Seth had been in the cell for days. They'd been feeding him, which was something, but he'd heard nothing of Morgan. During that time, what he'd heard all too much of was the near constant anguish of the poor souls who were being turned by the blood mage. Seth's outlook was surprisingly light, and he had no idea why. He guessed, correctly, that much of his calmness had something to do with the lack of distressing feedback through his link to Morgan. He couldn't actually identify any kind influence but he was just reassured somehow.

The others around him were not so lucky.

A major part of the early conditioning of a drone was the soul-crushing effect of witnessing the suffering of the others in their lot. Some of the poor wretches would be brought back into the cells during brief breaks in their torture. When one was brought into the cell Seth shared with another man, Seth recognized the opportunity.

The young man with him was fit and had some experience fighting in the streets and alleys of the city where he'd grown up. The guards hadn't chained either of them too anything and they didn't seem ready to deal with anything except the totally disheartened or the wildly panicked. Seth had spent his time reaching down, talking to the worn out young man. Making a connection, and, even though it was kind of cruel, getting the kid to understand just how final his position was. In short, making him into a weapon.

As a group they had exactly no chance. The men and women in the cells were lost, and they'd come to understand that dying was their best option. Seth himself was alone in possibly having a future worth having. He would give these people a chance to rise up. To strike back, however futile that gesture would be. And in doing that, they could just barely give him the chance to do something substantial toward ending this whole thing.

That was the deal he'd made with the young man, whose name he refused to think, but which he knew, no matter how much he tried to blot it out of his guilty conscience.

The down side was that the moment they acted against any of the drones the blood mage would know, so it would be a race against time to get the others out of their cells.

The wretch they'd brought into Seth's cell was already broken and Seth made the only connection to him he could. Seth promised to kill him if he'd do what was needed on cue. It took a while to get that through. The man's sanity was gone and part of its being driven off was the repeated broken promise of final relief. But Seth did make him understand, and believe, and then it was a matter of waiting.

Finally four guards came to return the man to his torment. He was limp as he'd been when they brought him in and both Seth and the young man were ready. As the jailers began to drag their captive out Seth cleared his throat. The tortured man played his role perfectly. He began to wail to cover the sounds of Seth and his cell mate moving into position and then he suddenly laid into one of the guards holding him, biting the man's right bicep to the bone and chomping down with all his insanity behind it. Seth and his cell-mate charged the group and their combined weight drove them out into the hall.

The tortured man tortured his captor back, gnawing like a dog; his cell mate fought with desperate furry; but Seth himself simply killed.

Only a strong, skilled man can kill with a single unarmed blow, and only certain of those blows kill fast enough to prevent the victim from making an ongoing nuisance of himself. Seth knew how to strike those blows the way a painter knows how to stroke a brush across canvas. The question of whether he could really ever kill again was settled in no uncertain terms.

Moving with lightning speed Seth fed all of the strength in his upper body into the heel of his right hand, which landed like a piston against the chest of the head jailer, stopping his heart and rupturing his lung. He pivoted on his left foot and his right heel caught the next armsman under the ear, shearing the base of his skull off of his spine at the atlas. The third man went down with a shattered windpipe, his own vocal-cord muscles choking off his vital breath.

His cell mate knew his job. As soon as those three were out of the way he broke from his opponent and got the keys from the dead jailer.

Seth took the sword from the choking man and put him down. Then he cut into the man who was still fighting to get his arm free of the insane jaws of the tortured stranger.

Seth's cell mate was busily opening the other cells but no reinforcements had come yet. It'd only been a few seconds. Seth gently stepped in front of his other accomplice, and then slipped around behind him. He was waiting patiently, straight up on his knees. Seth gripped his jaw gently with one hand and leaned his head against his own shoulder and used his other arm to hug and support his body. Then, strangely inspired, Seth kissed his temple, a last loving act for a man who thought never to feel a welcomed thing again, and fulfilled his promise.

He snapped his neck.

* * *

The escape attempt went on for quite a while before any sign of organized resistance made itself felt. All the cells were opened and they turned out to contain a varied assortment of competent fighters. They were all well-fed because they'd need their strength to survive being cut down, and apparently a good number had been chosen for their fitness to become half-drone armsmen. Those factors alone gave them near-control of the dungeon in almost no time.

The blood mage himself failed to raise the alarm because he was lost in the pain-lust of his work, cutting down some poor soul in the main room. A mistake of youth, simple inexperience left him lost in the moment when he did is work. Those of his half-drones who were not actively involved in the cutting didn't offer much resistance. They themselves wanted to die as much as any living thing could. Free of orders to the contrary, they allowed themselves to be slaughtered, actively trying not to give notice to their tormentor.

So much for the novel new use of blood magic. Leaving these men the tiny fragments of their personal will gave them the freedom to let themselves die.

Seth and his insurrection were well on their way to taking an entire wing of the subterranean prison almost silently and without casualty when Seth slipped away and crept carefully toward the opening of the central room.

There in the middle was the young mage plying his trade on a form splayed out on the rack. Seth watched him for a moment as his dagger trailed its way through the flesh of the helpless man. The movement was so familiar that Seth's flesh crawed at the memory. The mage was shivering as well. Drooling in near-orgasm as he worked. Around him were several full drones, spell-casters, protecting him and pinning open the operant channels of the victim in certain ways helpful to their master.

Seth charged.

Without his natural resistance he would never have covered the distance. As the drones turned their attention on him, what they saw could not be reconciled with what they could not asense. Seth made it to within arms reach of the first of them before the blood mage, apparently cleverer than most of his breed, seized on Seth's mundane sword as a target and let loose.

Heat flashed up through the blade, burning Seth seriously on the hand and across his thigh. Seth was not only resistant, he was lucky. If he'd been holding the sword high it would have done him far more harm. He dropped the sword at the first sensation of heat and it flared into brilliance and evaporated on the floor behind him as he barreled over the nearest drone on his way to the mage.

Seth caught the mage up by the shirt as he tackled him to the floor.

“Where's Morgan?” he demanded.

The mage found his tongue at the sound of words, but what came out of his mouth was indecipherable garbage to Seth's ears.

Seth knew that the mage would be able to talk, and understand, through one of the drones if it spoke Trade, and he was just thinking of how to make him comply when the rebellion broke out of the hall into the central room.

The drones began doing their jobs and the escapees began to scream and die in a volley of magic they couldn't hope to counter.

Seth had no choice. He couldn't let those men die just to save Morgan. He let himself do what his every essence demanded of him. He killed the mage without getting what he needed to know.

He killed him several times over.

He let out the barest fraction of his rage and wrought unspeakable, bare-handed harm on the youth for long seconds. What he did went beyond violence and well into the realm of defiling a corpse. It actually stopped the mayhem around him for a moment.

Then the moment passed and Seth regained his sense.

The instant the blood mage died the nine hells broke loose all around. The half-drone armsmen were all totally insane, and suddenly free of the mind tethering the remaining fragments of their self-control, they laid into whatever they could find. Some of the drone spell-casters simply collapsed where they were in drooling paroxysms while others began releasing random flashes of destructive energy.

Seth bellowed two orders. “Free who you can! Kill the rest!”

The men around him knew what he meant, and set about their work.

* * *

Seth followed his instincts. Morgan was not in the dungeon. Probably. That meant he was somewhere above, and Seth had to find him before `That Woman' and whoever else was left spirited him away.

Thinking better of running upstairs alone, he paused to pick out two men who looked like they really knew what they were doing with their captured weapons.

“You... and you, come with me.” And they did.

At the top of the stairs there was a heavy door, but such doors are, strangely enough given that dungeons contain dangers, usually bolted from the inside. Seth had it unbolted and the three of them were through just before the first signs of regular reinforcements arrived.

It was one normal guardsman.

Seth bellowed “RUN!” at the lone man in a particularly nasty, animalistic way.

He took one look at Seth, wild, tattooed, and covered with blood and bits of flesh. His face paled, he threw down his sword, and fled.

The meager handful of skilled armsmen that had not been sent to the blood mage were already looking for any excuse to leave and, to a man, the first sight of Seth sent them scurrying away, suddenly reminded of pressing business on some other continent. Everywhere else there were mindless or maddened drones sitting or raving as appropriate. Seth ignored those that didn't get in his way and dispatched those that rushed him in their madness. The whole thing was kind of a problem because he couldn't question the fleeing and there was no point in questioning the rest.

The only option was to look for some kind of workroom inside while he sent his two companions outside to look for any sign of an organized departure.

* * *

The inside search ended up being the correct option. Most mages lose the common sense to get on a horse and ride away when any option involving magic was available. Even though it took him nearly fifteen minutes to find, eventually Seth got to a small suite of rooms where Rienaegh and Calhwin were trying to gather their things, and Morgan, and open a portal.

The instant he opened the front door of the suite they'd gone dead quiet, Seth would have missed them if he hadn't caught a glimpse of Morgan's staff laying on a bed partly visible through an inner doorway. He stepped silently into the room and closed the door behind him noisily. Then he waited for any kind of sound from elsewhere in the suite. Finally motion resumed in one of the farther rooms.

Seth crept through the suite, stalking the whispered shuffling sounds.

When he reached the opening to the small rear bedroom he peeked around the corner and there they were.

Rienaegh was looking harried, her hair all disheveled and, despite her attempts at practiced poise, she was shifting nervously from foot to foot.

Calhwin was intently working what looked like a tapestry that was haphazardly hung, and festooned with little bits of debris in a regular pattern. Seth guessed that the problem was the way the fabric was sagging. There was a disassembled framework in a pile on the ground, not that any of that really mattered to him at the moment. As long as they'd been delayed.

Morgan was standing next to Rienaegh.

He was facing in Seth's general direction, and Seth waited a few heartbeats hoping to catch Morgan's eye, but Morgan didn't so much as blink. The next thing that occurred to Seth was that Morgan was bare to the waist and apparently unrestrained. He couldn't afford to wait.

Seth started to creep in but before he got more than a step Rienaegh spotted him, dropped what was in her arms, and snatched a dagger up against Morgan's throat.

“Move and he dies.”

Seth froze in his step even as Calhwin snapped his head around in surprise.

“Well... at last... something seems to control you,” she said smugly, “drop your sword and stand up.”

Seth followed the orders.

“You've caused me a lot of trouble you filthy animal, but now I'll get what I really want from you.”

He didn't like the sound of that, nor did he like the way Morgan was oblivious to everything, not even seeming to notice the knife at his throat.

Calhwin stepped forward, “the only thing I want from you is this.” He lifted Lady Korane's book from the small pile of things they were intending to take with them. “Open it.”

Calhwin heaved the book down onto the table and slid it to Seth.

Seth wasn't sure that Lady Korane would have actually approved, but if they wanted him to open it, that's what he'd do. He worked the clasps and the book opened as usual. Seth impassively looked back at them, turned to book so that they could read it, and started to slide it back across the table.

“Wait!” Rienaegh bellowed.

Seth stopped and waited, he was playing a dangerous game and he didn't want to get things too volatile. Rienaegh's eyes went all distant. She was casting for something but hopefully she wouldn't be able to see the danger.

Seconds passed.

Seth became aware of slipper-covered footsteps coming to the door behind him.

A free servant, a woman of no more than seventeen years, came in and went directly to Rienaegh and curtsied.

“Yes, my lady?” She didn't seem at all phased by finding her lady holding a knife to someone's throat.

“That... person...” Rienaegh began with obvious distaste, “has a book we are interested in. Would you go check it for us?”

Seth had only moments to consider. Letting the book kill this probably innocent servant would get him nothing, and would definitely spoil any future opportunity to unleash its protections against those deserving two. This was not the time.

Seth slammed the book shut before the servant had more than turned her head.

“Just as I thought” Rienaegh barked smugly. “Send it back.”

Seth slid the closed book back across the long smooth table.


* * *

Rienaegh said “Mesacha, dear, would you take up those things for me?” Indicating the small pile of what would serve as their luggage. “And Master Calhwin, I believe you were seeing to our egress...?”

Then she returned her attention to Seth.

“As you can see I am having no trouble with the rest of our little party, and I think I shall have little trouble with you once you understand a few things. I have rather a strong hold on this young man” she said, ruffling Morgan's hair with her free hand “and if you disappoint me again it will be he who pays the price.”

Rienaegh lowered the knife and turned Morgan by the shoulders.

At the place where Morgan's neck met the line of his shoulders there was a tuft of green half as wide as his back. It tapered to a point on his spine just above the his belt-line. And whatever else it was, it was just coming into bloom. Tiny purple flowers were newly budding in the fluffy green mass.

“This is a little something from my home land. A plant that feeds on operant creatures. It is holding him in check, and I, in turn, am holding it back. Should I suffer any... inconvenience... and lose my grip on it, it would hollow him out,” she touched her temple, “in a matter of minutes.

“I suspect that as long as I hold him, I hold you. And so we five will be leaving presently.”

She was right, if she was telling the truth, and he was fairly sure she was.

They would, indeed, be leaving presently.