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"Stay back!" The prisoner's voice was worn thin by too many years of starvation and abuse. Sennet could not see inside the cell; two twisted bodies stacked in the doorway blocked her view.
Behind her, a half dozen armed elven soldiers crouched, ready to attack if the prisoner proved to be too dangerous for her to handle. Even considering the fact he had killed two Unseleighe, Sennet doubted she would have much trouble subduing him. She rubbed the back of her hand over her forehead and glanced at her companions.
"I'm with Seleighe," she said, keeping her voice calm and soothing. "We're here to free you."
"Stay back!" His voice bordered on hysteria. She saw a shadow on the other side of the bodies, but she couldn't make out enough detail to identify the prisoner. Not that she truly expected to. Unseleighe's dungeons were filled with death. Even her own brother ... but she wouldn't think about him now.
"You've come to kill me!"
"No. We've come to set you free. How long have you been a prisoner?" They had found only corpses so far. Sennet had volunteered for dungeon duty, but she hadn't expected this.
"You're here to kill me. You've tricked me before. Don't come any closer!"
She could not tell from the voice if the prisoner was human or elven; exhaustion colored every word he spoke.
"It's no trick," she said, silently hoping the rest of the prisoners weren't as paranoid as this one. "My name is Sennet. I'm here with Seleighe. Your captors are long gone."
One of the bodies slowly slid forward and fell in the middle of the corridor. Sennet saw a grubby hand move one of the dead soldiers' sashes out of theway, but she couldn't see enough detail to make out the prisoner's face.
"What did you say your name was?" Now his voice was choked with tears.
"My name is Sennet. I'm a healer. If you're wounded, I can help you."
"S ... Sennet?"
"What's your name?" Sennet asked.
"No. You're lying. Did Zeiredan send you here to kill me? Tell her to leave me alone. She can't hurt me anymore." The prisoner laughed--a hollow, aching sound. "No one can."
"How do you know I'm lying?" Sennet glanced at the soldiers and shook her head. They moved back a few feet, still ready to attack. She wished they would go away.
"Because..." his voice cracked and dropped to a whisper. "Because ... because my sister Sennet is dead."
At first, Sennet could not comprehend what he had said. She stared at the bodies without truly seeing them, shock numbing her thoughts. Not once in the months leading up to this moment had she allowed herself to think she might find Cullen alive. Not once. She had spent the past four years searching for him. Was this some unnatural trap Unseleighe had left for her? Did she dare push the bodies aside to find out?
"Sennet?" one of the elves stared at her. "Did he just..."
Sennet licked her lips. "W ... what did you say?"
"It doesn't matter. My sister is dead. And you're Unseleighe, sent here to kill me."
She heard the prisoner turn and stumble away. "Wait!" Sennet jumped up and clawed at the bodies, pushing them out of the way until the path was clear. She snagged a torch from the wall and thrust it into the cell.
At the other end, a filthy figure crouched low and covered his head with his arms. Sennet gasped and felt the torch slip out of her hand. She let it fall. It smoldered on the rotting straw and cast a wavering light against the half-familiar figure of her brother. Although she had no doubt now, she had to ask.
"Cullen?" Her voice did not sound like her own. She took a step forward and something squished under her boot. "Cullen, is that really you?"
"Stay back." He tried to stand.
She saw a deep scar on his leg and a fresher wound right above it, still leaking blood.
"Stay back or you'll end up like the others. I swear it."
"Cullen, what must I do to make you believe I am your sister?" Sennet asked. She wracked her brain for some childhood memory only Cullen would share, but she could think of nothing. They had not been together long enough before their parents' death, and the subsequent discovery of her healing talent. And afterwards ... they had lost touch. She had seen him four times in the past fifteen years. That last time, right before he vanished, he had looked haunted and worn by something he would not discuss.
"You're not." He kept his face turned away from her, and she wondered if Unseleighe had disfigured him in some way. Their tortures were legendary, after all, and the brother of a healer in Seleighe's employ would not have been spared.
"Sennet." One of the elves stepped into the cell behind her. "The bodies..."
Sennet glanced over her shoulder. "What about them?"
"They..." the elf's eyes flickered to where Cullen still crouched. "There is very little blood left."
"Were they killed here?" Sennet saw no telltale bloodstains on the straw, but it was hard to tell. And what would have made them bleed so heavily? "How did they die?"
"I killed them," Cullen whispered. "I had to."
The elf hesitated. "There are ... puncture wounds. On their ... necks. On their wrists. One has been stabbed, but the other..."
Puncture wounds. Nearly drained of blood. Coldness settled in Sennet's chest. She stared at the elf for a moment, and then turned back to her brother. "Cullen, what did they do to you?"
"Leave me alone," Cullen whispered, and slid to the floor. He clasped his knees to his chest and buried his head in his arms. "Stay away. My sister is dead."
"I thought you were dead," Sennet said, determined to erase his fear. "After you vanished, I looked for you." She stared at his long, tapered fingers. The last two fingers of his right hand were bent and twisted under his palm, hiding behind the stronger ones like crippled children. "I looked for you everywhere."
"Stay back. Please, stay back."
"I even got special permission to petition Unseleighe for your release if you were a prisoner," Sennet continued. "Talora--the Queen--agreed to release an Unseleighe prisoner if you were freed. But Unseleighe claimed they did not hold you."
"How long have you been here?" Sennet inched closer to him and held out her hands. "Why don't you let me help you?" She could file the mystery of the dead Unseleighe in the back of her mind for now. A healer, first and foremost, heals. And Cullen needed her help.
"Stay back." He raised his head and stared at her. Tears hovered on his eyelashes and threatened to wash away the filth that covered his skin. His lips were stained with blood. Sennet's heart sank. "You're..." He lifted his hand to push her away and she caught it in her grasp.
She knew, then, what Unseleighe had done to him, but she didn't say it out loud. Instead, she focused healing energy to his twisted hand and let her talent seek out his other wounds.
Cullen tried to pull away. Sennet held fast until he relaxed, then gathered him into her arms. "Cullen, I'm so sorry."
He stiffened against her for a long moment. She placed her hands on the top of his head and let her glow seep through his body. Under the dirt, his skin took on a golden tinge.
"Are you really my sister?" He closed his eyes and leaned his head against her chest, spent and worn. Sennet tried not to wrinkle her nose at the smell of human waste and old blood. She could not blame him for the stench; the dungeons were rife with the sour smell of death. And he had been a prisoner for a very long time. She saw scars beneath his tattered clothes and wished she could find a way to remove them--and their subsequent memories--from her brother's mind.
"Yes, Cullen." She stroked the side of his face with one hand and felt the ridge of an old scar beside one eye. His face was largely unmarked, but lined with exhaustion as if he could not bring himself to sleep.
"And you're not here to kill me?" One of his hands groped against her arm and settled behind her neck.
Sennet tried not to identify the small lumps that scurried through his hair. She would help him take a bath, if needed, and make sure he had clean clothes. And plenty of ... she sighed. And plenty of blood to drink.
"No, Cullen. I'm not here to kill you."
He took a deep breath and let it out, even though he had not been breathing before. "Do you know what they did to me?"
"I think so," Sennet said. She glanced back at the elves crowding the doorway. All held weapons, but they didn't seem to be very eager to use them. "Who did this to you?"
Cullen's hand slipped away from her neck. He leaned his head against the wall and opened his eyes. "You know what I am."
"And you're still not going to kill me?"
He wiped the blood from his lips and pointed to the soldiers behind Sennet. His hand shook. "What about them? Will Seleighe kill me?"
"No, they won't." Sennet glared at the elves until they retreated back into the corridor. "No one will hurt you ever again."
"I wish I could believe you," Cullen whispered. His eyes closed, then flickered open again.
"Who did this to you?"
Cullen ignored her question and slowly rose to his feet. He had not grown much taller since Sennet had seen him last; she still topped him by nearly an inch. He favored his right leg when he stepped away from the wall. Sennet offered her arm for support.
"You'll want to know about Orien, then," Cullen said to the elves. "He's here too."
"Who?" The name sounded vaguely familiar, but Sennet couldn't place it.
Cullen faced the elves and would not meet Sennet's gaze. "Orien. Talora's brother. The Crown Prince of Seleighe. He's here too."
As one, the six elves stepped forward.
"Where?" one asked. "Is he still alive?"
Cullen's smile held no humor. His muscles quivered against Sennet's arm. "He's just as alive as I am."
The elf stepped back, confused. "What do you mean?"
"Who do you think did this to me?"