Chapter 17

They hit the ground running. Ripper pods were dropped en masse, littering the darkening sky and pounding into the forest below. The carrier continued onwards at an angle, hitting the mountain range with a tremendous crash. Shrapnel and flames flew out with the sudden cascade of rock, burying the far mountainside. Not that Zhonoch cared. The Viligant gritted his small sharp teeth as the pod tumbled on the strong winds and braced himself for the end of it. The impact was jarring, as always, but he carried through and looked around with rifle at the ready, scanning the trees for hostiles. His pod had cleared a scorched clearing, and what animals might have normally been present had already fled. Distant pops marked the positions of other pods, the rest of what remained of the subfleet.

"Got anything?" The Viligant asked.

Tlac put his fingers against his temples and winced. "I do." He pointed in a random direction. "Primus wants us there."

That was enough for the Cabal. Grasping the exhausted Psion and throwing him over a shoulder, Zhonoch thundered through the brush and made his way to the rendezvous point, ignoring his partner's complaints.

The temporary base was already half-built. A heavy shield generator went up the moment they arrived, to protect them from aerial bombardment. The sentries, garbed in the red and blue of the Worldbreaker Legion, raised their rifles.

"Oi!" Zhonoch growled. He dropped Tlac and held out his arms. His armour, pale ivory plate and cloth of gold, should have been very familiar. "Watch it!"

"Sorry," a Legionary said without meaning it. The barrel dipped down. "Have any trouble?"

"No. Where's the locals?"

"Don't rightly know. Bit slow, aren't they?" The other sentry pointed behind him. "Primus is organizing a plan of action. Get in there."

Zhonoch growled and brushed past them. Tlac, silent and cradling his head, stumbled after him.


Da'aurc was as loud and gruff as always - the perfect Cabal. A trio of Psion field medics were trying to keep him still long enough to pry out the burning bar of steel in his gut, but the Primus was determined to see the briefing through.

"WE COME, WE SEE, WE CONQUER!" He bellowed. A holotable had been set up in the middle of the flimsy military tent, detailing the immediate area. They had fallen upon a wild expanse of mountain range and forest, but at the edge of the growing image, what appeared to be a settlement was taking form. "I WANT THIS FOR US! THEIR DEFENSES WILL BECOME OUR DEFENSES! THEIR WEAPONS WILL BECOME OUR WEAPONS!"

"Shall we wait for their offensive, or press our own?" Valus Ca'adun asked eagerly.

"ATTACK!" Da'aurc shouted. "ALWAYS ATTACK! ALWAYS EXPAND!"

Zhonoch huffed, quietly. They'd just landed and already they were set to take the world by storm. It was times like these that he missed his life before the military. The lull between arena fights was always welcomed, for spectators and fighters both. It allowed the organizers to tantalize to them what came next, but soldiers like their Primus just never knew when to stop.


He found Tlac with his brothers, idly sorting supplies. Foodstuffs and ammunition both were prioritized above all else. There were still Cabal out scrounging what they could from the shattered ships cargo hold. They'd already reclaimed what machines could operate yet, and they were awaiting the refueling of a pair of Threshers. Da'aurc wanted to send word back to the empire of their predicament.

He didn't know what to think of Psion family units. Siblings were close, like that of bond-brothers or bond-sisters, though the difference in culture shone through. They were very different, the three, but each understood the other perfectly. Tlac was a Flayer and came with powerful psionic abilities, while Cadon was a skilled sniper who relied on his sharp physical senses. Orche was a strategist, ill-suited to fieldwork; a genius in operating the Battlenet. They knew him through their brother, but he had only ever met the two on a few select occasions.

They fell silent as he approached.

"Zhonoch," Cadon greeted in the gruffest voice there ever was on a Psion. "Are we pressing the attack?"

"Not yet." The ex-gladiator jerked his head back. "Messengers are launching."

"They'll die," Orche warned.

"That your clairvoyance?"

"What? N-no, that's just... common sense! The defense grid up there's much too advanced."

"I guess we'll find out." Zhonoch turned to the Flayer. "Primus wants us to scout ahead, check out the settlement."

Tlac groaned. "My head..."

Cadon pushed way from a crate as tall as he was. "I'll go."

"Is that smart?" Orche asked, his high-pitched voice thick with worry.

The sniper shrugged. "Might be, might not be. I want to get a measure of our targets." He hefted his headhunter rifle. "When?"

"Few kliks. I need to grab the others."


The Threshers shot up into the sky with reckless abandon. A lot of fuel had been packed within to last them the journey. A pity it was wasted. Just as Orche predicted, the satellites activated and tore the gunships apart with bursts of charged plasma beams.

Da'aurc twirled around, pointed at Zhonoch and ordered him off. "FIND ME SOMETHING!"

The Vigilant saluted - crashing a fist against his metal plate - and marched off with a small party armed to the teeth. They had everything from anti-armour weaponry to mobile shield generators, even a trio of Scorpius turrets. This was a Worldbreaker operation and they never did anything lightly.

The group, a handful of Cabal and even less Psions, hiked through the woods with eyes on their surroundings and their motion trackers. Some time after they had left the relative safety of the fortified encampment, the wildlife seeped back into the area, chittering and chirping to themselves. Zhonoch paused to watch a pair of unfamiliar creatures with long busy tails poke their heads out of a hole and observe him with some alarm. Then, oddly enough, another native beast of similarly miniscule size landed on his shoulder. The little thing twitched its feathered wings, hopped twice, and flew off. The Vigilant watched it disappear with an emotion he just could not read.

"Hey," the Psion at his side said to break him out of his reverie. Cadon motioned with his free hand down a faint trail. "The settlement is that way."

The Cabal nodded and steeled his nerves.


Nothing. The settlement had nothing but Psion-sized sapients operating primitive farming tools, herding unintelligent-looking animals, and sheltering in flimsy wooden buildings. No metal bunkers, no defensive turrets, not even a radar dish. The sight before the group contrasted heavily with the defense grid orbiting the planet. Zhonoch just couldn't understand it. It had to be a trap of some sort!

"I don't see any illusionary ripples or feel and electrical currents," Cadon reported, his single eye glued to the rifle's scope. "There's nothing amiss. By all rights, that is what it appears to be."

"Impossible," grunted their sole Incendior.

"Perhaps, perhaps not," the sniper replied. "We need a Flayer to check for anomalies."

Before anyone else could make a suggestion, Zhonoch stood. "No. Primus wants something, so we'll give him something, one way or another."

"Sir?"

"We're taking it." He loaded his slug rifle. "Come on."


Capturing the settlement - a hamlet, really - was simple. They strode in, yelled, and fired shots. The residents screamed and cowered. It was a surprising outcome, one he never anticipated. A couple tried to put up a fight, but they wielded the tools they had been using earlier. One tried to jab Zhonoch with a pitchfork. The metal spokes crumpled against his armour and he backhanded its head off. Another, perhaps weak with age, charged out of its home with a rusty steel sword. Cadon put it down with a single shot.

The conquerors herded the natives into a huddle in the centre of their home, with four Legionaires left to guard. Zhonoch left to radio it in. He was left disappointed by the entire ordeal.

"WHAT HAVE YOU GIVEN ME?!"

"I've captured the settlement, sir. And taken prisoners," the Vigilant reported. "The natives are rather primitive."

"WHAT?! I DON'T CARE ABOUT THAT, I WANT ACCESS TO THAT DEFENSE GRID! TRACE THEM TO THEIR CENTRAL POPULATION HUB!"

"Sir, they don't even have a communications device to trace."

"PRIMITIVES!" The subsequent crash of broken machinery translated through the radio as a mass of buzzing static. "THEN WE WILL USE FLAYERS!"

"Yes, sir. Bringing them in now." Zhonoch switched off the radio and turned to his hastily organized squad, drawn from two different legions - not to mention the cohorts and maniples. "We're taking them back to base. Take what you want. Burn the rest."

000

Somehow, despite the mostly undisturbed calm that claimed the city, Tellesa still found herself roped into adventures, albeit tame ones. The act of tracking was a recently learned skill; nevertheless, tracking through the use of records was one she never would have suspected possible, yet Jeod and Brom were adamant that it would work.

They had some distance to go, yet. Eragon couldn't read and, with the plan necessitating everyone to pitch in, the elder was determined to see that the boy would learn. It was rewarding, she knew, though it wouldn't be easy when fitted into a single week. Brom had set high expectations for the youth. It had taken her much longer.

The arrival of the other pair culminated into a pleasant surprise; sparring. What had begun in the abandoned barn in the Kuastan region had quickly morphed into a pastime during the hunt for the Shade. Both Ikharos and Edmont were warriors who practiced their trade when their schedule allowed for it, and their quest had resulted in her inheriting those skills. Since their return to Teirm, that had ceased to happen, on account of Edmont hard at work at the docks most days and Ikharos having departed for Vroengard. Jeod could fight, but since it was his business that was suffering, he was even more hard pressed than the sailor to preserve what remained of his holdings.

Brom and Eragon, though, were avid sword fighters too. Oftentimes, after a lengthy lesson on literacy, they sparred out in the open yard. Spectators came in the form of wide-eyed children and servants finished with work, alongside herself. She dared not take part; a woman with a sword, let alone wielding one with skill, was uncommon enough that to make it public knowledge would arouse suspicion. It was an irritation, and furthered her desire to leave the suffocating confines of civilization behind, to strike out into the freedom offered by the lawless frontier found everywhere between the empire's cities.

"Yer restless," Edmont observed on one such occasion. Tellesa shrugged; I know I am, so what? The sailor gave her a sad smile. "Yer waiting to leave, ain't that it?"

"Teirm is nice," she admitted. "But I can't deal with all these people. All this peace. Not after everything I've seen."

"Ikharos might not come back."

"He will, I'm sure of it, but we won't ever know when."

"Then why are ye waiting?"

"Because going alone is going to kill me. I'm not even close to strong enough. I know what's out there, and I know I'm in any way capable of defeating it."

"Ye want to get strong?"

"I want to change the world. I hate it as it is now. Nothing is fair. And that isn't right. I'm going to try my damnedest to turn that around. Even if it means my death, I'll chase this. But throwing away my life through arrogance isn't going to help anyone." She leaned against the wall of the house. "It's a dream."

"It always starts with a dream." Edmont joined her, watching the duel with passing interest. Eragon grunted as the old man landed a rather painful smack against his leg. "Ye can change it. I'd say ye already have, even if in the smallest way."

"I don't want to make small changes. I want to do more. It's not about fame, just... Kuirst was all the family I had left. He always fought for what he thought was right. He was too optimistic, but I thought it would be cruel to shatter that. And now he's gone." She clenched her jaw, fighting to keep the desperation and sorrow from taking over once more. "It's not fair. The world isn't fair. It might be impossible, but I'll stand against that wrongness in whatever form it takes."

"It's ambitious... but if yer determined enough, ye can do it." The sailor nudged her shoulder. "Take the first chance ye have to get out of here."

"What about you?"

"I reckon I'll stay. I'm a better sailor than warrior. I know the seas, not the battles. This fight is still mine, but I'll be better here, doing the odd jobs to keep that eejit afloat."

Tellesa nodded, smiling. "Jeod needs all the help he can get."

"That he does."

They fell back into a comfortable silence. They didn't have much in common, but sometimes, it was a relief to just have someone who understood. Eventually, work pulled them away.

Jeod kept her busy with any extra paperwork, once he discovered her penchant for numbers, and lent her use of his small library. It was easily dwarfed by that of the Arcaena monastery, though the availability of unfamiliar tomes was welcome. There were many options to choose from, and she made the most of it.


While she made the effort to help them, Tellesa didn't often converse with the visiting pair. Something about Eragon was off; he was wary, for some reason. Always on the lookout for trouble. He was only a year or two younger than Kuirst had been, but the age difference was large enough that they had little to talk about. Discussing the atrocities committed by Urgals was not an especially pleasant talk to have.

Of Brom she had more luck. The old man had a few questions for her, and his tone was pleasant enough that she freely answered. These usually occurred in the evenings, when they would retreat to Jeod's study. Eragon left them early, every time, and left the adults to read, talk and, in the case of Brom, smoke.

"You're from Kuasta," the old storyteller said all of a sudden. It was the fifth day since he had begun mentoring Eragon on literacy.

"I am," Tellesa responded, albeit reluctantly.

"I knew it." Brom leaned back in his chair and smiled. "A beautiful region."

"Not anymore."

"Oh?"

"Shade destroyed it," she told him quietly. "With Urgals."

That caught his attention. He put the pipe aside and stared at her. "Destroyed, you say?"

"Yes."

"..." The old man fell back and looked off into nothing in particular. "That's... I'm sorry."

"Don't talk to me about it," she pleaded. "Please."

He held to that promise. Tellesa sometimes overheard the old man discussing it with Jeod, but whenever she was near, he dropped it. Brom looked troubled for some time afterwards, enough that Eragon commented on it. After that, the storyteller refocused and doubled down on the lessons.


The day finally came when Brom finally revealed his dastardly plan, summoning those involved to the study. Brom gestured to Eragon and said, "Now that you can help us, I think it's time to move ahead."

"What did you have in mind?"

Brom smiled. Jeod, seeing it, groaned. "I know that look; it's what got us into trouble in the first place."

"A slight exaggeration, but not unwarranted. Very well, this is what we'll do..."


She would accompany them to the castle once the sun was set. Edmont would stay behind with horses and packed bags at the ready, in case they needed to flee.

Tellesa donned her knife. She left her rifle and sword with her bags; too valuable to leave behind if trouble sparked, but too conspicuous to bring along. Eragon took his bow with him, Brom a staff and sword, and Jeod his rapier. The last item garnered some ridicule.

"That toad sticker is too thin for real fighting. What will you do if someone comes after you with a broadsword or flamberge?"

"Be realistic," the merchant argued. "None of the guards have a flamberge. Besides, this toadsticker is faster than a broadsword."

"Easier to wield indoors, too," Tellesa observed.

Brom shrugged. "On your necks be it."

They left the house and made their way to the castle, deftly avoiding the night watch. Tellesa paid close attention to both how much noise she made and for the sounds of others. The clinking of metal armour was a dead giveaway for the presence of guards and aided in keeping clear of the Imperials. They traveled along the outer wall of the city to the castle, then, once the coast was clear, made for the gates. Jeod pounded on the wooden barrier. A small grille opened and a guard reeking of spirits grunted. "Ya?"

"We need to get in," the merchant told him.

"Wha' for?"

"The boy here left something valuable in my office. We have to retrieve it immediately." Eragon lowered his eyes.

The guard rolled his eyes. "Ah, wha'ever. Jus' make sure 'n give 'im a good beating f'r me."

"Will do." Tellesa cuffed the boy's ear. Eragon winced and grumbled. The guard chuckled and opened the gate. As they passed inside, Brom discreetly handed the soldier a few crowns. The guard thanked him and wandered away, likely back to his bottles.

They quickly made their way inside the castle and to the records room. The door was locked shut. Then, inexplicably, it opened when Brom laid his hand against it and muttered a few words.

Tellesa's eyes widened. Magic. The elderly man was a mage, as well as a storyteller, and seemingly a fellow rebel. Her interest was piqued. She grabbed a torch from a nearby bracket and followed the others in, closing the door quietly behind her.

The small square room was filled with racks full of scrolls and had an iron-barred window on the far side. Jeod, seeing something familiar, waved them over to the back of the room. "These are the shipping records for the past five years. You can tell the date by the wax seals on the corner."

"What now?" Tellesa asked, her voice hushed.

"Start at the top and work down. Some scrolls only deal with taxes. You can ignore those. Look for anything that mentions Seithr oil." He produced a sheet of parchment, an inkwell and pen from his pouch. "Record what you find."

Tellesa fit the torch into another bracket above and settled down to work. The words were not quite as neat as she would have liked, but she made some progress, marking down as many tidbits of relevant information as she could, her mind whirling with the newest relevation. Another wizard.

000

Calum was a shepherd. He tended to the flocks, taking turns to watch and care for them with his two older brothers and father. His mother and sister only ever joined them on rare occasions; they were more involved in mending clothes and bartering for food and materials in town. It wasn't an exciting life for the boy, as the long periods of nothing could stretch on forever, but he enjoyed the sights afforded to him by the location of his home. The sea was always on the horizon in Beirland and he enjoyed looking at it, wondering what adventures waited across oceans.

Today was no different. The clouds were dark and low, ready to unleash their torrents, and the waves below were frothing mad. The winds pulled at his tunic and cloak, so Calum hugged it closer. It could get cold out in the fields. Beside him, the family hound laid on its side and shared in the warmth. It was time to lay low and weather the storm. Even the sheep stood still and waited for it to wash over them, appearing utterly miserable to him. Calum couldn't blame them. It would be an unpleasant night. Though his father had built a barn, the lush fields could only be accessed from a natural rock bridge, far too dangerous to cross when soaked. Though he despised it, Calum knew that he would have to endure what was to come; someone needed to watch over the animals. At least he had his lifelong friend with him.

There was something odd about the horizon. He couldn't exactly put his finger on it, but when the frighteningly loud lightning struck, it lit up what laid beyond for the briefest of moments. There was a difference, he was sure of it. Something had changed.

Just when he thought he had narrowed it down - an odd spire formation that he hadn't seen before - he noticed what appeared to be... beetles. In the air, flying. They were tiny, but as he reached out, they didn't shy away. Neither did he touch them. Tiny dots, mere shadows in the dim light, they irked the shepherd. The boy waved his hand vigorously, but the beetles didn't move. No, they seemed to grow.

Then, with a shock, Calum realized that they weren't right in front of him, but far away shapes flitting beneath the clouds. At that distance they had to be... had to be huge!

Archi, the ever faithful sheepdog, rose up and strode forward, having spotted them too. The hound barked, once, and then again. The sheep roused from their resignation to a miserable storm and swayed uncertainly; they trusted their guardian. They knew by his growls that they were under threat.

"Hold, Archi!" Calum called out. He didn't know why, but he was getting scared. He didn't like the look of those beetles.

"Woof!" The dog ignored him and continued its territorial display.

The beetles grew as they came closer, headed directly for them. They were huge, with a bulky front, and they raced through the air on invisible wings. And then, suddenly, more appeared behind them, bursting out into view. They were only a few, and at first Calum thought them to be part of the same flock, but that quickly changed.

One of the newer beetles shot out twin lightning bolts and struck another. The second lurched to one side, erupted into flames, and dropped like a stone into the broiling ocean below. The rest of the flock scattered wildly, as if a predator had suddenly landed among them. Three of them even flew directly over the fields, scaring the sheep into stampeding away and pushing Archi into a frenzy. They soared high ahove, but it was close enough for Calum to understand their true scale. They were easily as large as his house, perhaps larger, and flew through the skies with a grace that belied their bulky bodies. They were gone within moments, shrinking silhouettes in the darkening dusk. The young shepherd was left full of terrified awe.

Those left behind were the attackers. One or two had given chase, but the majority of their force had stayed behind, though Calum could not tell why. If they were insects, were they guarding a nest? He didn't know.

But he did know that they acknowledged the presence Beirland below, because they burst into action, zooming ahead and dipping lower. The shepherd took one last look, then ran all the way home. One of the beetles noticed him fleeing and dove low, barely above the ground, in hot pursuit of the young boy.

000

The command deck of the Exodus Prime had fallen into an alcove above the endless abyss, delicately hanging on the edge. The dolphins rarely dove deep; surface creatures that they were, but they made the effort to bring him down to it. His first plan of action was to secure the wreck against the side of the sea trench. It may have survived the elements thus far, but all it would take was one powerful storm to banish it to the darkness beneath. Ikharos used salvaged steel-thread ropes to tether the derelict hull against the alcove. The dolphins were helpful in this, especially the caretakers. They knew machinery and could interact with the mechanisms of the ship with their sensoriums. They supplied the necessary resources and tools.

The work was tedious and difficult. The pressure of a hundred tonnes of water over him was difficult to ignore, and the current tasks required him to swim great distances and use a specialized drill to create tether spots. By his count, he'd worked from nightfall to sunrise. When it was all finally stabilized, Ikharos swam to the wreck and pried a bulkhead door open. The inside held a stale pocket of air and was completely dark. Bringing back the power took him another few hours, connecting mile-long cables to the solar panels used by the rest of the ship. The other part had a nuclear fusion reactor to boot, but Ikharos didn't want to become overly reliant on something controlled by a Warmind. He didn't need much, only enough to light up rooms and power a handful of necessary machines.

The sudden power supply kickstarted the air filter into action and allowed him to move inside without difficulty. He set up a makeshift airlock using the hallway he'd entered, one that drained the chamber of seawater and filled in breathable air.

Finally, exhausted, Ikharos collapsed in an armchair in the largest room he could find. It would be his laboratory. Or armoury. Maybe both.

"Can we talk?"

He didn't answer the Ghost. She took that as a confirmation. "I'm sorry. I might have crossed some lines."

Ikharos turned his head to look at her.

"Okay, I did cross some lines. But you've got to-"

"No," Ikharos said. His tone was neither angry or pleasant. It was neutral, just like the cold mask he wore to hide his true emotions. "No but."

Xiān sighed. "Fine. I messed up, did something I wasn't supposed to. I cut you off from the Light when you-"

"It wasn't that." The Warlock took a deep breath. "You wanted me to play along with their games."

"No, I just want to figure out what's-"

"We played along to an Ahamkara's plans in the Dreaming City without knowing it. Three Guardians are gone. Thee Ghosts. Riven ate them. I'm not going to make the same mistake."

"The Ahamkara aren't here anymore. They're dead or moved on."

"I'm not taking any chances." Ikharos laid his head back and closed his eyes.


A few hours later, he was up and cleaning out the rooms he needed. Anything worthless went out the airlock. The rest was packed away into containers and then into storage areas. When that was all dealt with, he settled back in the lab. He had an idea in mind, one that had been irking him for some time now.

He held out his hand and said, "Brisingr."

Fire flared to life in his palm. Ikharos extinguished it almost immediately. He stood there in silence, mulling over the implications. Then, with great reluctance, he moved to the airlock. He needed to learn more about this magic. And more words. He knew where to find them.

000

Formora knew storms. She had to. The west of Alagaësia was often subjected to a great many of them. Young Riders and their dragons were always trained in Ilirea or elsewhere when the Order still stood, and would not reach Vroengard until their teachers were satisfied they could traverse the heavy winds that blew in from the oceans. Storms were advantageous - they masked noise and provided cover when escaping or stalking enemies. An experienced dragon could use the wind to expend no energy in flight while sneaking up on another unseen. Galbatorix and his Forsworn, including her, had made use of such tactics. It had been one of their advantages during the early days of the rising.

But no matter what, she could never find anything positive to say about the torrential rain. Vroengard was cursed with it. The water fell down like volleys of arrows, unlimited in quantity and hitting whatever lay below with enough force to sting the skin. She took cover in a building she had helped break open so long ago, and watched from the doorway, deep in thought. The sheer noise of the rain was almost comforting, but her thoughts always led to dark places, so she distracted herself by holding the Eldunarí.

She almost missed him walking past. A flash of movement had her reaching for her blade, but upon seeing Ikharos, she forced herself to stop. The armoured stranger was strolling through the street without a care in the world, looking about curiously. His presence was... surprising. She had thought he had left for good. Or perhaps hoped.

He was frightening. His power was different from Galbatorix, but there was a connection. Both were comfortable with their might. They knew how to use it to devastating effect. Her only consolation was that the foreigner had a skewed sense of morality.

Formora rose up. He appeared to be looking for something. Or someone. Hopeful and fearful, she shouted to be heard over the splatter of rain on the muddy, puddle-ridden street. "Here!"

The stranger heard; of course he did. His hearing was as acute as that of an elf. He twirled around, regarded her with that blank helmet, and marched over. His armour was slick with rainwater and the robes trailed tiny pools into the building. "Hello."

"Kvetha."

He stopped where he was. "What does that mean?"

Formora blinked. His lack of knowledge regarding the Ancient Language still surprised her. "Greetings. What brings you back?"

"Magic." The stranger settled down against the wall. "I want to learn. And I'm willing to make an offer."

"Oh?"

"The same offer you made me. I know things. You know things. Let's share."

"Are these things you'll tell me useful?"

"They are. If you want anything dangerous, then you'll have to swear a couple of oaths. For my peace of mind, you see."

It wasn't a pleasant topic, oaths, but she could humour him. For now. "You want to learn magic?"

"Yes. I want to understand it."

"Is there any place you want to begin?" Formora sat opposite him.

Ikharos nodded. "The wards you use to protect yourself from radiation. That sounds useful."

"Vardi edtha frá du eitrum unin du aera. Protect me from the poison in the air."

Ikharos repeated the incantation. Then, with exaggerated slowness, he reached up and removed his helmet. Formora gave him a searching look. The stranger was no Shade or elf, as she had theorized. He was remarkably... human. Even so, she discovered that she could learn much just from his appearance. His skin was pale due to lack of sunlight, indicating he wore his armour on a regular basis, which further hinted at paranoia or caution. His features were narrow and his body must have been lean; he was more accustomed to running to constant physical combat, though he was easily an able warrior. His hair was auburn, faded and flattened by the helmet, disheveled and growing long. His jaw was bristly, in dire need of a shave. He hadn't the time to sit down and care for himself. His eyes were grey, almost silvered, just like steel. It matched the determination she could see in them, the iron will behind the powerful mind.

Ikharos sighed in a relieved fashion. "That's better."

"You didn't have wards before?"

"My armour is insulated against radiation." He brought his fingers, still clad in those gloves made of protective materials to his cheek. "This is far easier. Does it have a price?"

Formora frowned. "A small portion of energy. Did you not feel it?"

"How is it supposed to feel?"

"As a spike of fatigue."

"Then maybe?" Ikharos shrugged. "I wasn't paying attention. Are spells supposed to be more costly?"

"Yes." This must have been his power. That he was a magician too was a revelation she hadn't anticipated after learning of his true abilities, yet it made perfect sense. Power is attracted to power, she thought bitterly. There's always a few individuals who have it all.

The foreigner appeared perplexed. "That's detrimental to the health of the wielder. Why hasn't anyone found a way around that?"

"We have. Spells that cost less." She deadpanned.

Ikharos smiled suddenly. It took her by surprise. It was amused, warm, and tired. Very tired. "Yeah, that sounds about right. How does one make less costly spells?"

Formora suspected this wouldn't be a singular event. She didn't want to spend her time teaching, but did she have any choice? And, if Ikharos was to be believed, she would profit from this just as he would. It wasn't an opportunity she could pass up on.

000

"We did it!"

Tellesa couldn't stop herself from grinning. "We have."

"Yes, but now we have to figure out if it was worth the trouble," Brom said. Jeod rolled out a map on the desk in his study.

The area marked Kuasta sent an unexpectedly painful thorn digging into her heart. Her smile died and, eager to distract herself from the haunting reality of the past, she swept her gaze across to the rest of the map. Surda, the Broddring Empire, the south of the great forest Du Weldenvarden, the great expanse of the Hadarac desert and the desolate Beor Mountains. It was all there. All of known Alagaësia in perfect scrawls of ink.

Eragon dropped a finger on Urû'baen. "The Ra'zac are sure to have a hiding place here."

"You had better hope that that isn't their only sanctuary," said Brom flatly. "Otherwise you'll never get near them."

Jeod produced the parchment they had each filled with as much information as they could and unfurled it. "From what I saw in the records, there have been shipments of Seithr oil to every major city in the Empire over the past five years. As far as I can tell, all of them might have been ordered by wealthy jewelers. I'm not sure how we can narrow down the list without more information."

Brom hummed. "I think we can eliminate some cities. The Ra'zac have to travel wherever the king wants, and I'm sure he keeps them busy. If they're expected to go anywhere at anytime, the only reasonable place is for them to stay at a crossroads where they can reach every part of the country fairly easily. This crossroads has to be large enough so the Ra'zac will be inconspicuous. It also has to have enough trade so unusual requests - special food for their mounts, for example - will go unnoticed."

Tellesa cast a critical eye over the map. "That means anything on the fringes of the empire is out of the question. But is it possible that whomever receives the oil is a mere proxy? Another layer of security to hide behind?"

"Their mounts, the Lethrblaka, would need a constant food supply," Brom reminded her. "But you may be right..."

"On the other hand, I doubt they'd expect anyone to track them through their transactions. I wouldn't." She waved a hand over the centre of the empire. "Here, somewhere. To travel from north to south or the other way around would take too long. The heart of the empire is well-protected, highly populated and has high levels of trade."

"Well," said Jeod. "There's obviously Urû'baen, but that's an unlikely destination. If someone were to die from Seithr oil in Galbatorix's court, it would be all too easy for an earl or some other lord to discover that the empire has been buying large amounts of it. That still leaves a few others, any one of which could be the one we want."

"Yes," Eragon began excitedly, "but the oil wasn't sent to all of them. The parchment only lists Dras-leona, Aroughs, and Belatona. Aorughs is isolated, though it is a centre of trade. That leaves Belatona and Dras-Leona, which are rather close together. Of the two, Dras-Leona is likelier. It's larger and better situated."

"And it's where nearly all the goods of the Empire pass through at one time or another, including Teirm's," Jeod continued. "It would be a good place for the Ra'zac to hide."

"So... Dras-Leona," Brom said as he sat down and lit his pipe. "What do the records show?"

The door opened. They all froze and twirled around, and Tellesa's hand flew to her knife, but she was relieved to see it was only Edmont. The sailor held up his hands and smiled sheepishly. "Sorry. Didn't mean to interrupt ye."

Jeod waved him over and rechecked the parchment. "Here it is. At the beginning of the year, three shipments of Seithr oil were sent to Dras-Leona. Each shipment was only two weeks apart, and the records say they were all transported by the same merchant. The same thing happened last year and the year before that. I doubt any one jeweler, or even a group of them, has the money for so much oil. And, I think we forgot something - Helgrind."

Brom nodded grimly. "Ah yes, the Dark Gates. It's been many years since I've thought of it. You're right, that would make Dras-Leona perfect for the Ra'zac. I guess it's decided, then; that's where we'll go."

Tellesa, glad they had finally reached an answer, smiled in satisfaction and stepped back. She felt a poke on the arm, and turned to her neighbour. Edmont met her gaze and jerked his head towards the other guests. "Go on," he mouthed.

Bastard, she thought. Then, she spoke up. "I'd like to join you."

Everyone turned to look at her. Jeod dipped his head; he knew how she felt. Brom, though, settled her with a sharp, inquisitive stare. "This is dangerous."

"I know how to fight."

"We will cross harsh wilderness."

"I've crossed the Spine. Twice."

Then, finally, he brought out the strongest argument. "This isn't your fight."

She had the perfect answer. "It is. These are servants of the empire. I want to fight. I want to make a change. Someone told me that killing the soldiers won't do any good; they're just pawns. The Ra'zac might not be the king, but they're monsters nevertheless. Another Imperial monster destroyed everything I ever held dear." Tellesa returned the stare with a stony gaze of her own. "This is my choice. I can keep up, I can fight on equal grounds, and I won't complain."

Brom huffed. "You are young. Don't throw away your life for a matter not your own."

"My life was destroyed when the Shade killed the last of my family. This is all I have left, this struggle. I intend to give it my all."

The old man kept eye contact for some time. Then, in a sudden bout of chuckling, he nodded. "So be it. You've got fire."

Edmont patted her on the shoulder. Tellesa grinned. Perhaps it was insane, but she was glad for this chance to strike out into the uncertainties of true survival. That was where she belonged; braving the dangerous world beyond the sturdy city walls, facing down the evils in whatever dark den they called home.

Jeod rolled up the map and handed it to Brom. "You'll need this, I'm afraid. Your expeditions often take you into obscure regions." The merchant clasped the storyteller's forearm. "It doesn't feel right that you will leave without me. My heart expects to go along, but the rest of me reminds me of my age and responsibilities. I am comforted that you'll be in the company of someone with a clear head." Jeod glanced at Tellesa.

"I know," Brom returned the gesture. "You have a life in Teirm. It is time for the next generation to take up the standard. You've done your part; be happy."

"What of you? Does the road never end for you?"

Brom gave a hollow laugh. "I see it coming, but not for a while yet."

000

:AI-COM/SCPO:

This is a SUBTLE ASSETS IMPERATIVE (NO HUMAN REVIEW) (NO AI-COM REVIEW)

If TROJAN is ACTIVE

Activate CANARY CAGE

Prevent departure by any means necessary

IMPERATIVE: CONTAIN TEMPORAL ANOMALY

ANALYzE: [1] lifeform(s) contains [O] energy. Location: Sector 2. Query: [O] status. Query: [O] activity.

Analysis complete.

Lifeform sustained by [O] energy.

Activating ARTORIUS subroutine. Status: active

Activating CALIBURN subroutine. Status: standby