My excuses for a late update? Vacations, oral surgery, prepping for college, enduring the time-sucker that is college... and forcing all of Westeros down under the banner of the Targaryens. (Crusader Kings II is epic on its own. The Game of Thrones mod elevated it to video game godhood.)

Disclaimer: The Legend of Zelda and The Inheritance Cycle belong to their respective owners. All original material belongs to me.

Song(s) of the Chapter: (Murtagh's Half) To Glory, by Two Steps From Hell
(Eragon's Half)
Lost Woods Theme, from The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time

Even to the children of Ordon Village, who had easily bonded with a dragon and her rider, found the Zora boy hard to bond with once he had been deemed well enough to walk around. And it wasn't the fact he was blue or had fins or skin so sensitive to the dry air Renado frequently called him back inside to be sponged with a wet rag.

Ralis was just so sad. Sure, he was nice enough, but he was always moping in the Zora section of the graveyard, politely declining any of Beth's attempts to include him in their games. Colin participated more than he did.

"Just leave him to wallow in his misery, then," Malo proclaimed gravely. It had taken Talo hours to coax him out of his precious 'Malo Mart' and back into the fresh air, even if it was just to sit on the store's front steps. Malo hated every minute of it.

"Malo!" Colin gasped. "Don't be so mean! He's so far from home and he lost somebody!"

"Yeah." Beth crossed her arms firmly. "We shouldn't let him spend all of his time thinking of... you know."

"Puh," Malo grumbled. "You just think fish-boy's cute."

Even as the girl stammered a denial, face turning a dangerous shade of red, Talo decided to stupidly chime in. "Yeah, Beth. What's with you and older men, anyway? Now it's Ralis, sure, but before that it was Era-"

Shrieking in fury, Beth lunged. The brothers leaped from the stairs, darting for the safety of Renado's house while Colin looked on in bewilderment.

"I'll kill you!" Beth roared. "Kill you kill you ki-"

The three children froze in their tracks as the earth rumbled beneath their feet. Remembering its earlier eruptions, their eyes traveled to Death Mountain's summit... and found it calm, even as the rumbling grew into a roar of pounding hooves.

The Bulblins had found them again. Riding astride snorting, red-eyed behemoths, they showed no sign of stopping as they charged down the road, leaving a cloud of swirling dust in their wake. Their leader was the same one that had headed the raid on Ordon Village, still mounted on his armored monster of a Bullbos, and with the same glint of blood-lust in his beady eyes.

Talo and Malo found it in themselves to run for Renado's door. Beth stood frozen like a rabbit directly in the middle of the road, even as the Bulblin raiders bore down on her.

Colin didn't think; he acted. Rocketing off the steps, he reached Beth just as the Bublins thundered down on them, shoving her out of the way with all the strength his puny arms could muster.

Then something hard rammed against his head, and he knew only darkness.

Murtagh was a stranger to Hyrule. Even the fortunate resemblance he bore to the native Hylians would not be able to save him if it became obvious he lacked critical knowledge even the simplest peasants possessed. What was considered basic common courtesy, horribly offensive, or unspeakably taboo?

One hundred years of rule and rebellion under King Galbatorix had left those of the Empire paranoid of strangers beyond their usual Traders at their usual visiting times. For those living in the border towns, where Varden raiders and rogue Urgals were rampant, suspicion of strangers was not considered rudeness, but a necessary survival trait.

Hyrule, or at least the region in which Ordon Village resided in, had not known such recent troubles. Bo had trusted an animal's judgment. He had not treated Murtagh like a potential thief, but had graciously allowed him into his home, had fed him his own food. If all Hyruleans were as open and hospitable, then Murtagh, having grown up in the corrupt courts of Urubaen, would stick out like a sore thumb.

Murtagh's duty wasn't to get noticed by someone who could alert Eragon of his presence. Gods, he wasn't even supposed to face his brother anymore. If his brother blundered into him and insisted on a fight (because he was Eragon), then Murtagh would be bound by his new and improved oaths to honor it until Saphira was captured or until he himself was killed.

Despite Murtagh's obvious edge in magic, Eragon had the obvious advantage in Saphira if it ever came down to that fight. If, by some miracle, Murtagh walked out of that confrontation alive, then whomever had called Galbatorix off the chase would likely want his head instead for going against orders. And, as he had made quite clear to Eragon, Murtagh had no wish whatsoever to die.

"Kakariko it is then," he muttered under his breath.

Eragon had saved Ordon Village's children twice now. Honorable idiot that he was, he would return to ensure they got home safely, whatever evil chased him. If whomever pursued him now had any shred of sense, then they would have concluded the same thing and prepared an ambush. Not only would Murtagh be able to confirm Eragon's status by simply being patient, but he would both meet whatever had power over Galbatorix and plead for Saphira to be handed over to his custody in (relative) health, ensuring his master got what he really wanted from the deal and sparing the she-dragon her Rider's gruesome end.

Beneath him, Epona snorted, her unfaltering strides never breaking. As they had passed over into Eldin Province, the green plains had given way to dryer grasses and red plateaus that unpleasantly reminded him of the Hadarac Desert. Despite the heat of the beating sun, Epona neither sweated nor shown any characteristic signs of exhaustion, bending down to graze only when Murtagh stopped for his own needs.

"Too bad I didn't have you before Thorn hatched," Murtagh reflected wryly. "Even a wonder horse like you is redundant against a flying dragon."

The roan mare snorted indignantly at this. After the ordeal in those monster-infested woods, Murtagh didn't doubt she had the intelligence to understand the implied slight against her.

He patted her neck placatingly. "Of course, even dragons get tired. You, gods know why, don't."

Murtagh had to wish to peer into her mind any further than he had already tried. Animal minds were supposed to be simple. A deer had no higher thoughts or emotions clouding its perceptions and so he could browse their memories easily. Epona's mind, however, reminded him of swimming eyes-open through murky water, dark and confusing and unpleasant. He would only ever breach it again as a last resort.

Then he spotted the cloud of dust further down the road, no doubt kicked up by thundering hooves. His eyes narrowed in suspicion as he urged Epona into a faster gait.

The dust storm settled over a distant village no larger than one of the smaller border settlements in Alagaesia. Murtagh's heart plummeted down to his stomach as he recalled grim tales of burning homesteads and entire massacres of innocent villagers, their bodies mockingly piled up for the crows.

Unbidden, Epona broke out into a full gallop, eating up the remaining distance far faster than a horse of her build should have been able to manage.

As the village came within eyesight, Murtagh was able to make out that the mounts weren't horses, but boars of a monstrous size. Their horned riders reminded him of small, sickly, greenish Urgals, armed with mean clubs and bows. He assumed their leader was the one astride the armored boar, tall and as wide as at least two of his men and arrogant enough to go without their shirts of chain-mail.

Locking eyes with the leader, Murtagh hesitated. A part of his soul twitched in vague recognition of these horned riders, sensing that they shared some degree of affinity, that they both ultimately answered to the same highest authority. There was no doubt these were some of the 'allies' Galbatorix had spoken of.

Then Murtagh's gaze strayed to the bruised, defenseless boy dangling limply from the leader's grip.

He didn't whether the horned riders wanted to enslave or kill the boy or use him as leverage over the others; the same way he hadn't that slaver, Torkenbrand, had been unarmed and frightened out of his wits. He just wanted that boy down the same way he had wanted he had wanted to keep that foul monster from ever clapping another free human being in chains and pawning them off to the highest bidder.

Murtagh unsheathed Zar'roc, the blade gleaming malevolently in the afternoon light. Epona screamed warhorse's challenge, thundering strides never faltering.

The leader's beady red eyes narrowed but he smirked a mocking invitation. Waving the boy over his head, he spurred his boar down the road, his riders following at his heels.

In his single-minded pursuit, Murtagh did not realize he had been lured out into the vulnerability of an open field until the leader had blown a deafening horn and summoned even more riders into the fray. These had two riders astride each boar, one controlling the mount and the other free to repeatedly fire flaming arrows.

Murtagh's mind never turned to magic during that fight, not when a simple death spell seemed too easy an end. His existing wards caused arrows to completely miss or harmlessly drop feet before meeting their intended mark. When one of the boars strayed too close, he knocked their riders down with a swift punch or swipe from Zar'roc. If they had gone too close to the edge, a dismounted rider could go flying over the steep cliffs that lined the field instead of landing on the grass. One tenacious pair of raiders that refused to quit catching up to him found themselves crushed beneath a mount that had the sharp tip of a Rider's sword rammed through its eye.

Always, the leader remained tantalizingly just out of reach, leading Murtagh back into his group of fighters rather than face him directly. He watched the ensuing fights with interested eyes, even as his riders kept being defeated until seriously wounded or dead.

Reaching to swing Zar'roc at another archer, Murtagh swore when he realized he had left it lodged in the boar's eye-socket. It flew obediently back to his open hand with a single word of the ancient language. It was pure luck the blade sliced through the archer on the way back.

The leader's idle curiosity became intrigue. The unconscious boy now lashed firmly to the boar by a pole, displayed like some sick personal banner, the leader reigned his mount over to the stone bridge that connected the field to the land across the chasm. Despite the bridge's entrance being blocked by a wooden barrier, the leader somehow spurred his boar into jumping it. Epona, unhurt and unwinded by the battle, cleared the obstacle far more gracefully.

Rather than continue her pursuit, Epona ground to a halt the moment her hooves hit the other side, even as the boar continued down the bridge. Just when Murtagh thought the leader would clear the barrier at the other side, he called out orders in a guttural tongue.

Archers appeared in the bridge towers, aiming directly at him. Murtagh was just calling upon his magic when the flaming arrows hit their target; not him or Epona, but the wooden barrier behind them. The dry wood quickly caught alight on both ends of the bridge, cutting off any means of escape.

"Looks like he judged me a worthy opponent after all," Murtagh sneered. "How flattering."

The leader turned his mount around, the boar snorting ominously before it was spurred into a charge. Even Epona would not be able to take a blow from a beast that size without being tossed off the bridge.

The thought of magic never even crossed Murtagh's mind as Epona surged into a gallop, keeping her as close to the right edge of the bridge as he dared. Horse and boar, strides never faltering, were surely on a crash-course collision with an obvious victor.

Until Epona jumped to the left mere seconds before those tusks would have buried into her chest. Too large to correct its trajectory, the boar charged helplessly past her. As it did so, Murtagh lashed out with Zar'roc, the blade slicing into the rider's green-skinned belly.

The leader bellowed in pain and fury, one hand trying to stem the stream of red gushing from the wound. Still, he forced his boar around and into another charge, red eyes burning like hot coals.

Impressed by the leader's persistence, Murtagh spurred Epona back into the fray. The boar was directly in the middle of the bridge, its massive bulk blocking off any escape that wasn't a suicidal jump down the chasm.

Or so its rider must have figured. Eyeing the tiny gap of bridge between the boar's tusk and the long drop to the ground below, Murtagh repeated his earlier tactic, only with a far narrower range of error. Epona's hooves skittered ominously as they avoided stepping on thin air, squeezing past the boar like a snake forcing its way through a far too narrow pipe.

Again, Murtagh swung Zar'roc, holding back none of his enhanced strength.

The green-skinned raider roared as the arm that had been shielding his prior wound took the blow, undoubtedly breaking several of its bones. Reflexively trying to recoil from the pain, the leader jerked out of his saddle even as his mount shied away from Epona's kicking hooves. Together it was enough to send the leader rocketing into an abyss so deep his screams faded away before they could be abruptly silenced by the impact.

Had Murtagh the time, he would have brandished Zar'roc menacingly at the raider still watching from the bridge-towers, daring them to follow in their leader's footsteps. After what they had seen him accomplish, the challenge would have been enough to make at least some of them shit their pants.

But the boar was still blindly charging down the bridge, the unconscious boy still lashed to it. Whirling Epona around after it, Murtagh reached out with his mind and made the boar halt before it could bash into the flaming barrier.

The boar calmed, Murtagh glared up at the raiders still eying him speculatively. Opening his mind to them all, he let them feel exactly what he had mind for those that insisted on staying around. They wisely scattered like rats.

"So much for keeping a low profile," the man muttered to himself as he dismounted from Epona and made his way over to the boar. The creature snorted warningly at his approach. Again, Murtagh soothed it with his thoughts, even as he clambered onto its back and untied the boy.

Still unconscious, the boy couldn't even groan in pain as his rescuer gently lowered him into his lap, but Murtagh winced for him at the sight of the ugly bruises seen on his visible skin, his clothes likely concealing even uglier marks.

Murtagh didn't care how exhausted he was, how extensive the boy's injuries may have been. He thought only of another little boy, younger than even this one had been when his own father had sliced open his back. That little boy had been healed just enough to prevent paralysis and excess pain from the damage done to his spine, but not enough to rid his back of the ugly scar that had resulted.

"Waise heil," he murmured, wishing only to see this innocent child restored to what he had been before the raiders had come.

Murtagh was no stranger to healing spells, certainly not after the grueling training sessions he and Thorn had gone through under Galbatorix. He knew how such spells pulled energy from his own body to restore the damage done.

So why did such a simple task suddenly seem so difficult, more like trying to turn lead into gold instead of just speeding up the body's natural healing process?

Before Thorn had hatched for him, Murtagh's experience in magic had extended no further than shielding his thoughts and mind from probing magicians, a feat any mind could be trained to accomplish. After he had become a Rider, Galbatorix had seen it fit to teach him simply the basics on carrying out a spell, certainly nothing on advanced spell-crafting and experimenting.

But Murtagh had enough experience to know the boy's body was resisting his spell on some level, as if it had subsisted on an entirely type of magic beforehand, and certainly knew the difference between the two.

Stubborn man that he was, Murtagh finished the spell anyway, even lifting up the boy's tunic to ensure the bruises had vanished from his chest.

"Why does fate seem to hate me whenever I try doing the right thing?" Murtagh ranted to Epona as he secured the unconscious boy to her saddle. "I try joining the Varden, get locked up as the son of Morzan, and get captured just when I start getting somewhere. I try sparing my brother's freedom and gain his hatred on top of extra oaths and torturing. Gods, I can't even heal a little kid without his very body resisting me!"

The roan mare blinked placidly back at him. "...And now I'm ranting my troubles to a horse."

Turning back to the boar, Murtagh pulled off its saddle and other equipment. Even if the boar wound up being recaptured by the raiders or as some family's giant pork dinner, Murtagh could at least take comfort in the fact he had given it a brief taste of a life where it didn't have to carry around such a fat and cruel master.

That done, Murtagh mustered up his energy to douse the flames in the most efficient way possible. The boar wasted no time in bolting for freedom, shattering one wooden barricade in its bid for freedom.

Hauling himself into Epona's saddle, keeping the boy as steady as possible in front of him, Murtagh hoped the people in Kakariko Village would have more of whatever soup Fado had given him, goat cheese and all.

For what felt like the countless time that day, Eragon and Saphira circled fruitlessly over Faron Woods, seeking the sacred grove and the Master Sword Zelda had spoken so reverently of. For the countless time, they discovered nothing.

"Maybe the grove isn't a grove anymore?" Midna mused as the glanced down at the unbroken canopy beneath them. "These woods are so saturated in magic I wouldn't be surprised if the trees simply swallowed any clearing up. Do you see anything especially shiny or Master Sword-y down there?"

Eragon's eyes idly retraced the very same path that had led him up to the Forest Temple. Nothing I haven't seen before.

The Twili crossed her arms at the flat tone of his voice. "Well, why not go down and investigate closer? Maybe your lizard eyes are missing something?"

The green dragon rolled his eyes, but said nothing. Hours of searching had rubbed everyone's nerves raw, and the last thing he needed was to spark their frustrated tension into a full-blown argument. Swooping down lower into the clearing, he planned to circle it once before-


Four figures erupted from the trees, lunging at him in a storm of flailing limbs. The dragon roared in surprise as one went for tearing his eyes and another the sensitive membrane of his left wing. Snapping his wings shut to protect them, he dropped the last dozen feet to the ground, a paw blindly swatting away the thing trying to claw his eyes out.

He opened his eyes just as the enemy shattered from the force of hitting a tree trunk, dissolving in an all-too-familiar cloud of dark magic.

The three survivors floated over to him, waving their over-sized arms menacingly. They appeared made entirely out of wood, their movements as jerky and artificial as a marionette controlled by an amateur puppeteer. Their fanged grins never wavered. Their gleaming red eyes never blinked, even when Saphira's tongue of flame seared them into ash and magic.

"Animated puppets," Midna sniffed. "Poor excuses for magical guardians, but whatever." Her yellow eyes narrowed speculatively. "Whatever they're protecting has to be close by. They're probably enchanted to lash out whenever a sentient being strays a little too close."

They're made out of wood. Nice, flammable wood. Smoke rose eagerly from Saphira's nostrils. It'll be all too easy to dive down and-

"No! Whatever enchantments are protecting the Master Sword are obviously powerful enough to use the very forest as a form of defense." Midna slapped her forehead in realization. "That's why the canopy's so thick over here. The trees are spelled to prevent just any old shmuck from getting their hands on an ancient relic. It'll also be a very, very bad idea to try burning your way through with dragon-fire."

She's right, Saphira, Eragon added, preemptively cutting off the she-dragon's rebuttal. My regular magic hasn't exactly been functioning as planned since we got here. I'd rather not see how whatever's controlling those damned puppets would react to us burning down the forest.

Fine, then. But if we can't fly to the Master Sword, HOW do we get to it?

"Duh. There's obviously a secret path no doubt loaded with traps and trials to test the seeker's virtue and see if they are worthy of the prize at the end. These ancient relics are guarded all the same, Twilight Realm or Light Realm."

Then I suppose you know where it is, oh all knowing imp?

Tuning them out, Eragon studied his surroundings intently, most especially the giant tree that marked the entrance to the Forest Temple and the surrounding chasm that separated it from the rest of the forest. His eyes focused to the left of it, a gap between the massive trunk and the cliff-face large enough for even a dragon his size to fly through.

Follow me! he called, angling his wings to swoop through the gap. Saphira quickly copied him. There's no way this can't be the right path in.

As the dragons progressed through the canyon, Eragon's hunch only solidified. Those were most definitely the rotted remnants of a bridge beneath him still clinging precariously to the cliff-face and it obviously led somewhere important enough to justify such an out-of-way bridge.

The path ended in an outcropping large enough for both dragons to land on, the faded remains of a stone path leading down into a cave that cut through the rock and to the forest beyond. Midna rose from Eragon's back, expression thoughtful as she hovered before the mouth of the cave.

"I definitely sense a gap in the wards here," she reported as she nimbly flipped onto the green dragon's back. "This is our way in."

Eragon nodded absently. His gaze remained fixated on a stone that sang melodiously as the wind blew through the hole in its all-too-familiar eye and teardrop carving.

Saphira growled furiously. No. Not after what happened the last time you got involved with that thrice-damned spirit!

"I'm with Saphira on this one, Hero-boy. That shade nearly killed you, remember?" Midna spoke with the same gravity that had become only increasingly common after Zelda's selfless sacrifice. "This realm's already down a princess. We don't need to add its Hero to the count."

How could Eragon forget what the Hero's Shade had nearly done? His neck still throbbed painfully at the memory of those fingers choking the life and soul out of him. Midna and Saphira had every right to think him suicidally stupid for even thinking about contacting the spirit again.

Yet Eragon could also not forgot the glimpses of that bleeding, broken man the Hero's Shade kept concealed behind both the skeletal grin of the Walking Death and the lupine snout of the Golden Wolf. Spirits were restless souls that couldn't find their peace, after all, and the Hero's Shade had spent the latest part of his afterlife passing on his forgotten skills to Eragon, ensuring only that he would have a slightly better edge in battle against far experienced foes like Murtagh and Galbatorix.

It was my fault, he said at last to the others. I knew I was pushing him beyond his patience and, stone-head that I was, kept pushing until he snapped. How long had the Hero's Shade been dead, had spent his lonely afterlife with only the bitter memories of his final failures to keep him company, scars Eragon had tried so hard to rip open anew? Considering all he must have gone through, I should be more surprised he tolerated me for so long. Even if he won't agree to teach me again, I can't move on until I at least make things right.

Midna crossed her arms and grumbled something about the stupidity of honor, but she said nothing more as she floated over to Saphira's side. The she-dragon only shook her head in fond exasperation. She had nicknamed her Rider stone-head for a good reason, after all, and not even she could sway him when he did not want to be.

Concentrating on the wind, Eragon hummed after it as best he could. The melody was soothing, bringing calm to his anxious mind as he drifted off.

Eragon opened his eyes to a familiar starry dreamscape. As always, the Golden Wolf, Hyrule Castle and a rising moon looming behind him, sat patiently on his rocky perch. He only panted as his one red eye watched the green dragon, patiently awaiting his cue.

A part of Eragon wanted to skip this pretense of normalcy, to simply break down and apologize for breaching the spirit's boundaries. A greater part of him found comfort in the now familiar routine, taking lead of the song while the Golden Wolf's haunting howl joined in.

In his mind's eye Eragon envisioned himself in an ancient stone temple, dusty sunlight streaming in through the windows as the echo of an ancient choir reverberated all around him. His roiling emotions settled on an odd mix of calm and anticipation as the song drew to a close.

"Let the teachings of old pass to you. Take sword in hand and find me..." The customary exchange completed, the Golden Wolf tensed his muscles and-

WAIT! Eragon froze as that single red eye bore into his soul, half-wondering why he had even openly sent such a thought. ...What happened last time was my fault. I shouldn't have-

"Your destiny is awaiting you," the Golden Wolf growled, "and the world has endured long enough without its Chosen Hero.... May your destiny be less painful than mine."

And then away from the ledge he sprung, leaping into the abyss. A vision of one of Castle Town's entrances flashing before his eyes, Eragon sank into darkness and knew no more.

Eragon felt heavier than usual as he squeezed his way through the cave, as if the very air was weighed down by the force of the ancient magic shrouding this new section of forest. The trees were pressed more closely together here than in Faron Woods, the sunlight streaming through their branches muted in comparison. The fallen leaves beneath his paws were still fresh and green after gods knew how many days upon the ground. Most unnerving was the silence, the utter lack of birdsong and animal sounds, as if the world were holding its breath in anticipation.

Eragon growled anxiously, blue-gray eyes constantly scanning his surroundings. His instincts screamed he was being watched from every direction, scrutinized by invisible eyes, and the trees were too densely packed together for him to move adequately, let alone defend himself.

Saphira shrank into her Hylian form and drew her sword, walking around the perimeter of the area. It didn't take long. The tree trunks and rocks and vines were woven tightly together from all sides, penning them into a cramped little area without any way out than the direction they had come from.

"This can't be it." Saphira kicked one of the barriers, and then scowled in frustrated pain as her toes smashed against the rock concealed beneath the choking foliage. "Where's that gods-damned sword?"

"Hidden behind yet more enchantments, no doubt." Midna rolled her eyes. "Hope you didn't wear out your voice with that last song."

Eragon's gaze followed the Twili's pointing finger down to yet another muscial stone. Unlike the other stones, it was carved with a Triforce rather than the weeping eye, its hole triangular rather than round.

The green dragon didn't even bother studying the melody before humming it, getting it right on his first attempt. The stone's song was mind-wracklingly familiar, like a half-forgotten tune he had heard his entire childhood but had gone years without hearing again.

Down from the treetops dropped what Eragon first thought a child wearing a mask. A second later he realized that gray skin, wide red eyes, and impossibly wide grin were its real face. Clad in leaves and dull brown clothing, it was no surprise the figure had blended so well into its surroundings, especially when its most visible feature was the lantern it held in its right hand.

The thing cackled in impish delight, raising its pipes to its mouth. One harsh blow later and more of the same wooden puppets from earlier dropped down, advancing forward even as their summoner turned tail and fled. Rather than leaping back up into the trees, the thing ran towards the barricade, which vanished as it passed through, thankfully remaining open after it had vanished.

Saphira snarled in fury, cleaving one of the puppets in half with a mighty swing of her sword while Eragon batted the others aside. "Great. It's going to lead us around in circles until we succumb to starvation or kill ourselves first! Considering the hells we've encountered so far, I certainly wouldn't put it past that twisted excuse of a child."

Child... Eragon mused to himself. He strained his ears, listening for the thing's horn, and bared his teeth in a triumphant grin when he heard a surprisingly catchy tune echoing through the woods. I think it's... playing a game with us.

"Huh." Midna blinked as she processed this. "A deadly game of hide-and-seek. I guess even ancient forest guardians have to entertain themselves somehow."

Saphira growled something about never being made a fool of and dashed after the child-thing, her companions as hot pursuit (even as Eragon's tail and horns kept knocking against trees.)

No sooner had Saphira located the guardian, and proceeded to swing her sword, did it teleport away to the edge of the area. With a nasty cackle, it called down yet more puppets to cover its tail, and ran into yet another newly opened section of forest.

As the chase continued winding deeper and deeper into the woods, Eragon truly began to worry about the wisdom in such an action. The thick canopy and hanging mist shrouded the movement of the sun ahead, messing with the passage of time. He had only the cycles of the guardian's song to go by, for whenever it finished its sung, it would call yet down more wooden puppets before starting again. Yet even that blurred into meaninglessness after a while, the cycle number slipping out his mind whenever he tried to keep count.

Large and blundering as he was, it was the furious Saphira who led the chase, uncaring of the sweat streaming down her brow as they headed ever deeper into such treacherously enchanted woods.

I really, really hope she doesn't kill that thing before it can show us the way out, he muttered as the guardian once again teleported out of Saphira's reach. Or that she isn't tempted to burn down these damned woods with us still in them.

"I think it is showing us after all," Midna said from his back. "Look!"

The green dragon looked around them, only now realizing that, rather than boulders and tree trunks, the foliage around them was growing over what could only be ancient, man-made ruins, no matter what crumbling state they were in.

The forest guardian waited for them in the ruins of a large, round chamber, the first open area since they had entered these gods-damned woods in the first place.

Saphira took advantage of the sudden freedom, resuming her true form just as the child-thing had finished its maddening tune and was preparing to summon down yet more blasted puppets. Taking one look at the she-dragon's smoking jaws, the forest guardian vanished for a final time, taking the mist with it and finally allowing the golden, late afternoon sunlight to stream in.

"Eee hee hee!" the guardian's disembodied voice cackled in delight. "A good game. Come back and play again, Mr. Greenie, when you're small enough to keep up!"

With that final insult, a final section of wall opened up and Eragon's instincts settled back to wary vigilance instead of the burning furor the guardian's maddening presence had stoked.

Saphira's own rage also fled, for she resumed her Hylian shape without setting anything on fire. "Damn creature was right to run."

"Uh huh," Midna said absently. "Can we hurry up and get your stupid magic sword? I'd rather not spend the night here."

All three of them shivered in dread at the mere thought of that and hustled to the next area.

Or, at least Eragon hustled until a paralyzing combination of dread and awe stopped him in his tracks.

Surrounding him were ancient ruins too far decayed for their true purpose to even be divined, filled with only bird song. In his mind's eye, however, he constructed a grand, imposing temple with incricate stained glass windows, halls that reverberated with an omnipresent choir and a door that led to destiny, death, destruction, seven years lost...

Midna kicked his sides impatiently. "Come on, lizard-boy, help us think of something to open that damned door. Something tells me blasting through it would be a pretty suicidal idea."

Eragon blinked. The sudden vision of an altar and the three shimmering stones upon it vanished, replaced by a reality of a sealed door, its two stone sentinels, and the golden Triforce before it.

Nagged by the ghost of a memory, Eragon padded over to stand upon the seal, inspecting it thoughtfully. Symbol of the Goddesses, but also a symbol of the Royal Family. And the song of the Royal Family is... He hummed the song that had first attracted the forest guardian, a melody so soothing he supposed it could have been used as a lullaby.

Beneath his paws, the Triforce flashed a brilliant gold. The markings upon the two stone statues flashed as well, and remaining glowing blue as they simultaneously stomped their massive halberds against the ground and snapped back to attention.

"We are the guardians of this land," they intoned as one. "You, who know the Song of the Royal Family, who bears the Crest of the Goddesses... are fit to enter the true Sacred Grove."

"The true Sacred Grove!?" Midna spluttered. "Then where in the seven hells were we back there!?"

"The Lost Woods, where the wild magic of the Goddess Farore reigns supreme in this world. Even the great Nayru's Order must sway when in the nexus of Life. Time blurs, past and present and future become one, any semblance of direction is lost, and those without the Courage to resist giving into despair shall fall prey to the Woods. Where better to house the Blade of Evil's Bane than in the very domain of the Goddess the Chosen Hero most embodies?"

As one, the stone sentinels again stomped their halberds against the ground. The stone door they guarded vanished, revealing a stairway.

"Go forth, beast. We yield passage to the Sacred Grove."

The guardians lost their glow, resuming their deceptively statue-like appearance as the magic animating them spluttered and died.

"Nexus of Life?" Midna rubbed her chin speculatively. "I wonder how much of a sway Farore really holds over her sisters here."

"Does it matter?" Saphira muttered. "All we need is her sword."

"Time's messed up here, right? And look at the plant-life, how closely the trees are compared to Faron Woods, how overgrown everything looks, how all of the fallen leaves that are still green and fresh. Who's to say this entire damned forest isn't growing faster than normal, weathering away anything artificial at an extremely fast rate?" The Twili seemed ready to burst with the implications of it all. "If this place is so magically potent, if nothing man-made can hope to last, why go through the trouble of building a temple all the way out here when the damned forest is the freaking nexus of Farore's power on earth?"

Eragon shrugged absently, Midna's wild speculations the farthest thing from his mind as he ascended the stairs into the Sacred Grove.

Unlike the Lost Woods outside, the Sacred Grove itself was still shrouded in mist, save for the shafts of sunlight that shone down upon the pedestal in the center of the clearing.

While its surroundings where all crumbling ruins, the Master Sword looked untouched by time. Its blue cross-guard, shaped like extended wings, was unfaded. The blade itself showed no signs of rust, the Triforce symbol etched upon it clearly visible, and as sharped and polished as if it had just been placed in its pedestal that very morning.

Saphira stopped at the edge of the stairs, advancing no further into the Sacred Grove. When Eragon turned to look curiously back at her, she shooed him forward. "It's your sword, stone-head. Go ahead and claim it."

Swallowing with trepidation, the green dragon approached the blade more cautiously before, feeling as if the thing were scrutinizing his every movement.

As he neared its pedestal, and begun to wonder how to draw it with a dragon's clumsy claws, the Master Sword erupted with a magical radiance. The shock wave was enough to unceremoniously blow Midna off his back and into Saphira's arms. When Eragon refused to be deterred so easily, it increased the force behind its magic so even a dragon his size could have been knocked away.

Narrowing his eyes against the buffeting winds, Eragon dug his claws into the ground beneath his feet, refusing to budge a single inch even when his whole body seemed to burn with the Master Sword's searing radiance.

From their spot at the edge of the clearing, Midna and Saphira watched with wide eyes as the dragon's form was consumed in darkness, the corrupting magic within him stubbornly holding on even in the face of such brilliant light. In the end not even Zant's sorcery proved a match for the might of the Blade of Evil's Bane, and the darkness exploding off of Eragon in a blinding burst of light.

Reflexively, Midna held out her hand to catch the magic's shards as they surged toward the darkest being in the Sacred Grove. Floating above her palm, the fragments solidified into a sinister orange and black crystal, seeming to radiate darkness.

The Twili only spared a glance for the shadow crystal before turning her gaze back to where a purified, human Eragon was lifting the Master Sword from its pedestal.

At first, the blade resisted his grip but, after a moment that lasted eternity, obligingly began to slide out of his pedestal.

Although he had drawn out the Blade of Evil's Bane with both hands, Eragon lifted it with his left. Beneath the Master Sword's radiance, the mist in the Sacred Grove dispersed, leaving the area as bright and sunny as the area outside.

Squinting momentarily against the sudden brightness, Midna turned back to stare at the man who was now this land's Chosen Hero in full. "The sword accepted you as its master..."

Eragon experimentally swung the Master Sword several times, satisfied with every effortless swing. In his hands the blade felt perfectly weighted in a way even Zar'roc had never been, less of a weapon and more an extension of himself.

"Must be part of the enchantment," he mused aloud. "Every Hero before me must have had their own preferences."

The ominous atmosphere of the Sacred Grove having evaporated with the mist, the others finally approached him. Saphira scowled good-naturedly at Midna. "Of course the sword accepted him. He is my Rider, after all." She glared distastefully down at the shadow crystal in Midna's hand. "I'd destroy that thing as soon as possible. I'm sure we've had enough of that damned shadow magic to last us a lifetime."

Midna inspected the shadow crystal intently. "It's definitely different from my tribe's magic. If you touch it, Eragon, you'll turn back into a beast." She smiled slightly. "But, since the Master Sword cleansed Zant's evil intent from it, it'd be child's play for me to transform you back and forth. Since you've proven yourself to not be a completely lost cause, I suppose I can teach you how."

Eragon sheathed the Master Sword in the elegant blue and gold scabbard that was now strapped to his back, exchanging a pensive glance with Saphira. "Having a second dragon when we need it would be to our advantage and we'd be using Zant's own power against him."

Saphira chewed her lip. "Having draconic company has been nice, but only if those transformations aren't as... extreme as that one was."

Midna shook her head. "It'll be more like your transformations in pain and intensity. The only difference is that your shape-shifting was a gift from a Light Spirit, and Eragon's is more about manipulating an instinctive defense against darkness. And, since Eragon can now shift shape whenever he wants, I can warp you all without worrying about terrible, terrible things happening to him."

Eragon nodded. Warping was a far faster mode of travel than even flying, and gains against Zant could be made that much quicker. "Where do we go from here? We don't have any way of reaching Zant instead of waiting for him to show up and I'd prefer to have the advantage against him for once."

"We can find the Mirror of Twilight. It's the natural portal between this world and the Twilight Realm." Midna clenched her fist, the shadow crystal vanishing to wherever she stored away objects. "It's also the only possible way we'd ever have to reach Zant on our own terms."

Eragon nodded blearily, suddenly exhausted as the search for the Sacred Grove and chase through the Lost Woods took its toll. "Telma's friends in Castle Town, especially that historian, might know something about it. I need to meet the Hero's Shade near there, anyway."

The three departed the Sacred Grove via Midna's warping (Eragon and Saphira losing their appetites in the process), spending the night out on Hyrule Field.

Long after his two companions had drifted off to sleep, Eragon remained awake, unable to take his eyes away from the Master Sword. Even in the gloom of night, stored away from its scabbard, the blade seemed to give off a faint light.

His thoughts strayed to the Hero's Shade and his ominous hope that Eragon's destiny not be as painful as his. The Hero's Shade had certainly not lived an easy life, and his regrets and unfulfilled teachings still kept him shackled to a world no longer his own. How many Heroes had come before Eragon, before the Hero's Shade? How many had been rewarded with long and peaceful lives when their due to the world had been paid? How many had been cut down in circumstances stemming from their heroics? How many had perished before the end of their quest?

"You'll not take me like you took the Shade," Eragon resolutely vowed. "Goddesses with or against me, I'll finish my quest, leave no demons to haunt me afterward, and above all, help him find some long-deserved peace."

The Master Sword did nothing more than lie innocently in its sheathe, it and the destiny that guided Eragon's path silent on what the end of his own legend would be.

I promise that my next update won't take as long as this one did XD My winter break's coming up, anyway, so I'll have an entire month of freedom to regain my writing mojo :D On a second note, the future plot for this story is getting tweaked ever so slightly. There's some points I made in earlier chapters that will likely never be touched upon again. I know where I want this fic and its sequel to go, I know it's gonna end, so there's gonna be some adjusting and stream-lining unnecessary points to get us there.

1. And thus you finally see where the Bublin King went in this story! Him and his giant pig are no match against Eragon and Saphira, but Murtagh doesn't have Thorn with him at the moment, prefers solving things on his own merits than just relying upon magic, and totally needed a reason to not align with Zant as he was supposed to XD

2. My head-canon says the Skull Kid in the Lost Woods is the same one Link taught Saria's Song to in OoT. It's no referred to as a Skull Kid, here, however, because no one present had any freaking idea what it really was.

3. Making the Lost Woods the greatest place of Farore's influence on earth made perfect sense to me. Life itself relies on chaos, so it makes perfect sense that Nayru's usual sense of the Order of Space and Time are screwed up. It explains why the Temple of Time's so decayed after only a century in the Woods, how it is so easy for any normal traveler to become so lost and disoriented, why OoT Link and the Master Sword were placed in the Woods for safe-keeping, and why it is the Lost Woods that serves as the bridge between Hyrula and the other world that is Termina.