To keep himself from brooding over Arya, Eragon took Orik’s puzzle ring from his nightstand and rolled it between his fingers, marveling at how keen his senses had become. He could feel every flaw in the twisted metal. As he studied the ring, he perceived a pattern in the arrangement of the gold bands, a pattern that had escaped him before. Trusting his instinct, he manipulated the bands in the sequence suggested by his observation. To his delight, the eight pieces fit together perfectly, forming a solid whole. He slid the ring onto the fourth finger of his right hand, admiring how the woven bands caught the light.
You could not do that before, observed Saphira from the bowl in the floor where she slept.
I can see many things that were once hidden to me.
Eragon went to the wash closet and performed his morning ablutions, including removing the stubble from his cheeks with a spell. Despite the fact that he now closely resembled an elf, he had retained the ability to grow a beard.
Orik was waiting for them when Eragon and Saphira arrived at the sparring field. His eyes brightened as Eragon lifted his hand and displayed the completed puzzle ring. “You solved it, then!”
“It took me longer than I expected,” said Eragon, “but yes. Are you here to practice as well?”
“Eh. I already got in a bit o’ ax work with an elf who took a rather fiendish delight in cracking me over the head. No…I came to watch you fight.”
“You’ve seen me fight before,” pointed out Eragon.
“Not for a while, I haven’t.”
“You mean you’re curious to see how I’ve changed.” Orik shrugged in response.
Vanir approached from across the field. He cried, “Are you ready, Shadeslayer?” The elf’s condescending demeanor had lessened since their last duel before the Agaetí Blödhren, but not by much.
Eragon and Vanir squared off against each other in an open area of the field. Emptying his mind, Eragon grasped and drew Zar’roc as fast as he could. To his surprise, the sword felt as if it weighed no more than a willow wand. Without the expected resistance, Eragon’s arm snapped straight, tearing the sword from his hand and sending it whirling twenty yards to his right, where it buried itself in the trunk of a pine tree.
“Can you not even hold on to your blade, Rider?” demanded Vanir.
“I apologize, Vanir-vodhr,” gasped Eragon. He clutched his elbow, rubbing the bruised joint to lessen the pain. “I misjudged my strength.”
“See that it does not happen again.” Going to the tree, Vanir gripped Zar’roc’s hilt and tried to pull the sword free. The weapon remained motionless. Vanir’s eyebrows met as he frowned at the unyielding crimson blade, as if he suspected some form of trickery. Bracing himself, the elf heaved backward and, with the crack of wood, yanked Zar’roc out of the pine.
Eragon accepted the sword from Vanir and hefted Zar’roc, troubled by how light it was. Something’s wrong, he thought.
“Take your place!”
This time it was Vanir who initiated the fight. In a single bound, he crossed the distance between them and thrust his blade toward Eragon’s right shoulder. To Eragon, it seemed as if the elf moved slower than usual, as if Vanir’s reflexes had been reduced to the level of a human’s. It was easy for Eragon to deflect Vanir’s sword, blue sparks flying from the metal as their blades grated against one another.
Vanir landed with an astonished expression. He struck again, and Eragon evaded the sword by leaning back, like a tree swaying in the wind. In quick succession, Vanir rained a score of heavy blows upon Eragon, each of which Eragon dodged or blocked, using Zar’roc’s sheath as often as the sword to foil Vanir’s onslaught.
Eragon soon realized that the spectral dragon from the Agaetí Blödhren had done more than alter his appearance; it had also granted him the elves’ physical abilities. In strength and speed, Eragon now matched even the most athletic elf.
Fired by that knowledge and a desire to test his limits, Eragon jumped as high as he could. Zar’roc flashed crimson in the sunlight as he flew skyward, soaring more than ten feet above the ground before he flipped like an acrobat and came down behind Vanir, facing the direction from which he had started.
A fierce laugh erupted from Eragon. No more was he helpless before elves, Shades, and other creatures of magic. No more would he suffer the elves’ contempt. No more would he have to rely on Saphira or Arya to rescue him from enemies like Durza.
He charged Vanir, and the field rang with a furious din as they strove against each other, raging back and forth upon the trampled grass. The force of their blows created gusts of wind that whipped their hair into tangled disarray. Overhead, the trees shook and dropped their needles. The duel lasted long into the morning, for even with Eragon’s newfound skill, Vanir was still a formidable opponent. But in the end, Eragon would not be denied. Playing Zar’roc in a circle, he darted past Vanir’s guard and struck him upon the upper arm, breaking the bone.
Vanir dropped his blade, his face turning white with shock. “How swift is your sword,” he said, and Eragon recognized the famous line from The Lay of Umhodan.
“By the gods!” exclaimed Orik. “That was the best swordsmanship I’ve ever seen, and I was there when you fought Arya in Farthen Dûr.”
Then Vanir did what Eragon had never expected: the elf twisted his uninjured hand in the gesture of fealty, placed it upon his sternum, and bowed. “I beg your pardon for my earlier behavior, Eragon-elda. I thought that you had consigned my race to the void, and out of my fear I acted most shamefully. However, it seems that your race no longer endangers our cause.” In a grudging voice, he added: “You are now worthy of the title Rider.”
Eragon bowed in return. “You honor me. I’m sorry that I injured you so badly. Will you allow me to heal your arm?”
“No, I shall let nature tend to it at her own pace, as a memento that I once crossed blades with Eragon Shadeslayer. You needn’t fear that it will disrupt our sparring tomorrow; I am equally good with my left hand.”
They both bowed again, and then Vanir departed.
Orik slapped a hand on his thigh and said, “Now we have a chance at victory, a real chance! I can feel it in my bones. Bones like stone, they say. Ah, this’ll please Hrothgar and Nasuada to no end.”
Eragon kept his peace and concentrated on removing the block from Zar’roc’s edges, but he said to Saphira, If brawn were all that was required to depose Galbatorix, the elves would have done it long ago. Still, he could not help being pleased by his heightened prowess, as well as by his long-awaited reprieve from the torment of his back. Without the constant bursts of pain, it was as if a haze had been lifted from his mind, allowing him to think clearly once again.
A few minutes remained before they were supposed to meet with Oromis and Glaedr, so Eragon took his bow and quiver from where they hung on Saphira’s back and walked to the range where elves practiced archery. Since the elves’ bows were much more powerful than his, their padded targets were both too small and too far away for him. He had to shoot from halfway down the range.
Taking his place, Eragon nocked an arrow and slowly pulled back the string, delighted by how easy it had become. He aimed, released the arrow, and held his position, waiting to see if he would hit his mark. Like a maddened hornet, the dart buzzed toward the target and buried itself in the center. He grinned. Again and again, he fired at the target, his speed increasing with his confidence until he loosed thirty arrows in a minute.
At the thirty-first arrow, he pulled on the string slightly harder than he had ever done—or was capable of doing—before. With an explosive report, the yew bow broke in half underneath his left hand, scratching his fingers and discharging a burst of splinters from the back of the bow. His hand went numb from the jolt.
Eragon stared at the remains of his weapon, dismayed by the loss. Garrow had made it as a birthday present for him over three years ago. Since then, hardly a week went by when Eragon had not used his bow. It had helped him to provi
de food for his family on numerous occasions when they would have otherwise gone hungry. With it, he had killed his first deer. With it, he had killed his first Urgal. And through it, he had first used magic. Losing his bow was like losing an old friend who could be relied upon in even the worst situation.
Saphira sniffed the two pieces of wood dangling from his grip and said, It seems you need a new stick thrower. He grunted—in no mood to talk—and stomped out to retrieve his arrows.
From the open field, he and Saphira flew to the white Crags of Tel’naeír and presented themselves to Oromis, who was seated on a stool in front of his hut, gazing out over the cliff with his farseeing eyes. He said, “Have you entirely recovered, Eragon, from the potent magic of the Blood-oath Celebration?”
“I have, Master.”
A long silence followed as Oromis drank from a cup of blackberry tea and resumed contemplating the ancient forest. Eragon waited without complaint; he was used to such pauses when dealing with the old Rider. At length, Oromis said, “Glaedr explained to me, as best he could, what was done to you during the celebration. Such a thing has never before occurred in the history of the Riders…. Once again, the dragons have proved themselves capable of far more than we imagined.” He sipped his tea. “Glaedr was uncertain exactly what changes you would experience, so I would like you to describe the full extent of your transformation, including your appearance.”
Eragon quickly summarized how he had been altered, detailing the increased sensitivity of his sight, smell, hearing, and touch, and ending with an account of his clash with Vanir.
“And how,” asked Oromis, “do you feel about this? Do you resent that your body was manipulated without your permission?”
“No, no! Not at all. I might have resented it before the battle of Farthen Dûr, but now I’m just grateful that my back doesn’t hurt anymore. I would have willingly submitted myself to far greater changes in order to escape Durza’s curse. No, my only response is gratitude.”
Oromis nodded. “I am glad that you are wise enough to take that position, for your gift is worth more than all the gold in the world. With it, I believe that our feet are at last set upon the correct path.” Again, he sipped his tea. “Let us proceed. Saphira, Glaedr expects you at the Stone of Broken Eggs. Eragon, you will begin today with the third level of Rimgar, if you can. I would know everything you are capable of.”
Eragon started toward the square of tamped earth where they usually performed the Dance of Snake and Crane, then hesitated when the silver-haired elf remained behind. “Master, won’t you join me?”
A sad smile graced Oromis’s face. “Not today, Eragon. The spells required by the Blood-oath Celebration exacted a heavy toll from me. That and my…condition. It took the last of my strength to come sit outside.”
“I am sorry, Master.” Does he resent that the dragons didn’t choose to heal him as well? wondered Eragon. He immediately discounted the thought; Oromis would never be so petty.
“Do not be. It is no fault of yours that I am crippled.”
As Eragon struggled to complete the third level of the Rimgar, it became obvious that he still lacked the elves’ balance and flexibility, two attributes that even the elves had to work to acquire. In a way, he welcomed those limitations, for if he were perfect, what would be left for him to accomplish?
The following weeks were difficult for Eragon. On one hand, he made enormous progress with his training, mastering subject after subject that had once confounded him. He still found Oromis’s lessons challenging, but he no longer felt as if he were drowning in a sea of his own inadequacy. It was easier for Eragon to read and write, and his increased strength meant that he could now cast elven spells that required so much energy, they would kill any normal human. His strength also made him aware of how weak Oromis was compared to other elves.
And yet, despite those accomplishments, Eragon experienced a growing sense of discontent. No matter how hard he tried to forget Arya, every day that passed increased his yearning, an agony made worse by knowing that she did not want to see or talk with him. But more than that, it seemed to him as if an ominous storm was gathering beyond the edge of the horizon, a storm that threatened to break at any moment and sweep across the land, devastating everything in its path.
Saphira shared his unease. She said, The world is stretched thin, Eragon. Soon it will snap and madness will burst forth. What you feel is what we dragons feel and what the elves feel—the inexorable march of grim fate as the end of our age approaches. Weep for those who will die in the chaos that shall consume Alagaësia. And hope that we may win a brighter future by the strength of your sword and shield and my fangs and talons.
VISIONS NEAR AND FAR
The day came when Eragon went to the glade beyond Oromis’s hut, seated himself on the polished white stump in the center of the mossy hollow, and—when he opened his mind to observe the creatures around him—sensed not just the birds, beasts, and insects but also the plants of the forest.
The plants possessed a different type of consciousness than animals: slow, deliberate, and decentralized, but in their own way just as cognizant of their surroundings as Eragon himself was. The faint pulse of the plants’ awareness bathed the galaxy of stars that wheeled behind his eyes—each bright spark representing a life—in a soft, omnipresent glow. Even the most barren soil teemed with organisms; the land itself was alive and sentient.
Intelligent life, he concluded, existed everywhere.
As Eragon immersed himself in the thoughts and feelings of the beings around him, he was able to attain a state of inner peace so profound that, during that time, he ceased to exist as an individual. He allowed himself to become a nonentity, a void, a receptacle for the voices of the world. Nothing escaped his attention, for his attention was focused on nothing.
He was the forest and its inhabitants.
Is that what a god feels like? wondered Eragon when he returned to himself.
He left the glade, sought out Oromis in his hut, and knelt before the elf, saying, “Master, I have done as you told me to. I listened until I heard no more.”
Oromis paused in his writing and, with a thoughtful expression, looked at Eragon. “Tell me.” For an hour and a half, Eragon waxed eloquent about every aspect of the plants and animals that populated the glade, until Oromis raised his hand and said, “I am convinced; you heard all there was to hear. But did you understand it all?”
“That is as it should be. Comprehension will come with age…. Well done, Eragon-finiarel. Well done indeed. If you were my student in Ilirea, before Galbatorix rose to power, you would have just graduated from your apprenticeship and would be considered a full member of our order and accorded the same rights and privileges as even the oldest Riders.” Oromis pushed himself up out of his chair and then remained standing in place, swaying. “Lend me your shoulder, Eragon, and help me outside. My limbs betray my will.”
Hurrying to his master’s side, Eragon supported the elf’s slight weight as Oromis hobbled to the brook that rushed headlong toward the edge of the Crags of Tel’naeír. “Now that you have reached this stage in your education, I can teach you one of the greatest secrets of magic, a secret that even Galbatorix may not know. It is your best hope of matching his power.” The elf’s gaze sharpened. “What is the cost of magic, Eragon?”
“Energy. A spell costs the same amount of energy as it would to complete the task through mundane means.”
Oromis nodded. “And where does the energy come from?”
“The spellcaster’s body.”
“Does it have to?”
Eragon’s mind raced as he considered the awesome implications of Oromis’s question. “You mean it can come from other sources?”
“That is exactly what happens whenever Saphira assists you with a spell.”
“Yes, but she and I share a unique connection,” protested Eragon. “Our bond is the reason I can draw upon her strength. To do that with someone el
se, I would have to enter…” He trailed off as he realized what Oromis was driving at.
“You would have to enter the consciousness of the being—or beings—who was going to provide the energy,” said Oromis, completing Eragon’s thought. “Today you proved that you can do just that with even the smallest form of life. Now…” He stopped and pressed a hand against his chest as he coughed, then continued, “I want you to extract a sphere of water from the stream, using only the energy you can glean from the forest around you.”
As Eragon reached out to the nearby plants and animals, he felt Oromis’s mind brush against his own, the elf watching and judging his progress. Frowning with concentration, Eragon endeavored to eke the needed force from the environment and hold it within himself until he was ready to release the magic….
“Eragon! Do not take it from me! I am weak enough as is.”
Startled, Eragon realized that he had included Oromis in his search. “I’m sorry, Master,” he said, chastised. He resumed the process, careful to avoid draining the elf’s vitality, and when he was ready, commanded, “Up!”
Silent as the night, a sphere of water a foot wide rose from the brook until it floated at eye level across from Eragon. And while Eragon experienced the usual strain that results from intense effort, the spell itself caused him no fatigue.
The sphere was only in the air for a moment when a wave of death rolled through the smaller creatures Eragon was in contact with. A line of ants keeled over motionless. A baby mouse gasped and entered the void as it lost the strength to keep its heart beating. Countless plants withered and crumbled and became inert as dust.
Eragon flinched, horrified by what he had caused. Given his new respect for the sanctity of life, he found the crime appalling. What made it worse was that he was intimately linked with each being as it ceased to exist; it was as if he himself were dying over and over. He severed the flow of magic—letting the sphere of water splash across the ground—and then whirled on Oromis and growled, “You knew that would happen!”