed at Bachel, even as she had pointed at him with Niernen. “Let Alín go,” he said, and his voice rang loudly. “She has no part in our quarrel.”

“Oh, but she does,” said Bachel. “She is my vassal, and you have turned her against me, and against Azlagûr Himself. She shall pay for her sins, Rider. She shall pay most dearly. Her blood will be a welcome sacrifice to our dread god.”

“Liar!” shouted Alín. “Hypocrite! You broke our creed! You went against everything you told us was sacred!” She spat on the floor in Bachel’s

direction. “You are the defiler! You are the desecrator!”

Bachel turned, the slightest smile upon her distorted features. “Foolish girl. There are deeper truths than you know. Everything I have done has been in service of Azlagûr’s will. You dare question me? She whom He has chosen as His Speaker?”

Hair flew wild about Alín’s face as she shook her head. “How can you say that? All my life, we worshipped the dragons, as you taught us. You said


“The dragons?” said Bachel, her voice so loud that Alín quailed into submission. The witch laughed, and there was nothing pleasant in the sound. “You wish to understand that which is above your station, wretch, but I will indulge you this once. Azlagûr has no regard for the little worms. They may serve Him or not, and if not, the calamity of His arrival shall sweep them aside. That is as He desires. That is as it shall be. The little worms are not gods. They are noisome spawn, weak, blind, and benighted.”

The twelve sta-wielding Draumar seemed unsurprised. Murtagh wondered if they were Bachel’s inner circle, privy to information kept from the rest of the cult.

“No,” said Alín in a small voice. She was shaking. “That cannot be. Why w—”

Bachel rapped Niernen against the stone. “Because! The little worms are aspects of Azlagûr, but they are not Azlagûr Himself. It is the Great Devourer we worship above all else.” The witch shook her head, as if disgusted, and held out her off hand toward the nearest of the Draumar. “Give me now your knife.”

The acolyte obliged by producing a short-bladed dagger from within the sleeve of his jerkin. The iron blade appeared as grey velvet in the light from the crystals.

Bachel took the dagger and strode toward Alín.

“No!” shouted Murtagh, and he launched his thoughts at Bachel’s mind in a furious assault.

The witch’s steps faltered, and then she stopped, and Murtagh strove to hold her in place as he charged forward.

Bachel motioned at the Draumar. Their chanting increased, and Murtagh stumbled and fell to one knee as the full force of twelve more minds crashed into his. Their voices filled his ears with a throbbing rhythm. His head seemed to pulse with the same tempo, and darkness crept in about the edges of his vision.

Moving was impossible. Murtagh’s awareness of his body shrank as he focused inward and armored himself against the onslaught. His sense of self became the center of his existence; it was all he allowed himself to think of, all he allowed himself to imagine. What he saw, he observed without judgment or reaction, as if he were watching events without meaning.

Bachel raised an arm and threw a vial toward him.

The glass shattered on the stone by his hand. A cloud of pearly white vapor floated up to his face and wrapped itself around him. But he smelled none of it, and it had no eect on him—his wards at work.

The witch bared her teeth. “Your magics will not—”

Another tremor passed through the mountain, and for a moment, the ground seemed to rise beneath him.

The disturbance provided a useful distraction. Two of the Draumar lost their concentration, and Murtagh seized the opportunity to drive deep into their minds. But only for a second. Then the combined might of the cultists forced him to retreat within himself.

Bachel abandoned Alín and advanced upon him. The butt of Niernen tapped against the ground in time with the witch’s every step. Her guards followed, two of them dragging Alín between them.

Bachel stopped in front of Murtagh, and the sta-wielding acolytes closed in around him, forming a tight circle. Their chanting increased in volume again, a dozen voices drumming against his ears, a dozen minds battering against his consciousness.

“Why do you strive so?” Bachel said, her voice a low purr. “Surrender to me, my son. Join us. Join us in service to Azlagûr, and never again will you be tormented by doubt. Your place in the world will be secured, and your name will be sung for a thousand generations.”

Join us, the cultists’ thoughts chanted, a constant, maddening refrain.

Murtagh felt physically trapped, hemmed in too tightly to move or even to think. Bodies all about him and voices also, and every member of the group assaulting him in the same fashion until it seemed he was dealing with a single, massive creature determined to defeat and constrain him.

His hand trembled about Ithring’s hilt. Even the idea of standing and striking was enough for the cultists to gain purchase on his consciousness. The weight of their minds pressed him down, flattening his being until his identity thinned and nearly vanished, and it was dicult to tell whose thoughts belonged to whom.

Yet even then, he refused to surrender. He was sovereign to himself, and he would sooner die than be otherwise.

A sudden movement: Alín twisted and wrenched free of her captors. She tore something from the neck of the man to her right, and then she sprang toward Murtagh.

Bachel shouted and pointed at Alín. A spear of fire leaped from the witch’s clawed finger and struck Alín in the chest.

The fire passed harmlessly around her.

With a desperate cry, Alín collapsed against Murtagh with her arms around his shoulders. Her fingers fumbled against the back of his neck and—

Clarity. Sudden relief. The pressure upon his mind vanished, and he jumped to his feet.

A bird-skull amulet bounced against his chest.

Ithring sang through the air as he swung at the nearest cultist. The man had no wards to protect him; the sword’s crimson blade passed through him with hardly any resistance.

The chanting dissolved into panicked discord.

Murtagh quick-stepped to the next Draumar and clove head from body. The cultists were crowded close to him, and he moved with ruthless eciency among them, chopping at arms and legs and stabbing where he could, determined to keep them so busy they could not again immobilize him.

Bachel snarled. A torrent of flame shot from her to Murtagh. As with Alín, the flames wrapped around him without harm. Nor did the arcane fire

touch two of the three Draumar behind him. However, the third cultist was the man from whom Alín had stolen the amulet, and him the fire harrowed, and his skin cracked and his hair vanished in a flare of orange sparks. He ran away screaming as a blanket of flames enveloped him.

In his blindness, the man ran off the edge of the great hole in the center of the room and fell into the black void, the flames trailing like flapping flags from his body.

Murtagh did not pause to watch, but hurried about his butchery, eager to put down the rest of Bachel’s guards before they could regain the advantage.

Several of the cultists attempted to block or parry his attacks, and a few even struck at him in turn. But they were not trained warriors—not as he was—and he outfenced them with ease.

As he spun about, he saw Alín grappling with one of the cultists. The man struck her with his sta, and she fell to the stone, limp and unmoving.

The sight spurred Murtagh to even greater speed. By his hand, Ithring traced a fatal cutting line from body to body, a bloody blur too fast to follow. The Draumar toppled like scythed stalks of grass.

A grinding rumble passed through the floor of the cavern. More dust sifted downward, while shards broke loose from the crystals and landed in a tinkling cascade throughout.

Murtagh stumbled and paused, arms outstretched.

Before the shaking subsided, Bachel came flying toward him—a dark shape piercing the curtains of dust, the ancient lance held before her.

He was quick to respond, but the witch was faster still, for she had the reflexes of an elf. The tip of Niernen struck him in the side and, to Murtagh’s astonishment, punctured his shirt of mail and stabbed him between the ribs.

Bachel pulled the lance free, and he fell back, clutching his side. Fire burned in his chest, and blood spattered his lips as he coughed. Then he went cold with fear, and his thoughts grew hard and simple. The blade had touched a lung. It was a deadly wound, if not immediately fatal. He had seen such injuries on the battlefield. His lung would collapse or else fill with

blood. Either way, he would die from lack of air unless he could heal himself.

The witch crowed. “You cannot triumph in this place, Kingkiller. Here reign supreme, for I am Azlagûr’s champion.”

One of the acolytes charged at Murtagh from the side. He dodged a swing of the man’s staff and ran him through the neck.

The cultist fell, gurgling and kicking.

Murtagh glanced about, expecting another ambush. There was no one left standing in the chamber, save him and Bachel. Dark slicks of blood coated the stone surrounding the crumpled bodies of the eleven fallen cultists—the twelfth having cast himself into the hole.

The witch raised her left hand and made a crushing motion. The bird-skull amulet about his neck cracked and disintegrated in a pale powder that ran down the front of his mail. As it did, the amulet’s protection vanished, and he felt the witch launch a renewed assault upon his mind.

He steeled himself against the invasion.

A smile pulled Bachel’s mouth further askew. “Did you think mine own charms could withstand me, Kingkiller?” As she spoke, she stalked toward him, as a great cat walking down its prey.

Despite his pain, Murtagh kept his mind calm, clear—emotionless. Panic would not help him. The witch lunged again, and he parried. The wound in his side made it impossible to move smoothly; he hitched as he deflected the Dauthdaert, which provided Bachel with ample opportunity to evade his counterstrike.

“This resistance will bring you only death! Kneel before me!” “No.”

Again the witch came at him, and Murtagh retreated around the gaping hole in the floor, attempting to maintain distance between the two of them while also drawing Bachel away from Alín’s motionless form. Bright spots of blood fell from his side, leaving a trail of splattered blotches, as a line of red coins strewn behind him.

Never before had Murtagh felt such a sense of desperate struggle. Not even during the fight against Galbatorix and Shruikan. At least then there

had been others to help. Here he was alone, without even Thorn, and the slightest mistake would mean death.

He might already be dead.

His breath wheezed through his punctured lung. Even now it was dicult to get enough air.

Forward strode Bachel, and she jabbed at him with furious intent: a half-dozen quick stabs, which left Murtagh with a small cut on his calf, just above his greaves.

His wards couldn’t stop the Dauthdaert. No ward could. Galbatorix had claimed the lances were the only weapons dragons feared. Murtagh believed it. He had learned to fear them himself.

He feigned a stumble, and when Bachel moved to take advantage of the supposed opening…he sidestepped and slashed underneath her outstretched arm.

Ithring glanced off a protective spell. Even without her armor, Bachel would have been well shielded against his blade.

Murtagh reassessed. He wasn’t going to defeat the witch through force of arms, unless he could somehow break her magical defenses.

As Bachel twisted around to again face him, he drove his mind against the witch’s with every mote of strength he could muster. The invisible assault was so strong, it stopped Bachel in her tracks. Her face went rigid with strain as she struggled to repulse his intruding thoughts.

Neither of them moved; they had not the attention to spare.

Bachel’s mind was uncomfortably familiar to Murtagh. How many nights had she spent torturing him, trying to break his will in the room of horrors beneath the temple?

But this time it was dierent. He was himself again, and though he was no elf, his strength of mind was the match of anyone’s, as was his determination. Bachel could not easily fend him o, and every triumph he had against her—no matter how small—further fueled his attack.

Still, the witch was strong and devious. Trying to restrain her consciousness was like trying to hold on to a beast that kept twisting and snapping. The slightest of openings allowed her to shift the attack back to

Murtagh, and then he was on the defensive until he could again begin to pin her down.

Though they did not move, their breathing grew heavy, and sweat dripped from their faces and onto the floor. And Murtagh felt and heard the all-too-swift patter of blood falling from his side. Each inhalation was more dicult than the last.

Hard as it was, he made progress against Bachel. Every time she wriggled out of his mental grasp, the space he gave her to move was smaller, and bit by bit, he cinched tight the fetters he was binding about her being.

When Bachel realized what was happening, she panicked. He had expected as much. But instead of thrashing or stabbing or doing anything so reasonable, she lifted her hand and pointed at Murtagh, and to his shock he felt a surge of energy in her mind, and—

—jagged shards of ice shot up toward him from a suddenly frost-covered ground. The needle-sharp tips shattered against his wards, but the air on his lips grew painfully cold.

He snarled. The witch refused to adhere to the only rule of a spellcasters’ duel: which was to not use magic until one had established control over their opponent’s mind.

Murtagh’s first instinct was to lash out with the most dire spells he knew

—spells that would draw so much energy from him, they might kill him, but that also might be his only chance of stopping Bachel before she accomplished the deed herself. Still, he hesitated. Suicide held no appeal— and it occurred to him that Bachel was undisciplined, untrained. She didn’t use the ancient language because she didn’t know it, and she wasn’t adhering to proper dueling protocol because she was likewise ignorant of it.

That didn’t make his position any safer, but it did mean that if he used magic, she wasn’t likely to react with suicidal force as would any trained magician.

At least, so he hoped.

Maintaining his pressure on her mind, he shouted, “Brisingr!” and allowed a stream of sparkling crimson flames to pour forth from the tip of

Ithring. The spellfire flash-melted the icicles before wrapping around Bachel with intrusive intimacy.

He ended the spell to see the witch unharmed and laughing. “Bow, infidel!” she shouted.

Another tremor shook the ground. The distraction allowed Bachel to wrest her mind even further from his. Then she pointed Niernen at him, and he felt a sudden and drastic decrease in strength as his wards fended off an onslaught he neither felt nor saw.

“Thrysta!” was his reply, and the spell had a similar eect on Bachel; she slumped as his attack depleted her reserves.

They cast spells with wild abandon, each trying to overwhelm the other. Murtagh uttered words in the ancient language as quickly as he could: once he’d exhausted the most obvious means of defeating Bachel, quantity became more important than quality. Speed was of the essence.

In that, Bachel had the clear advantage. Murtagh had never truly appreciated the power of wordless magic before. The witch did not need to stop to think of how to phrase her enchantments; she simply willed them to be, and they were. Concepts that would have been tedious or impossible to express in the ancient language were a trivial matter for her, and indeed, many of the attacks she launched at him were of a sort he would have struggled to replicate.

The limitation for both of them, of course, was the energy at their disposal. Murtagh quickly depleted what remained in Ithring’s ruby, leaving him with only the reserves of his body. And it was easy to overtax those.

Whether Bachel had hidden stores of energy herself, he didn’t know. But her lips soon grew grey, and she tottered slightly as she advanced on him. Murtagh felt no better. Every spell consumed another portion of vitality, and a deadly lethargy dragged at his limbs and mind.

Between them flickered staggering blows of heat and cold, light and dark. Wind howled in brutal gusts, only to vanish a second later, replaced by tendrils of liquid night, or else invisible forces that sought to cut or crush or inveigle themselves into the fragile flesh of their foe. Once a double of Bachel appeared next to Murtagh—lifelike in every respect, even down to

the pores of her skin—and the illusion so startled him, the real witch nearly managed to stab him again.

Murtagh had spent many an hour over many a day thinking of attacks and counters to use when fighting another magician. But none of the schemes he’d devised succeeded against Bachel. Nor were spells he’d used with success in the past eective. He even tried bypassing the witch’s wards as Eragon had done with Galbatorix’s: by helping her. That too failed.

Indirect attacks seemed to have the most eect. If a spell did not work upon Bachel herself but on the environment around her, then he was able to more consistently stress her wards and, sometimes, bypass them to a degree.

The realization gave him an idea.

He glanced around. On the other side of the clearing, an enormous white crystal leaned out over the open space, like a windblown tree near to falling. However much the crystal weighed, he guessed even Thorn would struggle to hold it up.

Fast as he could, he scoured his scrambled brain for the words he needed and then muttered, “Ílf kona thornessa thar fïthrenar, thae stenr jierda.” It was a gamble, but just maybe…

Bachel snarled, her mouth pulling further o-center. “Your magic has no eect against me, Kingkiller. Abandon your pride and kneel! Do you not yet understand you cannot resist Azlagûr or His disciples? Surrender and serve!”

Another jet of black smoke shot up through the hole in the center of the cave.

“I would rather die.” Murtagh began to retreat toward the leaning crystal. He aected a limp and moved as if his strength had nearly given out and he were about to pass out. It wasn’t entirely an exaggeration.

“Bah!” Bachel’s face distorted into a hateful visage as she strode toward him, head held high, planting the butt of Niernen firmly against the stone floor with every step.

Good. She was confident. Too confident.

As the witch neared, Murtagh cast another spell, this one an attempt to blind her by bending the light around her face. The magic succeeded, but only for a second, and then Bachel waved her hand, and her strength surged

against his. He did not fight it. He released the spell. But it had served its purpose to distract the witch, and to fulfill her expectation that he would continue to fight until the bitter end.

The soft radiance of the crystal appeared above him as he edged underneath it.

He paused there for a moment, just long enough for Bachel to close within a few yards of his position.

She strode forward, a cruel, triumphant smile upon her lips. He stepped backward.

As Bachel’s foot touched the stone directly underneath the crystal, a great CRACK sounded, and Murtagh’s knees buckled as his spell exacted its price.

The crystal snapped off near the base and came crashing down.

Bachel started to jump out of the way, but—fast as she was—the huge trunk of faceted stone caught her across the hips and legs and drove her to the ground.

A lightning-like flash surrounded Bachel, and in the same instant, her wards gave out, and the thousands upon thousands of pounds of crystal crushed the lower half of her body.

The impact shook Murtagh off his feet. He landed on his backside with a painful jar, nearly deaf from the sound of the felling.

Bachel screamed. She was pinned, trapped, and butterfly wings of crimson blood spread about her. A piece of the crystal had struck her on the head and knocked her half mask askew. The repositioning seemed to have disrupted the mask’s eect; no longer did the draconic glamour cloak Bachel in its dreadful aspect. She seemed merely a woman again—smaller and diminished, but still as angry as ever and far from dissuaded.

“Kverst!” Murtagh said, even as the witch cried in a malevolent tone, “Stop!”

Their spells clashed. One against the other, and neither he nor she was

willing to give way. A black veil gathered around Murtagh’s vision as the heat fled his body. Nevertheless, he dragged himself upright and took the two steps necessary to close the distance between Bachel and himself.

The witch’s face was twisted with eort, her grey lips pulled back in a snarl. Her neck was corded, and veins stood out like tangled rope beneath her skin. She still held Niernen, and as Murtagh approached, she drew back her arm and stabbed with the lance.

He had not the strength or speed to evade.

The tip of the Dauthdaert glanced off his helm with a metallic squeal, and his head snapped back as he absorbed the force of the impact.

Then he was inside Bachel’s reach. She could no longer attack him with the spear.

Their eyes met, an instant of calm amid a storm, and he saw in her gaze recognition and, he thought, acceptance. He felt a sense of closeness with her, as if she were as dear to him as Tornac or Thorn, for the arrival of death destroyed all boundaries and pretenses.

With his last dram of strength, he swung Ithring. A single, perfect blow, which struck Bachel upon the crown of her head and split her skull.

Her opposition vanished. His spell, kverst, took eect, and the witch fell away from him, pulling Ithring’s hilt from his hand.

Cold blackness washed over Murtagh, and the cave tilted around him as he collapsed, unconscious.

You'll Also Like