Raelin coughed. She had been in dark places before. More since the start of the war. But not like this. This was a blackness she had never felt. Sight could not penetrate it. The only thing left to suggest the rest of the world still existed was sound. Sound, and the overpowering smell.
As Zetacron had promised, Drake had soon regained the use of his arm. Needing something to correctly align the metal, Zetacron had used the wire from Drake’s grapple gun, threading it through the armor. With a few altercations, Jandar had turned the metal arm into a grappling device all its own, attaching a formidable steel claw to cover Drake’s hand.
Zetacron had identified the fiend that had attacked Drake. He was a new recruit, a deadly enemy called a vampire. Drake had seemed to understand the name, though it was foreign to Raelin. Zetacron had said the vampire was called Cyprien, and that he was lord of all vampires. Drake had been lucky to escape with only injuries.
Raelin had not been punished for disobeying orders. Everyone knew Drake was a soldier Jandar could not afford to lose, most of all Jandar himself.
The war had at last swung around in Jandar’s favor. Utgar’s defeat at Stechavan had crippled his northern forces. Unable to reinforce their numbers, his garrisons throughout Bleakwood rapidly fell to the alliance.
Winter faded to spring, which yielded a fresh bloodbath as Utgar tried to reclaim his lost territory. But his forces, so large, were still scattered, and he was driven back. Summer passed, and in the autumn, a new Valkyrie – Aquilla by name – had emerged and joined Jandar. Little was known of her, save that she and her forces were in the unexplored Ticalla Jungle. Though her army was pitifully small, it had carried out a number of successful surprise attacks against Utgar’s fortresses in the Volcarren, weakening his forces there as well. Jandar had been quick to reinforce her via the Bitter Sea, and Utgar was now caught between two imposing armies, one of which threatened his wellspring.
Utgar’s army was still larger than the other two combined. He could still destroy the alliance. But for the moment, he was disorganized, his legions spread too thin. He would regroup and attack again, and probably finally destroy the alliance… unless something was done.
That something proved to be a daring plan to attack Utgar at his wellspring. Every general had contributed, and Jandar had launched a coalition army through the Bitter Sea. Two months after Utgar’s defeat at Stechavan, it had landed.
The army was larger than any the alliance had ever commanded before. It swept the first few outposts before it, and then surged forwards, aiming for Utgar’s impregnable fortress, and the wellspring that lay beneath it. Unfortunately, the alliance’s luck had run out.
From the Underdark – ancient ruins far beneath Valhalla – came a new Valkyrie: Valkrill. His presence had been kept a secret, but now he emerged with his deadly army, arrayed against the alliance. Utgar’s forces met the alliance from the West, Valkrill from the East. Raelin, who had been wounded and so left at a captured fortress at the time, had heard of the wholesale slaughter that had taken place.
The greatest army the alliance had ever formed was utterly destroyed in just a little over five hours. It was a blow none of them would ever fully recover from.
Mallidon had been in the army. Soon after the defeat, Raelin and Kelda had descended on the blood-soaked rocks and begun their search. Kelda was the one to finally find him, wounded and weak with loss of blood, but somehow still alive. Raelin had watched Kelda heal as she had never seen before. Blue magic blossomed from Kelda’s palms. Sometimes it waned, sometimes it faded, but it always returned with a mighty flash, and Mallidon would take a shuttering breath.
Kelda had driven herself to the point of exhaustion, finally collapsing on Mallidon and breaking down into sobs. Only then had she permitted other kyrie to take Mallidon to the fallback position, where his healing was completed. They had been assured he would make a full recovery.
Kelda herself had needed medical attention, for she was extremely weak after expending everything she had on Mallidon. Drake had arrived while Raelin watched her sleep, his good arm bandaged. He was lucky to have survived at all.
While Raelin had watched Kelda sleep, she had seen again that same peaceful face, the same face that had so often been Kelda’s. She had not seen that expression since before the war, and the sight of it had made her cry. Drake had asked her why.
“This war, this pain… I abhor it. I know it needs to end, to go away, but everything around me says the only way to do that is through more of the same. Even you, Drake; even you said that you can only protect people by killing other people. You said there was no other choice, but I couldn’t believe you then. I don’t want to believe you now. I want to believe that there is another way, a way without pain, a way without suffering. But how can there be? How can there be such a way, when Mallidon—” Raelin broke down and could not finish.
She leaned against Drake as the tears flowed, and he held her comfortingly. Something of his calmness spread to her, and she eventually subsided into silence.
“Do you remember the Great War I told you about once, Raelin,” Drake said, “the one back on my home?”
“That war lasted too long. Most of the soldiers, myself included, felt we were fighting against something. It just took us several years to figure out it wasn’t the enemy. We were fighting against ideas, principles, and the soldiers we killed every day were just in the way, just as determined as we were. We finally figured out that our argument wasn’t with them.
“I could tell you of at least a dozen times a white flag was flown above the enemy trenches. A plane would have gone down, or a dead soldier was caught in the barbed wire and we needed to retrieve his body. Men from both sides would jump the trenches, and we’d work together. We’d thank each other, wave farewell… and the next day go back to killing each other. But every time that happened, everyone knew the war was dead. It’s a good thing the war ended when it did, because I think a lot of the soldiers – most of them, actually – were tired of it. They were about to quit. They didn’t want to kill us, and we didn’t want to kill them.”
Raelin looked up at Drake.
“Don’t give up hope, Raelin,” he whispered to her. “Hope is what keeps us going against all odds. It’s what lets us see the light at the end of the tunnel.”
It was a slow journey back to Nastralund. Everyone knew they had lost. Nearly half of their forces had been in the army that had just been obliterated. Utgar’s forces had rallied, and with Valkrill’s legions swelling his ranks, he would march on the alliance within two months. If not sooner.
Though they knew they were defeated, surrender was on no one’s lips. Each survivor knew what they fought for, and they were determined to fight for it to the end. It had always been inevitable that Utgar would win. It seemed now that the war had never been about winning. It had been about making a stand for what was right.
For a few weeks, all was quiet on the battlefields of Valhalla. Each side knew what was coming, and each side gathered its strength, not wasting it on pointless forays into enemy territory. The halls of Jandar’s castles were silent, but not with despair. They were still with calm, the calm of one who knows his fate, and has accepted it with hope that someday, he will yet triumph.
It was the night after one of these silent days that Raelin was abruptly woken by someone shaking her.
“Raelin!” a voice hissed close to her ear.
She jumped at first, but then relaxed. A full moon shone through the window, and by its faint light, she could see Sullivan standing over her. She was surprised to see that he carried his shotgun, slung over his back.
“Quickly,” he whispered, “you have to come with me.”
Raelin could sense the urgency in his voice and got out of bed quickly. “Why?” she asked, pulling on something warmer. “What’s happened?”
Sullivan grimaced. “There’s no time to explain. You’ll see soon enough anyway. Just keep your voice down and follow me. We can’t be overheard.”
Apprehensive, Raelin followed Sullivan out of her bedroom and down the steps. They crept silently out of the tower, across the main road, and finally halted at the massive gate to Jandar’s castle. Here, Sullivan fumbled briefly with the lock on the wicket gate, opened it, and motioned Raelin through. Raelin ducked, and emerged outside Jandar’s fortress.
She had two seconds. Two seconds in which to see the two hooded figures waiting for her. Two seconds in which to realize that Sullivan had stepped out with her, quickly closing the gate behind them. Two seconds, and then everything changed.
The two vampires threw back their hoods. Before Raelin could turn, fly, even scream, white hands shot out and smote her. Coldness clamped down on her lungs like Drake’s grappling arm, and her scream died in her throat. Warmth and energy deserted her, and she toppled to the stone causeway. The only comforting thought was that these vampires did not possess the chill touch of Cyprien. Either that, or they were aiming to paralyze rather than kill. A moment later, Raelin realized that thought was not comforting at all. They wanted her alive.
Sullivan stepped around her. “Remember,” he said to one of the vampires, “there’s no need to harm her. She is no ordinary prisoner.”
Disbelief flooded Raelin’s mind. Not this. Not now. Not after everything that had happened. She looked at Sullivan, trying to ask the question with her eyes. He looked at her and knelt beside her.
No grin was on his face. No confident air, or smug self-satisfaction. “I’m sorry, Raelin,” he said. She could see he meant it. “You and I want the same thing. I want this war to end just as you do. I’ve had enough of bloodshed, of pain. It’s time for it all to stop. Many of the men feel the same way, and from what I’ve heard, a lot of Utgar’s legions do too. We’ve all realized there’s only one way this is going to end. The problem is you.”
Raelin stared at Sullivan for a moment, not comprehending.
“You’re hope, Raelin,” Sullivan said. “Everyone sees it. You’re determined that there is a way this war can be won peaceably. Your confidence spreads to everyone else, and they go off to another battle. And another. And another. Jandar would have quit long ago if it weren’t for you. You want the war to end, Raelin, but you can’t just let it end. You have to end it the way you want it to end.
“That’s where I’m different. This war has gone on too long. I don’t care how it ends anymore. I just want it over. And you, unfortunately, are in the way of that.” Sullivan stood up. “Your capture will be a great blow to Jandar. The alliance might struggle on for a few more months, but without you, Jandar will ultimately surrender. That’s what Utgar wants: surrender. He doesn’t want a final battle. He doesn’t want to destroy the alliance. He wants the war over, just like you, just like me.”
Sullivan glanced at the vampires. “Don’t worry, Raelin. You won’t be harmed. You’ll be held in a castle far within Utgar’s lands. You’ll be free to do as you please, save for leaving the castle. Once Jandar surrenders, the war will be over, and you can go.”
Sullivan looked down at her. “I’m sorry about this, Raelin. I really am. It may seem extreme, but I knew you would never back down if I tried to talk to you about it. Anyone could see that. You’ll be held two months at the most, and then this will all be over.”
“We need to move quickly,” one of the vampires hissed. “If we’re seen, we’re dead.”
“Be gentle,” Sullivan whispered, unlatching the gate. He stepped back inside, closed the door, and was gone.
The vampires were indeed gentle. They picked Raelin up, and flew her southwards between them. But there was something in their grip Raelin didn’t like. Something that suggested she was more than a mere prisoner.