Continuing on to the next spellcaster—a corpulent man with rings on his thumbs—Eragon, Saphira, and Arya repeated the process they had used on the first magician: alternating blows until they succeeded in wearing down his wards. It was Saphira who slew the man, knocking him through the air with a swipe of her claws. He hit the side of the staircase and cracked open his skull on the corner of a step. This time there was no magical retaliation.
As Eragon moved toward the female spellcaster, a cluster of multicolored lights hurtled into the room through the broken shutters and converged upon the man seated on the floor. The glowing spirits flashed with angry virulence as they whirled around the man, forming an impenetrable wall. He threw up his arms as if to shield himself and screamed. The air hummed and crackled with the energy that radiated from the flickering orbs. A sour, ironlike taste coated Eragon’s tongue, and his skin prickled. The hair on the female spellcaster’s head was standing on end. Across from her, Saphira hissed and arched her back, every muscle in her body rigid.
A bolt of fear shot through Eragon. No! he thought, feeling sick. Not now. Not after all we’ve gone through. He was stronger than he had been when he faced Durza in Tronjheim, but if anything, he was even more aware of just how dangerous a Shade could be. Only three warriors had ever survived the killing of a Shade: Laetrí the Elf, Irnstad the Rider, and himself—and he had no confidence he could duplicate the feat. Blödhgarm, where are you? Eragon shouted with his mind. We need your help!
And then everything around Eragon winked out of existence, and in its place he beheld:
Whiteness. Blank whiteness. The cold-soft-sky-water was soothing against Glaedr’s limbs after the stifling heat of combat. He lapped at the air, welcoming the thin coat of moisture that accumulated on his dry-sticky-tongue.
He flapped once more and the sky-water parted before him, revealing the glaring-scorchback-sun and the hazy-green-brown-earth. Where is he? Glaedr wondered. He swung his head, looking for Thorn. The little-red-shrike-dragon had fled high above Gil’ead, higher than any bird normally flew, where the air was thin and one’s breath water-smoked.
“Glaedr, behind us!” Oromis shouted.
Glaedr twisted, but he was too slow. The red dragon crashed into his right shoulder, knocking him tumbling. Snarling, Glaedr wrapped his single remaining foreleg around the nipping-scratching-ferocious-hatchling and strove to crush the life out of Thorn’s squirming body. The red dragon bellowed and climbed halfway out of Glaedr’s embrace, digging his claws into Glaedr’s chest. Glaedr arched his neck and sank his teeth into Thorn’s left hind leg and, with it, held him in place, although the red dragon writhed and kicked like a pinned wildcat. Hot-salty-blood filled Glaedr’s mouth.
As they plummeted downward, Glaedr heard the sound of swords striking shields as Oromis and Murtagh exchanged a flurry of blows. Thorn convulsed, and Glaedr glimpsed Morzan-son-Murtagh. Glaedr thought the human appeared frightened, but he was not entirely sure. Even after so long bonded with Oromis, he still had difficulty deciphering the expressions of two-legs-no-horns, what with their soft, flat faces and their lack of tails.
The clanging of metal ceased, and Murtagh shouted, “Curse you for not showing yourself sooner! Curse you! You could have helped us! You could have—” Murtagh seemed to choke on his tongue for a moment.
Glaedr grunted as an unseen force brought their fall to an abrupt halt, nearly shaking him loose from Thorn’s leg, and then lifted the four of them up through the sky, higher and higher, until the broken-anthill-city was only a faint blotch below and even Glaedr had difficulty breathing in the rarefied air.
What is the youngling doing? Glaedr wondered, concerned. Is he trying to kill himself?
Then Murtagh resumed speaking, and when he did, his voice was richer and deeper than before, and it echoed as if he were standing in an empty hall. Glaedr felt the scales on his shoulders crawl as he recognized the voice of their ancient foe.
“So you survived, Oromis, Glaedr,” said Galbatorix. His words were round and smooth, like those of a practiced orator, and their tone was deceptively friendly. “Long have I thought that the elves might be hiding a dragon or a Rider from my sight. It is gratifying to have my suspicions confirmed.”
“Begone, foul oath-breaker!” cried Oromis. “You shall not have any satisfaction from us!”
Galbatorix chuckled. “Such a harsh greeting. For shame, Oromis-elda. Have the elves forgotten their fabled courtesy over the past century?”
“You deserve no more courtesy than a rabid wolf.”
“Tut-tut, Oromis. Remember what you said to me when I stood before you and the other Elders: ‘Anger is a poison. You must purge it from your mind or else it will corrupt your better nature.’ You should heed your own advice.”
“You cannot confuse me with your snake’s tongue, Galbatorix. You are an abomination, and we shall see to it that you are eliminated, even if it costs us our lives.”
“But why should it, Oromis? Why should you pit yourself against me? It saddens me that you have allowed your hate to distort your wisdom, for you were wise once, Oromis, perhaps the wisest member of our entire order. You were the first to recognize the madness eating away at my soul, and it was you who convinced the other Elders to deny my request for another dragon egg. That was very wise of you, Oromis. Futile, but wise. And somehow you managed to escape from Kialandí and Formora, even after they had broken you, and then you hid until all but one of your enemies had died. That too was wise of you, elf.”
A brief pause marked Galbatorix’s speech. “There is no need to continue fighting me. I freely admit that I committed terrible crimes in my youth, but those days are long past, and when I reflect upon the blood I have shed, it torments my conscience. Still, what would you have of me? I cannot undo my deeds. Now, my greatest concern is ensuring the peace and prosperity of the empire over which I find myself lord and master. Cannot you see that I have lost my thirst for vengeance? The rage that drove me for so many years has burned itself to ashes. Ask yourself this, Oromis: who is responsible for the war that has swept across Alagaësia? Not I. The Varden were the ones who provoked this conflict. I would have been content to rule my people and leave the elves and the dwarves and the Surdans to their own devices. But the Varden could not leave well enough alone. It was they who chose to steal Saphira’s egg, and they who cover the earth with mountains of corpses. Not I. You were wise once before, Oromis, and you can become wise once again. Give up your hatred and join me in Ilirea. With you by my side, we can bring an end to this conflict and usher in an era of peace that will endure for a thousand years or more.”
Glaedr was not persuaded. He tightened his crushing-piercing-jaws, causing Thorn to yowl. The pain-noise seemed incredibly loud after Galbatorix’s speech.
In clear, ringing tones, Oromis said, “No. You cannot make us forget your atrocities with a balm of honeyed lies. Release us! You have not the means to hold us here much longer, and I refuse to exchange pointless banter with a traitor like yourself.”
“Bah! You are a senile old fool,” said Galbatorix, and his voice acquired a harsh, angry cast. “You should have accepted my offer; you would have been first and foremost among my slaves. I will make you regret your mindless devotion to your so-called justice. And you are wrong. I can keep you thus as long as I want, for I have become as powerful as a god, and there are none who can stop me!”
“You shall not prevail,” said Oromis. “Even gods do not endure forever.”
At that Galbatorix uttered a foul oath. “Your philosophy does not constrain me, elf! I am the greatest of magicians, and soon I will be even greater still. Death will not take me. You, however, shall die. But first you will suffer. You will both suffer beyond imagining, and then I will kill you, Oromis, and I shall take your heart of hearts, Glaedr, and you will serve me until the end of time.”
“Never!” exclaimed Oromis.
And Glaedr again heard the clash of swords on armor.
Glaedr had excluded
Oromis from his mind for the duration of the fight, but their bond ran deeper than conscious thought, so he felt it when Oromis stiffened, incapacitated by the searing pain of his bone-blight-nerve-rot. Alarmed, Glaedr released Thorn’s leg and tried to kick the red dragon away. Thorn howled at the impact but remained where he was. Galbatorix’s spell held the two of them in place—neither able to move more than a few feet in any direction.
There was another metallic clang from above, and then Glaedr saw Naegling fall past him. The golden sword flashed and gleamed as it tumbled toward the ground. For the first time, the cold claw of fear gripped Glaedr. Most of Oromis’s word-will-energy was stored within the sword, and his wards were bound to the blade. Without it, he would be defenseless.
Glaedr threw himself against the limits of Galbatorix’s spell, struggling with all his might to break free. In spite of his efforts, however, he could not escape. And just as Oromis began to recover, Glaedr felt Zar’roc slash Oromis from shoulder to hip.
He howled as Oromis had howled when Glaedr lost his leg.
An inexorable force gathered inside of Glaedr’s belly. Without pausing to consider whether it was possible, he pushed Thorn and Murtagh away with a blast of magic, sending them flying like windblown leaves, and then tucked his wings against his sides and dove toward Gil’ead. If he could get there fast enough, then Islanzadí and her spellcasters would be able to save Oromis.
The city was too far away, though. Oromis’s consciousness was faltering … fading … slipping away….
Glaedr poured his own strength into Oromis’s ruined frame, trying to sustain him until they reached the ground. But for all the energy he gave to Oromis, he could not stop the bleeding, the terrible bleeding.
Glaedr … release me, Oromis murmured with his mind.
A moment later, in an even fainter voice, he whispered, Do not mourn me.
And then the partner of Glaedr’s life passed into the void.
He was alone.
A crimson haze descended over the world, throbbing in unison with his pulse. He flared his wings and looped back the way he had come, searching for Thorn and his Rider. He would not let them escape; he would catch them and tear at them and burn them until he had eradicated them from the world.
Glaedr saw the red-shrike-dragon diving toward him, and he roared his grief and redoubled his speed. The red dragon swerved at the last moment, in an attempt to flank him, but he was not fast enough to evade Glaedr, who lunged and snapped and bit off the last three feet of the red dragon’s tail. A fountain of blood sprayed from the stump. Yelping in agony, the red dragon wriggled away and darted behind Glaedr. Glaedr started to twist around to face him, but the smaller dragon was too quick, too nimble. Glaedr felt a sharp pain at the base of his skull, and then his vision flickered and failed.
Where was he?
He was alone.
He was alone and in the dark.
He was alone and in the dark, and he could not move or see.
He could feel the minds of other creatures close by, but they were not the minds of Thorn and Murtagh but of Arya, Eragon, and Saphira.
And then Glaedr realized where he was, and the true horror of the situation broke upon him, and he howled into the darkness. He howled and he howled, and he abandoned himself to his agony, not caring what the future might bring, for Oromis was dead, and he was alone.
With a start, Eragon returned to himself.
He was curled into a ball. Tears streaked his face. Gasping, he pushed himself up off the floor and looked for Saphira and Arya.
It took him a moment to comprehend what he saw.
The female spellcaster Eragon had been about to attack lay before him, slain by a single sword thrust. The spirits she and her companions had summoned were nowhere to be seen. Lady Lorana was still ensconced in her chair. Saphira was in the process of struggling to her feet on the opposite side of the room. And the man who had been sitting on the floor amid the three other spellcasters was standing next to him, holding Arya in the air by her throat.
The color had vanished from the man’s skin, leaving him bone white. His hair, which had been brown, was now bright crimson, and when he looked at Eragon and smiled, Eragon saw that his eyes had become maroon. In every aspect of appearance and bearing, the man resembled Durza.
“Our name is Varaug,” said the Shade. “Fear us.” Arya kicked at him, but her blows seemed to have no effect.
The burning pressure of the Shade’s consciousness pressed against Eragon’s mind, trying to break down his defenses. The force of the attack immobilized Eragon; he could barely repel the burrowing tendrils of the Shade’s mind, much less walk or swing a sword. For whatever reason, Varaug was even stronger than Durza, and Eragon was not sure how long he could withstand the Shade’s might. He saw that Saphira was also under attack; she sat stiff and motionless by the balcony, a snarl carved on her face.
The veins in Arya’s forehead bulged, and her face turned red and purple. Her mouth was open, but she was not breathing. With the palm of her right hand, she struck the Shade’s locked elbow and broke the joint with a loud crack. Varaug’s arm sagged, and for a moment, Arya’s toes brushed the floor, but then the bones in the Shade’s arm popped back into place, and he lifted her even higher.
“You shall die,” growled Varaug. “You shall all die for imprisoning us in this cold, hard clay.”
Knowing that Arya’s and Saphira’s lives were in peril stripped Eragon of every emotion, save that of implacable determination. His thoughts as sharp and clear as a shard of glass, he drove himself at the Shade’s seething consciousness. Varaug was too powerful, and the spirits that resided within him too disparate, for Eragon to overwhelm and control, so Eragon sought to isolate the Shade. He surrounded Varaug’s mind with his own: every time Varaug attempted to reach out toward Saphira or Arya, Eragon blocked the mental ray, and every time the Shade attempted to shift his body, Eragon counteracted the urge with a command of his own.
They battled at the speed of thought, fighting back and forth along the perimeter of the Shade’s mind, which was a landscape so jumbled and incoherent, Eragon feared it would drive him mad if he gazed at it for long. Eragon pushed himself to the utmost as he dueled with Varaug, striving to anticipate the Shade’s every move, but he knew that their contest could only end with his own defeat. As fast as he was, Eragon could not outthink the numerous intelligences contained within the Shade.
Eragon’s concentration eventually wavered, and Varaug seized upon the opportunity to force himself further into Eragon’s mind, trapping him … transfixing him … suppressing his thoughts until Eragon could do no more than stare at the Shade with dumb rage. An excruciating tingling filled Eragon’s limbs as the spirits raced through his body, coursing down every one of his nerves.
“Your ring is full of light!” exclaimed Varaug, his eyes widening with pleasure. “Beautiful light! It will feed us for a long time!”
Then he growled with anger as Arya grabbed his wrist and broke it in three places. She twisted free of Varaug’s grip before he could heal himself and dropped to the ground, gasping for air. Varaug kicked at her, but she rolled out of the way. She reached for her fallen sword.
Eragon trembled as he struggled to cast off the Shade’s oppressive presence.
Arya’s hand closed around the hilt of her sword. A wordless bellow escaped the Shade. He pounced on her, and they rolled across the floor, wrestling for control of the weapon. Arya shouted and struck Varaug in the side of his head with the pommel of the sword. The Shade went limp for an instant, and Arya scrambled backward, pushing herself upright.
In a flash, Eragon freed himself from Varaug. Without consideration for his own safety, he resumed his attack on the Shade’s consciousness, his only thought to restrain the Shade for a few moments.
Varaug rose onto one
knee, then faltered as Eragon redoubled his efforts.
“Get him!” Eragon shouted.
Arya lunged forward, her dark hair flying….
And she stabbed the Shade through his heart.
Eragon winced and extricated himself from Varaug’s mind even as the Shade recoiled from Arya, pulling himself off her blade. The Shade opened his mouth and uttered a piercing, dithering wail that shattered the panes of glass in the lantern above. He reached out toward Arya and tottered in her direction, then stopped as his skin faded and became transparent, revealing the dozens of glittering spirits trapped within the confines of his flesh. The spirits throbbed, growing in size, and Varaug’s skin split along the bellies of his muscles. With a final burst of light, the spirits tore Varaug apart and fled the tower room, passing through the walls as if the stone were insubstantial.
Eragon’s pulse gradually slowed. Then, feeling very old and very tired, he walked over to Arya, who stood leaning against a chair, cupping the front of her neck with a hand. She coughed, spitting up blood. Since she seemed incapable of talking, Eragon placed his hand over hers and said, “Waíse heill.” As the energy to mend her injuries flowed out of him, Eragon’s legs weakened, and he had to brace himself against the chair.
“Better?” he asked as the spell finished its work.
“Better,” Arya whispered, and favored him with a weak smile. She motioned toward where Varaug had been. “We killed him…. We killed him, and yet we did not die.” She sounded surprised. “So few have ever killed a Shade and lived.”
“That is because they fought alone, not together, like us.”
“No, not like us.”
“I had you to help me in Farthen Dûr, and you had me to help you here.”
“Now I shall have to call you Shadeslayer.”
“We are both—”
Saphira startled them by loosing a long, mournful keen. Still keening, she raked her claws across the floor, chipping and scratching the stones. Her tail whipped from side to side, smashing the furniture and the grim paintings on the walls. Gone! she said. Gone! Gone forever!