Ctuchik was dead — and more than dead — and the earth itself heaved and groaned in the aftershock of his destruction. Garion and the others fled down through the dim galleries that honeycombed the swaying basalt pinnacle, with the rocks grinding and cracking about them and fragments shattering away from the ceilings and raining down on them in the darkness. Even as he ran, Garion's mind jerked and veered, his thoughts tumbling over each other chaotically, stunned out of all coherence by the enormity of what had just happened. Flight was a desperate need, and he fled without thought or even awareness, his running steps as mechanical as his heartbeat.
His ears seemed full of a swelling, exultant song that rang and soared in the vaults of his mind, erasing thought and filling him with stupefied wonder. Through all his confusion, however, he was sharply conscious of the trusting touch of the small hand he held in his. The little boy they had found in Ctuchik's grim turret ran beside him with the Orb of Aldur clasped tightly to his little chest. Garion knew that it was the Orb that filled his mind with song. It had whispered to him as they had mounted the steps of the turret, and its song had soared as he had entered the room where it had lain. It was the song of the Orb that obliterated all thought shock or the thunderous detonation that had destroyed Ctuchik and tumbled Belgarath across the floor like a rag doll or the deep sullen boom of the earthquake that had followed.
Garion struggled with it as he ran, trying desperately to pull his wits into some kind of order, but the song intruded on his every effort, scattering his mind so that chance impression and random memory fluttered and scurried this way and that and left him to flee without design or direction.
The dank reek of the slave pens lying just beneath the disintegrating city of Rak Cthol came sharply through the shadowy galleries. As if suddenly awakened by that single stimulus, a flood of memories of other smells crashed in on Garion's consciousness — the warm smell of fresh-baked bread in Aunt Pol's kitchen back at Faldor's farm, the salt smell of the sea when they had reached Darine on the north coast of Sendaria on the first leg of their quest for the Orb, the stink of the swamps and jungles of Nyissa, the stomach-turning smell of the burning bodies of the sacrificed slaves in the Temple of Torak which even now shattered and fell in upon itself among the collapsing walls of Rak Cthol. But, oddly, the smell that came sharpest to his confused memory was the sun-warmed scent of Princess Ce'Nedra's hair.
"Garion!" Aunt Pol's voice came sharply to him in the near dark through which they ran. "Watch where you're going!" And he struggled to pull his mind back from its wandering even as he stumbled over a pile of broken rock where a large stretch of ceiling had fallen to the floor.
The terrified wails of the imprisoned slaves locked in clammy cells rose all around them now, joining in a weird counterharmony with the rumble and boom of earthquake. Other sounds came from the darkness as well — confused shouts in harshly accented Murgo voices, the lurching stagger of running feet, the clanging of an unlatched iron cell door swinging wildly as the huge rock pinnacle swayed and shuddered and heaved in the surging roll. Dust billowed through the dark caves, a thick, choking rock dust that stung their eyes and made them all cough almost continually as they clambered over the broken rubble.
Garion carefully lifted the trusting little boy over the pile of shattered rock, and the child looked into his face, calm and smiling despite the chaos of noise and stink all around them in the oppressive dimness. He started to set the child down again, but changed his mind. It would be easier and safer to carry the boy. He turned to go on along the passageway, but he recoiled sharply as his foot came down on something soft. He peered at the floor, then felt his stomach suddenly heave with revulsion as he saw that he had stepped on a lifeless human hand protruding from the rockfall.
They ran on through the heaving darkness with the black Murgo robes which had disguised them flapping around their legs and the dust still thick in the air about them.
"Stop!" Relg, the Ulgo zealot, raised his hand and stood with his head cocked to one side, listening intently.
"Not here!" Barak told him, still lumbering forward with the dazed Belgarath in his arms. "Move, Relg!"
"Be still!" Relg ordered. "I'm trying to listen." Then he shook his head. "Go back!" he barked, turning quickly and pushing at them. "Run!"
"There are Murgos back there!" Barak objected.
"Run!" Relg repeated. "The side of the mountain's breaking away!"
Even as they turned, a new and dreadful creaking roar surrounded them. Screeching in protest, the rock ripped apart with a long, hideous tearing. A sudden flood of light filled the gallery along which they fled as a great crack opened in the side of the basalt peak, widening ponderously as a vast chunk of the mountainside toppled slowly outward to fall to the floor of the wasteland thousands of feet below. The red glow of the new-risen sun was blinding as the dark world of the caves was violently opened, and the great wound in the side of the peak revealed a dozen or more dark openings both above and beneath, where caves suddenly ran out into nothingness.
"There!" a shout came from overhead. Garion jerked his head around. Perhaps fifty feet above and out along the sharp angle of the face, a half dozen black-robed Murgos, swords drawn, stood in a cave mouth with the dust billowing about them. One was pointing excitedly at the fleeing fugitives. And then the peak heaved again, and another great slab of rock sheared away, carrying the shrieking Murgos into the abyss beneath.
"Run!" Relg shouted again, and they all pounded along at his heels, back into the darkness of the shuddering passageway.
"Stop a minute," Barak gasped, plowing to a sudden halt after they had retreated several hundred yards. "Let me get my breath." He lowered Belgarath to the floor, his huge chest heaving.
"Can I help thee, my Lord?" Mandorallen offered quickly.
"No," Barak panted. "I can manage all right, I'm just a little winded." The big man peered around. "What happened back there? What set all this off?"
"Belgarath and Ctuchik had a bit of a disagreement," Silk told him with sardonic understatement. "It got a little out of hand toward the end."
"What happened to Ctuchik?" Barak asked, still gasping for breath. "I didn't see anybody else when Mandorallen and I broke into that room."
"He destroyed himself," Polgara replied, kneeling to examine Belgarath's face.
"We saw no body, my Lady," Mandorallen noted, peering into the darkness with his great broadsword in his hand.
"There wasn't that much left of him," Silk said.
"Are we safe here?" Polgara asked Relg.
The Ulgo set the side of his head against the wall of the passageway, listening intently. Then he nodded. "For the moment," he replied.
"Let's stop here for a while then. I want to have a look at my father. Make me some light."
Relg fumbled in the pouches at his belt and mixed the two substances that gave off that faint Ulgo light.
Silk looked curiously at Polgara. "What really happened?" he asked her. "Did Belgarath do that to Ctuchik?"
She shook her head, her hands lightly touching her father's chest. "Ctuchik tried to unmake the Orb for some reason," she said. "Something happened to frighten him so much that he forgot the first rule."
A momentary flicker of memory came to Garion as he set the little boy down on his feet--that brief glimpse of Ctuchik's mind just before the Grolim had spoken the fatal "Be Not" that had exploded him into nothingness. Once again he caught that single image that had risen in the High Priest's mind--the image of himself holding the Orb in his hand--and he felt the blind, unreasoning panic the image had caused Ctuchik. Why? Why would that have frightened the Grolim into that deadly mistake? "What happened to him, Aunt Pol?" he asked. For some reason he had to know.
"He no longer exists," she replied. "Even the substance that formed him is gone."
"That's not what I meant," Garion started to object, but Barak was already speaking.
"Did he destroy the Orb?" the big man asked with a kind of weak sickness in his voice.
"Nothing can destroy the Orb," she told him calmly.
"Where is it then?"
The little boy pulled his hand free from Garion's and went confidently to the big Cherek. "Errand?" he asked, holding out the round, gray stone in his hand.
Barak recoiled from the offered stone. "Belar!" he swore, quickly putting his hands behind his back. "Make him stop waving it around like that, Polgara. Doesn't he know how dangerous it is?"
"I doubt it."
"How's Belgarath?" Silk asked.
"His heart's still strong," Polgara replied. "He's exhausted, though. The fight nearly killed him."
With a long, echoing shudder the quaking subsided, and the silence seemed very loud. "Is it over?" Durnik asked, looking around nervously.
"Probably not," Relg replied, his voice hushed in the sudden quiet. "An earthquake usually goes on for quite some time."
Barak was peering curiously at the little boy. "Where did he come from?" he asked, his rumbling voice also subdued.
"He was in the turret with Ctuchik," Polgara told him. "He's the child Zedar raised to steal the Orb."
"He doesn't look all that much like a thief."
"He isn't precisely." She looked gravely at the blond-headed waif. "Somebody's going to have to keep an eye on him," she observed. "There's something very peculiar about him. After we get down, I'll look into it, but I've got too much on my mind for that at the moment."
"Could it be the Orb?" Silk asked curiously. "I've heard that it has strange effects on people."
"Perhaps that's it." But she didn't sound very convinced. "Keep him with you, Garion, and don't let him lose the Orb."
"Why me?" He said it without thinking.
She gave him a level gaze.
"All right, Aunt Pol." He knew there was no point in arguing with her.
"What was that?" Barak asked, holding up his hand for silence.
Somewhere off in the darkness there was the murmur of voices--harsh, guttural voices.
"Murgos!" Silk whispered sharply, his hand going to his dagger.
"How many?" Barak asked Aunt Pol.
"Five," she replied. "No--six. One's lagging behind."
"Are any of them Grolims?"
She shook her head.
"Let's go, Mandorallen," the big Cherek muttered, grimly drawing his sword.
The knight nodded, shifting his own broadsword in his hands.
"Wait here," Barak whispered to the rest of them. "We shouldn't be long." And then he and Mandorallen moved off into the darkness, their black Murgo robes blending into the shadows.
The others waited, their ears straining to catch any sound. Once again that strange song began to intrude itself upon Garion's awareness, and once again his thoughts scattered before its compulsion. Somewhere a long, hissing slither of dislodged pebbles rattled down a slope, and that sound raised a confused welter of memory in him. He seemed to hear the ring of Durnik's hammer on the anvil at Faldor's farm, and then the plodding step of the horses and the creak of the wagons in which they had carried turnips to Darine back when this had all begun. As clearly as if he were there, he heard again the squealing rush of the boar he had killed in the snowy woods outside Val Alorn, and then the aching song of the Arendish serf-boy's flute that had soared to the sky from the stump-dotted field where Asharak the Murgo had watched with hate and fear on his scarred face.
Garion shook his head, trying to clear his thoughts, but the song drew him back into that bemused reverie. Sharply, he heard the awful, hissing crackle of Asharak burning beneath the vast, ancient trees in the Wood of the Dryads and heard the Grolim's desperate plea, "Master, have mercy." Then there were the screams in Salmissra's palace as Barak, transformed into that dreadful bear shape, clawed and ripped his way toward the throne room with Aunt Pol in her icy fury striding at his side.
And then the voice that had always been in his mind was there again. "Stop fighting with it."
"What is it?" Garion demanded, trying to focus his thoughts.
"It's the Orb."
"What's it doing?"
"It wants to know you. This is its way of finding things out."
"Can't it wait? We don't really have time just now."
"You can try to explain that, if you'd like." The voice sounded amused. "It might listen, but I doubt it. It's been waiting for you for a very long time."
"Don't you ever get tired of saying that?"
"Is it doing the same thing to the others?"
"To a lesser degree. You might as well relax. One way or another, it's going to get what it wants."
There was a sudden ring of steel against steel somewhere off in the dark passageways and a startled cry. Then Garion heard the crunch of blows, and someone groaned. After that, there was silence.
A few moments later they heard the scuff of footsteps, and Barak and Mandorallen returned. "We couldn't find that one who was coming along behind the rest of them," Barak reported. "Is Belgarath showing any signs of coming around yet?"
Polgara shook her head. "He's still completely dazed," she replied.
"I'll carry him then. We'd better go. It's a long way back down, and these caves are going to be full of Murgos before long."
"In a moment," she said. "Relg, do you know where we are?"
"Take us back to the place where we left the slave woman," she instructed in a tone that tolerated no objection.
Relg's face went hard, but he said nothing.
Barak bent and picked up the unconscious Belgarath. Garion held out his arms, and the little boy obediently came to him, the Orb still held protectively against his chest. The child seemed peculiarly light, and Garion carried him with almost no effort. Relg lifted his faintly glowing wooden bowl to illuminate their path, and they started out again, twisting, turning, following a zigzag course that went deeper and deeper into the gloomy caves. The darkness of the peak above them seemed to bear down on Garion's shoulders with a greater and greater weight the farther they went. The song in his mind swelled again, and the faint light Relg carried sent his thoughts roving once more. Now that he understood what was happening, it seemed to go more easily. The song opened his mind, and the Orb leeched out every thought and memory, passing through his life with a light, flickering touch. It had a peculiar kind of curiosity, lingering often on things Garion did not think were all that important and barely touching matters that had seemed so dreadfully urgent when they had occurred. It traced out in detail each step they had taken in their long journey to Rak Cthol. It passed with them to the crystal chamber in the mountains above Maragor where Garion had touched the stillborn colt and given life in that oddly necessary act of atonement that had somehow made up for the burning of Asharak. It went down with them into the Vale where Garion had turned over the large white rock in his first conscious attempt to use the Will and the Word objectively. It scarcely noticed the dreadful fight with Grul the Eldrak nor the visit to the caves of Ulgo, but seemed to have a great curiosity about the shield of imagining which Garion and Aunt Pol had erected to conceal their movements from the searching minds of the Grolims as they had approached Rak Cthol. It ignored the death of Brill and the sickening ceremonies in the Temple of Torak, but lingered instead on the conversation between Belgarath and Ctuchik in the Grolim High Priest's hanging turret. And then, most peculiarly, it went back to sift through every one of Garion's memories of Princess Ce'Nedra--of the way the sun caught her coppery hair, of the lithe grace of her movements, of her scent, of each unconscious gesture, of the flicker and play of emotion across her tiny, exquisite face. It lingered on her in a way that Garion eventually found unsettling. At the same time he found himself a bit surprised that so much of what the princess had said and done had stuck so firmly in his memory.
"Garion," Aunt Pol said, "what is the matter with you? I told you to hold on to the child. Pay attention. This isn't the time for daydreaming."
"I wasn't. I was--" How could he explain it?
"You were what?"
They moved on, and there were periodic tremors as the earth settled uneasily. The huge basalt pinnacle swayed and groaned each time the earth shuddered and convulsed under its base; and at each new quiver, they stopped, almost fearing to breathe.
"How far down have we come?" Silk asked, looking around nervously.
"A thousand feet perhaps," Relg replied.
"That's all? We'll be penned up in here for a week at this rate."
Relg shrugged his heavy shoulders. "It will take as long as it takes," he said in his harsh voice as they moved on.
There were Murgos in the next gallery, and another nasty little fight in the darkness. Mandorallen was limping when he came back.
"Why didn't you wait for me?" Barak demanded crossly.
Mandorallen shrugged. "They were but three, my Lord."
"There's just no point in trying to talk to you, do you know that?" Barak sounded disgusted.
"Are you all right?" Polgara asked the knight.
"A mere scratch, my Lady," Mandorallen replied indifferently. "It is of no moment."
The rock floor of the gallery shuddered and heaved again, and the booming noise echoed up through the caves. They all stood frozen, but the uneasy movement of the earth subsided after a few moments.
They moved steadily downward through the passageways and caves. The aftershocks of the earthquake that had shattered Rak Cthol and sent Ctuchik's turret crashing to the floor of the wasteland of Murgos continued at intervals. At one point, hours later it seemed, a party of Murgos, perhaps a dozen strong, passed through a gallery not far ahead, their torches casting flickering shadows on the walls and their harsh voices echoing. After a brief, whispered conference, Barak and Mandorallen let them go by unmolested and unaware of the terrible violence lurking in the shadows not twenty yards away. After they were out of earshot, Relg uncovered his light again and selected yet another passageway. They moved on, descending, twisting, zigzagging their way down through the caves toward the foot of the pinnacle and the dubious safety of the wasteland which lay outside.
While the song of the Orb did not diminish in any way, Garion was at least able to think as he followed Silk along the twisting passageways with the little boy in his arms. He thought that perhaps it was because he had grown at least partially accustomed to it--or maybe its attention was concentrated on one of the others.
They had done it; that was the amazing thing. Despite all the odds against them, they had retrieved the Orb. The search that had so abruptly interrupted his quiet life at Faldor's farm was over, but it had changed him in so many ways that the boy who had crept out through the gate at Faldor's farm in the middle of a windswept autumn night no longer even existed. Garion could feel the power he had discovered within himself even now and he knew that power was there for a reason. There had been hints along the way--vague, half-spoken, sometimes only implied--that the return of the Orb to its proper place was only a beginning of something much larger and much more serious. Garion was absolutely certain that this was not the end of it.
"It's about time," the dry voice in his mind said.
"What's that supposed to mean?"
"Why do I have to explain this every single time?"
"That I know what you're thinking. It's not as if we were completely separate, you know."
"All right, then. Where do we go from here?"
"And after that?"
"You aren't going to tell me?"
"No. Not yet. You haven't come nearly as far as you think you have. There's still a very long way to go."
"If you aren't going to tell me anything, why don't you just leave me alone?"
"I just wanted to advise you not to make any long-term plans. The recovery of the Orb was only a step--an important one--but only a beginning."
And then, as if mention of it somehow reminded the Orb of Garion's presence, its song returned in full force, and Garion's concentration dissolved.
Not much later, Relg stopped, lifting the faint light aloft.
"What's the trouble?" Barak demanded, lowering Belgarath to the floor again.
"The ceiling fell in," Relg replied, pointing at the rubble choking the passageway ahead. "We can't get through." He looked at Aunt Pol. "I'm sorry," he said, and Garion felt that he really meant it. "That woman we left down here is on the other side of the cave-in."
"Find another way," she told him shortly.
"There isn't any. This was the only passageway leading to the pool where we found her."
"We'll have to clear it then."
Relg shook his head gravely. "We'd just bring more of it down on top of us. It probably fell in on her as well--at least we can hope so."
"Isn't that just a bit contemptible, Relg?" Silk asked pointedly.
The Ulgo turned to regard the little man. "She has water there and sufficient air to breathe. If the cave-in didn't kill her, she could live for weeks before she starves to death." There was a peculiar, quiet regret in Relg's voice.
Silk stared at him for a moment. "Sorry, Relg," he said finally. "I misunderstood."
"People who live in caves have no desire to see anyone trapped like that."
Polgara, however, was considering the rubble-blocked passageway. "We have to get her out of there," she declared.
"Relg could be right, you know," Barak pointed out. "For all we know, she's buried under half the mountain."
She shook her head. "No," she disagreed. "Taiba's still alive, and we can't leave without her. She's as important to all of this as any one of us." She turned back to Relg. "You'll have to go get her," she told him firmly.
Relg's large, dark eyes widened. "You can't ask that," he protested.
"There's no alternative."
"You can do it, Relg," Durnik encouraged the zealot. "You can go through the rock and bring her out the same way you carried Silk out of that pit where Taur Urgas had him."
Relg had begun to tremble violently. "I can't!" his voice was choked. "I'd have to touch her--put my hands on her. It's sin."
"This is most uncharitable of thee, Relg," Mandorallen told him. "There is no sin in giving aid to the weak and helpless. Consideration for the unfortunate is a paramount responsibility of all decent men, and no force in all the world can corrupt the pure spirit. If compassion doth not move thee to fly to her aid, then mayest thou not perhaps regard her rescue a test of thy purity?"
"You don't understand," Relg told him in an anguished voice. He turned back to Polgara. "Don't make me do this, I beg you."
"You must," she replied quietly. "I'm sorry, Relg, but there's no other way."
A dozen emotions played across the fanatic's face as he shrank under Aunt Pol's unrelenting gaze. Then with a strangled cry, he turned and put his hand to the solid rockface at the side of the passageway. With a dreadful concentration, he pushed his fingers into the rock, demonstrating once more his uncanny ability to slip his very substance through seemingly unyielding stone.
Silk quickly turned his back. "I can't stand to watch that," the little man choked. And then Relg was gone, submerged in the rock.
"Why does he make so much fuss about touching people?" Barak demanded.
But Garion knew why. His enforced companionship with the ranting zealot during the ride across Algaria had given him a sharp insight into the workings of Relg's mind. The harsh-voiced denunciations of the sins of others served primarily to conceal Relg's own weakness. Garion had listened for hours at a time to hysterical and sometimes incoherent confessions about the lustful thoughts that raged through the fanatic's mind almost continually. Taiba, the lush-bodied Marag slave woman, would represent for Relg the ultimate temptation, and he would fear her more than death itself.
In silence they waited. Somewhere a slow drip of water measured the passing seconds. The earth shuddered from time to time as the last uneasy shocks of earthquake trembled beneath their feet. The minutes dragged on in the dim cavern.
And then there was a flicker of movement, and Relg emerged from the rock wall carrying the half-naked Taiba. Her arms were desperately clasped about his neck, and her face was buried in his shoulder. She was whimpering in terror and trembling uncontrollably.
Relg's face was twisted into an agony. Tears of anguish streamed openly from his eyes, and his teeth were clenched as if he were in the grip of intolerable pain. His arms, however, cradled the terrified slave woman protectively, almost gently, and even when they were free of the rock, he held her closely against him as if he intended to hold her thus forever.
From the Trade Paperback edition.
Excerpted from The Belgariadby David Eddings Copyright © 2002 by David Eddings. Excerpted by permission.
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