Seth's mind wandered back toward the world, accompanied by the distant sound of talking.

“... is this one? Golem?”

A second voice said “No, I don't see how he could be. He's of a piece, not sewn together from parts, and there is no sense of the necessary energies.”

Seth tried to open one eye but found there was no point. He was blindfolded.

“But you said you got no sense of anything at all, so why not golem?” The first voice again.

There was a sour taste in Seth's mouth. He flexed his jaw slightly. A gag of some sort. Used. Slightly rotten leather and other people's' spit and old vomit.

“Because if he were golem there is no way that kind of magic could be here without creating some kind of disturbance. I think he must be shielded somehow, but nothing could shield the raw force required to animate flesh.”

“So what are the markings?”

“eh...” the first voice foundered between attempted wizenedom and raw uncertainty, then gave in “I have no idea. `Wasn't even aware that glyphs and runes like these could be commingled with the sorcerous tongue...”

Before he could actually form the intent to try to move, the bonds digging slightly but firmly into his body told him he was fully trussed.

“Fine, so you don't know about this one. What of the other?”

“Certainly a mage, he carries the athame and its power leads back to him in no uncertain terms. I find no pathways to carry that power, but there could be any number of reasons...”

At least he knew Morgan was alive.

“Don't bother. Are they of any value?”

Seth didn't like the way that last was said at all.

“None to us beyond the reward.”

“Then you think these are the ones?”

Damn, not good at all, he thought, have to watch for any opportunity.

“The description of this one is clear enough, but the other... Seems they'd have mentioned all the color.”

“They said he was marked, arms legs, and back.”

“This is more than `marked'.”

“Things change, perhaps it's something the mage did. Who cares. Send word we think we have them. If they're so hot for the two they seek, they'll know if the two we have are theirs.”

“As you say.”

“And make sure the mage doesn't wake.”

“The spells are already in place. He'll not stir until he's let.”

Damned to all hells, that was nothing like he wanted to hear. Then the soft thunk of hooves on soil carried the sense of looming presence away. Hooves but no leather, no tack. Centaurs. Only thing that made sense. The surface under him felt like a table so whereever they were it passed for the local version of `inside'. That wasn't the kind of talk men had ahorse anyway. Definitely centaurs.

Not good at all.

* * *

Seth had been listening for Morgan's breathing for a while but he still wasn't sure which way the mage lay. He wanted to get closer to him. He reasoned that if he'd been able to shield Morgan before he might be able weaken or ruin whatever spell held Morgan unconscious. It wasn't a sure thing at all, but trying to do something like that was better than just lying there.

Seth moved as much as he could, but he was on a very short leash. With his wrists bound to his ankles behind his back he had only the flexibility of his body from his knees to his forehead. He got maybe nine inches when he came up against some sort of post. There was nothing for it but to wait.

Hours later someone came.

Without any preamble they held a foul-smelling cloth to Seth's face. He knew the scent. He struggled to avoid it but he had no leeway. He shook his head but they pinning his head to the table and nearly smothered him with the rag anyway. Seth's mind began to cloud and then he passed out.

* * *

Drifting in and out of consciousness wasn't exactly Seth's strong suit, so it took him a while to figure out where he was.

In a sack.

On a wagon.

On a really marginal road.

Slow-roasting in the sun.

The heat inside the burlap bag was stifling but Seth had no choice but to bear it. He was still tied up. An added bonus was the tingling in his hands. The ropes were too tight and cutting off his circulation at the wrists. If it went on too long there could be nerve damage. Morgan would likely be able to heal anything serious but he'd probably need to be rescued first and to rescue them Seth needed his hands. He struggled around a little to try to ease the situation. The possibility of losing the use of his hands when he needed them to rescue Morgan made him sweat more than the stifling heat.

Frustration was transforming back into boredom by the time Seth felt the wagon come to a halt. There'd been momentary stops along the way but this time some sort of muffled conversation reached Seth through the heavy canvas. The entire journey had been terribly silent, no talking or other signs of life had been evident. Now a quietly urgent but still oddly subdued ruckus was taking place just outside Seth's confinement.

In short order Seth felt someone mount the wagon and start messing around with the contents. There was very little warning. Someone grabbed the bag he was in and pulled it out of the wagon, letting it drop to the ground with a rib-punishing thud. If he hadn't known to lift his head he'd have likely been brained by the impact. There was another thud right next to him, which he could only guess was Morgan getting the same treatment. When the thudding continued he realized that Morgan may not be anywhere near him. After a couple more thuds there was a period of silence and then finally, some rustling and then the dull edge of a knife along his spine as someone slit the bag open.

A rope was slipped around Seth's neck and tied there snugly. There was some vague tugging on the rope and Seth realized he was being tied into a picket. He hopped that he was at one end of the picket where he'd have at least a chance of escaping, but when his blindfold was taken off and his feet untied he found himself in the middle. He'd been the first one off the cart but they'd tied the group together in a “U” shape with him at the unfortunate crux.

Blinking in the light, which was harsh on his eyes after the prolonged darkness, two things were immediately clear. He was in the midst of a truly motley group of prisoners, and they were all headed for an miserable end. Their captors were more of those half-drone armsmen. This was clearly a group of new “recruits” and as beaten and humiliated as they already were, none of his fellow captives had the slightest clue how much worse it would soon be getting.

On the brighter side, maybe, there was no sign of Morgan on the picket.

Seth wasn't sure that this was really a good sign, but he didn't get the chance to ponder it. When the last of the men had stood and taken the chance to stamp some life into their newly released legs, the drones began prodding the picket into some sort of formation. The jostling and pricking brought Seth to the bed of the wagon, apparently by design. In the back of the wagon Morgan was laid out, his eyes open but unseeing and his mouth slack and drooling. He didn't look well, but the drool meant he was alive. One of the drones, his left arm raw and covered with bite marks, got into the wagon and dragged Morgan to the gate.

“Get him...” He half-grunted, somehow managing to sound aggressive and vague at the same time.

Seth knew they meant for him to carry the unconscious form. He was the clear choice because he was the largest member of the picket and the only person on the trail not obviously impaired, unhealthy, or, he thought to himself, completely insane and unreliable. “Hands.” Seth grunted back.

The drone brought his left wrist to his mouth and bit down on it all too cruelly in thought, making Seth wince in sympathy. Eyes widened, he glanced around in thought, his teeth gnawing on his own wrist. Finally he nodded and one of the other drones slipped up and cut Seth's wrist free. Seth chaffed his wrists a moment to both get some circulation and feeling back into his hands, and because the drone's continued gnawing made not touching his own wrists impossible. Seth arranged the picket rope over his left shoulder and then he reached into the wagon and juggled Morgan over his right shoulder in a soldier's carry.

The drones got the picket moving up the path, and from his view in the middle of the close march Seth had no idea why the wagons had been abandoned. The tract looked perfectly serviceable and the leader of the picket was clearly being sent right along the way. Then, as the leader passed the front of the oxen hitched to the cart, he began to get all blurry and hard to look at. Then he was gone and the picket rope stretched forward from the next man into empty air. That, at least, was a partial explanation. Seth thought that maybe the wagon was too big for the gateway or the space beyond.

Seth was tenth on the picket and as the third man started into the gate there was a wailing from several of the drones and then the man in the gate crumpled to the ground. Seth could barely see ahead but he knew from experience that he didn't want to see all that much. The drones where suddenly in a frenzy trying to get the slow moving picket line to reverse directions.

As the bound men began to back away of their own accord as much as by the shoves of the drones, Seth knew that they were towing a mangled body, on what was the new lead end of the picket, out of the portal. Seth got a sideways look at one of the other prisoners in the bustle and could see a faint flickering light reflected off his body. It was reflected light from the gate, barely detectable in the daylight, visible only because it was flickering and sputtering. As they backed away the flickering effect vanished. The other man was still looking up the path, so Seth assumed the gate was still there.

A suspicion formed in Seth's mind and he hoped fervently it was true. Maybe whoever or whatever was holding the portal open was having trouble because of Seth's presence. He clearly had no desire to go wherever the gate lead and Morgan had told him that he had a dampening effect on magic. Maybe as long as he could stay close to Morgan he could keep them from ending up on the other side of the gate. The down side, of course, was still being tied in the picket. If his captors figured out the same thing there was no telling how they would react and he couldn't do much to defend himself or Morgan with no weapons whilst tied to 16 other men and part of a corpse.

There was some general milling about amongst the half-drone armsmen for a bit and then a full drone appeared out of the portal. The drone seemed to be sniffing the air or something and then it approached Seth and Morgan. Seth barely suppressed the mind numbing shudder that tried to crawl up his spine at the close-up sight of those empty eyes in an otherwise tortured face. It just stood there not-seeing him for the longest time, and then turned away. A few moments later Seth saw a familiar form emerging from the gate.

Seth's palms itched with the desire to kill Lady Rienaegh Annaoral even before he consciously realized it was her. She snapped several orders that Seth couldn't quite hear. Seth didn't think those tortured souls could be terrorized any more, but they were. They started scrambling. When they got a little organization behind them the action started to center around Seth. Once he was surrounded by itchy men with drawn swords the one with the self-chewed wrist half-spoke and then gestured at the wagon bed.

Seth maneuvered back to the bed, largely tugging the others on the picket along by the strength of his own neck. He laid Morgan down on the wagon as gently as he could. Then he let his hands be bound behind his back again. Now was not the time to strike, and he wasn't sure that he could restrain himself if that woman got within arms reach so it was just a well.

By the time the drone was finished Seth was as securely tied as anybody he'd ever seen. His arms and torso could only move as one. Clearly someone was vary scared, and he was somewhat surprised that it wasn't him.

Seth was dragged back away from the wagon several yards by the picket. From that vantage he watched Annaoral begin examining Morgan. Just seeing her touch him brought a rage into Seth that he didn't fully understand and could barely contain. He watched her do magic he couldn't see and Morgan started to rouse.

At his first move two of the armsmen rushed in and flipped Morgan onto his stomach.

Annaoral took half a step back in shock, then stepped forward and lowered something brownish-green onto Morgan's exposed back.

She watched him for a while, and then at a gesture the two nearest armsmen rolled him over again and picked him up between them. Then they hustled him off through the gate.

She flicked her hair back in a way that made Seth want tear her head off, and then she too went through the gate.

The rest of the armsmen roused the picket and got them headed unsteadily toward the portal. They balked a bit but the odd hit with whatever was at hand got them through the gate.

This time Seth didn't object to going through and the hoped fervently that it would work. He didn't like the idea of Morgan being god knows where without him, even if he weren't in any position to help.