Awe crawled over Eragon. “How is that possible?”
“Did I not just say it was inexplicable? All we know is that after the dragons cast their spell, no one could utter the names of the thirteen; those who remembered the names soon forgot them; and while you can read the names in scrolls and letters where they are recorded and even copy them if you look at only one glyph at a time, they are as gibberish. The dragons spared Jarnunvösk, Galbatorix’s first dragon, for it was not his fault he was killed by Urgals, and also Shruikan, for he did not choose to serve Galbatorix but was forced to by Galbatorix and Morzan.”
What a horrible fate, to lose one’s name, thought Eragon. He shivered. If there’s one thing I’ve learned since becoming a Rider, it’s that you never, ever want to have a dragon for an enemy. “What about their true names?” he asked. “Did they erase those as well?”
Arya nodded. “True names, birth names, nicknames, family names, titles. Everything. And as a result, the thirteen were reduced to little more than animals. No longer could they say, ‘I like this’ or ‘I dislike that’ or ‘I have green scales,’ for to say that would be to name themselves. They could not even call themselves dragons. Word by word, the spell obliterated everything that defined them as thinking creatures, and the Forsworn had no choice but to watch in silent misery as their dragons descended into complete ignorance. The experience was so disturbing, at least five of the thirteen, and several of the Forsworn, went mad as a result.” Arya paused, considering the outline of a glyph, then rubbed it out and redrew it. “The Banishing of the Names is the main reason so many people now believe that dragons were nothing more than animals to ride from one place to another.”
“They wouldn’t believe that if they had met Saphira,” said Eragon.
Arya smiled. “No.” With a flourish, she completed the latest sentence she had been working on. He tilted his head and sidled closer in order to decipher the glyphs she had inscribed. They read: The trickster, the riddler, the keeper of the balance, he of the many faces who finds life in death and who fears no evil; he who walks through doors.
“What prompted you to write this?”
“The thought that many things are not what they appear.” Dust billowed around her hand as she patted the ground, effacing the glyphs from the surface of the earth.
“Has anyone tried to guess Galbatorix’s true name?” Eragon asked. “It seems as if that would be the fastest way to end this war. To be honest, I think it might be the only hope we have of vanquishing him in battle.”
“Were you not being honest with me before?” asked Arya, a gleam in her eyes.
Her question forced him to chuckle. “Of course not. It’s just a figure of speech.”
“And a poor one at that,” she said. “Unless you happen to be in the habit of lying.”
Eragon floundered for a moment before he caught hold of his thread of speech again and could say, “I know it would be hard to find Galbatorix’s true name, but if all the elves and all the members of the Varden who know the ancient language searched for it, we could not help but succeed.”
Like a pale, sun-bleached pennant, the dry blade of grass hung from between Arya’s left thumb and forefinger. It trembled in sympathy with each surge of blood through her veins. Pinching it at the top with her other hand, she tore the leaf in half lengthwise, then did the same with each of the resulting strips, quartering the leaf. Then she began to plait the strips, forming a stiff braided rod. She said, “Galbatorix’s true name is no great secret. Three different elves—one a Rider, and two ordinary spellcasters—discovered it on their own and many years apart.”
“They did!” exclaimed Eragon.
Unperturbed, Arya picked another blade of grass, tore it into strips, inserted the pieces into the gaps in her braided rod, and continued plaiting in a different direction. “We can only speculate whether Galbatorix himself knows his true name. I am of the opinion that he does not, for whatever it is, his true name must be so terrible, he could not go on living if he heard it.”
“Unless he is so evil or so demented, the truth about his actions has no power to disturb him.”
“Perhaps.” Her nimble fingers flew so fast, twisting, braiding, weaving, that they were nearly invisible. She picked two more blades of grass. “Either way, Galbatorix is certainly aware that he has a true name, like all creatures and things, and that it is a potential weakness. At some point before he embarked upon his campaign against the Riders, he cast a spell that kills whoever uses his true name. And since we do not know exactly how this spell kills, we cannot shield ourselves from it. You see, then, why we have all but abandoned that line of inquiry. Oromis is one of the few who are brave enough to continue seeking out Galbatorix’s name, albeit in a roundabout manner.” With a pleased expression, she held out her hands, palms-upward. Resting on them was an exquisite ship made of green and white grass. It was no more than four inches long, but so detailed, Eragon descried benches for rowers, tiny railings along the edge of the deck, and portholes the size of raspberry seeds. The curved prow was shaped somewhat like the head and neck of a rearing dragon. There was a single mast.
“It’s beautiful,” he said.
Arya leaned forward and murmured, “Flauga.” She gently blew upon the ship, and it rose from her hands and sailed around the fire and then, gathering speed, slanted upward and glided off into the sparkling depths of the night sky.
“How far will it go?”
“Forever,” she said. “It takes the energy to stay aloft from the plants below. Wherever there are plants, it can fly.”
The idea bemused Eragon, but he also found it rather sad to think of the pretty grass ship wandering among the clouds for the rest of eternity, with none but birds for company. “Imagine the stories people will tell about it in years to come.”
Arya knit her long fingers together, as if to keep them from making something else. “Many such oddities exist in the world. The longer you live and the farther you travel, the more of them you will see.”
Eragon gazed at the pulsing fire for a while, then said, “If it’s so important to protect your true name, should I cast a spell to keep Galbatorix from using my true name against me?”
“You can if you wish to,” said Arya, “but I doubt it’s necessary. True names are not so easy to find as you think. Galbatorix does not know you well enough to guess your name, and if he were inside your mind and able to examine your every thought and memory, you would be already lost to him, true name or no. If it is any comfort, I doubt that even I could divine your true name.”
“Couldn’t you?” he asked. He was both pleased and displeased that she believed any part of him was a mystery to her.
She glanced at him and then lowered her eyes. “No, I do not think so. Could you guess mine?”
Silence enveloped their camp. Above, the stars gleamed cold and white. A wind sprang up from the east and raced across the plains, battering the grass and wailing with a long, thin voice, as if lamenting the loss of a loved one. As it struck, the coals burst into flame again and a twisting mane of sparks trailed off to the west. Eragon hunched his shoulders and pulled the collar of his tunic close around his neck. There was something unfriendly about the wind; it bit at him with unusual ferocity, and it seemed to isolate him and Arya from the rest of the world. They sat motionless, marooned on their tiny island of light and heat, while the massive river of air rushed past, howling its angry sorrows into the empty expanse of land.
When the gusts became more violent and began to carry the sparks farther away from the bare patch where Eragon had built the fire, Arya poured a handful of dirt over the wood. Moving forward onto his knees, Eragon joined her, scooping the dirt with both hands to speed the process. With the fire extinguished, he had difficulty seeing; the countryside had become a ghost of itself, full of writhing shadows, indistinct shapes, and silvery leaves.
Arya made as if to stand, then stopped in a half crouch, arms outstretched for ba
lance, her expression alert. Eragon felt it as well: the air prickled and hummed, as if a bolt of lightning were about to strike. The hair on the back of his hands rose from his skin and waved freely in the wind.
“What is it?” he asked.
“We are being watched. Whatever happens, don’t use magic or you may get us killed.”
Casting about, he found a fist-sized rock, pried it out of the ground, and hefted it, testing its weight.
In the distance, a cluster of glowing multicolored lights appeared. They darted toward the camp, flying low over the grass. As they drew near, he saw that the lights were constantly changing in size—ranging from an orb no larger than a pearl to one several feet in diameter—and that their colors also varied, cycling through every hue in the rainbow. A crackling nimbus surrounded each orb, a halo of liquid tendrils that whipped and lashed, as if hungry to entangle something in their grasp. The lights moved so fast, he could not determine exactly how many there were, but he guessed it was about two dozen.
The lights hurtled into the camp and formed a whirling wall around him and Arya. The speed with which they spun, combined with the barrage of pulsing colors, made Eragon dizzy. He put a hand on the ground to steady himself. The humming was so loud now, his teeth vibrated against one another. He tasted metal, and his hair stood on end. Arya’s did the same, despite its additional length, and when he glanced at her, he found the sight so ridiculous, he had to resist the urge to laugh.
“What do they want?” shouted Eragon, but she did not answer.
A single orb detached itself from the wall and hung before Arya at eye level. It shrank and expanded like a throbbing heart, alternating between royal blue and emerald green, with occasional flashes of red. One of its tendrils caught hold of a strand of Arya’s hair. There was a sharp pop, and for an instant, the strand shone like a fragment of the sun, then it vanished. The smell of burnt hair drifted toward Eragon.
Arya did not flinch or otherwise betray alarm. Her face calm, she lifted an arm and, before Eragon could leap forward and stop her, laid her hand upon the lambent orb. The orb turned gold and white, and it swelled until it was over three feet across. Arya closed her eyes and tilted her head back, radiant joy suffusing her features. Her lips moved, but whatever she said, Eragon could not hear. When she finished, the orb flushed blood-red and then in quick succession shifted from red to green to purple to a ruddy orange to a blue so bright he had to avert his gaze and then to pure black fringed with a corona of twisting white tendrils, like the sun during an eclipse. Its appearance ceased to fluctuate then, as if only the absence of color could adequately convey its mood.
Drifting away from Arya, it approached Eragon, a hole in the fabric of the world, encircled by a crown of flames. It hovered in front of him, humming with such intensity, his eyes watered. His tongue seemed plated with copper, his skin crawled, and short filaments of electricity danced on the tips of his fingers. Somewhat frightened, he wondered whether he should touch the orb as Arya had. He looked at her for advice. She nodded and gestured for him to proceed.
He extended his right hand toward the void that was the orb. To his surprise, he encountered resistance. The orb was incorporeal, but it pushed against his hand the way a swift stream of water might. The closer he got, the harder it pushed. With an effort, he reached across the last few inches and came into contact with the center of the creature’s being.
Bluish rays shot out from between Eragon’s palm and the surface of the orb, a dazzling, fanlike display that overwhelmed the light from the other orbs and bleached everything a pale blue white. Eragon shouted with pain as the rays stabbed at his eyes, and he ducked his head, squinting. Then something moved inside the orb, like a sleeping dragon uncoiling, and a presence entered his mind, brushing aside his defenses as if they were dry leaves in an autumn storm. He gasped. Transcendent joy filled him; whatever the orb was, it seemed to be composed of distilled happiness. It enjoyed being alive, and everything around it pleased it to a greater or lesser degree. Eragon would have wept with sheer gladness, but he no longer had control of his body. The creature held him in place, the shimmering rays still blazing from underneath his hand while it flitted through his bones and muscles, lingering at the sites where he had been injured, and then returned to his mind. Euphoric as Eragon was, the creature’s presence was so strange and so unearthly, he wanted to flee from it, but inside his consciousness, there was nowhere to hide. He had to remain in intimate contact with the fiery soul of the creature while it scoured his memories, dashing from one to the next with the speed of an elvish arrow. He wondered how it could comprehend so much information so quickly. While it searched, he tried to probe the orb’s mind in return, to learn what he could about its nature and its origins, but it defied his attempts to understand it. The few impressions he gleaned were so different from those he had found in the minds of other beings, they were incomprehensible.
After a final, nearly instantaneous circuit through his body, the creature withdrew. The contact between them broke like a twisted cable under too much tension. The panoply of rays outlining Eragon’s hand faded into oblivion, leaving behind lurid pink afterimages streaked across his field of vision.
Again changing colors, the orb in front of Eragon shrank to the size of an apple and rejoined its companions in the swirling vortex of light that encircled him and Arya. The humming increased to an almost unbearable pitch, and then the vortex exploded outward as the blazing orbs scattered in every direction. They regrouped a hundred feet or so from the dim camp, tumbling over each other like wrestling kittens, then raced off to the south and disappeared, as if they had never existed in the first place. The wind subsided to a gentle breeze.
Eragon fell to his knees, arm outstretched toward where the orbs had gone, feeling empty without the bliss they had given him. “What,” he asked, and then had to cough and start over again, his throat was so dry. “What are they?”
“Spirits,” said Arya. She sat.
“They didn’t look like the ones that came out of Durza when I killed him.”
“Spirits can assume many different guises, dictated by their whim.”
He blinked several times and wiped the corners of his eyes with the back of a finger. “How can anyone bear to enslave them with magic? It’s monstrous. I would be ashamed to call myself a sorcerer. Gah! And Trianna boasts of being one. I’ll have her stop using spirits or I’ll expel her from Du Vrangr Gata and ask Nasuada to banish her from the Varden.”
“I would not be so hasty.”
“Surely you don’t think it’s right for magicians to force spirits to obey their will…. They are so beautiful that—” He broke off and shook his head, overcome with emotion. “Anyone who harms them ought to be thrashed within an inch of their life.”
With a hint of a smile, Arya said, “I take it Oromis had yet to address the topic when you and Saphira left Ellesméra.”
“If you mean spirits, he mentioned them several times.”
“But not in any great detail, I dare say.”
In the darkness, the outline of her shape moved as she leaned to one side. “Spirits always induce a sense of rapture when they choose to communicate with we who are made of matter, but do not allow them to deceive you. They are not as benevolent, content, or cheerful as they would have you believe. Pleasing those they interact with is their way of defending themselves. They hate to be bound in one place, and they realized long ago that if the person they are dealing with is happy, then he or she will be less likely to detain the spirits and keep them as servants.”
“I don’t know,” said Eragon. “They make you feel so good, I can understand why someone would want to keep them nearby, instead of releasing them.”
Her shoulders rose and fell. “Spirits have as much difficulty predicting our behavior as we do theirs. They share so little in common with the other races of Alagaësia, conversing with them in eve
n the simplest terms is a challenging prospect, and any meeting is fraught with peril, for one never knows how they will react.”
“None of which explains why I shouldn’t order Trianna to abandon sorcery.”
“Have you ever seen her summon spirits to do her bidding?”
“I thought not. Trianna has been with the Varden for nigh on six years, and in that time she has demonstrated her mastery of sorcery exactly once, and that after much coaxing on Ajihad’s part and much consternation and preparation on Trianna’s. She has the necessary skills—she is no charlatan—but summoning spirits is exceedingly dangerous, and one does not embark upon it lightly.”
Eragon rubbed his shining palm with his left thumb. The hue of light changed as blood rushed to the surface of his skin, but his efforts did nothing to reduce the amount of light radiating from his hand. He scratched at the gedwëy ignasia with his fingernails. This had better not last more than a few hours. I can’t go around shining like a lantern. It could get me killed. And it’s silly too. Whoever heard of a Dragon Rider with a glowing body part?
Eragon considered what Brom had told him. “They aren’t human spirits, are they? Nor elf, nor dwarf, nor those of any other creature. That is, they aren’t ghosts. We don’t become them after we die.”
“No. And please do not ask me, as I know you are about to, what, then, they really are. It is a question for Oromis to answer, not me. The study of sorcery, if properly conducted, is long and arduous and should be approached with care. I do not want to say anything that may interfere with the lessons Oromis has planned for you, and I certainly don’t want you to hurt yourself trying something I mentioned when you lack the proper instruction.”
“And when am I supposed to return to Ellesméra?” he demanded. “I can’t leave the Varden again, not like this, not while Thorn and Murtagh are still alive. Until we defeat the Empire, or the Empire defeats us, Saphira and I have to support Nasuada. If Oromis and Glaedr really want to finish our training, they should join us, and Galbatorix be blasted!”