The smell was terrible. Raelin tried to shift her position, turning her head to escape the fumes, but the stench only intensified. She genuinely believed Sullivan had been sorry. He had thought – and still did, for all she knew – that she would be treated well during her time as a prisoner. How little he knew of Utgar.
The vampires had delivered her to a castle deep within the Volcarren, just as Sullivan had said they would. They had then stuffed her into a cramped cell with at least thirty other prisoners. Raelin had been there ever since. Time had faded away in the constant dark of the dungeon, but Raelin knew she had been there for more than the prophesied two months. It felt like more than three. Was the war over? Would she ever be released?
Metal scraped against stone, and the massively thick cell door was creaked open. An orc stepped in.
There was no light in the dungeon, and the only light in the hall beyond the door was a guttering torch. That feeble flicker now flooded the cell, and Raelin felt her stomach tighten as she saw again the conditions that surrounded her.
The dungeon was small; likely designed for only one person with plenty of room to walk. Over thirty prisoners were packed into the tiny space, most jammed up against the hard unforgiving wall. The situation was made even worse by the fact that over half of them were kyrie, their wings taking up extra room. Since they were in the Volcarren, heat radiated from the stones, washing over the prisoners without relief, drenching them in sweat. Since Raelin had arrived, many of the kyrie had died of dehydration.
After the first few deaths, the orcs had made sure the prisoners had plenty of water, but it was always green with slime, and tasted of mold. The food was no better: the bread they ate was either stale or crawling with worms.
There was no air. Nothing was sanitary. Raelin had been breathing air choked with sweat, blood, heat, and mold for the entire time she had been down here. And there was no sign that the confinement would ever end. Only that it would get worse.
The orc stepped into the dungeon, and as one, the mass of prisoners stumbled away from him. Raelin was among them. She knew, along with everyone else, what happened to those that were chosen.
The orc marched forward, pointing at random prisoners. More orcs came through the door, peeled the selected prisoners from their neighbors, and shuffled them out the door. Finally, the orc stopped in front of Raelin.
Unlike the rest of the prisoners, Raelin did not try to make herself as small as possible. She stood as best she could in her starved state, and stared the orc full in the face, glaring. The orc merely leered at her.
“Chok ah, Raelin. You only make your life harder.” He pushed her to the ground hard, and moved on. Two more prisoners were selected, marched out through the door, and then the remaining prisoners were once again confined to the absolute darkness.
A few cried softly. One pounded desperately on the door. Most simply sagged to the burning floor, subdued and defeated. As close as Raelin could tell, the orcs selected some of them every day. It was the only measurement of time they had. No one knew what happened beyond the dungeon, but the faint screams that reached them gave them a good idea.
Raelin couldn’t stand. She remained where the orc had thrown her, too weak to even sit up. The heat radiating from the floor boiled over her, drenching her in sweat. She was thirsty enough even for the terrible water the orcs brought, but she lacked the strength to even crawl across the floor to it. It had taken everything she had to simply stand and face the orc.
Someone coughed, and uttered a cracked word. Most of the prisoners hadn’t spoken for weeks; there was no reason to. They were never questioned. The orcs simply came in, took them, and left. The kyrie tried again. The word sounded a little more familiar this time, rasping over dry and cracked lips. The speaker tried again.
“R – Ra – Rae – aelin?”
Raelin looked up.
“The – orc call – called you Rae –aelin.”
Raelin could see nothing in the darkness, but she could hear one of the prisoners dragging himself closer. A hand touched her face, quickly followed by an intake of breath. “It – is you!”
Raelin knew that voice. But it was impossible. He had died long ago. She reached out a trembling hand. A long beard met her fingers. A familiar face, once powerful, now shrunken. It was him.
“Father!” she cried, launching herself at the kyrie. Tears burst from her eyes, and she fell on Raknar’s shoulder, weeping and laughing at the same time. “I thought you had died,” she whispered through the tears. “We all thought you had died.”
Raknar patted her weakly on the head as she wept. “I’m alive,” he said grimly. “The minions – captured me. I’ve been here – for so long. I’m – I’m sorry you had to join me here.”
Raelin continued to sob. She couldn’t stop the tears from flowing. The reality of her situation came crashing back on her all at once. “Kelda,” she finally choked out, “Kelda is alive and well. And Mallidon too.”
“When did you see them last?” Raknar asked, new strength entering his voice.
“More than two months ago,” Raelin admitted.
“And the war?”
“The war,” Raelin faltered. “I don’t know.”
Raknar sighed. “With any luck, this fighting will soon end, and we will be free. Jandar will win, I know it, and he himself will liberate us.”
Raelin didn’t have the heart to tell Raknar that the alliance was probably gone by now, or that Utgar probably ruled all of Valhalla, entirely unaware and uncaring of their existence. Besides, she had no way of knowing. And as long as she didn’t know, why should she crush hope? Drake had been right. Hope is what keeps us going against all odds. It’s what lets us see the light at the end of the tunnel.
Most of the prisoners had given up hope long ago. But Raknar hadn’t, and neither had Raelin. She had little hope that she would ever escape this dungeon, but she had hope that someday, somehow, the pain would end. And if she could end it, she would. As long as she could see the light at the end of the tunnel, she would pursue it. It was a long tunnel, the longest tunnel of her life.
But all tunnels have an end, no matter how dark.