Murtagh was only vaguely aware of the stabbing pain in his head and the weakness in his limbs as he crumbled to the stone floor. Eragon landed beneath him, and Murtagh fastened a tight grip on the back of his half brother's tunic.
A roaring vortex of lights numbed Murtagh's senses. What felt like hundreds of minds clamored into his own, hammering away at his defenses with a might far greater than Galbatorix's. It took all of his focus to keep them at bay, and finally, they relented. Like a powerful, raging river, the invading forces of consciousness swept from Murtagh to Eragon. The great sound of wind silenced all else, but Eragon made an expression as one does when in the throes of death.
Murtagh's body went limp, but he twisted his hand in the fabric of Eragon's tunic to keep from losing him. Steeling himself, he built up his mind like a battering ram and attacked the consciousnesses that were assaulting his brother. If Eragon was aware of any of it, Murtagh could not tell.
A sound like thousands of screaming voices reverberated through Murtagh's head, but he pressed on with his attack. For every consciousness that he beat back, ten more took its place. Nevertheless, he would prevail or die trying. Then, pain like a sharp knife piercing through the back of his head made Murtagh recoil in both mind and body.
Silence followed. Everything slowed and the world simply stopped.
Murtagh's vision cleared and the pain faded. Cautiously, he rose to his hands and knees, still reluctant to let go of his sibling. Eragon's face was contorted in pain, frozen in what appeared to be a muted, ceaseless scream. On the far side of the castle keep were countless dragon eggs and Eldunarí, and the bodies of elves were strewn on the gray floor around them. Saphira had collapsed while attempting to protect them. Adjacent to her was Thorn, rearing on his hind legs, maw wide in a terrific roar, but not a sound escaped him. He was nothing more than a statue.
Suspended in the air throughout the keep were thousands of orbs of radiant light. Individually they were small, trivial things, but together they were blinding. Murtagh found one right beside his head, and he shifted away from it. The light flickered but did not move.
Another jab in the back of his head made Murtagh curl forward. With perfect ease, a single consciousness entered his mind. It bypassed every defense without resistance, sifting through every thought and memory of Murtagh's brief existence. No matter what he did, Murtagh could keep nothing from it.
Suddenly, the consciousness poured into him what could only be its own thoughts and memories, though most of it Murtagh could not understand. The sheer volume was overwhelming, and he pressed his hands against the ground to brace himself. His forehead touched Eragon's back. He saw some things too great to understand and forgotten immediately thereafter. Lastly, he saw Alagaësia in ruin, a land dead from one edge to the other, a barren wasteland devoid of life and meaning.
A voice spoke into his mind with indecipherable words, powerful words that made no sound. The consciousness touched his mind again, and when it returned it spoke to him in his own language as well as the Ancient Language, two voices at once, both sounding like no more than an echo.
With your help, I can overcome them, said the consciousness.
Murtagh struggled to sit up. His arms were shaking. Though he did not understand why, he believed its words. The Ancient Language did not convince him, but the memories and thoughts of the consciousness did. It was not a particularly compassionate being, rather it was cold and calculated, but it did not desire the destruction of Alagaësia any more than he did.
"Who are you?" he asked, surprised that he could even hear his own voice.
The consciousness answered him in unintelligible words, but they shook him to the core. Then it spoke again and said, My kind is not like your kind to have such a thing as a name. I am what I am, and I am the source of all balance in my world and yours.
Murtagh realized then that what it spoke at first was surely its true name, and it was something unfathomable. Whatever this consciousness was, it was ancient and powerful. "What do you want from me?"
Form a pact with me, said the consciousness. As it spoke words, it also offered many more thoughts and memories that Murtagh could not understand. At least he understood what sort of pact the entity wanted, as well as what it would cost him. Through you, I will bring this world back into balance.
Time flowed again, though it was slow to start. The lights began to move, and Thorn began to fall. It was quiet, but Murtagh heard his dragon's desperate roar, Eragon's agonized scream and the gusts of wind created by the movement of the lights. Time was short.
"You expect me to die?" questioned Murtagh. He understood well enough, for the consciousness had shared everything with him. The cost of power was great.
I expect your world to live, answered the entity in his mind.
Murtagh looked first to the dragons and Eldunarí. They had only received this safe haven a year earlier, and now someone—something—had come to trample upon it, and that alone made him tremble in anger. Second he looked to Thorn, and he knew he wanted his partner, his only true friend, to live. Last his gaze fell upon Eragon, and he gripped the back of his tunic once more and inwardly scolded his sibling for falling. It was not his fault, not really. Nothing could have stood against these formless, flitting beings.
"Very well," Murtagh said to the entity in his mind, and then he made a pact with it in the Ancient Language. The consciousness gave no indication of satisfaction or pleasure and simply fulfilled its end of the agreement.
Time moved forward, but now Murtagh could see the lights as individual beings even as they soared past him. With renewed strength, he rose and drew the wine-red blade of Zar'roc from its sheath. The sword called Misery glowed with supernatural power. With an assertive shout, he swung the blade and cleaved several of the lights in half. Now knowing full well he could defeat them, Murtagh moved from one end of the keep to the other, spinning his sword with effortless precision and dashing their assailants to pieces. After being cut, lights fell out of the air and shattered to dust on the stone floor.
Nevertheless, many more filled the empty space he created. Murtagh spoke words of magic, sending a wall of fire through the keep, then a bolt of lightning and a gust of wind. Lights burst. All the while, he kept cutting them down. His body felt strong and his magic limitless, as though he had a thousand or more Eldunarí at his disposal. It was a terrifying thought.
A distorted sound somewhere between a screech and a howl echoed through the keep, and Murtagh spun on his heels. Eragon was standing, but his body was wrapped in a black fog. His eyes glowed pure white. He opened his mouth and let out a gargled inhuman shout like the desperate cry of a strangled animal. Lights circled him and landed on him, and the dark mist around Eragon expanded.
Murtagh froze and then took a step back as Eragon drew his shining blue sword, Brisingr.
You must cut them down, said the consciousness in his mind with chilling resolve, and Murtagh knew he meant the them that was joined together with Eragon.
"No," Murtagh snapped.
Eragon moved, and the distance between him and Murtagh closed in a blink. Crimson and sapphire blades clashed. Murtagh attempted to parry and duck beneath Eragon's sword, spinning around to strike from the side, but his sibling caught the blade of Zar'roc with his bare hand. Murtagh let out a muffled gasp as Eragon disarmed him, threw Zar'roc aside and swung at him again with Brisingr. If Murtagh had the power of a thousand Eldunarí, then Eragon had ten thousand. His speed and power were impossible to match.
Quickly! You must cut them before they assume full control, commanded the consciousness, and now Murtagh understood its urgency.
More of the lights fell upon Eragon, and the black mist around him grew larger still. Darkness spread across the castle keep and devoured everything it touched. Eragon swung his sword in a mindless frenzy, his eyes open but expression blank. He looked the part of a dead man on puppet strings. Murtagh shuddered and jumped backwards, rolled once across the floor and deflected a sword strike with magic. He spoke a spell to still Eragon's movements. The bindings wavered quickly, and Eragon moved despite them.
Now! Before all is lost! The consciousness was concerned not for Murtagh but for the whole of Alagaësia. Again, images of a ruined world came into Murtagh's mind, and he knew very well that the entirety of the land was at stake.
"I cannot!" Murtagh called out even as Eragon unleashed another mangled animalistic scream. It was not his brother's voice but rather the sound of a hundred different voices, and it made his ears bleed. "Find another way!"
Silence answered him, and Murtagh dipped beneath another swing of Brisingr's blade. He jumped to his feet and put up a ward that was shattered instantly, but it allowed him some space. In the back of his mind, the consciousness considered many things, and Murtagh was aware of them all. Nothing succeeded save one solution, and it was not in his favor.
"Do it," Murtagh demanded. Brisingr whistled past his face, cutting off a chunk of his hair. He fell back to avoid the lethal blow.
You do not understand what you ask. If I do this, your very existence will be erased. It will be as though you never were. The consciousness wavered, and Murtagh did not understand its sentiments. It felt something akin to confusion and disbelief. Your name, your identity—you will become nothing.
Murtagh fell against a wall and allowed Brisingr to strike him in the side. The blade caught in the wall behind him. He snatched the grip, pressed his back against the wall and jumped, kicking both feet into Eragon's gut. His sibling dropped his sword and staggered backwards.
In his brief moment of respite, Murtagh once again thought over the great cost. His existence—erased. His eyes lingered on Eragon and then traveled to Thorn. Lights assailed him and kept them apart, and the connection between them had been severed. The crimson dragon snapped at the lights and thrashed at them with his claws and tail, and occasionally he threw the full weight of his body upon them. Nothing touched them.
With resolve, Murtagh cast his gaze once again upon Eragon. "Do it."
Why would you desire such a thing? Now the consciousness in his mind was rattled. It did not understand, in its cold, calculated and methodical processing, why this should be a better solution than simply killing Eragon. Murtagh pulled Brisingr out of the wall and out of his side. He spun it on his fingertips and armed himself with it, prepared as Eragon rose again. You are a creature of flesh, and your life is fleeting. What will be cannot be undone, and all this for another creature of flesh. Why?
"Because," Murtagh started. He braced his feet on the ground in a wide stance, pointing the sapphire blade of Brisingr at Eragon. "He is my brother."
The consciousness did not understand and sifted through his memories again as though it wanted to. Nevertheless, it acquiesced to his request. The full length of Brisingr became sheathed in rippling white light. It looked like a bird's feather fluttering in the wind. Eragon ran at him, and Murtagh met him. It only took two swings, one that missed and one that landed. Brisingr, shining white, cut through Eragon from his left shoulder to his right hip, and the darkness around him shattered. Another deafening scream escaped his parted lips, and then he crumpled to the floor.
Out of Eragon stepped what appeared to be the body of a person consisting of nothing but shadows. Murtagh slashed at it with the shining white sword in his hands, but the creature caught the blade and hurled it—and Murtagh—across the room. Murtagh turned in the air, calculated the distance and then threw the sword, smashing the shadowy creature in what should have been its head. It roared something more frightful than any dragon. While it raged, spheres of black fog broke away from it, darting in every direction.
Murtagh hit the wall and then the ground, then scrambled to his feet and prepared for another attack. However, the creature of shadows burst, and all of the lights within the keep fled. As the shadows scattered, they disappeared through the floor, the walls, and the ceiling, and wherever they touched opened a rift like a hole filled with swirling black water.
A shadow disintegrated near Eragon, and he was swallowed by a hole in the floor before Murtagh could run or even speak a word to save him. The ground ripped open beneath Murtagh as he took another step, and he, too, fell forward into darkness. Thorn lunged for him but was too far away, and darkness opened up near the crimson dragon as well. The entire keep was a twisting mess of shadows.
In one last attempt to save those who remained, Murtagh shouted spells of sealing and protection, every one that he knew, powerful wards to keep anything and everything out. Then he fell. The last thing he heard was Thorn roaring somewhere high above and far away, and then there was only silence and darkness.