I'm back...

Eragon materialised in the Ninor River, just outside the village Yazuac. He burst out of the water, maybe due to the impetus of the spell that had transported him down the river, but he was still a professional and had the presence of mind not to take in a huge gasp of air and not only risk choking on water but announcing his presence as well. He waited until he was calmly treading water before he risked drawing much needed air. He made sure the elf woman was breathing well before he started for the bank. Of all the places he could have materialised it had to be in the middle of the bloody Ninor during winter time. He had to be thankful he materialised on the south east of Yazuac, though, because this far out the water was still liquid. A few more miles ahead and by now the surface water would be frozen and both Eragon and the elf might have died from drowning, or if they somehow managed to escape, from their bodies' core temperature dropping too low. Still at that moment in time Eragon found it hard to be grateful for such a small mercy. He was freezing! When he got to shore he ran a quick check over the elf and decided that she was in as good health as could be expected under the circumstances. He surveyed the surroundings and found he was on a flat plane. The faint tree-line he could make out in the distance let him know he was standing on what was basically the beginning of the great plains of Alagaësia. He let out a long sigh before he picked up the elf and slung her over his shoulder. He gauged the distance to the Yazuac watchtowers before he set a path that would follow the river awhile but ultimately put him just beyond the range of visibility. Without preamble he set off at a brisk jog.

It took him several hours of valuable sunlight before he reached the tree-line he had spotted earlier. He jogged for a further ten minutes until he spotted an ideal spot to rest. Laying the elf down at the roots of a large tree he let out an explosive breath before he sat down beside the elf. He had contemplated going into Yazuac to get a couple of horses but he decided it was probably best if he got the elf to his safe house without leaving a trail his enemies could follow. He didn't understand the spell Brom had weaved that had transported them away and didn't know if there was a way he could be tracked but if he continued on foot without interacting with any other people the chances that he could be found would be extremely slim. He was a master woodsman and once he got into the safety of the Spine very few people would be able to find his trail, let alone follow it.

But then again I have a Shade on my trail and it won't be long before the Ra'zac are called to join in the hunt. This elf is a very valuable commodity at the moment.

Eragon got up after five minutes. The journey between Yazuac and his safe house was about four days of hard running, but if he soldiered on without any rest he could be there in three. On horseback he could be there in a day, a day and a half at most. He'd had to learn endurance the hard way but even this exercise would push him to the brink of his limits. Setting his mouth in a grim line he once again started jogging. By the time the sun had completely set he was at the edge of the Spine. His clothes were covered in his sweat and it was all he could do just to make it into the covering foliage of the trees. He set the elf down unceremoniously before plopping down next to her. He was breathing hard and his entire body felt like it was about to shut down.

Maybe I overestimated myself, he thought ruefully. Sometimes I forget that at the end of the day I'm just another human being.

So lost was he in thought that he almost failed to notice how eerily quiet the surrounding forest had gone until it was nearly too late. It was only his hard earned survival instincts that warned him that something was amiss. One second there was the background noise of any forest inhabited by life and in the next there was an utter silence that even the wind seemed unwilling to break. Eragon did not so much a twitch a muscle. He simply sat there, his eyes closed, breathing as normally as before and tried to use his other senses to find out what kind of predator had scared the usually hardy animals that could be found in the Spine. After a full minute he opened his eyes and slowly stood up. For the first time he regretted having left his sword in Gil'ead but he couldn't have gone around carrying it and maintained his cover. The Spine was still one of the most mysterious places in all of Alagaësia, even after millennia of quests into its mysterious depths. After Galbatorix had lost half of his army decades previously anyone with common sense had stayed well away. Most of the Spine's ecology was still relatively unknown. That meant that Eragon literally had no idea what kind of creature could be causing such a deafening silence. All he knew was that he would have felt better facing it with his sword in hand. That blade had gotten him through some tricky situations before.

And that was when the predator chose to show itself. Eragon blinked a few times in confusion, his mind trying to make sense of what he was seeing.

"You're joking," Eragon heard himself say out loud. "You can't be real."

The predator was about the size of a newborn foal, if that. It had pitch black fur, long limbs, a long tail, gleaming claws and daunting large, pale white eyes that made the pupils all but indiscernible. It stopped its silent padding – and in that instant Eragon realised had it chosen to sneak up on him he would not have stood a chance in hell – sat down on its haunches and quirked it's head to one side. The gesture was odd and seemed almost human in the way it projected an atmosphere of curiosity. Eragon, very, very, carefully, did absolutely nothing. He knew that in that moment his life was like a candle in the breeze; it was in danger of being snuffed out. After what seemed like hours the creature's head suddenly snapped back upright, it got back onto feet and started padding closer. Still Eragon did nothing. He did not even attempt to surreptitiously arm himself with one of the numerous blades secreted about his person. The only thing he concentrated on was keeping the beat of his heart steady, his gaze calm and unyielding, and most of all he tried not to look in the least bit edible. For the creature was a Vanar, a creature so steeped in myth some had come to think it did not exist and had been merely a unusually large wildcat – maybe a even a merecat – that had been spotted in the Spine and therefore the tale had been exaggerated to merit the mysterious nature of the Spine.

But no, it wasn't myth, as Eragon could see with his own eyes. While there were numerous and varying descriptions of vanar, he chose to go with the one in the Chronicles of the Heretic, a series of scrolls written by Tōsk , a warrior monk from one of the seven villages of Palancar Valley who had been banished in disgrace after being found guilty of unspeakable crimes. In one of the scrolls Tōsk had spoken of certain black magic rituals that could be conducted using magical creatures – werecats and spirits being prevalent – and the vanar had been mentioned right at the end, mostly as an afterthought. Tōsk had been in the process of hunting it down and had not had a chance to study one. By and large, every description of a vanar attributed magical powers to it, particularly its pale white eyes that seemed not to possess any pupils. Whether there was any truth to this, Eragon didn't know, but from what he had read about these creatures he knew they didn't need magical powers to be dangerous. Vanar were natural hunters, predators on par with dragons, some even claimed, and could bring down almost any prey they hunted. They possessed frightening speed and strength, especially for creatures their size, and were cunning beyond what a normal animal should be. Unlike most other animals, their culture resembled human culture – and some theorised that it had to do with the fact that it was humans who brought them to Alagaësia – in that their packs, their communities, were made of separate blood related families. Vanar rarely formed large groups though and preferred a solitary existence, travelling the world. They were renowned for their avid curiosity. There were still sagas sang by the bards about men and women who had conquered the will of a vanar and kept them as companions.

Eragon blinked languidly, his body free of tension and his breathing calm. His mind, however, was a-swirl with thought. What was he to do? How could he extricate himself from the situation without getting killed? How could he extract the elf for that matter? She was of paramount importance. So long as she got away safely, it would all be alright. The question was then of how to draw attention away from himself and lead the vanar away? Before his mind could throw out any ideas the vanar suddenly changed course and headed for the elf woman, Arya. Eragon cursed inwardly but did not otherwise react. He could not afford to spook the creature and have it kill the elf out of reflex. He stayed still, for all appearances a man enjoying the brisk late afternoon air. The vanar sniffed the elf once, sneezed, and then continued to sniff her for another few seconds. It licked her nose experimentally before shaking its head and turning to Eragon. Eragon watched it from the corner of his eye but did not turn to face it. It was only when it was a foot away that he turned, ever so slowly, to face it. It stopped dead in its tracks for a second before continuing until their noses were mere millimetres apart. Eragon stopped blinking then and held the creature's gaze. The vanar had a particularly strong smell, not unpleasant, just strong. Before Eragon could marshal his self control he sneezed. Even as his eyes were reflexively closing he detected a blur that in the following fraction of a second he realised was the vanar's claws as he felt them wrap around his neck. He kept still as he opened his eyes to see the vanar regarding him with unnerving intensity. Eragon hadn't had a chance to fully inspect the creature's talons closely but from the feel of them they were extremely sharp. The vanar's grip only seemed loose because if it added any more pressure it would pierce the skin.

For a very long time vanar and human gazed at each other, neither blinking, and just when Eragon thought he was going to blink the vanar abruptly blinked and let him go. It took a few paces back and sat on its haunches. Eragon blinked in surprise as he realised it wasn't double jointed like cats and other animals were but only possessed one set of knees, making its structure more simian in nature. It sat down with his legs folded in front of him. Eragon slowly mimicked the vanar and laid his palms on his knees.

"Hello, fellow hunter," Eragon said in the ancient language. The vanar sneezed as if it had smelt some pepper and shook its head slightly. Eragon paused before continuing. "Are these your lands?"

The vanar sneezed again, this time more violently and shook its head a bit more aggressively. Eragon paused and frowned. Could it..? He had never heard or read of any creature that was allergic – or at the very least had an aversion – to the ancient language before. As he looked at the creature he suddenly got inspired. He cleared his throat before speaking.

"Modo," he said. Hello. It was Illini, the language of the first human settlers on Alagaësia, and the language now used only by the sōhei of Palancar Valley and a handful of other scholars.

The vanar blinked once and then its whole body suddenly tensed. "Jikei, rerako jushingo no kuri?" Brother, are these your lands? The vanar paused, its whole body still, before it let out a sound that could only be described as a purr. Eragon was shocked at how deep its voice was. No creature that small should have a voice that deep. The vanar's body started undulating slowly, softly, and almost seductively, its shoulder's shifting from side to side until its whole body was lying flat on the ground, its head resting on its paws. Eragon let out a slow breath. Now what in the hell was all that about? Just as he was about to start speaking again the vanar suddenly tensed and looked right, its ears perked and tail curled upwards. Eragon palmed a dagger unconsciously, his instincts kicking in. Animals only reacted like that when they had sensed a predator nearby. But by all accounts the vanar was one of the most dangerous predators in Alagaësia. What would raise its hackles so? Without warning the vanar bolted. Eragon could not believe how fast it moved. The trees were still sparsely spaced this close to the edge of the tree line, and there was still some light to see the vanar clearly by, so Eragon had a clear view as the vanar covered a hundred feet within seconds before it disappeared. Eragon didn't dwell on it though as he hurriedly picked up the elf and without preamble started making his way deeper into the Spine. He was one of the few people who weren't afraid of the Spine, although he did have a healthy respect for the creatures that dwelt within it. Even in the days of the Riders very few people ventured too deep into it for fear of getting lost, or worse. The Spine was the one place left in Alagaësia where the line between reality and myth blurred. It held many a secret still. Eragon's body was aching beyond measure. He did not have the energy left to keep running. It was as simple as that. He had not slept properly for nearly a week, had been in numerous fights, exhausted himself mentally though telepathic manipulations and to top it all off he had been running carrying an elf that weight nearly as much as he did. Eragon stopped and leaned against a tree, his chest heaving and his brow dotted with sweat. Nótt's ring was not an option. He was not far enough into the Spine to be safe from Nótt being able to invade his mind via the ring. This wasn't to mention whatever magic the ring had been endowed with.

With slight trepidation Eragon reached into the hidden pocket in his shirt, next to his heart. He removed a small crystal vial filled with a thick, viscous green liquid that seemed to glow. He gazed at it impassively. If he drank the elixir he could die. The elixir, for a short period of time, would grant the drinker an enormous amount of energy. The drinker would not only have an increase in speed and strength but would not feel the pain of his exertions. The human body was not designed to handle such high outputs of energy, though. Of the few who knew how to make the elixir, only a handful had used the elixir and not died. None of them had consumed three times the recommended dosage. But Eragon was at the end of his tether. He needed keep moving. With a sigh of regret he un-stoppered the vial and drank all of its contents. He carefully replaced the lid and then put the vial back into its pocket. It took a few seconds but all of a sudden Eragon felt warmth spreading from his navel, through his trunk and into his arms and legs and all the way to his outer extremities. The last place the warmth reached was his head, and when it did he felt a sudden light-headedness as if he had spent an hour smoking jaga moss. He took three deep breaths, focusing on the mission at hand, for if one wasn't focused the moss could take away your reason and leave you daydreaming for up to days at a time. After a final, forceful exhalation, Eragon readjusted the elf's position across his shoulders and started running. And it felt good. The exhilarating feeling had no equal. His limbs felt as light as a feather and before he knew it he had made it into the Spine proper. The transition was as sudden as it was shocking. Young, sparse trees gave way to ancient boughs that looked to be thousands of years old, and indeed they were. The Spine's forests were the oldest in Alagaësia. Eragon paused for a moment, took a look at the distant sky, in which the stars had slowly started popping up one by one. He orientated himself before he started running again, this time making his way through a mostly dark underbrush where visibility was poor due to the branches overhead that filtered most of the light. Twice he nearly tripped but managed to keep his balance.

When he had been running for an hour he finally deigned to stop. He put the elf down behind the concealing roots of a giant oak before he retraced his steps, keeping hidden at all times. He backtracked for ten minutes and laid in wait for another ten. When he sensed nothing he quickly and quietly made his way back to where the elf was. He gave her a quick check up to make sure she was okay. Her heart rate had slowed down by one beat per minute but otherwise she seemed fine. Eragon picked her up and laid her across his shoulders gently, making sure she was in as comfortable a position as possible. As he turned round however a fist hit him squarely in the chest, sending him flying. He had just enough strength left to manoeuvre the elf so that when he landed she would be on top of him. Eragon could not breathe. His chest felt like there was a horse sat on it. Gingerly he shifted the elf to the side and slowly got to his feet, all the while massaging his chest. Black spots danced in front of his eyes and it took him a whole minute before he could breathe and see again. What he saw took his breath away again.

"You," Eragon wheezed.

"Indeed," Durza said silkily. "You have caused me much trouble, Wraith."

Eragon did not waste time on repartee. He attacked the Shade's mind with everything he had. He had never felt a Shade's mind before, and neither had he learnt of an account of one either. It was a strange thing, full of a multitude of whispering voices, all of them separate and yet together. This was all a side observation made by a small part of his mind though, as Eragon did not hesitate and used every tricked he possessed to overcome the Shade. Their minds were on similar in terms of raw strength, of that Eragon was certain. That meant the winner would be decided by the finesse and speed of his mental techniques. Eragon had been learning since he was ten years old. He had learnt some of the best techniques there were. The Shade, however, had been around for much longer than Eragon. If the feel of his mind was anything to go by then Durza had been alive for over a century. Even a paltry talent could grow to be dangerous in the span of a hundred years. But Eragon had also mastered a skill he had seen very few people able to accomplish; engaging in a mental battle whilst engaging in a physical battle as well. As soon as he had Durza's undivided mental attention Eragon launched himself full tilt at the Shade. From beneath the soldier uniform he was wearing he withdrew two poniards that had been strapped to his back. The Shade realised just a second in time and parried a knife thrust with his own sword. Even in his state Durza was capable of a quick draw and if Eragon had not been ready his knife would have been knocked out of his hand. As it was he used the momentum of the parry to increase the speed of his other knife, which was aimed straight at the Shade's heart. This second poniard had been hidden behind Eragon's back and he only brought it to the fore at the last second. Durza's eyes widened and he started pivoting on his front foot, fear clearly etched into his eyes. Eragon's clenched teeth became a snarl of frustration as his blade missed the Shade's heart and only succeeded in scoring a large gash underneath the Shade's left armpit. Eragon noticed that the Shade did not bleed, although the flesh was red enough. Durza hissed in pain and his right arm descended, sword whistling through the air. Eragon increased the fluidity of his mental attack, taking the stray thoughts of the whispers in the Shade's mind and tying them together. Durza staggered and his arm slackened momentarily as he fought to overcome his momentary lack of coordination. That was all the time Eragon needed to get out of the way, pivot on his left foot, reverse his grip on his right knife and stab upwards. This time there was a grunt from Durza and Eragon knew he had succeeded in puncturing the Shade's right lung. He took too long to implement his next move, though and the next thing he knew he was flying through the air again. This time he knew something broke, although he couldn't tell what it was.

"Very … good … Wraith," Durza panted, pain evident in his voice. He muttered some words Eragon couldn't catch and there was a short pause before he resumed speaking. "Usually humans are so weak that I felt I could take it easy with you. Apparently this does not apply to you. My master wants you alive but I think I will toy with you instead."

Durza smiled then, his sharp teeth gleaming in the dark forest. Eragon couldn't help but lose hope.

So this is how it ends, he thought. Eleven years of struggle and this is where I die. It wasn't a long life but it was very productive. I have done what I can. The rest is up to you, Brom

"Oh no, don't tell me you're giving up already," Durza purred. "We have still to begin the true fun."

Eragon eyed the Shade flatly. Their minds had disconnected when the Shade had sent him flying, and now due to his injuries he could no longer afford to risk opening his mind or else the Shade would take it over. There was only one thing he could do, and that to take his own life. The secrets within his mind would expose many of the Varden's secrets, secrets the Varden would never survive getting revealed. He was glad to see the prospect did not fill him with fear. He would hate to go to the Halls reeking of fear. Eragon carefully loosed all expression and emotion from his face. He only had one shot at it. One knife aimed at the elf five feet away from him, straight through the ear and into the brain. He would stab himself in the ear too. It was the best way to make sure the Shade did not heal them. That way no information would get compromised.

"Why are you doing this?" Eragon asked, stalling for time. He needed the Shade to think he was still willing to fight. "You are human, albeit one inhabited by spirits. Surely you cannot support Galbatorix's tyranny."

"In that, I have no choice, Wraith," Durza said with a scowl. "The master has now become the servant. Galbatorix is too powerful for me; he has bonded me to his service." Durza's eyes gained a gleam. "Still, I have access to all the resources I desire to carry on my experiments into magic. I might not be free but I am content."

Eragon was now in position. "I expected better from you," Eragon said with all the haughtiness he could muster. He intended to die with maximum effect. Durza's face gained an angry sneer.

"What would you know-" Eragon had been getting ready to use his poniards but something caught his attention. His mouth hung open in shock as he watched the vanar launch itself from a tree branch, silent as shadow, and attack the Shade. Durza turned around a second too late and got a face full of razor sharp talons and teeth. He howled in pain, staggered around trying to pull the vanar off him before he fell on to one knee. Eragon did not waste any time. He lined up his shot. He only had seconds at best. He took a calming breath before throwing his knife. It flew end over end and just as it was about to puncture through the back and into Durza's heart, Durza leaned back as he finally managed to pull the vanar off him. His howl of triumph turned into a howl of fury as the poniard pierced the top of his head and came out just under his chin. Eragon did not have the energy to curse. So close and yet so far. Durza's howl was cut short as he Dissipated into a cloud of black shadow that rose into the night sky and disappeared from view.

"Well, that was clo-"

Eragon fell to the ground as pain so great wracked his body that he couldn't even breathe. The elixir of energy. It was finally taking its toll. His vision went white and he distantly heard his body hit the soft forest floor.

His final thought before darkness took him was, so close and yet so far