A dwarven war horn bellowed from the west.
The effect was immediate.
City gates clanged, catapults ratcheted into position, and dark-robed magicians lined the parapets.
Eragon watched as a single rider — black robed on a dark steed — rode out of the city, barely beating the closing gates. He headed west, white flag waving. The steed stumbled suddenly on flat ground, throwing his rider flat on his back, unmoving. Another horn blared, followed by a bellow, which grew to a roar resounding unseen from the east and the west.
The grasses rippled under grey skies, and shadows — hereto unnoticed — fled towards Urû'baen, crushing the fallen messenger in their wake.
"Frethya," Eragon whispered. The sea of shadows rolled as mist, revealing a regiment in her wake. Not dwarves, but Kull: sounding their comrades' broken horns in lieu of their father's skulls.
Roaring laughter met them. A man stood above the gate. He was armored; an ax slung carelessly on his shoulder. Lord Barst stood alone, even as a hundred Urgals hauled a crude but heavy timber into the castle gates.
Barst is right. The attack was absurd: a desperate plea for vengeance and the sweet release of death. The entire Urgal nation would be ill-fated to attack the stronghold stocked for months of siege. But men rarely do Urgals justice. The Bovek tribe knew what they fought for: death would come, and it would be a price well-paid. Eragon would make sure of it.
Saphira rumbled beneath him, wresting him from his thoughts. This was a time for action. Arya was triple-checking that her weapons were secured. Eragon loosed the final leg strap, catching a last forlorn look at the Urgals below. Sensing his hesitance, Saphira barrel-rolled, abandoning her cargo for the cloud cover. She stifled an anguished cry as Eragon and Arya tumbled unhindered towards the cliffside. She may be young, but the mission would not fail on her account.
Eragon splayed his limbs, stabilizing his descent beside Arya. They lowered their arms, flying forwards with practiced movements towards the approaching cliff face. Brom had drilled the forms into their minds, though their practice grounds had been open plains.
A sudden gale broke his calm: a breaking wave against the cliff face. He tumbled, head over heal, movement hindering thought. He drew his limbs in, fighting the spin but crashing faster towards the looming citadel spires.
"Vindr!" Arya cried, nearly lost to the wind: the constant pounding. Arya grappled Eragon, thrusting them straight into the overhang.
Her aim was true.
They tumbled — battered but whole — into an unseen break in the sheer rock. Shruikan's entrance, hidden by magic and used only in the dead of night, was one Glaedr knew well.
Eragon's head pounded. Darkness encircled his vision. He gasped, realizing he was holding his breath. He extricated himself from Arya's grasp, pulling his nearby arming sword from the gravel. It had struck a few inches from Arya's head.
They glanced haphazardly towards each other, both beaming.
Eragon sheathed the blade. Its scratched steel was recognizable from its time in Durza's service, but it wouldn't draw half as much attention as a brightly-tinted rider's blade. He fingered the bow still secured on his back. Arya had sung it for him after he snapped yet another manmade weapon. It was practical and unadorned. Its simple beauty spoke true of its maker.
"Ìstalri." A jade werelight sprung from Arya's palm, illuminating the cavern eerily. They were not standing on gravel, but bone. A century's worth of Shruikan's scraps covered the floor. A cow here, an Urgal's horn there, but namely men. Cautiously, they made their way deeper into the cavern. They encountered no traps save a few precariously placed ribcages.
The massive passage spiraled deep into the shelf over Urû'baen. A few flameless lanterns lit the way deeper in, revealing deep gouges in the stone from the grinding of Shruikan's spikes. Some ended in massive craters, presumably from the explosion of one of the few remaining lamps that lit the passage sparingly. Upon closer examination, Eragon noticed that many lamps held gouges too, which glowed, threatening to burst. They hurried onward.
Arya yelped, stopping abruptly. Before them the path simply ceased, dropping into a massive cavern. Caves and passages encircled them, though all were smaller than the passage they entered through, leaving only one path large enough for the massive Shruikan: down. Eragon nudged a knuckle bone with his toe, dropping it over the edge. One.. two… three… at ten it clattered on the floor below, bouncing twice. They waited, no shouts or thudding wings.
A sense of overwhelming dead flooded Eragon, stopping him senseless. A scream, a roar. Blue flame and stinging crimson blood. This endless hall - Galbatorix's throne - was the center of his nightmares.
He counted: breathing slowly, trying to ease his mind. He dared not connect his mind to Saphira above… this Saphira. Not the one who… He shook himself, loosening his shoulders. Now was not the time for such thoughts.
He glanced towards Arya. She nodded, then dashed forwards, diving gracefully into the abyss. He followed suit. They chased the werelight downwards, hurtling in the dark. Like the Raz'ac's caverns, their enhanced eyesight did little where no light dared reach. Six... seven... Eragon counted the seconds. He could see the bottom of the cavern now, perhaps another thousand feet down. He squinted, it seemed a green werelight was coming up to meet them. "Letta!", he screamed. They halted hardly a foot above black polished marble. The airy impact threatening to empty the contents of their stomachs. He had mistaken the lights reflected from the lamps above as the light of the exit; the approaching werelight was a reflection of their own.
They waited as the echoes of Eragon's scream died. Nothing. The silence that settled was as thick as the surrounding darkness.
Eragon refilled his energy from the gems around his wrist. To his dismay, he nearly depleated them. Stopping their fall so abruptly had taken more energy than he had accounted for.
"Risa." Arya sent the werelight upwards, revealing the hall to their right. Once again they followed. The ceiling rose upwards as the caverns turned to halls. The were-lanterns were frequent now, pressed between columns that branched into the ceiling as trees. The airy arcade was of obvious elven origin, its beauty untouched in the preceding century.
In Shruikan's absence, the caverness hall was nigh unrecognizable, but the throne they approached needed no reintroduction. Eragon averted his eyes. He had enough visions of this place in his waking dreams. He looked towards the corner of the room. There were shackles, but no Nasuada to be seen. The floor below his feet was spotless, not pooled with blood.
A hand rested firmly on his shoulder, and returned to Arya's side as his eyes regained focus.
"Can you do this?" she asked.
"I'm ready." he responded without hesitation.
Her eyes didn't leave him. She doesn't believe me. Perhaps she is right.
But she nodded curtly, and continued onwards to search the king's private quarters. Evandar's quarters. It struck him that the citadel had been an elven castle. These were the halls Arya might have walked in her early years. Did she evacuate with Brom and Oromis?
Questions for another time. He roused himself, but indulged a final glare towards the golden entrance doors and the trapped hall that lay beyond. He headed in the opposite direction.
Eragon pressed his fingers along the leafy filigree of a flameless lamp. Third from the right.
A hidden door revealed itself, and Eragon followed the spiraling passage to the treasury beyond.
Brom stood in wait upon the overhang overlooking the city, where he had once sulked with his Saphira when Morzan threw a particularly mean comment at him.
He stood in wait with Glaedr and the horses, to be either an escape route or a rescue party. He hoped for the prior.
Brom never had an affinity for Urgals. In a round about way, they had brought the order down when they killed Jarnonvosk.
Yet below him, wave upon wave of the hot-headed rams threw themselves upon the city gates. They had neither ladders nor engines of war. Their strategy played to their reputation. No one would question such an outlandish attack from the supposed beasts. Nor would Barst suspect they were in alliance with thieves working in subtlety and secret.
How his son had earned such loyalty from one conversation, and inspired such self-sacrificial bravery in the Ulgragra he would never know.
Glaedr rumbled in agreement.
Steel bows riddled the Ulgragra with arrows. Their axes did little for them. Their makeshift battering ram did little more. For it was not a battle he watched below him, but a slaughter.
There were no guards.
Galbatorix mustn't have expected intruders in his inner sanctum.
Unlike the other passages, the treasury was pooled with light. A web of mirrors reflected sunlight from the upper windows, and refracted off the golden treasures below. Eragon paid the gold no heed. Like the elves who raised him, Galbatorix knew some things were more valuable than gold.
The chamber through the next arch held more promise. Endless shelves of tomes and trinkets lined the walls, and before him was a vast table scattered with ancient texts.
Hesitantly, Eragon expanded his mind to fill the room. Hopefully, he would feel a trace of magic from the ancient tablet bearing the name of names, or the young mind of a dragon.
His mind flooded with traces of spells old and new. Seemingly benign objects were truly flooded with spell-work. Wards abounded. Here was an ancient place of research and experimentation. If Galbatorix works to find the name of names, surely he does so here.
But it was not the wards in waiting that drew his attention, but a curious presence in the hall beyond. A presence that matched his mental probe with equal force, then withdrew abruptly as he did. It struck him that it was not a true presence, but another reflection. A ward that showed him his own mind, instead of what lay beyond. A hiding place for an egg perhaps?
He followed with caution. It lead him to the back chamber wall. He reached for the nearby lantern, feeling for another hidden passage. His hands reached through the lamp instead. An illusion.
A narrow hall preceded him. The walls were lined with jewel bright blades of every color. Riders' blades. He walked in silence. How many are there? Hundreds?
A high arched circular chamber ended the solemn hall, with a pedestal in the center. The eggs! Contrasting red and green, they lay nestled in velvet and swathed with sunlight. A blue blade hung on the wall behind them, in ironic memorandum of the Rider who plagued Galbatorix, yet failed to steal them. Undbitr.
Yet the ward that drew him guarded not these treasures, but a small unadorned chest to the right. He allowed his mind to drift further towards the intrusive object.
The treasury entrance opened. The pulleys in the wall whirred.
He waited, retreating into himself.
A routine guard? A procedure for the castle at siege? He hoped he hadn't tripped a ward.
Footsteps. Numerous footsteps. It sounds like a whole platoon.
Their purpose hardly mattered. They guarded his only escape.
No energy reserves. The fall nearly drained him. No allies. Saphira could not reach him.
What did he have? The treasury: eggs, rider's swords. Training: teachings and memories of riders before me. Nothing came immediately to mind. Energy: what's in me and... the platoon.
It would be a desperate move... foolishness. Though, the word defines this venture.
Oromis had called it their best weapon against Galbatorix.
Soldiers began to flood the treasury.
Eragon began to chant. He intended to twist reality, and hide the eggs safely in a singularity. He extended his mind, searching desperately for the ancient writing that contained the name of names. Was it on the table? On the shelves? Did I pass it in the room of earthly treasures? He was torn. I can't leave Undbitr behind. The swords, the chest, the library. His desperate — scattered thoughts drew them all in as the spell came to a close.
Eragon would not loose. He would not give himself over to his enemies while the Urgals sacrificed themselves. Desperately, he broke the ancient form of the Wizard's Duel, and cast a spell with no attempt to breach his opponents' defenses. For his spell drew not from him, but from the platoon.
He gasped, as he seemed to die fifty times over. It's not enough. The sheer amount of objects he tried to twist through space overran the energy of his opponents.
He threw his mind outwards. The surrounding stone dampened his senses, but he could feel the battle raging. As soon as he touched minds, the spell reached out ravenously. Desperately, he tried to guide it towards brighter thoughts of anger and exertion of the human warriors that stood against his allies.
Reality bent around him with a bang and a shout. The pedestals stood empty, the shelves bear. But the strange chest stood unmoving: the eye of the chaos. As the spell came to a close the foreign wards reflected not his mind, but a twist of reality that hurtled towards towards its caster. Eragon tried to dodge, but ground rippled, pulling him into the fold. Color, sound, breath — all was pulled from him.
Fifty fallen soldiers lay in the adjoining chamber, in a room of empty shelves and echoing halls. Beyond an illusionary wall lay an empty hall and a small wooden chest.