Sorry about the wait. Fighting some serious real life issues right now.
Disclaimer: I don't own Inheritance Cycle, but at this point it's so not canon it barely even matters.
"Our envy of others devours us most of all." –Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
Chapter Fifty-three: Morlan's Son
An uneasy quiet had fallen over the ragged group of Riders. The easy camaraderie of the journey here was long gone, killed and buried down in the Vault of Souls. They traveled in uncomfortable silence now, the only sound wingbeats and dragons' sighs.
It's all his fault, Raltin thought rebelliously, eying Eragon Shadeslayer. We were all fine until we got ahold of him again.
Peace, Talon rumbled, looking back with one great dark eye. This was always the end to the journey. We knew it.
Doesn't mean I have to like it, Raltin thought.
He had actually begun to enjoy Arya and Murtagh, since they had passed the Lake of Mirrors. They were his friends now. They—even Murtagh—trusted him, and looked to him for advice and strength in battle.
It was a good feeling.
Before the cave, he had been too young and too angry to make solid friends. In the caves, he had been aloof and bitter. And during his time with the Varden, he had been even more aloof and bitter, because the son of Morzan controlled his every move. But on the journey here, something had changed.
I've started to like them, he realized. And he had. They had traded stories by the fire, fought together, feared together, faced down Death together. They were his friends, and now that Eragon was back, they weren't even giving him a second glance.
Jealousy swelled in his heart, and though he tried to hide it from Talon, he could not hide it from The Other.
Poor little creature, The Other laughed, slipping in amongst his thoughts. You are positively green with envy. What would your father say?
Leave me alone, Raltin said, trying to ignore the voice. He didn't know what The Other was. A spirit, probably, one of the many mysterious and powerful beings in this half of the world, but he knew that it was the same voice that had found him at the Lake of Mirrors and called him back, saving his life.
The Other had been with him ever since.
The Other came in dreams, sometimes, wrapped in mist and shade. He lived in the dark corners of Raltin's mind, feeding of the things buried there. He sang songs of murder and vengeance, whispered words of hatred, of disgust.
They weren't really your friends, The Other said. How could they be? They are liars and traitors the lot of them.
You're wrong, Raltin said.
Am I? Look at them. The elf betrayed her people. She was forbidden to go on this journey by her Queen, and yet she came anyway. She can't be trusted if she can't even obey her own mother. And Murtagh, Murtagh! How many times has he turned on his allies? First the Empire, then the Varden, and then the Empire again! If he follows this pattern, you're next, you know.
Stop it, Raltin hissed.
Why should I? I'm just saying what you know.
You're twisting it, he thought viciously. You're trying to turn me against them.
Turn you against them? Oh no, my dear boy, not at all. I'm trying to save you from them.
Save me? Raltin faltered.
Because I see everything, The Other said conspiratorially. Because I am that little whisper of envy you feel in your heart, I am that waver of uncertainty. I am the voice that calls your name at night, making the hairs on your neck stand up.
I see them when you do not, when you turn away to hear my voice. I see their fear, and their dislike. They don't trust you, Raltin. They think you are planning to betray them.
I am not!
I know that, The Other purred, but they don't. Imagine how it must look to them. You are quiet. You are withdrawn. You look into the distance at things they can't see, you listen to voices they can't hear. You've already threatened Murtagh once. I don't imagine that he's forgotten it.
You're lying, said Raltin, but he'd noticed those things too. He had noticed how Murtagh didn't always look him in the eye, how he tightened his hand on Zar'roc now and then. He'd seen how Arya always watched him, warily, like he was a wild animal preparing to pounce.
His heart hurt.
They're my friends, he said, trying to make himself believe it. They're my friends, they wouldn't hurt me.
You think they're your friends? The Other laughed. Tell me, child, why did they even bring you along in the first place? You're not the fastest Rider, or the smartest, or the strongest, or the most skilled. What can you do that an elf could not? That Morzan's son could not? That Erik or Vé or Lovissa could not?
Raltin tried to ignore the voice. Not real, he chanted to himself. Not real, not real, not real.
Real, The Other countered. Why did they bring you on this journey? Not because they needed you, but because Murtagh could not trust you on your own. He thought you were too dangerous to be left with the others. He brought you along to keep an eye on you, like a badly-behaved dog.
But The Other was telling the truth, Raltin knew he was. The Other knew everything—The Other was everywhere.
Am I? asked The Other sweetly. Look into your heart. You know it to be true.
Lying! Raltin cried, and it was in a high, keening wail of despair. Beneath him, Talon shifted, his eyes clouding, blurring, going dim. The young Rider was so distressed that he did not notice the magic creeping over him, heavy and dark.
I am not, said The Other. Face it, Raltin. I am your only friend. I'm the only one who's been there for you since your father died. I am the only one who loves you.
Not even he, laughed the voice. Why would he? He hatched for you, but you are nothing like he needs. He doesn't need a failure like you. A dragon like Talon needs a glorious Rider, one who is every inch as fierce as he is. And what are you? A weakling, too cowardly to even avenge his father's murder!
Never, hissed The Other. I will never stop, not until you open your eyes and see what is true!
You're lying to me, Raltin moaned, not noticing the ice that was creeping into his heart, splinters driven by magic and his own insecurities. Talon was already lost, his mind blanketed under the fog of The Other's spell and his own Rider's grief.
The great indigo dragon twitched, fire rising in his belly that he had no control over.
Am I? said The Other again, tenderly, his voice laced with false concern. The strength of the spell grew, pulling Raltin under. Perhaps we should test my theory, mm?
Raltin wasn't aware of his own hands moving, a spell forming at his lips. He wasn't aware of the rising tide of his own power, swelling beyond his control, or the way every muscle in Talon's neck went taught, ready to spit fire.
He wasn't aware of anything at all but the sudden sharp, outraged cry, and Murtagh spinning to throw fire at him without pause.
No! he cried, because he did not see the fire his own hands cast or the way Talon's teeth were bared in a challenge, aimed for Eragon's head. No, no!
You see, said The Other, they don't love you. They want to kill you.
Arya turned on Raltin too, her own magic screaming past his ears. She drew blood with air sharper than a knife, red beading and dripping down his face
No, Raltin cried, a hollow, cracked sound, and The Other's spell rose up, and swallowed him whole.
There was something wrong with Raltin.
It was hard to notice at first, because Raltin was difficult to read normally, but the harder Arya looked, the more obvious it became.
Something was wrong with him.
Arya usually didn't pay much attention to the indigo Rider. After the lake, his harsh, threatening edge had faded as he accepted them as companions and clan-mates, and she had even begun to enjoy his stories around the campfire and his dry, biting wit whenever he and Murtagh dissolved into a friendly argument.
He would have been a good elf, she thought. Passion ran deep within him, as it did with all elves, though he rarely showed it. He had a great respect for the natural world and a fascination for magic. He seemed highly skeptical of things Murtagh believed easily, and searched for spirits to speak with.
He was interesting.
But now, after nearly a month, the hard, sharp edge was back, sliding against the reaches of Arya's awareness like a sour note, black magic or blood in the water.
It made her uncomfortable.
And now, with Eragon—Eragon, who was dead and is now alive again, warm and real and curled in her thoughts sleepily—pressed against her back, she was twice as aware of danger, and Raltin felt dangerous.
She watched his face and saw the anguish in his eyes, the despair that grew and grew until something that felt like Galbatorix slipped into them and killed the light. She saw his face slacken, and his hand curl into a fist around his sword.
She saw magic begin in his fingertips, and fire in his dragon's jaws.
Murtagh! she shouted, and threw up a shield without even thinking.
A percussive spell crashed against the shield a split second later, cracking the air, and Faolin bellowed, startled.
Get down! Arya urged her dragon, and to Eragon she said, Hang on.
Faolin rolled, corkscrewing above Talon, who surged forward, forcing his thick-set body through the shield and after her smaller dragon, blasting a jet of dark fire and clawing at Faolin's tail.
Murtagh! What's happening?
I don't know, the red Rider said grimly, as Thorn roared in fury and descended on Talon with his claws outstretched.
Thorn dug into the smaller dragon's hindquarters, bearing down on Raltin furiously, trying to pin them in place.
Talon struggled, roaring, and turned his fire on Murtagh. Raltin added his own spell, a punch of compressed air that Murtagh had to throw up a shield to deflect, losing the spell on his own lips.
Raltin! the older Rider shouted. My brother! What are you doing?
Raltin's thoughts were seething, a mess that Arya couldn't identify, black magic and hurt and wild fury, directed into magic and an anger that roared and tore holes in Arya's mind. She recoiled, sensing sickness, and called to her own magic.
What's happening? Eragon asked, rousing from his half-sleep and casting his own mind out. Why is he attacking us?
I don't know, Arya said, the anger at Raltin's sudden betrayal overtaking her friendship with the man. She threw a fire spell, green light flashing, that singed Raltin's hands and Talon's hands, but neither dragon nor Rider slowed down, turning with claw and sword outstretched to fight with Murtagh.
Murtagh drew Zar'roc in a fluid movement, the scarred blade screaming, and called for lightning. The sword buzzed, slicing easily through dragonflesh, splattering blood onto the ground below.
Raltin! Stop this! Murtagh boomed, his thoughts white-hot with fury, and Thorn roared, fire cooking in his throat.
Raltin bared his teeth, entirely inhuman, and brought his sword crashing down to meet Zar'roc. Talon howled his own challenge, and the dragons dueled fiercely, tooth and claw and fire. Thorn's maimed tail thrashed, battering Talon's chest, and the long, long fangs for which he was named flashed. He tried again and again to get those teeth into Talon's shoulders, trying desperately to slow his wing-brother down without killing him.
Murtagh, too, was trying to avoid fatal blows. He lashed out with Zar'roc expertly when he could, deflecting Raltin's own blade and drawing thin, painful cuts at Raltin's shoulders and elbows, attempting to cause enough pain so that Raltin stopped.
The indigo Rider showed no signs of stopping. He and his dragon both pushed through the pain with inhuman focus, almost as if they couldn't feel it. Every cut Murtagh drew was ignored—Raltin simply swung harder. And every time Thorn landed a blow or a bite, Talon bit and scratched and blew fire back, forcing Thorn to let go and dodge or risk serious injury.
The two rolled over and over again, swords clashing and dragons slamming into each other with mountain-moving force, and Arya threw in magic where she could, aiming fire and sending healing to her clan-mates.
Can you two immobilize him? Eragon asked, his eyes serious and his intent heavy. Between the two of you, can you hold him?
Yes, said Arya.
Aye, Murtagh agreed, voice tense in concentration. Give me a moment to put some distance between us.
Thorn rolled, sweeping his wings up to gain valuable height over Talon. He kept rising, avoiding Talon at every turn, and managed to cut a sharp corner, swinging his massive bulk around and putting a hundred feet of space between himself and the darker, smaller dragon.
Now, Eragon said, and Arya and Murtagh shouted the spell in unison, casting their combined power over Raltin and Talon like a net.
It was harder than she would have expected. Murtagh had immobilized the pair by himself before, and held them like that, and she had more magic than he. It shouldn't be as difficult as it was to hold them, but they fought, seeking a purchase in the spell.
Something's wrong, Murtagh said tightly. Beads of sweat appeared at his temples and he breathed heavily, holding the spell with effort. He's stronger than he should be. His magic is wrong.
Now that Raltin was suspended in the air, unable to move more than a few inches in any direction, Arya could see him clearly, and she understood what Murtagh meant.
There was something deeply, deeply wrong with him. Something had happened to him, in his heart, his mind. Arya could feel it living there like cold fingers, hard and unyielding.
He's magicked, Eragon said, his brow furrowed. He's under a spell.
Galbatorix's? Arya asked, her blood chilling. Could the Black King really reach them out here? Did his reach really extend that far? Did he know, now, that Eragon was alive again, than his greatest triumph was undone?
Arya hoped he knew. She hoped that he knew and that he was afraid. That he was shivering in terror, in horror, because Eragon was alive and the Dragon Riders were coming for him.
No, Murtagh said, teeth bared in an effort to hold the spell. No, it's someone else.
Eragon frowned, and Arya could feel him shifting deeper, searching the depths of Raltin's mind. He's still in there, the blue Rider said. Raltin is still there, but he's—he's angry. He thinks that you've betrayed him. He keeps calling for someone called The Other.
A spirit, maybe? Murtagh said. We were warned that we might attract spirits, and not all of them kind ones. We learned that at the Lake of Mirrors.
Why just Raltin, though? Arya murmured. Why did they chose him?
Because he is weakened by his hatred, Eragon said softly. I can feel it. He still carries the hurts of his past. This Other found an opening.
I can understand that, Murtagh said, and for a moment his thoughts flashed to fire, and bright eyes and teeth and a terrible voice inside himself. Eragon recognized this voice and shuddered. So what do we do? Kill him?
No, Eragon said forcefully. We just have to break the spell.
How? Arya asked. You've said it yourself, he has a weakness in him. One that the spirits or whomever so desires can use against him, can turn into a weapon. Do we really want an ally like that? You both know Galbatorix, and what he does. He'll smell Raltin's weakness and turn him against us in a heartbeat.
Thorn, bleeding heavily from a wound near his throat, growled thinly. He agreed with Arya.
Faolin whined. But they're our friends, he said. Our wing-brothers. We trust them.
Can we? Murtagh said, bitterly. Arya felt betrayal coil in his heart, hard and heavy. She echoed the feeling. I know it's a spirit controlling him, but he had to have that thought in his heart to begin with. He had to have that jealousy, that hatred, otherwise that wouldn't have been a weakness. He's already said that he hates me. He's threatened my life before.
Everyone deserves a second chance, Eragon said stubbornly. Raltin is not himself. He's proven his intentions, hasn't he? He could have killed you both on the journey, but he chose not to. He chose to trust you.
And now he's trying to kill us, Arya pointed out.
We can break the spell, Eragon repeated, unyieldingly. He came here. He helped you rescue me. I can't repay him by taking his life.
It wouldn't have to hurt, Murtagh said gently. We can make it painless. We can make it easy for them.
So this is the price for his help? Eragon said. This is how we thank him?
I could make it hurt, Murtagh snapped. I could make it hurt like a traitor's death should hurt. I could make it slow, and excruciating, as our punishments have been slow and excruciating.
Thorn snarled in agreement, and Faolin made a distressed sound.
It's alright, my little one, Arya soothed him tiredly. This is the way of the world.
I don't like it, her dragon said.
Unhappiness bubbled from Eragon, coupled with memories of gray, gray Death and what he learned there. You were a traitor once too, he pointed out. And the Varden could have slain you when you returned to them, but they did not. Galbatorix, even, could have killed you, and he chose not to. If the Black King can show a mercy, however cruel, can't you?
That's not fair, Murtagh snarled, but he was giving in, Arya could feel it. She looked at Eragon with new eyes. When had he gotten so persuasive?
Everyone deserves a second chance, the man said firmly. We can break the spell, and bring Raltin to our side. The Other lied to him, and used what he feared against him. We shouldn't punish him for it.
Arya felt Murtagh relent, and cursed. Very well, she agreed reluctantly. But I am going to place restrictions on his magic, until we're sure we can trust him again. This I will not bend on.
I agree with Arya, Murtagh added staunchly. She almost smiled. It seemed that she had earned a loyal supporter. Strange, how things like that happened. Three months ago, she entertained dreams of killing the red Rider. We let him live, but not without precautions.
That seems fair, Eragon agreed. How do you want to go about this?
Layer by layer, Murtagh suggested. We pull this Other out wherever we find him.
Very well, Eragon said. Can you hold him?
All day, if we must, Arya said, and Murtagh echoed her fierce declaration. They redoubled their efforts, tightening their grip on the shimmering spell even as Raltin and Talon fought harder, straining against them.
Eragon set to work. Slowly he began to work through Raltin's mind, his lips forming the words to break barriers, to snap bonds. Raltin's face gradually grayed, and some of the violence in his eyes went out. The black, strong fingers in his mind fought for a purchase and were carefully driven back.
Raltin, Eragon called strongly, casting the full weight of his power behind it. Raltin, come back!
The indigo Rider's eyes widened, and Talon's struggles ceased. They hung limply in the combined spell, breath coming rapidly, and Arya felt the weight of memories—a village burning down, the death of parents, the oath in the wilderness, father, father, I will avenge you, the hatred towards Murtagh, who came like a hero when he was nothing more than the bastard son of a monster—tearing at Raltin, trying to blot out the good things, Talon's hatching, the acceptance of the other Riders, the stories around the fire and Murtagh's easy affection, once you knew that his surliness was little more than an act.
No, Arya said, and added her own memories to Eragon's work. She slipped in her amusement at Raltin's dry humor, his exasperation with Thorn's childishness, his secret fondness for the way Faolin loved to fly. She showed him her respect for him, for snapping his Rider-bond without pause for a man he barely knew and didn't love. She gave him her belief that he could be a good man.
Raltin stirred. Help me, he said, he cried, his mind alight with fear, and then the dark fingers became a roaring maw, The Other screaming in fury, and a sudden flare of power—more than one spirit, then, there were at least two, and something that felt terribly like a trapped Eldunarí—shattered Arya and Murtagh's spell, and Talon, screaming like his heart was being torn out, raced into the sky faster than they could catch him again.
Murtagh swore violently. Arya echoed his sentiment. What are we going to do? she snarled.
Chase him, of course, Eragon said, a fury shining in his dark eyes. His mind boiled.
Murtagh paused. Was it just me, he said slowly, or did The Other feel an awful lot like Tariku?
Next bit soon, hopefully.