Chapter 42

Kiphoris refused to answer the questions posed to him by the dwarves and Eragon as they awaited Ikharos's return. Half of them were just plain ridiculous.

"Are you one of his disciples?"

"Might you share his teachings with us, we his faithful?"

"Is he a god?"

"Are your people his creation?"

And the rest he couldn't answer.

"How did he do that?"

"Can it be taught?"

"Will he come back?"

Ikharos did indeed reappear. He glided across the gap and passed a datapad over to Kiphoris, which he set about reading immediately. The Lightbearer crossed his arms and weathered the same flood of curiosity Kiphoris had struggled against. The dwarves were sharp little creatures, but terribly misguided.

"I'm not a god," Ikharos said irritably. The dwarves fell silent. "Traveler above, where the hell is that coming from? I'm Risen, not some form of divinity."

"But... but you are Gvîsthrun!" Gannel proclaimed

Ikharos frowned. "I was told to say that. Dammit, I didn't expect it to come with this much baggage."

The dwarves mulled it over. Finally, Gannel decided with a firm nod, "Then we have misinterpreted the signs. Our highest apologies, noble Gvîsthrun. You have yet to rise. But you are not without support! Dûrgrimst Quan and all knurlagn are with you! We will provide you with the means to attain your rightful place alongside the gods! "

"Oh for fu-"

Kiphoris stepped close and asked, in a hushed voice, "You have this artefact?"

"I do." Ikharos pursed his lips distastefully.

"Then we leave."

"Agreed." Ikharos knelt and raised his voice. "Where'd you hear that anyway? Gvîsthrun?"

"It is Kílf's prophecy! She foretold your arrival!"

The Lightbearer hesitated, "Well... thank you, clan chief Gannel, for permitting my entry into your temple and guiding me here. You have allowed me to reclaim what once belonged to my kind. With any luck, it might help us all in the long run. For that you have my gratitude. But stop calling me a god."

Gannel bowed so low his head almost touched the steel floor. "It is my greatest honour, o great Gvîsthrun. May the blessings of Gûntera be upon you. You are always welcome amongst the Dûrgrimst Quan."


They were flanked by an escort of dwarven warriors the moment they left the temple's entrance. A silent Arya and awestruck Eragon trailed behind them. Ikharos wore a stony expression, neither pleased or upset with what they had learned. The new discovery nagged at Kiphoris's mind. He could not help but feel they were dealing with forces beyond their ability to control.

"How did you do that?" Eragon asked breathlessly.

Ikharos shrugged. He frowned, his troubled gaze still trained on his new datapad. "Just what I do. Ask me later."

Kiphoris perked up. A new, faint scent had him looking in all directions for the source, body hunched over and blades half-drawn. "I smell smoke," he said. Alarm seeped into his voice.

Ikharos tensed beside him. "Think it's an attack?"

Arya cleared her throat. She had a peculiarly mistrustful expression reserved solely for the Lightbearer. "Az Sweldn rak Anhûin has inflamed Tarnag's citizens against us. Ûndin believes, as I do, that it would be best for us to shelter behind his walls until we leave."

Civil unrest. Kiphoris pressed his mandibles against his jaw. Riots were the worst thing that could ever trouble a society. They had minds of their own. Dangerously cunning and highly unpredictable. They were difficult to put down - if they could be put down at all. "I agree. We must return as soon as we can."

Ikharos met his eyes and nodded. "Right. Let's be quick. We don't want to get caught out in the streets."

Surrounded by a dozen dwarven warriors, along with Melkris, they trotted through the city. Kiphoris could hear the distant shouts and roars of a mob far beyond, closer to the city's forefront than the temple. A smoke stack gradually climbed up into the sky on the other side of Tarnag. Fortune was smiling upon them.

Once behind the walls of the keep, Ikharos ran inside to change into his armour. Kiphoris ordered both Javek and Melkris to arm themselves. Obleker and Formora were present too, already prepared. The latter stood with a still, tense stance reminiscent of a predator about to strike.

"I would rather we flee than fight," Kiphoris softly advised. "I do not wish to endanger innocent lives or my alliance with Hrothgar-kel."

"I understand," she replied sharply, "but I will do what I can to safeguard Eragon and Saphira."

"Why do you put your life at risk for them?"

"You do as well."

"That was not mine-question."

She met his gaze. The shiny, shaded visor reflected the glow of his eyes back onto him. "They are the future of the past I left behind. I won't let them fall."

Satisfied, Kiphoris moved back to the gate, where Ikharos waited. The Lightbearer was dressed in his combat robes and had his sword in hand. He studied the reflection of his Aphelion-scar on the flat of the silvered blade.

"This is too messy," Kiphoris grunted. He didn't like the look of the wooden gates. They were too flimsy. The Az Sweldn rak Anhûin wouldn't even need explosives or siege weapons to breach it; all they needed was to arm the mob with hatchets.

"A person is a complex being capable of reason," Ikharos began, "but people are wild, panicky animals." He felt around the bright blue marks left by the Star-Eater's claws. Kiphoris didn't envy him. "Still, we just have to wait until they get hungry."

"Hungry?"

"You and I both know that there's no drive quite like starvation. Neither of us are hungry now, right? But if we were we'd go out of our way to sate that urge. So will the dwarves. They're not exempt from that rule. It's a universal instinct. And when they do, their herd mentality will begin to fade. Reason will set back in. All we have to do is wait until dinnertime rolls around."

Kiphoris crouched down. He closed his outer eyes. "That is a mundane ending to all this excitement."

"Life can't be exciting all the time. There's got to be room for us to have a breather. Some people have nothing but breathers." Ikharos leaned back and looked up at the cloudless sky. "Lucky bastards."

"Lucky psesiskars," Kiphoris agreed. Something flitted by on the edge of his vision. Not a moment later, a weight settled on his shoulder. Ikharos scowled.

"I could bring peace to the city," Arke promised in her velvet-smooth voice, lowered to a hazy whisper. "If only you wish it."

"Quiet," Kiphoris growled. He stood up and looked her over. She was in the form of a majestic Earthen eagle, clad in tan feathers and bearing of a hooked golden beak tipped black. Her yellow eyes sparkled with that vast dangerous intelligence he was beginning to grow familiar with. She was twice her crow size and many times the weight. Her talons curled around his pauldron and gripped tight. She was a beautiful bird, but Kiphoris knew a nightmarish monster waited beneath the feathers for the moment he slipped up.

"You have fed," he noted.

Arke lowered her head in the impression of a nod.

"What of your crow?"

Kiphoris turned around. Arya stared at Arke. She wore a troubled look.

"Either it grew," Ikharos muttered in a not-so-serious manner, "or this thing ate it and inherited its loyalties."

Kiphoris silenced him with a warning glare. He turned back to Arya and said, "We will elaborate. But not here."

She looked at him dubiously. Her eyes briefly darted to Ikharos. "There is much that needs to be explained."

"Not. Here." Kiphoris repeated. He narrowed his eyes. "You will be told, you have mine-word. But not where information might reach those who would use it for their own gains."

"So be it," Arya said. She walked away, arms crossed and eyes hard.

Ikharos snorted. "Well, now we're in trouble."

"Oh?"

"You tell her, she'll tell her people."

Kiphoris nodded grimly. "Perhaps the truth will help them understand our plight."

"Maybe. Or they might try to take advantage of us. We need the elves' help. Doesn't mean we should trust them from the get-go."

"Trust can make the most unlikely allies."

"Like us? We're able to work together because we're honest. Remember what Mora said. The elves are proud and judgemental. They probably won't like us showing them up."

"It is the same for mine- Eliksni."

"Proud? Yeah. But you aren't judgemental. Your kind are practical. It's your openness that led to this alliance in the first place."

"Openness? Nama. It felt to me like desperation. Don't you humans have a saying about that? War makes strange bedfellows?"

Ikharos smiled weakly. "That's the one. Alright, maybe I'm wrong. Maybe it is desperation. But the elves aren't desperate either. Not yet. In a few months, maybe, but by then it might be too late."

"And you are proposing a plan?" He blinked his outer eyes. "That is my job. I am the Dreamer."

"Hah. Sure. No, I'm just being honest with you, as per our agreement. I'm willing to trust you more than I trust the elves. Because I know you. I know Eliksni. And I don't know the elves."

"You know one."

"She's an outlier. And I get along great with her, yes, but she freely admits that she's not like her kin. Look, I'm just saying we should just be prepared for anything. And careful about how we prepare."

"I hear you, Ikha Riis. I hear you."


The night came and went. Kiphoris spent most of it either watching that Arke did not misbehave - she didn't - or reflecting on his past experiences of the Reef with Ikharos. The Lightbearer knew more about the Awoken than Kiphoris had originally given him credit for. Formora sat nearby, idly listening in.

"You weren't an inmate of the Prison, I take it," Ikharos eventually said, just as morning threatened to spill over the valley.

Kiphoris shook his head. "Nama. I was of those in the Reefborn's employ. I was... too young to fight in the war, so when they took me in they saw no reason to punish me. I thought the Awoken were too kind to us. Too fair. I still do. Skolas-kel would never have escaped if they were more cruel."

"If they were more cruel, you would have died in the arenas of the Prison of Elders."

"Perhaps. Do not forget that mine-bloodline is of the Silent Fang. Mine-father had taught me to fight since I shed my egg-molt. Mine-sister too. I might have survived the Prison."

"You don't talk about your sister much."

"Drevis was harsh, but before Ceres she was... good. She had a hidden kindness." Kiphoris's expression darkened. "Grief turned her monstrous. I could not stand the hateful thing she had become. To me, mine-sister had died along with all the other nobles at the Scatter. What remained was not her. Not Drevis."

"And you don't blame the Awoken for unleashing the Harbingers?"

"Some. Mara-kel, eia, and her confidants, but not the rest of the twin-souls. They merely followed the orders of their Kell. And I learned from them. They taught me your language, your runes, your technology, your weapons, your customs, and far more. I befriended some. Those days are ones I remember with fondness. I miss it." He exhaled shakily. "What of you? What did you think of the Reef, the home of your star-touched cousins?"

"Exotic. Strange. Stunning. Impressive. And sad. It's been a shadow of its former self since the Hive, Red Legion, and Scorn ripped through it. Nonetheless, it's capable of evoking a certain sort of awe every time I see those purple-tinted skies and bright asteroid cities."

Daylight began to slowly drift into the valley's basin. Around them, dozing dwarven warriors began to stir. Those who were up began to tie their weapons and armour up with cloth so it would not make a sound when they marched. Kiphoris stretched his arms and said, "I will scout ahead. If any ask, tell them that."

Ikharos nodded, eyes half-closed. "Will do. Take your pet?"

Kiphoris glanced over to where he thought Arke was perched, but she had already taken off to soar above the city. "Out of mine-hands, Kirzen. If she returns, direct her to me. Don't kill her."

"I'll try my best."

He wasn't going to get anything more binding than that. Kiphoris turned about and switched on his lightbender. His entire form distorted with reflected light for a brief moment before he was out of sight. The few dwarves who saw were startled into wakefulness and stared at the spot he'd been standing.

Kiphoris moved quickly. He scaled the keep's walls and leapt down onto the empty street beyond. There wasn't a dwarf in sight. Very soon he had left behind the city entirely and padded across the barren fields outside to the river, where a small handful of dwarves waited by three sizable rafts tied to a stone quay. Once he was sure they were of Ûndin's clan rather than Az Sweldn rak Anhûin he deactivated his cloaking generator. The only dwarf looking in his direction jumped and flailed back into the water with a splash.

The others gave a start and drew weapons, but the moment they saw him they faltered. The one in the water rose back to the surface, spluttering, and climbed back atop the quay.

Kiphoris smiled behind his rebreather. "I am no foe. You are to accompany us to Du Weldenvarden, yes?"

One of the dwarves peered at him suspiciously. "Are you... Eliksni?"

"Eia, I am."

They let out relieved breaths and lowered their weapons. The speaker sighed loudly and asked, "How, in Gûntera's name, did you sneak up on us like that?"

"He just appeared!" The half-drowned dwarf exclaimed. He was wide-eyed with fright, and his jaw was clenched with anger. "Out of thin air!"

Kiphoris' only response to that was a deep chuckle. There was something about the dwarves he found endlessly amusing. They had attitudes larger than their small stature necessitated.

His associates arrived soon after. He stood to the side as the dwarves loaded supplies, and watched as Eragon guided his blindfolded horse onto one of the rafts. The animal did so reluctantly; it made its unhappiness clear with a series of snorts and swings of its head. Saphira slipped into the river and allowed herself to sink down until only her head remained above the surface. It reminded him of the tales of the fearsome niirsai beasts on Riis. Predators who waited by the ether-river's edge to catch those who came to drink.

But, unlike Saphira, the niirsai had been notoriously stupid beasts. His father would tell stories of how he tricked them into leaving their rivers as a youth and speared their exposed flanks. Niirsai hunts sounded glorious. It was yet another tradition lost in the Whirlwind.

His attention was redirected when Ûndin approached him. The clan-chief scowled. "I am sorry, Kiphoris, that your time in my city was marred by the efforts of Az Sweldn rak Anhûin."

"It is no trouble." Kiphoris shuttered his outer pair of eyes and graciously dipped his head. "I envy you for your holdings. When I return to my people, I will bring news of your warm welcome."

The scowl turned to a smile very quickly. Ûndin nodded. "Aye. You have been a good guest. I know that some may think otherwise, but I look forward to meeting more of your kind."

"Farewell, Ûndin-Mrelliks." He turned about and boarded the first raft with Eragon and Orik and two dwarven guards. The second was reserved for Melkris, Kida, and Arya and another two guards. The third and final vessel supported Ikharos, Fomora, Javek, and the last three dwarves set to accompany them on their trek north. The ropes were unknotted and pushed from the quay with wooden poles. It was so very painstakingly slow, but Kiphoris forced himself to be patient.

Obleker floated over the water's edge alongside them, and Arke glided high above on wind currents. She let loose a shrill cry that echoed throughout the valley.


The hours, and the scenery, lazily swept. Kiphoris sat by the cabin in the centre of the raft and watched the passing world around them with detached interest. A part of him was irritated that they couldn't take a Skiff, but Arya had warned him that it would have been fired upon by elven magic upon arrival. Saphira wouldn't be able to follow in any case, and she was far too large for a Skiff. Even so, he could have run! The speed the dwarves set was too leisurely for the him, but the small humans didn't have enough stamina to keep pace with his warriors, so moving by water was their fastest option

Another part of him was just pleased to have, as Ikharos called it, a breather. A chance to pause and relax before war called on him again. The landscape around them was full of life and it fascinated him. He still couldn't believe that he was standing and breathing on a living world. One without the sickness of Hive or the corruption of Vex.

He wasn't lying when he said he might want to remain on Kepler. His people didn't have to wander any farther. This world had all they needed to rebuild their civilization. He dreamed of bright-eyed hatchlings laughing and running about, free of the fear and worries that their parents had carried all their lives.

"You look pensive," Saphira remarked.

Kiphoris looked over to where she swam, effortlessly cutting through the water like a Ketch through the void between stars. "I am forging fantasies of the future," he admitted.

"What is it you envision?"

"Children who know a place to call home."

"You have children?" Saphira sounded surprised.

Kiphoris laughed. "Nama. I do not. But that does not mean I will not care for mine-people's hatchlings. I know it is different with humans, but our young are to be reared by the entire crew. To be cherished by all. The custom has suffered since we ran from Riis, but we all shoulder the responsibility where we can."

"That is a kind thing to do." She quietened. "I'd like to think my race was the same."

Kiphoris exhaled. "Perhaps they were. Even if they weren't, it can be the custom you adopt for all dragons."

"We dragons are gone," Saphira said remorsefully. "I am all that remains. No other flies free of Galbatorix's shackles."

Kiphoris leaned forward. "Nama. Perhaps your race suffers, but I do not think this to be the twilight of dragonkind. I promise that when this war is over, and if we both live, I will help you search for your kin."

Saphira slowed. Smoke billowed from her nostrils. "Thank you, Kiphoris."

"Do not thank me yet. I have not done anything deserving of it."

"You have. You helped us when you had no reason to. You have been a friend to Eragon and I. That is worthy of gratitude."

"Ah… Then you are welcome, wind-daughter. I only did as my hearts led me."

A pause followed. "Eragon told me of what transpired within Celbedeil. How did Ikharos survive?"

"Magic."

"There is no magic like that." Saphira's right eye, the only one Kiphoris could see from where he sat, narrowed to a sickle-thin edge. "Do we have to fear him?"

"Nama. He is an ally."

"You believe that?"

"I know it. I swear it. We mean you no harm."

"He was not glad to meet me outside Tronjheim."

"He does not know dragons. Ikha Riis has since been educated, on that you have my word."

"I've... noticed. He doesn't find issue with my presence now. But he is still rude."

"I have little authority over him, Saphira. I may be Veskirisk, but I do not command him. As I know it, nothing can command his kind."

"His kind? Is he truly not human?"

Kiphoris flared his mandibles. "I do not know the specifics. I only know of his people through tales. Do not fish for information with me, wind-daughter. You would find better results asking him yourself."


When afternoon arrived they stopped by the riverbanks and made camp. Eragon and Saphira left to fly. Javek practiced magic under Formora's instruction. Kiphoris found himself drawn into conversations concerning casual, unimportant topics with Ikharos and Melkris. It allowed the laid back feeling that had snuck into his bones to continue robbing him of his drive.

"I adore your people's food, Ikha Riis," Melkris said. He gazed longingly in the direction of the campfire, where the dwarf named Tríhga was preparing a pot of stew. "So much flavour! I am enjoying this too much, I think. I will never be able to return to meager ether rations after this."

"If you stay," Ikharos replied, "then you'd be free to outfit those rations with the bounty of this world. There's game to be had and fruit to be harvested." The Lightbearer's tone had softened considerably since Du Fells Nángoröth. It was encouraging. Unity was forming within Kiphoris's once divided crew.

But not all his crew were well, he knew. Those he left behind were in dire straits - something he would have to tackle when they linked up.

A Captain's duty was never done.

"I hope we will. I haven't enjoyed life like this since I was a hatchling. Oh the mischief mine-brothers and I would make! The future is bright." Melkris looked up. "Or is that the sun? At times I find it difficult to tell."

Ikharos made a mock sound of disgust. "Seriously. Don't you ever quit?"

The Vandal smirked cheekily, closing his outer eyes and baring his serrated teeth. "What is wrong? That was tame."

"It always starts tame. Then it ramps up to something deranged."

"You enjoy it."

"Eliko, I get enough crap from Xiān as it is."

"Ah, we are kindred spirits, she and I!"

Ikharos turned to Kiphoris. "Does he ever switch off?"

Kiphoris shook his head. "No, he does not."

Melkris scoffed. "You two are bland. You do not appreciate me."

"I'd appreciate you a lot more if you'd speak less," Ikharos muttered.

"Hulunkles!" Melkris cried. He dramatically fell back onto the soft reeds of the banks. "My comrades turn on me!"

"We're about to."

Kiphoris laughed. He had been about to add his own remark to the mix when he noticed Arya approaching. His smile fell and he assumed a serious, professional air. "Ikha Riis," he said. Ikharos followed his gaze.

"Ah," the Lightbearer said distastefully. His good mood had quickly evaporated. "Fine."

Arya looked at them all in turn with a cold, neutral expression. "Is now the right time?" She asked testily. She was clearly impatient and frustrated, try as she might to hide it. "Tell me the truth. All of it."

Ikharos looked at Kiphoris. "You want to start or will I?"

Kiphoris shrugged. "You might be clearer."

The Lighbearer sighed. "So be it. You're going to want to sit for this" He indicated to Arya a spot on the grass. She reluctantly sat down, completing the four-person square. Ikharos drew in a breath and said, "None of us are from this world."

A heavy silence followed. Then, "What?"

"We're from other worlds."

Arya glared at him. "I don't appreciate your attempts at humour."

"It's not humour. Either accept it or don't."

Kiphoris shook his mandibles so they clacked against his inner fangs. "Peace, Ikha Riis. Arya, he does not lie. Mine-people and Ikha Riis are from beyond the sky."

Her glare turned on him. "Whatever game this is, I have no patience for it."

"These are no games. You have presented your question, we have provided the answer."

Ikharos continued on in his blunt fashion: "I'm a magical, nigh-on immortal undead soldier. The Eliksni are wanderers who have crossed the stars for centuries in search of both a new home and their lost god. Arke is an ontopathic, paracausal, shapeshifting ambitiovore. And Kida's a machine. None of us are from this planet - your world. Besides Zeshus. She's a Keplerian, like you and Eragon and Orik."

Arya didn't say anything. Her glare remained strong.

Melkris shifted and lifted his wire rifle, eyes on the sky. "Drakkir," he said, faint alarm colouring his tone, "Kirzen..."

Kiphoris swiveled. At first he saw nothing but Saphira gently gliding above, Eragon on her back, but then he noticed what Melkris had spotted. Three winged shapes had separated themselves from the nearby mountains and steadily flew towards the dragon. From what Kiphoris could discern, hey resembled Saphira but smaller and less colourful. Their scales were smooth, their backs were devoid of sharp spines, and their skulls boasted no crested horns. They were sleek beasts, with dappled green and brown hides.

They were still some distance away, but the way they spread out as they neared Saphira made Kiphoris nervous.

"What are those?" Ikharos wondered in a low voice.

"Fanghur," Arya answered. "Cousins of dragons. They are less intelligent, but one should not underestimate the danger they pose to the unprepared."

"They're getting close."

"Too close," Kiphoris observed. "Are they friend or foe?"

"Neither," Arya answered uncertainly. "They're only curious."

"I do not like this. Melkris!"

Melkris stood, brought the stock of his rifle against his upper shoulder. and peered through the scope. The wire rifle whined to life.

"No!" Arya said suddenly. "Wait! We're in their territory. We needn't cause them harm."

Saphira slowed down. She had seen the Fanghur too. They weren't quite as large as she, but they had numbers. Kiphoris's hearts quickened. The new beasts had almost reached her, but they hadn't attacked yet. They appeared merely curious, as Arya said, circling the dragon and snapping their jaws.

Then, as one, they began to shriek. The noise was incessantly loud, even as far away as the Fanghur were. They struck at Saphira with outstretched claws. All the dwarves jerked and ran for their weapons.

Melkris fired. One of the beasts shrieked a little louder after the high-velocity bolt cut through its shoulder. A glancing blow, far from mortal, but it did its job. The injured creature quickly backed away.

The others, though, continued their assault. Saphira roared at them and attempted to keep their claws from Eragon, but the Fanghur were quick and sly. They saw the human and knew he was an easy kill.

Melkris prepared to fire again, but he didn't need to. A small shape cut through the air and struck the back of one of the Fanghur with its talons, then screeched as it darted away. The Fanghur twisted about and gaze chase to the offending eagle, fury fueling its ear-piercing shriek. It easily caught up and snatched the eagle out of the air with its claws. Something must have happened, however, as the Fanghur suddenly stopped flying and fell down, disappearing from view.

The third and last beast suffered a heavy kick from Saphira. It retreated much like the one Melkris had shot and flew back to the mountains. The one that had fallen didn't resurface.

Melkris lowered his rifle and asked, "Was that...?"

"It was," Ikharos answered gloomily. "I guess that's how she's finding her meals."

Saphira quickly returned to the campsite. Eragon disembarked. Kiphoris was relieved to see that the Rider was unharmed, aside from a lingering headache.

"Were they another race unique to the Beors?" He asked curiously. He wore a hesitant smile. Saphira was not quite so modest; she preened and exulted in the glory of victory.

"We call them Fanghur," Orik told him. "They're not as intelligent as dragons and they can't breathe fire, but they are still formidable foes."

"So we discovered." Eragon frowned. "But the eagle... Why did it attack? It was the same one that followed us all the way here."

Kiphoris exchanged a look with Ikharos. Neither of them said anything, but they knew the answer. All his crew did. They all remained silent, worriedly looking about.

000

After initial excitement had passed, everyone returned to what they had been previously working on. The dwarves prepared supper, handed it out, and those who partook made clear their satisfaction in the meal. But not her.

Keeping her identity concealed was beyond mere frustration. It was agonizing. Breathing open air was a luxury she hadn't known would be taken away so quickly. Formora couldn't even eat where others could see. Every night she had to slink away like a criminal in the dark and get far enough that Arya wouldn't sense her casting her spells. The only positive to it was that her friends - and they were friends, of that she was sure - tried to ease her loneliness by accompanying her. Sometimes it would be Melkris and his incessant jokes, sometimes it would be a curious Javek who voraciously soaked up all the magical knowledge she dared to share, but mostly it was Ikharos, who was just as happy as she was to have someone to confide in.

Lately, though, the Risen had the presence of someone troubled by doubt. She'd noticed it since his return from Celbedeil. When the moon hovered in the centre of the sky and most of the dwarves had retired for the night, they strolled out of camp in glum silence. A part of her was worried it was Arke's actions that caused the change in him, but even when the Ahamkara had regained her flesh-and-blood form he hadn't been so quiet. Ikharos was not secretive: this she had learned very early on. It was not uncommon for him to be quiet for long stretches of time, but this was... too different.

"Tell me what ails you," she said once they had cleared a sizable distance from the camp.

Ikharos released a shaky breath. "I found another of the Six's... repositories."

"What did you find?"

He didn't answer with words. Instead he just handed her a device identical to the one they found in the chamber within Marna Mountain. It was powered and alight with words written in the human language. She read through it slowly. A cold chill crept up her spine.

"They lost," she surmised. "And... these prayers. They are Nezarec's?"

"Yeah."

"I'm... sorry."

"They're dead. I knew it already, but a part of me... Still, look at the final entry's date."

"That's thousands of years later. Signed by 'U'. Perhaps someone survived? Uren?"

"Or Sindral, but yeah, 'U' does seem more likely to be Uren." Ikharos shrugged. "Again, probably long dead by now. I can't give in to hope. I'll only be disappointed. We have to go on as we are: one Guardian strong." He looked back to the pad. "This pretty much confirms my theory. Nezarec doesn't only control Shades; he creates them."

"We already assumed as much."

"There was always room for doubt. Just not anymore."

"What is this artefact he speaks of?"

Ikharos held out his hand, summoning Xiān. The Ghost dropped a glass dome with a metal base and summarily disappeared. Within, attached to three separate vices, was a ragged shard of black alloy. It looked like a jagged fang ripped straight from the jaws of a supernatural predator.

"It can exert some measure of control over the entropy of its surroundings," Ikharos explained. "It's not ripping apart time like the Vex are prone to do, but it's speeding us forward. This temporal anomaly around Kepler isn't jumping us through time - it's rushing us through it. Time here is sped up compared to time on Earth. Maybe twenty days here is a day on Earth? I don't quite know the exact details just yet, but... To a violence-eater like Nezarec, this is perfect. He's turned Kepler into his personal tribute-engine."

"So his spear is the tool by which he controls time?"

"My analogy was inaccurate. He's not controlling time. He's controlling everything else. Everything physical at least, and all that links with it. Every atom within us has its own entropy, and he's speeding it up. People die quicker here than on Earth. No one realizes it because their minds are being sped up too. Everything here is quite literally faster, but because we're thinking at an appropriate speed, we don't feel that difference. It's... tough to explain."

"I think I understand. But what happens if we destroy Nezarec's spear?"

"Don't," Ikharos warned seriously. "We shouldn't even consider it. There's no telling what might happen. The entropy speeding up is subject to this world alone. Due to Kepler's orbit, taking the spear out of the equation could have... unpleasant repercussions. The seasons could stretch decades long. And a ten-year winter would be the death of everything not at the equator. Plants would freeze and die, animals and people would starve, et cetera."

Her mind darted back to the memories of the far north, where the ice and snows encompassed all where no trace of life remained. "So we have to ensure that the spear remains intact?"

"Yes."

Formora muttered a curse. "The more I learn, the more impossible our goal appears."

"My thoughts precisely."

Words fell away as they continued into the forest. Once she deemed them far enough, Formora undid the clasps on her helmet and dropped it on the ground. She reveled in the feeling of the night cold and the taste of the fresh, pine-scented air. She scooped up a clod of dirt from the forest floor, planted a seed onto the bare earth, and buried it over. Once that was done, she sang the plant into growth. The bush grew and grew, eventually sprouting more than enough ripe blackberries to satiate her hunger.

"I'll never get bored of that," Ikharos muttered softly.

Formora looked up. "The song?"

He nodded. "You could make a career out of that alone if you lived in the Last City."

"I'm not unique. Singing is a favourite pastime of all elvenkind. I'm sure your opinion will change once we reach Du Weldenvarden."

"I doubt it."

"I'm a warrior first, not a singer. There are others who have spent their entire lives perfecting the art."

"Do you want this compliment or not?"

"... I'll take it." She smiled.

"Thought so. Sing again?"

"I have my supper. There is no need."

"Aw."

A bout laughter reached her ears. It was too light and carefree to be Ikharos. She twirled about, sword drawn.

A Fanghur not twenty feet away. It was smaller than the other wind-vipers from earlier, about as large as a hound, and its scales were a glittering grey. It had blood around its maw, which it licked away with relish. It almost appeared to smirk at her with its golden eyes.

"Arke," Ikharos breathed. He lowered his knife but did not sheath it. He hissed through clenched teeth. "Fuck off."

The Fanghur slunk away back into the darkness of the forest. Arke's laughter gradually faded, but it continued to echo within Formora's mind. She shrugged off the unease she felt as best she could and tried to keep it behind her. Dragons are beautiful, she thought, but Ahamkara are horrifying.

000

Tellesa stood as still as she could, hands clasped behind her back and eyes fixed on a spot on the far wall. "My lady." Beside her, Murtagh was just the same, as motionless as a statue.

"Tellesa," Nasuada observed her with a cool, scrutinizing look. After a while, she said, "You pose a problem."

"Do I?"

"You do. But you may also be the solution I am searching for. You have not sworn yourself to the Varden's cause, true?"

"I was aligned with the rebel cell in Kuasta, under the command of Rendan."

"But the Varden proper?"

"I... no, my lady. I am not. But the cause is my own."

"So I realize. You also have connections both to Ikharos and the Eliksni."

Eldrin, the Scar who currently acted as Nasuada's guard, tilted his head ever so slightly at the mention of the word. He stood beside the desk that had formerly belonged to Ajihad. He was taller than a human and armed to the teeth. He posed an intimidating figure, what with his hooded cloak and many-eyed helmet. Eldrin had more than enough weapons for every hand and it was clear, just from a cursory glance, that he knew how to use them. If Nasuada's intent was to unnerve any and all who dealt with her, then having her Eliksni bodyguard at hand was sure to serve that purpose.

Mainly, though, it was for protection. If the guardsmen waiting outside the door failed to stop an assassin from entering, Eldrin would be the next line of defense. Tellesa knew what Eliksni warriors were capable of. No killer, human or dwarf, would reach Nasuada alive.

"I do," Tellesa admitted cautiously. The underhanded politics within the Varden was nothing short of disappointing, but it served to remind her that people were, at their core, flawed. Why should it be any different with the rebels?

"Can you communicate with the Eliksni?"

"I only know a few words, my lady. Do you wish me to convey something to your guards?"

"No, thank you. And what of Ikharos? Where does your connection with him lay?"

"He assisted the Kuastan rebel cell while I was there. He and I, along with another rebel, attempted to hunt down Durza after Kuasta's fall."

"Do you feel loyalty to him?"

Tellesa set her jaw. She didn't like where the conversation was going. "I do. We are friends."

Nasuada hummed. "I would like you to swear allegiance to the Varden. It raises too many fears if we are to allow oathless warriors into our ranks. It may even satisfy the Council of Elders."

"My lady?"

Nasuada sighed tiredly. "Ikharos refused to swear fealty. The Council doesn't appreciate having a loose ally like he. If you were to swear yourself to our cause, it would alleviate them."

"I am leverage to prevent Ikharos from turning on the Varden," Tellesa realized. A spike of anger welled up. She struggled to keep it from becoming too obvious. "He wouldn't do that."

"So I believe, but considering how he flouted the Council's authority, they do not share the same opinion."

"I thought you commanded the Varden, not they." Tellesa regretted the words as soon as they left her. They were too biting and direct.

Nasuada frowned. "I do command the Varden."

"My lady, I meant no disrespect-"

"I understand your concerns." Nasuada paused. "Will you give me your oath?"

Tellesa knelt and drew her blade. She held it out for Nasuada. "I, Tellesa Kjallasdaughter, give you my blade and my fealty, Lady Nasuada."

Nasuada stepped around her desk, gingerly grasped the Eliksni sword, and tapped it against Tellesa's shoulders. "I accept your oath. I thus name and recognize you as a warrior of the Varden. Rise, warrior, and take your sword."

Tellesa did so, sheathing the shock blade.

"Have you led others before?"

"No."

"Therein lies my next problem. There are procedures to be seen and recommendations to consider. So be it, we will start at the beginning. Tellesa Kjallasdaughter, you fought bravely and fiercely against the Urgals. You will be given a posting as a serjeant. You will hold command over ten warriors of the second banner." Nasuada retook her seat and pushed a sealed scroll across the desk. "Here are your orders, permissions, postings, and rank."

"Thank you, my lady."

"Serve well and you may rise further. Now, Murtagh." Nasuada's tone became a mix of cordial and strained. "There is... a larger issue. Your loyalty is not to the empire, that much is evident."

"It is not," he replied firmly.

"My father allowed you the chance to prove it, and you have. Even so, I hope you understand the... complications that this poses. First I must ask after your intent: will you stay and fight alongside the Varden or will you leave?"

Tellesa forced herself to keep a neutral expression and stay silent. It was his decision, not hers. It wouldn't be right to make his decision for him. Her path was chosen, but his was yet to be walked.

Murtagh glanced at her and said, "I think I will stay and fight."

She couldn't stop the edges of her lips from turning up, no matter how hard she tried to suppress it.

Nasuada sighed. "Then that alleviates some difficulty. Even so, this is no simple matter. Much like Tellesa, it would put many at ease if you are willing to take an oath."

"I am willing."

"Before you do, understand that the same rewards will not be open to you. Many still do not trust the idea of the son of Morzan joining us."

"I... understand," Murtagh said with some difficulty. "But I will do my best."

"Good. Draw your sword."


"You were very professional."

Tellesa shrugged. "I'm a soldier. I always have been, even if I was too blind to see it. I'm meant to fight."

Murtagh furrowed his brow. "But these plans are foolhardy."

"You don't agree with Nasuada?"

"One victory does not win the war. There is so much more work to be done before Galbatorix can be defeated. If he can be defeated at all."

"Ikharos will kill him."

"You seem very sure of that."

"Aren't you?" She asked, surprised. "You've seen what he can do. He killed Durza!"

"I do not think Galbatorix will be so easily destroyed. Mad he may be, he is no fool. If word of Ikharos reaches him, he will prepare."

Tellesa frowned. "His preparations won't be enough. So many of us are arrayed against him; the elves, the dwarves, the Varden, Surda, and now the Eliksni. He can't possibly triumph now."

Murtagh exhaled heavily. "Perhaps.

They had reached their destination. Tellesa pushed the door open and strode inside.

The room was like any other barracks in the city, with twenty bunks and chests. There were only four people inside: three men and one woman. Two of the men were in conversation, the third was dozing away, and the single woman sat at the side of her bed, sharpening her sword.

They looked up as Tellesa and Murtagh entered, barring the sleeper. One of the men sneered, but his friend elbowed him. The woman raised an eyebrow and asked, "So which of you is the new serjeant?"

Tellesa hardened her expression and took a single step forward. "That would be me. I suppose you're the seventeenth mounted squadron of the second banner?"

The woman looked around at the empty beds. "Some of it, aye. The other lads will be back soon." She peered up at Tellesa curiously. "You came here with Eragon, didn't you?"

"I did."

"So now you've joined the real war."

Tellesa found issue with her tone. "I was in the war long before."

"Were you now? And what, pray tell, were you doing?"

"Fighting Urgals while you lot hid in a mountain."

One of the men, the one who had sneered earlier, bristled. The woman laughed uproariously. "I like that! I like that. " She grinned widely. "Your name's Tellesa, right? We've heard of you. I think everyone in the mountain did. Your weapon's a demon."

"And you?" Tellesa held back on her reservations. She couldn't tell if the woman was being honest or mocking her.

"Kielot." The woman put aside her sword and stood to attention. "Been an outrider for some seven years. Most of it spent doing nothing more than fighting off bandits or stray slavers, but the Urgals were good practice. Those two, Horseface and Broken Nose," she nodded to the two men, "are Honsel and Crait. Sleepyhead is Olged."

Honsel glowered. Crait offered Tellesa a respectful, if reserved, nod. Olged continued to snore.

This is who I have to work with, Tellesa thought bleakly. She hardened her resolve. But I will push them on. I will make them hate me. I will turn them into the best godsdamned squadron in all the Varden.

000

The dwarves seemed more at ease the day after the Fanghur attack. Kiphoris attributed it to the distance they'd managed to put between them and Tarnag. Az Sweldn rak Anhûin were unlikely to catch up, even if they knew which direction to take. Ekksvar, who directed the raft Kiphoris was on, began to sing as soon as they set off in the morning.

" Down the rushing mere-wash
Of Kílf's welling blood,
We ride the twisting timbers,
For hearth, clan, and honor.
Under the ernes' sky-vat,
Through the ice-wolves' forest bowls,
We ride the gory wood,
For iron, gold, and diamond.
Let hand-ringer and bearded gaper fill my grip
And battle-leaf guard my stone
As I leave the halls of my fathers
For the empty land beyond."

Their elven guide, though, was the opposite. Arya was troubled. And even more suspicious. It was warranted, though, considering what she'd been told and what she'd witnessed. She likely had a fair idea who the eagle of the previous day was.

Kiphoris looked over his shoulder. A distant, easy-to-miss dot in the dreary morning sky assured him that Arke was still following. Her new form was cause for alarm. He hadn't seen it for himself, but if Ikharos and Formora were to be believed, then the Ahamkara was growing at an exponential rate. Her hunger would only increase. And his control over her would be stretched to the breaking point.

A pit of worry ate away at his resolve. They needed the elves' magic and knowledge of the arcane to forge further binding oaths. The leash he held over Arke was tentative, barely held together. He'd guaranteed the safety of those around him, but even that wasn't a sure thing. Ahamkara were riddles incarnate; he had far to go if he intended to best Arke in this newest clash. They couldn't allow for a single flaw in the intricate cage.


Like the day before, the second evening since leaving Tarnag was uneventful up to a certain point. Melkris, who was on his way to claim the title of 'the Voracious', continued to watch the dwarves prepare the next meal, only this time the shockshooter strolled over, and despite the language barrier he and the dwarves found a rudimentary form of communication through sweeping hand gestures. Their designated cook, Dûthmér, allowed Melkris to help out and offered him clear instructions. Melkris just closed his outer eyes and played along.

"That doesn't bode well," Formora observed.

Kiphoris chuckled. "No, it does not. Does it Melkris?!"

The shockshooter turned about and gave them a little wave. Dûthmér snapped something. Cowed, Melkris went back to stirring the pot.

Saphira was curled up against a tree, with Orik and Eragon sitting and talking in front of her. Javek was to the other side of the camp, practicing his spells. Many a rock was lifted. Ikharos was with him, helping him refine his ability. Kida watched over them both as a silent sentinel.

All was quiet and calm. The only sounds to be heard were the hushed whispers of those in discussion and the crackling of the fire. Obleker lay dormant beside Kiphoris, and Melkris had, mercifully, given up on trying to tell his jokes to the dwarves, who couldn't understand a word he said.

A rumble split the air, guttural with fury and muted by great distance. It was accompanied by a cacophony of troubled howls and yelps. The dwarves cursed and, as with the Fanghur, reached for weapons. Formora flinched and leapt to her feet, looking around the camp and into the darkness of the dense pine forest beyond.

"Urzhad!" Thorv, the lead dwarf, exclaimed frightfully. He glanced over at Saphira. "Great bear!"

The dragon got to her feet and bared her teeth at their gloomy surroundings. "Does it come for us?"

"No." Arya strode forward, sword drawn and limbs tensed. "Did you hear the others? Shrrg. Giant wolves."

Kiphoris's mandibles shivered as anticipation and intrigue swept through him. He began to rapidly click and chirp. Melkris and Javek heard. They took up the call.

"What-?" Eragon began, confused, but Kiphoris cut him off with an excited bellow.

"We hunt!" He declared. Kiphoris turned his gaze to Ikharos. "Do not wait. We will catch up when we have finished. Keep Obleker with you."

Ikharos nodded. He wore a bemused expression. "Don't be long. Enjoy?"

Kiphoris laughed. "We shall! Melkris, Javek, ne da hus!"

"Wait!" Arya called. "Don't-"

But they were already running, moving on all six limbs for speed, in the direction of the origin of the roars. Kiphoris's blood was up; he heard it pounding in his eardrums, flushing through his hearts. It was instinctual, for a warrior and an Eliksni. He needed a challenge, and the Beor Mountains had finally provided it.


The wind carried the taste of blood. The trees bore scars, old and new. The growls and bellows of a bestial, primal fight filled the air. It was exactly what he was looking for.

Kiphoris slowed as he and his subordinates happened upon a forest clearing. The scene of the battle was one of destruction. Bushes were uprooted, two trees had been knocked over, and dirt had been displaced by heavy claws. A beast, so much larger than Kiphoris envisioned, ripped at a too-narrow hollow in the earth and snapped its drooling jaws whenever a lesser creature darted too close.

It was massive, easily as large as a Skiff, and clothed in a heavy coat of brown and silver fur. It had four thick limbs - two forelegs and two hindlegs - and each was tipped with five hooked claws large enough to be a full-sized weapon in the hands of a human. A pronounced muscular hump rested over its shoulders, giving it the appearance of being larger than it was - it was large enough already without that illusion. Its slavering jaws were huge and already dripping red. It had a dished-in face from which the snout darted out, and small, short rounded ears on top of its skull.

It was attempting to dig open a burrow large enough for a Vandal to comfortably walk in. Judging from the high-pitched cries coming from the burrow, it didn't belong to the giant beast. More likely it was the home of the other creatures which were attempting to distract it. They were large enough themselves, similar in size to the horse-beasts employed by the native humans. They possessed more lithe figures compared to the creature Kiphoris assumed to be the Urzhad, though their bodily power was not to be denied. Their necks and bodies were taut with muscle, and like the bear they wore coats of thick fur ranging in colour from black to grey to brown. They had thinner, quick limbs which they used to dart in and out of danger.

Wolves, Kiphoris realized. These are wolves. They move quickly. They calculate the risks. Their howls! Their determination! I adore them. They are brilliant! Glorious!

One of the wolves already lay dead, head almost torn from the body. It had run the risk of getting swatted and paid the price. The others, all three of them, became more cautious and shy as a result, but they didn't give up. They were defending their home and their young. They would not be dissuaded, even when faced with death.

Admirable. Kiphoris studied the creatures appreciatively. To be named after these animals is an honour.

"What is our plan?" Melkris hissed. "Which shall we hunt, Veskirisk?" He slipped his wire rifle free and loaded it with a fresh battery.

Kiphoris took in the scents, looked over the scene, and checked their surroundings. Satisfied that there were no surprises in wait, he pointed to the Urzhad and said, "That. We hunt that."

Javek chittered. "Great beast. Strong. Dangerous. Too dangerous. Much glory. Much risk."

"Eia." Kiphoris grinned. "Why I picked it." He drew Ka'Den, strode forward into the clearing, and roared. The wolves fell silent and turned to take in the new threat. The bear pulled its head out of the hollow and lurched about to settle two beady, rage-filled eyes on him. It lifted itself up on its hind limbs and stood so tall that Kiphoris had to crane his neck to see its face, and let loose its own booming call, eclipsing his own.

"Psekisk!" Melkris cursed.

Undeterred, Kiphoris took another step forth. "Come to me, you great psesiskar! You cowardly Ba'Sha! Take up my challenge!"

The maddened beast, infuriated by his lack of fear, fell down on all fours and pelted forward. It was fast despite its hulking size, an engine of muscle and fat fronted by jaws strong enough to crush bone and armour. Javek and Melkris scattered. Kiphoris stood his ground. When the beast crossed an imaginary line, he tossed a shock grenade right into the beast's eyes. It yelped as Arc erupted across its face. Kiphoris took the opportunity to step past the stampeding creature and thrust his shock sword into its flank.

The blade pierced the thick layer of fur, but only just. Kiphoris reckoned the Arc charge did more damage than the blade did, though it only served to further enrage the bear. It did a full-turn, swinging out with its claws. Kiphoris teleported away to safety. With a muttered curse he sheathed Ka'Den and tugged his pistols from their holsters. He didn't wait for the beast to get any closer; he unloaded all four arcarms into the Urzhad's titanic form. Shock bolts ripped into its visage, but the bear was sturdier than he previously envisioned - it shrugged off the pain and went right for him.

A crossfire of wire-shots and homing Arc darts slammed into the bear, highlighting the efforts of Kiphoris' underlings, though it had limited effect. It came at him with snapping jaws and ripping claws, but he was a Wolf. He was faster than it. Kiphoris went low and scurried under what would have been a fatal blow, firing all the meanwhile.

The bear went for him again and again, feral with rage. Kiphoris escaped again and again, graceful in movement and savage in retaliation. His guns clicked empty, so he tossed them aside and returned to the blade. It was riskier, but the blade would bite deeper. He slashed and jumped and pirouetted and hacked so swiftly that he was little more than a blur of crackling power and violence. His muscles burned and his blood roared. Kiphoris roared with it.

His mortality caught up with him. He began to tire. It slowed him. And the bear, whose fury supplied it with unending resilience, exploited it. A paw caught him, shattering his personal Arc shield and biting into his front. Claws rent through armour and dug painfully across his exoskeleton. The force of the blow sent him careening through the air and then tumbling across the detritus-covered forest floor.

Kiphoris's breath jarred in his lungs. He blinked away the daze and glared at the bear lumbering over to him. The animal knew an advantage when it saw one. It went for him, ignoring the barrage that continued to hit it, and fixed him with a vile, hateful look. It picked up speed and-

A dark form slammed against the bear's side and savaged its shoulder in a brave, but ultimately useless, attempt to bring the beast down. The Urzhad slowed and whipped around to kill the bold wolf, but the smaller predator was quick to back away out of claw range.

Kiphoris climbed to his feet and leapt at the bear. His claws sank into fur and caught a grip. He quickly scaled the beast just before the huge jaws could snap around his legs. He grabbed onto the Urzhad's neck and found he couldn't actually circle around it with his arms.

Kiphoris pulled Ka'Den around the beast's neck and grasped onto the end of the blade with his other upper hand. Kiphoris used his other hands to keep holding on as the bear below him bucked and tossed itself around in an attempt to knock him off. He locked his legs around its enlarged back.

The wolves, emboldened by the act, raced in and made themselves a nuisance to the larger beast. Kiphoris angled the edge of Ka'Den against the layer of fur and fat protecting the animal's throat and pressed down on the activation trigger of the Arc crystals. He barely managed to hold back a scream as the burn of the activated shock blade seared into his palm and fingers. Using his locked legs as leverage, he pulled back with all his might. The Urzhad roared and bellowed, shaking about in a frenzy borne of newfound fear and sudden pain.

Once the fur parted, Ka'Den slipped right through the flesh, muscle, and cartilage beneath. Blood sizzled and steamed as it poured past the burning blade. Kiphoris kept cutting with single-minded determination, even as the struggles of his foe weakened and eventually ceased altogether. Only when the Urzhad collapsed, dead, did he relent.

Kiphoris released the trigger and leaned back. His hand flared with pain, but he ignored it. Silence fell over the clearing. The wolves looked at the bear, him, and then raced back to their den. One of them approached the corpse of its fallen relative and howled mournfully.

Melkris and Javek cautiously approached, both warily watching the wolves.

"Kiphoris-Veskirisk?" Javek called out. "Drakkir? Are you wounded?"

Kiphoris looked down. His hand was a mess of seared flesh. His chest wasn't much better. "Nothing magic cannot fix," he reported numbly. He slipped down from the massive bear's back and stumbled. Melkris caught him.

"Careful, mine-Captain," the shockshooter urged him.

Kiphoris bared his teeth and flared his mandibles. "I am fine. I am fine! It is merely exhaustion." He felt for his bandolier and found it gone. The bear's claws had ripped it away. "Where is..."

"Here." Melkris offered him a flask. Kiphoris gratefully accepted it and popped off the lid. He drank in the ether and exulted in the frost permeating his muscles, filling him with vitality.

"Thank you." He attempted to hand it back.

"Nama, drink it all." Melkris turned to regard the fallen beast. "That was... legendary. Trophy-worthy!"

Kiphoris grunted. "Cut me some of its claws. And fur. I will to bear the spoils of this victory."

"Yes, mine-Captain." The shockshooter slipped his knives free and set to the task. Fur, teeth, claws, bones, skulls - all were prizes in waiting.

Javek snarled all of a sudden. Kiphoris turned on his heel, claws at the ready. Three of the wolves, led by a big grey-white elder, approached. Javek raised his rifle.

"No!" Kiphoris ordered. The creatures before them were tense, but not with the readiness of attack. They had a skittish presence to them. The wolves breathed heavily and their snouts were low to the ground.

While most stayed back, hackles raised and teeth bared, but the elder boldly stepped ahead of the invisible boundary. It thrust its head forward and sniffed Kiphoris. He remained motionless, allowing it to satisfy its curiosity. Finished, it stepped back and gave him a strange look.

Kiphoris raised his hand cautiously. The wolves, Shrrg, were large enough to rip off his arms if they set themselves to it, but the elder did no such thing. It watched him right back with bright yellow eyes and allowed him to place an uninjured hand against its neck. The fur wasn't luxuriously soft, but coarse like the bear's. It was matted with moisture, dirt, and blood,and despite it all the animal continued to hold onto the image of wild regality.

"You are inspiring," Kiphoris murmured.

The old wolf made a chuffing sound and pulled away. It retreated and led its kin to the dead wolf, where it joined in the sorrowful keening.

Kiphoris observed the animals for some time. Eventually he turned to help Melkris. Javek covered them, his rifle loaded and ready to fire.

000

For all the frustrations that came with using rafts - why use flimsy floats when Sparrows, Pikes, and a Skiff were available? - they made good progress. It was mid-afternoon on the third day that the mountains cleared away to reveal wide, open plains waiting beyond. They were on the east side of the Hadarac, and the heavy heat that pressed down served to remind them of that.

Ikharos gazed longingly to the west. He could take his Sparrow back to the Blasted Mountains and have a look at the dead Titan's tomb again. There might be more secrets to unearth, more relics to recover, and more conspiracies to uncover.

"We've already cleared it," Xiān assured him. "There's nothing for us there."

"We could be more useful literally anywhere else. Not here, playing honour guard."

"Playing emissary more like. We need to humour Kiphoris. We have to play this war by Eliksni rules, not Guardian. There's not enough of us to warrant it. Plus, with us and the Scars working together, this'll go swimmingly."

"How?"

"We know how Eliksni work. After centuries of foiling their efforts, now we can do the opposite and help them. We know where their strengths and weaknesses lie. We know what to protect, what to change, and what to leave as it is."

Ikharos looked over his shoulder. "We can only do that if the Eliksni are with us. They haven't showed."

"They're hunting."

"They're taking their time."

"They'll catch up."

"The others don't know that. They'll insist we wait."

"Convince them otherwise."

"I'd rather not speak at all. I don't know these people."

"Want me to do it?"

"No. We need to keep some secrets. I won't give everything away to these people. They're our allies, but they're not our friends."

"I swear you make up these problems just to have an excuse to be annoyed."

Ikharos huffed. "Hardly."

"Alright, if you really don't want a solution, we can just wallow in despair."

Ikharos decided that there and then was a good place to stop talking. Before it devolved into argument. He knew his limits, though it had taken him literal centuries to find them.


That evening, Thorv chose a small cove for their camp. Ikharos helped the dwarves set up their tents and start a fire. After that, he settled in and tended to Kida. He checked the Frame's vital components to ensure they were holding.

"You doing well?" He asked.

"Yes sir."

"Any trouble."

"One problem, sir. My communications array appears to be damaged."

"Can you manage close-band comms?"

"Yes sir."

"Then it's a problem we'll have to live with. We'll repair it when we have the resources," Ikharos lied.

Kida made a compliant sound. "Yes sir."

"What do you think about this?" Ikharos gestured to the camp.

"Elaborate."

"Do you think anyone here wants to kill me?"

Kida's eye made a choppy whirring sound. "Native hominids possess rudimentary weaponry. Threat is present, but not of much concern. If hostile actions are taken, I will move to engage."

Ikharos hesitated. "No. If hostile action is taken, I'll deal with it. An overhasty reaction could do more harm than good."

"Understood." The Frame shifted. "Query: is that human attempting hostile action? He isn't very effective."

Ikharos looked over. Eragon had laid claim to a clear spot within the boundaries of camp to practice his swordcraft. From a glance it was obvious that the Rider knew his stuff - his form was good and his footwork was even better. "No, not hostile action. That's just him keeping his skills fresh."

"Are skills easily forgotten among organic lifeforms?"

Ikharos frowned. "That a dig?"

"It seems highly inefficient."

"Yeah, that's a dig. Kida, you're an ass."

Kida didn't laugh, didn't wink, didn't do anything that a human would do in that scenario. It made every conversation with him feel hollow. He didn't have a true personality. He only had the ability to imitate. False-life.

A sudden cry stole his attention. Ikharos stood up, knife in hand, but he soon saw that they weren't under attack. Eragon had just fallen. He would have disregarded it if the rest of the camp hadn't fallen into a fit of panic. He looked again.

The Rider was writhing in pain.

"The hell?!" He left Kida and rushed over. Saphira had already gotten there, grabbing Eragon as tenderly as she possibly could and pulling him close. "What happened?"

No one answered him. Saphira allowed Arya to get close, but as soon as Ikharos took a step, the dragon bared her teeth and growled at him. He reluctantly retreated. Formora joined him mere moments later.

"Poison?" He wondered, but he quickly disregarded it. The stew wasn't yet ready, and there were few other mediums for poison to be utilized.

"Magic," Formora told him. "Durza is not finished with us."

"Son of a Witch. What did he do?"

"I presume he dealt Eragon a curse."

Ikharos scowled. "Damned magic again. Here, give me the words I need to convince them I'm able to help."

"Say 'Eka malabra né haina. Ëfa onr atra edtha eom komoa, eka munu heill älfr.' It's 'I mean no harm. If you allow me to help, I might heal him.'"

Ikharos nodded and walked forward. Once again, Saphira gave him a warning growl. "Back!" She mentally roared.

Ikharos shook his head. "Eka malabra né haina. Ëfa onr atra edtha eom komoa, eka munu heill älfr," he said with slow deliberation, so he could get his point across clearly.

Arya looked up, narrowed her eyes, then said something to Saphira. It was too soft to make out. After a second full of suspicious scrutinization, Saphira backed away. Ikharos took it as an invitation and crouched down beside the fallen Rider. Eragon was stock still, broken only by the steady rise and fall of his chest. He'd fallen unconconscious.

"What did this?" Ikharos asked.

"The wound left by Durza," Arya explained bitterly. "It is dark magic beyond my ability to mend."

"Show me."

They cut away Eragon's tunic and rolled him over. A terrible scar trailed from the Rider's right shoulder to his left hip. It was pale and, by all appearances, harmless, but there was no denying the faint aura of magic coiled around it. No, not mere magic. Darkness.

"Psekisk," Ikharos cursed. "Durza was smart. This is a crippling curse. All the easier to capture a target with."

Arya looked at him sharply. "How do you know this?"

Ikharos hesitated. "I've seen its like before. Took one myself during the Great Disaster. An Acolyte tried to hamstring me while I was dueling its father. Killed them both, but the cut bothered me for a few days. They're easier to fix if you do so immediately. This is too far gone. I should have been told!"

"Can you fix it or not?" Saphira demanded harshly.

"Potentially. It's grown too much. This is lingering Dark. An infection of sorts. It won't heal naturally. Wounds caused with Darkness seldom do. If we had a Sunsinger with us then we could force it out, but I'm not a Sunsinger. My Solar's a weapon, not for healing."

"You can do nothing?"

"Just wait, would you?" Ikharos frowned. "I could attack it with my Light, but that would have dire consequences. Those kinds of fights can get messy. No, we need to draw it out another way. Where's Durza's sword?"

Alarm crossed Arya's features. "Destroyed," she replied. "I shattered it into a thousand pieces and melted them down. Why?"

Ikharos exhaled slowly. "Dammit. We could have used the blade as a medium to extract the Dark. And use my Light as the bait to draw it out."

"What is this Dark you speak of? Black magic?"

He hesitated. "In a way. It's potent."

"Is there anything else we can use?"

"I don't know. We really needed that sword. If we had another Shade's weapon then… but I don't know..." His brain lit up. "Ceunon! The knife! We have a knife, I'll..." Ikharos's hopes dashed themselves against the rocks of realization. "Shit. Kiph has the knife."

"Kiphoris?"

"Yes."

They both looked behind the camp at the forest, as if it would somehow summon the Wolf there and then. He didn't show.

Ikharos sat back and sighed. "I guess we wait."

Arya turned back around. "Is there nothing we can do?"

"No. And we'll need Javek too. To draw out the Dark we'll need to reopen the wound. I'm not a doctor, so I'd prefer to have a medical professional on hand. This is too dangerous. Removing the curse could kill Eragon."

Saphira snapped her jaws together. "That will not happen."

Arya frowned, her expression one of puzzlement and anxiousness. "Magic can dull the pain and-"

Ikharos quickly shook his head. "Magic's a wildcard. There's already too many variables in the mix to toss that in. Javek's a Splicer - I trust that more than a risky spell."

"What you propose is too dangerous!"

"And what you propose could cause irreparable damage. Dark and Light are a step above your magic. If we try to meddle with this, we could trigger a worse reaction. It's too close to the spine; if the infection spread to Eragon's nervous system..."

Arya opened her mouth to say something, but she faltered. Eventually, she hardened her gaze and inquired, "How can we trust you with this?"

"Because I haven't let you down so far? Eka malabra né haina. Eka weohnata reyna eom heill älfr."

"... So be it."

Saphira lowered her head so that her features filled Ikharos's vision. "If you let Eragon die, I will tear you apart. Slowly."

Ikharos grimaced. "I'm sure you will. Look, I'm not about to let him die. This is my job." He stood up and turned around. "Let's get him in a tent for the time being. Which one is his?"


AN: Thanks to Nomda Blue for edits!