Another roar, even louder than the last, rang forth.
Roran clutched the edge of the litter, his body rigid. “Kill him,” he muttered. “Kill the bastard.”
A vibration, subtle but noticeable, passed through the city, as if a great weight had struck the ground. With it, Roran heard what he thought was something breaking.
Then silence settled over the city, and every second that passed felt longer than the last.
“… Do you think he needs our help?” the archer asked in a soft voice.
“There’s nothing we can do for them,” said Roran, keeping his eyes fixed on the citadel.
“Couldn’t the elves—”
The ground rumbled and shook; then the front of the citadel exploded outward in a wall of white and yellow flame so bright, Roran saw the bones within the archer’s neck and head, his flesh like a red gooseberry held before a candle.
Roran grabbed the archer and rolled off the edge of the stone block, pulling the other man with him.
A blast of sound struck them as they fell. It felt as if spikes were being driven into Roran’s ears. He screamed, but he could not hear himself—nor, after the initial clap of thunder, could he hear anything else. The cobblestones bucked underneath them, a cloud of dust and debris hurtled over them, blotting out the sun, and a massive wind tore at Roran’s clothes.
The dust forced Roran to squeeze his eyes shut. All he could do was cling to the archer and wait for the upheaval to subside. He tried to take a breath, but the heated wind snatched the air from his lips and nose before he could fill his lungs. Something struck his head, and he felt his helmet fly off.
The shaking went on and on, but at last the ground grew still again, and Roran opened his eyes, afraid of what he would see.
The air was gray and dim; objects past a few hundred feet were lost in the haze. Small chunks of wood and stone rained from the sky, along with flakes of ash. A piece of timber that lay across the street from him—part of a flight of stairs the elves had broken when they destroyed the gate—was burning. The heat of the explosion had already charred the beam along its full length. The warriors who had been standing in the open now lay flat on the ground, some still moving, others clearly dead.
Roran glanced at the archer. The man had bitten through his bottom lip; blood coated his chin.
They helped each other off the ground, and Roran looked toward where the citadel had been. He could see nothing but gray darkness. Eragon! Could he and Saphira have survived the explosion? Could anyone who had been close to the heart of such an inferno?
Roran opened his mouth several times, trying to clear his ears—which rang and hurt badly—but to no avail. When he touched his right ear, his fingers came away bloody.
“Can you hear me?” he shouted at the archer, the words nothing but a vibration in his mouth and throat.
The archer frowned and shook his head.
A spate of dizziness caused Roran to lean over and prop himself against the block of stone. As he waited for his balance to return, he thought of the shelf hanging over them, and it suddenly occurred to him that the whole city might be in danger.
We have to leave before it falls, he thought. He spat blood and dirt onto the cobblestones. Then he looked in the direction of the citadel again. The dust still hid it. And grief clutched at his heart.
A SEA OF NETTLES
DARKNESS, AND IN that darkness, silence.
Eragon felt himself slide to a stop, then … nothing. He could breathe, but the air was stale and lifeless, and when he tried to move, the strain upon his spell increased.
He touched the minds of everyone around him, checking that he had managed to save them all. Elva was unconscious, and Murtagh nearly so, but they were alive, as were the rest.
It was the first time Eragon had come into contact with Thorn’s mind. As he did, the red dragon seemed to recoil. His thoughts felt darker, more contorted than Saphira’s, but there was a strength and nobility to him that impressed Eragon.
We cannot maintain this spell for much longer, said Umaroth, his voice tense.
You have to, said Eragon. If you don’t, we’ll die.
Seconds more passed.
Without warning, light flooded Eragon’s eyes, and an onslaught of noise assailed his ears.
He winced and blinked while his eyes adjusted.
Through the smoke-filled air, he saw a huge glowing crater where Galbatorix had been standing. The incandescent stone pulsed like living flesh as breaths of air wafted over its surface. The ceiling glowed as well, and the sight unnerved Eragon; it was as if they were standing inside a giant crucible.
The air smelled like the taste of iron.
The walls of the room were cracked, and the pillars, carvings, and lanterns had been pulverized. At the back of the chamber lay Shruikan’s corpse, much of the flesh stripped from his soot-blackened bones. At the front, the explosion had shattered the stone walls, as well as the walls beyond for hundreds of feet, exposing a veritable warren of tunnels and rooms. The beautiful golden doors that had guarded the entrance to the chamber had been blown off their hinges, and Eragon thought he glimpsed daylight at the far end of the quarter-mile-long hallway that led to the outside.
As he got to his feet, he noticed that his ward was still drawing strength from the dragons, but not so quickly as before.
A piece of stone the size of a house fell from the ceiling and landed next to Shruikan’s skull, where it split into a dozen pieces. Around them, more cracks spread through the walls, ominous shrieks and groans sounding from every side.
Arya went to the two children, grabbed the boy around his waist, and climbed with him up onto Saphira’s back. Once there, she pointed at the girl and said to Eragon, “Throw her to me!”
Eragon lost a second as he struggled to sheathe Brisingr. Then he grabbed the girl and tossed her to Arya, who caught her in outstretched arms.
Eragon turned and sidestepped Elva as he hurried over to Nasuada. “Jierda!” he said, placing a hand on the manacles that held her to the block of gray stone. The spell had no apparent effect, so he ended it quickly before it consumed too much energy.
Nasuada made an urgent sound, and he pulled the knotted cloth out of her mouth. “You have to find the key!” she said. “Galbatorix’s jailer has it on him.”
“We’ll never find him in time!” Eragon drew Brisingr again and swung at the chain connected to the manacle around her left hand. The sword bounced off the links with a harsh reverberation, leaving not so much as a scratch on the dull metal. He swung a second time, but the chain was impervious to his blade.
Another piece of rock fell from the ceiling and struck the floor with a loud crack.
A hand gripped his arm, and he turned to see Murtagh standing behind him, one arm pressed against the wound in his stomach. “Move aside,” he growled. Eragon did, and Murtagh spoke the name of all names, as he had before, as well as jierda, and the iron cuffs opened and fell from Nasuada’s limbs.
Murtagh took her by the wrist, and he began to lead her toward Thorn. After his first step, she slipped under his arm and allowed him to lean his weight on her shoulders.
Eragon opened his mouth, then closed it. He would ask his questions later.
“Wait!” cried Arya, and she leaped down from Saphira and ran over to Murtagh. “Where is the egg? And the Eldunarí? We can’t leave them!”
Murtagh frowned, and Eragon felt the information pass between him and Arya.
Arya spun around, her burnt hair flying, and sprinted toward a doorway on the opposite side of the room.
“It’s too dangerous!” Eragon shouted after her. “This place is falling apart! Arya!”
Go, she said. Get the children to safety. Go! You haven’t much time!
Eragon cursed. At the very least, he wished she had taken Glaedr with her. He slid Brisingr back into its scabbard, then bent and picked up Elva, who was just beginning to stir.
? she asked as Eragon carried her up onto Saphira’s back behind the two other children.
“We’re leaving,” he said. “Hold on.”
Saphira had already started moving. Limping because of her wounded foreleg, she trotted around the crater. Thorn followed close behind her, Murtagh and Nasuada upon his back.
“Look out!” shouted Eragon as he saw a chunk of the glowing ceiling break loose directly overhead.
Saphira shied to her left, and the jagged piece of stone landed next to her and sent a burst of straw-yellow shards in every direction. One of them struck Eragon in the side and lodged in his mail. He plucked it out and threw it away. Smoke trailed from the fingers of his gloves, and he smelled burnt leather. More pieces of stone fell elsewhere in the chamber.
When Saphira arrived at the mouth of the hallway, Eragon twisted and looked back at Murtagh. “What of the traps?” he shouted.
Murtagh shook his head and waved for them to continue.
Piles of broken stone covered the floor along much of the hallway, which slowed the dragons. To either side, Eragon could see into the rubble-filled rooms and tunnels that the explosion had torn open. Within them, tables, chairs, and other pieces of furniture burned. The limbs of the dead and dying stuck out at odd angles from beneath the tumbled stones, occasionally a grimy face or the back of a head.
He looked for Blödhgarm and his spellcasters but saw no sign of them, either dead or alive.
Farther down the hallway, hundreds of people—soldiers and servants alike—poured out of the adjoining doorways and ran toward the now-gaping entrance. Broken limbs were common among them, as were burns, scrapes, and other wounds. The survivors moved aside for Saphira and Thorn, but otherwise ignored the dragons.
Saphira was nearly at the end of the hall when a thunderous crash sounded behind them, and Eragon looked back to see that the throne room had caved in on itself, burying the chamber floor under a pile of stone fifty feet thick.
Arya! thought Eragon. He tried to find her with his mind, but without success. Either too much material separated them, or one of the spells woven throughout the mined-out crag blocked his mental probe, or—the one alternative he hated to consider—she was dead. She had not been in the room when it collapsed; that much he knew, but he wondered if she would be able to find her way back out again, now that the throne room was blocked.
As they emerged from the citadel, the air cleared and Eragon was able to see the destruction that the blast had wreaked on Urû’baen. It had ripped off the slate roofs of many nearby buildings and set fire to the beams underneath. Scores of fires dotted the rest of the city. The threads and plumes of smoke drifted upward until they collided with the underside of the shelf above. There they pooled and flowed along the angled surface of the stone, like water over a streambed. By the southeastern edge of the city, the smoke caught the light of the morning sun as it seeped around the side of the overhang, and there the smoke glowed with the reddish-orange color of a fire opal.
The people of Urû’baen were fleeing their houses, streaming through the streets toward the hole in the outer wall. The soldiers and servants from the citadel hurried to join them, giving Saphira and Thorn a wide berth as they ran across the courtyard in front of the fortress. Eragon paid them little attention; as long as they remained peaceful, he did not care what they did.
Saphira stopped in the middle of the quadrangle, and Eragon lowered Elva and the two nameless children to the ground. “Do you know where your parents are?” he asked, kneeling by the siblings.
They nodded, and the boy pointed toward a large house on the left side of the courtyard.
“Is that where you live?”
The boy nodded again.
“Go on, then,” said Eragon, and gave them a gentle push on the back. Without further prompting, the brother and sister ran across the courtyard to the building. The door to the house flew open, and a balding man with a sword at his belt stepped out and wrapped the two of them in his arms. He gave Eragon a glance, then hurried the children inside.
That was easy, Eragon said to Saphira.
Galbatorix must have had his men find the nearest hatchlings, she replied. We didn’t give him time to do much else.
Thorn sat a number of yards away from Saphira, and Nasuada helped Murtagh down from his back. Then Murtagh slumped against Thorn’s belly. Eragon heard him begin to recite spells of healing.
Eragon likewise attended to Saphira’s wounds, ignoring his own, for hers were more serious. The gash on her left foreleg was as wide as both his hands put together, and a pool of blood was forming about her foot.
Tooth or claw? he asked as he examined the wound.
Claw, she said.
He used her strength, as well as Glaedr’s, to mend the gash. When he finished, he turned his attention to his own wounds, starting with the burning line of pain in his side, where Murtagh had stabbed him.
As he worked, he kept an eye on Murtagh—watched as Murtagh healed his gut wound, Thorn’s broken wing, and the dragon’s other injuries. Nasuada stayed by him the whole while, her hand on his shoulder. He had, Eragon saw, somehow reacquired Zar’roc on the way out of the throne room.
Eragon then turned to Elva, who was standing nearby. She appeared pained, but he saw no blood upon her. “Are you hurt?” he asked.
Her brow furrowed, and she shook her head. “No, but many of them are.” And she pointed at the people fleeing the citadel.
“Mmh.” Eragon glanced over at Murtagh again. He and Nasuada were standing now, talking to each other.
Then Murtagh reached out, grasped the neck of her tunic, and pulled it to the side, tearing the fabric.
Eragon had drawn Brisingr halfway out of its sheath before he saw the map of angry-looking welts below Nasuada’s collarbone. The sight struck him like a blow; it reminded him of the wounds on Arya’s back after he and Murtagh had rescued her from Gil’ead.
Nasuada nodded and bowed her head.
Again Murtagh began to speak, this time, Eragon was sure, in the ancient language. He placed his hands upon various parts of Nasuada’s body, his touch gentle—even hesitant—and her expression of relief was all the evidence Eragon needed to understand how much pain she had been suffering.
Eragon watched for a minute longer, then a sudden rush of emotion swept through him. His knees grew weak, and he sat on Saphira’s right paw. She lowered her head and nuzzled his shoulder, and he leaned his head against her.
We did it, she said in a quiet tone.
We did it, he said, hardly able to believe the words.
He could feel Saphira thinking about Shruikan’s death; as dangerous as Shruikan had been, she still mourned the passing of one of the last remaining members of her race.
Eragon gripped her scales. He felt light, almost dizzy, as if he might float away from the surface of the earth. What now …?
Now we will rebuild, said Glaedr. His own emotions were a curious mixture of satisfaction, grief, and weariness. You acquitted yourself well, Eragon. No one else would have thought to attack Galbatorix as you did.
“I just wanted him to understand,” he murmured wearily. But if Glaedr heard, he chose not to respond.
At last, the Oath-breaker is dead, crowed Umaroth.
It seemed impossible that Galbatorix was no more. As Eragon contemplated the fact, something within his mind seemed to release, and he remembered—as if he had never forgotten—everything that had transpired during their time in the Vault of Souls.
A tingle passed through him. Saphira—
I know, she said, her excitement rising. The eggs!
Eragon smiled. Eggs! Dragon eggs! As a race, they would not pass into the void. They would survive, and flourish, and return to their former glory, as they had been before the fall of the Riders.
Then a horrible suspicion occurred to him. Did you make us forget anything else? he asked Umaroth.
If we did, how would we know?
replied the white dragon.
“Look!” cried Elva, pointing.
Eragon turned and saw Arya walking out of the dark maw of the citadel. With her were Blödhgarm and his spellcasters, bruised and scraped, but alive. In her arms, Arya carried a wooden chest fitted with gold hasps. A long line of metal boxes—each the size of the back of a wagon—floated along behind the elves, a few inches above the floor.
Elated, Eragon sprang up and ran over to meet them. “You’re alive!” He surprised Blödhgarm by grabbing the fur-covered elf and embracing him.
Blödhgarm regarded him for a moment with his yellow eyes, and then he smiled, showing his fangs.
“We are alive, Shadeslayer.”
“Are those the … Eldunarí?” Eragon asked, speaking the word softly.
Arya nodded. “They were in Galbatorix’s treasure room. We will have to go back at some point; there are many wonders hidden therein.”
“How are they? The Eldunarí, I mean.”
“Confused. It will take them years to recover, if ever they do.”
“And is that …?” Eragon motioned toward the chest she carried.
Arya glanced around to make sure no one was close enough to see; then she lifted the lid the width of a finger. Inside, nestled in velvet, Eragon saw a beautiful green dragon egg, webbed with veins of white.
The joy in Arya’s face lifted Eragon’s heart. He grinned and beckoned to the other elves. When they had gathered close to him, he whispered in the ancient language and told them of the eggs on Vroengard.
They did not shout or laugh, but their eyes gleamed, and as a group, they seemed to vibrate with excitement. Still grinning, Eragon bounced on his heels, delighted by their reaction.
Then Saphira said, Eragon!
At the same time, Arya frowned and said, “Where are Thorn and Murtagh?”
Eragon shifted his gaze and saw Nasuada standing alone in the courtyard. Next to her was a pair of saddlebags that Eragon did not remember seeing on Thorn. Wind swept over the courtyard and he heard the sound of wings flapping, but of Murtagh and Thorn, nothing was visible.