THE OBLITERATOR

The following morn, Eragon went looking for Arya in order to apologize. He searched for over an hour without success. It seemed as if she had vanished among the many hidden nooks within Ellesm?ra. He caught a glimpse of her once as he paused by the entrance to Tialdar? Hall and called out to her, but she slipped away before he could reach her side. She’s avoiding me, he finally realized.

As the days rolled by, Eragon embraced Oromis’s training with a zeal that the elder Rider praised, devoting himself to his studies in order to distract himself from thoughts of Arya.

Night and day, Eragon strove to master his lessons. He memorized the words of making, binding, and summoning; learned the true names of plants and animals; and studied the perils of transmutation, how to call upon the wind and the sea, and the myriad skills needed to understand the forces of the world. At spells that dealt with the great energies — such as light, heat, and magnetism — he excelled, for he possessed the talent to judge nigh exactly how much strength a task required and whether it would exceed that of his body.

Occasionally, Orik would come and watch, standing without comment by the edge of the clearing while Oromis tutored Eragon, or while Eragon struggled alone with a particularly difficult spell.

Oromis set many challenges before him. He had Eragon cook meals with magic, in order to teach him finer control of his gramarye; Eragon’s first attempts resulted in a blackened mess. The elf showed Eragon how to detect and neutralize poisons of every sort and, from then on, Eragon had to inspect his food for the different venoms Oromis was liable to slip into it. More than once Eragon went hungry when he could not find the poison or was unable to counteract it. Twice he became so sick, Oromis had to heal him. And Oromis had Eragon cast multiple spells simultaneously, which required tremendous concentration to keep the spells directed at their intended targets and prevent them from shifting among the items Eragon wanted to affect.

Oromis devoted long hours to the craft of imbuing matter with energy, either to be released at a later time or to give an object certain attributes. He said, “This is how Rhun?n charmed the Riders’ swords so they never break or dull; how we sing plants into growing as we desire; how a trap might be set in a box, only to be triggered when the box is opened; how we and the dwarves make the Erisdar, our lanterns; and how you may heal one who is injured, to name but a few uses. These are the most potent of spells, for they can lie dormant for a thousand years or more and are difficult to perceive or avert. They permeate much of Alaga?sia, shaping the land and the destiny of those who live here.”

Eragon asked, “You could use this technique to alter your body, couldn’t you? Or is that too dangerous?”

Oromis’s lips quirked in a faint smile. “Alas, you have stumbled upon elves’ greatest weakness: our vanity. We love beauty in all its forms, and we seek to represent that ideal in our appearance. That is why we are known as the Fair Folk. Every elf looks exactly as he or she wishes to. When elves learn the spells for growing and molding living things, they often choose to modify their appearance to better reflect their personalities. A few elves have gone beyond mere aesthetic changes and altered their anatomy to adapt to various environments, as you will see during the Blood-oath Celebration. Oftentimes, they are more animal than elf.

“However, transferring power to a living creature is different from transferring power to an inanimate object. Very few materials are suitable for storing energy; most either allow it to dissipate or become so charged with force that when you touch the object, a bolt of lightning drives through you. The best materials we have found for this purpose are gemstones. Quartz, agates, and other lesser stones are not as efficient as, say, a diamond, but any gem will suffice. That is why Riders’ swords always have a jewel set in their pommels. It is also why your dwarf necklace — which is entirely metal — must sap your strength to fuel its spell, since it can hold no energy of its own.”

When not with Oromis, Eragon supplemented his education by reading the many scrolls the elf gave him, a habit he soon became addicted to. Eragon’s rearing — limited as it was by Garrow’s scant tutelage — had exposed him only to the knowledge needed to run a farm. The information he discovered on the miles of paper flooded into him like rain on parched desert, sating a previously unknown thirst. He devoured texts on geography, biology, anatomy, philosophy, and mathematics, as well as memoirs, biographies, and histories. More important than mere facts was his introduction to alternative ways of thinking. They challenged his beliefs and forced him to reexamine his assumptions about everything from the rights of an individual within society to what caused the sun to move across the sky.

He noticed that a number of scrolls concerned Urgals and their culture. Eragon read them and made no mention of it, nor did Oromis broach the topic.

From his studies, Eragon learned much about the elves, a subject that he avidly pursued, hoping that it would help him to better understand Arya. To his surprise, he discovered that the elves did not practice marriage, but rather took mates for however long they wanted, whether it be for a day or a century. Children were rare, and having a child was considered by the elves to be the ultimate vow of love.

Eragon also learned that since their two races had first met, only a handful of elf-human couples had existed: mainly human Riders who found appropriate mates among the elves. However, as best he could tell from the cryptic records, most such relationships ended in tragedy, either because the lovers were unable to relate to one another or because the humans aged and died while the elves escaped the ravages of time.

In addition to nonfiction, Oromis presented Eragon with copies of the elves’ greatest songs, poems, and epics, which captured Eragon’s imagination, for the only stories he was familiar with were the ones Brom had recited in Carvahall. He savored the epics as he might a well-cooked meal, lingering over The Deed of G?da or The Lay of Umhodan so as to prolong his enjoyment of the tales.

Saphira’s own training proceeded apace. Linked as he was to her mind, Eragon got to watch as Glaedr put her through an exercise regimen every bit as strenuous as his. She practiced hovering in the air while lifting boulders, as well as sprints, dives, and other acrobatics. To increase her endurance, Glaedr had her breathe fire for hours upon a natural stone pillar in an attempt to melt it. At first Saphira could only maintain the flames for a few minutes at a time, but before long the blistering torch roared from her maw for over a half hour uninterrupted, heating the pillar white-hot. Eragon was also privy to the dragon lore Glaedr imparted to Saphira, details about the dragons’ lives and history that complemented her instinctual knowledge. Much of it was incomprehensible to Eragon, and he suspected that Saphira concealed even more from him, secrets of her race that dragons shared with no one but themselves. One thing he did glean, and that Saphira treasured, was the name of her sire, Iorm?ngr, and her dam, Vervada, which meant Storm-cleaver in the old speech. While Iorm?ngr had been bound to a Rider, Vervada was a wild dragon who had laid many eggs but entrusted only one to the Riders: Saphira. Both dragons perished in the Fall.

Some days Eragon and Saphira would fly with Oromis and Glaedr, practicing aerial combat or visiting crumbling ruins hidden within Du Weldenvarden. Other days they would reverse the usual order of things, and Eragon would accompany Glaedr while Saphira remained on the Crags of Tel’nae?r with Oromis.

Each morning Eragon sparred with Vanir, which, without exception, ignited one or more of Eragon’s seizures. To make matters worse, the elf continued to treat Eragon with haughty condescension. He delivered oblique slights that, on the surface, never exceeded the bounds of politeness, and he refused to be drawn to anger no matter how Eragon needled him. Eragon hated him and his cool, mannered bearing. It seemed as if Vanir was insulting him with every movement. And Vanir’s companions — who, as best Eragon could tell, were of a younger generation of elves — shared his veiled distaste for Eragon, though they never displayed aught but respect for Saphira.

Their rivalry came to a head when, after defeating Eragon six times in a row, Vanir lowered his sword and said, “Dead yet again, Shadeslayer. How repetitive. Do you wish to continue?” His tone indicated that he thought it would be pointless.

“Aye,” grunted Eragon. He had already suffered an episode with his back and was in no mood to bandy words.

Still, when Vanir said, “Tell me, as I am curious: How did you kill Durza when you are so slow? I cannot fathom how you managed it,” Eragon felt compelled to reply: “I caught him by surprise.”

“Forgive me; I should have guessed trickery was involved.”

Eragon fought the impulse to grind his teeth. “If I were an elf or you a human, you would not be able to match my blade.”

“Perhaps,” said Vanir. He assumed his ready position and, within the span of three seconds and two blows, disarmed Eragon. “But I think not. You should not boast to a better swordsman, else he may decide to punish your temerity.”

Eragon’s temper broke then, and he reached deep within himself and into the torrent of magic. He released the pent-up energy with one of the twelve minor words of binding, crying “Malthinae!” to chain Vanir’s legs and arms in place and hold his jaw shut so that he could not utter a counterspell. The elf’s eyes bulged with outrage.

Eragon said, “And you should not boast to one who is more skilled in magic than you.”

Vanir’s dark eyebrows met.

Without warning or a whisper of a sound, an invisible force clouted Eragon on the chest and threw him ten yards across the grass, where he landed upon his side, driving the wind from his lungs. The impact disrupted Eragon’s control of the magic and freed Vanir.

How did he do that?

Advancing upon him, Vanir said, “Your ignorance betrays you, human. You do not know whereof you speak. To think that you were chosen to succeed Vrael, that you were given his quarters, that you have had the honor to serve the Mourning Sage…” He shook his head. “It sickens me that such gifts are bestowed upon one so unworthy. You do not even understand what magic is or how it works.”

Eragon’s anger resurged like a crimson tide. “What,” he said, “have I ever done to wrong you? Why do you despise me so? Would you prefer it if no Rider existed to oppose Galbatorix?”

“My opinions are of little consequence.”

“I agree, but I would hear them.”

“Listening, as Nuala wrote in Convocations, is the path to wisdom only when the result of a conscious decision and not a void of perception.”

“Straighten your tongue, Vanir, and give me an honest answer!”

Vanir smiled coldly. “As you command, O Rider.” Drawing near so that only Eragon could hear his soft voice, the elf said, “For eighty years after the fall of the Riders, we held no hope of victory. We survived by hiding ourselves through deceit and magic, which is but a temporary measure, for eventually Galbatorix will be strong enough to march upon us and sweep aside our defenses. Then, long after we had resigned ourselves to our fate, Brom and Jeod rescued Saphira’s egg, and once again a chance existed to defeat the foul usurper. Imagine our joy and celebration. We knew that in order to withstand Galbatorix, the new Rider had to be more powerful than any of his predecessors, more powerful than even Vrael. Yet how was our patience rewarded? With another human like Galbatorix. Worse… a cripple. You doomed us all, Eragon, the instant you touched Saphira’s egg. Do not expect us to welcome your presence.” Vanir touched his lips with his first and second finger, then sidestepped Eragon and walked off the sparring field, leaving Eragon rooted in place.

He’s right, thought Eragon. I’m ill suited for this task. Any of these elves, even Vanir, would make a better Rider than me.

Emanating outrage, Saphira broadened the contact between them. Do you think so little of my judgment, Eragon? You forget that when I was in my egg, Arya exposed me to each and every one of these elves — as well as many of the Varden’s children — and that I rejected them all. I wouldn’t have chosen someone to be my Rider unless they could help your race, mine, and the elves, for the three of us share an intertwined fate. You were the right person, at the right place, at the right time. Never forget that.

If ever that were true, he said, it was before Durza injured me. Now I see naught but darkness and evil in our future. I won’t give up, but I despair that we may not prevail. Perhaps our task is not to overthrow Galbatorix but to prepare the way for the next Rider chosen by the remaining eggs.

At the Crags of Tel’nae?r, Eragon found Oromis at the table in his hut, painting a landscape with black ink along the bottom edge of a scroll he had finished writing.

Eragon bowed and knelt. “Master.”

Fifteen minutes elapsed before Oromis finished limning the tufts of needles on a gnarled juniper tree, laid aside his ink, cleaned his sable brush with water from a clay pot, and then addressed Eragon, saying, “Why have you come so early?”

“I apologize for disturbing you, but Vanir abandoned our contest partway through and I did not know what to do with myself.”

“Why did Vanir leave, Eragon-vodhr?”

Oromis folded his hands in his lap while Eragon described the encounter, ending with: “I should not have lost control, but I did, and I looked all the more foolish because of it. I have failed you, Master.”

“You have,” agreed Oromis. “Vanir may have goaded you, but that was no reason to respond in kind. You must keep a better hold over your emotions, Eragon. It could cost you your life if you allow your temper to sway your judgment during battle. Also, such childish displays do nothing but vindicate those elves who are opposed to you. Our machinations are subtle and allow little room for such errors.”

“I am sorry, Master. It won’t happen again.”

As Oromis seemed content to wait in his chair until the time when they normally performed the Rimgar, Eragon seized the opportunity to ask, “How could Vanir have worked magic without speaking?”

“Did he? Perhaps another elf decided to assist him.”

Eragon shook his head. “During my first day in Ellesm?ra, I also saw Islanzad? summon a downpour of flowers by clapping her hands, nothing more. And Vanir said that I didn’t understand how magic works. What did he mean?”

“Once again,” said Oromis, resigned, “you grasp at knowledge that you are not prepared for. Yet, because of our circumstances, I cannot deny it to you. Only know this: that which you ask for was not taught to Riders — and is not taught to our magicians — until they had, and have, mastered every other aspect of magic, for this is the secret to the true nature of magic and the ancient language. Those who know it may acquire great power, yes, but at a terrible risk.” He paused for a moment. “How is the ancient language bound to magic, Eragon-vodhr?”

“The words of the ancient language can release the energy stored within your body and thus activate a spell.”

“Ah. Then you mean that certain sounds, certain vibrations in the air, somehow tap into this energy? Sounds that might be produced at random by any creature or thing?”

“Yes, Master.”

“Does not that seem absurd?”

Confused, Eragon said, “It doesn’t matter if it seems absurd, Master; it just is. Should I think it absurd that the moon wanes and waxes, or that the seasons turn, or that birds fly south in the winter?”

“Of course not. But how could mere sound do so much? Can particular patterns of pitch and volume really trigger reactions that allow us to manipulate energy?”

“But they do.”

“Sound has no control over magic. Saying a word or phrase in this language is not what’s important, it’s thinking them in this language.” With a flick of his wrist, a golden flame appeared over Oromis’s palm, then disappeared. “However, unless the need is dire, we still utter our spells out loud to prevent stray thoughts from disrupting them, which is a danger to even the most experienced magic user.”

The implications staggered Eragon. He thought back to when he almost drowned under the waterfall of the lake K?stha-m?rna and how he had been unable to access magic because of the water surrounding him. If I had known this then, I could have saved myself, he thought. “Master,” he said, “if sound does not affect magic, why, then, do thoughts?”

Now Oromis smiled. “Why indeed? I must point out that we ourselves are not the source of magic. Magic can exist on its own, independent of any spell, such as the werelights in the bogs by Aroughs, the dream well in Mani’s Caves in the Beor Mountains, and the floating crystal on Eoam. Wild magic such as this is treacherous, unpredictable, and often stronger than any we can cast.

“Eons ago, all magic was thus. To use it required nothing but the ability to sense magic with your mind — which every magician must possess — and the desire and strength to use it. Without the structure of the ancient language, magicians could not govern their talent and, as a result, loosed many evils upon the land, killing thousands. Over time they discovered that stating their intentions in their language helped them to order their thoughts and avoid costly errors. But it was no foolproof method. Eventually, an accident occurred so horrific that it almost destroyed every living being in the world. We know of the event from fragments of manuscripts that survived the era, but who or what cast the fatal spell is hidden from us. The manuscripts say that, afterward, a race called the Grey Folk — not elves, for we were young then — gathered their resources and wrought an enchantment, perhaps the greatest that was or ever shall be. Together the Grey Folk changed the nature of magic itself. They made it so that their language, the ancient language, could control what a spell does… could actually limit the magic so that if you said burn that door and by chance looked at me and thought of me, the magic would still burn the door, not me. And they gave the ancient language its two unique traits, the ability to prevent those who speak it from lying and the ability to describe the true nature of things. How they did this remains a mystery.

“The manuscripts differ on what happened to the Grey Folk when they completed their work, but it seems that the enchantment drained them of their power and left them but a shadow of themselves. They faded away, choosing to live in their cities until the stones crumbled to dust or to take mates among the younger races and so pass into darkness.”

“Then,” said Eragon, “it is still possible to use magic without the ancient language?”

“How do you think Saphira breathes fire? And, by your own account, she used no word when she turned Brom’s tomb to diamond nor when she blessed the child in Farthen D?r. Dragons’ minds are different from ours; they need no protection from magic. They cannot use it consciously, aside from their fire, but when the gift touches them, their strength is unparalleled… You look troubled, Eragon. Why?”

Eragon stared down at his hands. “What does this mean for me, Master?”

“It means that you will continue to study the ancient language, for you can accomplish much with it that would be too complex or too dangerous otherwise. It means that if you are captured and gagged, you can still call upon magic to free yourself, as Vanir did. It means that if you are captured and drugged and cannot recall the ancient language, yes, even then, you may cast a spell, though only in the gravest circumstances. And it means that if you would cast a spell for that which has no name in the ancient language, you can.” He paused. “But beware the temptation to use these powers. Even the wisest among us hesitate to trifle with them for fear of death or worse.”

The next morning, and every morning thereafter so long as he stayed in Ellesm?ra, Eragon dueled with Vanir, but he never lost his temper again, no matter what the elf did or said.

Nor did Eragon feel like devoting energy to their rivalry. His back pained him more and more frequently, driving him to the limits of his endurance. The debilitating attacks sensitized him; actions that previously had caused him no trouble could now leave him writhing on the ground. Even the Rimgar began to trigger the seizures as he advanced to more strenuous poses. It was not uncommon for him to suffer three or four such episodes in one day.

Eragon’s face grew haggard. He walked with a shuffle, his movements slow and careful as he tried to preserve his strength. It became hard for him to think clearly or to pay attention to Oromis’s lessons, and gaps began to appear in his memory that he could not account for. In his spare time, he took up Orik’s puzzle ring again, preferring to concentrate upon the baffling interlocked rings rather than his condition. When she was with him, Saphira insisted that he ride upon her back and did everything that she could to make him comfortable and to save him effort.

One morning, as he clung to a spike on her neck, Eragon said, I have a new name for pain.

What’s that?

The Obliterator. Because when you’re in pain, nothing else can exist. Not thought. Not emotion. Only the drive to escape the pain. When it’s strong enough, the Obliterator strips us of everything that makes us who we are, until we’re reduced to creatures less than animals, creatures with a single desire and goal: escape.

A good name, then.

I’m falling apart, Saphira, like an old horse that’s plowed too many fields. Keep hold of me with your mind, or I may drift apart and forget who I am.

I will never let go of you.

Soon afterward, Eragon fell victim to three bouts of agony while fighting Vanir and then two more during the Rimgar. As he uncurled from the clenched ball he had rolled into, Oromis said, “Again, Eragon. You must perfect your balance.”

Eragon shook his head and growled in an undertone, “No.” He crossed his arms to hide his tremors.

“What?”

“No.”

“Get up, Eragon, and try again.”

“No! Do the pose yourself; I won’t.”

Oromis knelt beside Eragon and placed a cool hand on his cheek. Holding it there, he gazed at Eragon with such kindness, Eragon understood the depth of the elf’s compassion for him, and that, if it were possible, Oromis would willingly assume Eragon’s pain to relieve his suffering. “Don’t abandon hope,” said Oromis. “Never that.” A measure of strength seemed to flow from him to Eragon. “We are the Riders. We stand between the light and the dark, and keep the balance between the two. Ignorance, fear, hate: these are our enemies. Deny them with all your might, Eragon, or we will surely fail.” He stood and extended a hand toward Eragon. “Now rise, Shadeslayer, and prove you can conquer the instincts of your flesh!”

Eragon took a deep breath and pushed himself upright on one arm, wincing from the effort. He got his feet underneath himself, paused for a moment, then straightened to his full height and looked Oromis in the eye.

The elf nodded with approval.

Eragon remained silent until they finished the Rimgar and went to bathe in the stream, whereupon he said, “Master.”

“Yes, Eragon?”

“Why must I endure this torture? You could use magic to give me the skills I need, to shape my body as you do the trees and plants.”

“I could, but if I did, you would not understand how you got the body you had, your own abilities, nor how to maintain them. No shortcuts exist for the path you walk, Eragon.”

Cold water rushed over the length of Eragon’s body as he lowered himself into the stream. He ducked his head under the surface, holding a rock so that he would not float away, and lay stretched out along the streambed, feeling like an arrow flying through the water.

Contents