Ronodin had given Seth strict instructions not to go down into the dungeons. He said the things down there were not only dangerous but cunning, and that Seth wasn't ready to face them yet.
Freshly done with a lesson on how to use his powers and grateful for it, Seth agreed.
And for the first few days, it was easy to keep that promise. Seth was kept busy harnessing his powers and soaking up stories about his old life.
Then Ronodin had gotten called away by some business he looked annoyed by, and it was just Seth and the wraiths.
And the wraiths weren't exactly good company.
Within the first few hours of being functionally alone, Seth learned two very important things about himself.
One, he was easily bored.
And two, the more forbidden a place was, the more eager he got to explore it.
It couldn't be too dangerous, Seth reasoned, looking at the winding stairs that led downward. To other eyes, it would probably look dark, but he could walk down easily.
It wasn't like he had any keys. He couldn't open any of the cell doors no matter how persuasive their inhabitants were. All he could do was look, and looking wouldn't be dangerous, would it?
Of course not. So Seth might as well take a quick peek.
He kept repeating that to himself as he padded softly down the stairs.
The first few cells were disappointingly empty. One about halfway down looked as if it had been recently occupied, judging by the bowl of water no one had yet taken away, but it was empty at the moment.
There was a thick wooden door at the end of the hall that was cracked enticingly open.
Seth hesitated. The cells were all barred, so he hadn't even had to touch anything to look inside those. This was different.
Then again, the door was already cracked. Anything in there that wanted to get out already had the opportunity it needed.
Seth opened the door.
The smell made him gag. The sight was much worse.
When Seth had asked Ronodin if they were the bad guys, his brother had laughed and dodged the question. Seth had decided they were rogues: skirting the law, but ultimately on the right side when it really counted.
The things hanging on the walls in here blew that comfortable illusion right out of the water, and if any scraps of it had survived, the man strapped to the table would have quickly dispelled them.
Whatever they were, they definitely weren't the good guys.
Seth stumbled into the room and swallowed down bile as he took in the condition of the man on the table. Only the man's unsteady breathing hinted at life.
Seth's first instinct was to unstrap the man, but just because Seth's side was apparently bad didn't mean this guy's was good.
And Ronodin had said the dungeon's inhabitants were persuasive. What if he hadn't just meant in words? What if this was all some kind of illusion?
Seth couldn't risk it, but he couldn't just leave the man either.
The man's eyelids fluttered. "Water," he rasped.
Seth was pretty sure he'd jumped about a foot in the air.
"Please . . . water . . . "
Okay. Okay, he could do that. This had to be the guy that normally inhabited that cell about halfway down, right? And there was water in there, so obviously he couldn't do anything dangerous with it, so Seth could do this one thing for him, and Ronodin would never even have to know.
Seth ran for the water. He ended up having to take his shirt off and soak it so he could squeeze the water into the man's mouth bit by bit, but Seth's shirt was mostly clean, so hopefully that was fine.
The man drifted back off when the water was mostly gone.
Seth wasn't sure if he was relieved or disappointed.
Another thing Seth learned about himself: he was really bad at just letting things go.
Ronodin had returned just hours after Seth's little adventure, but even Ronodin had to sleep sometime.
When he did, Seth was ready.
He'd learned to shadowwalk today. It had felt more familiar than some of the skills he'd relearned. Ronodin had waxed eloquent on the many uses for the skill.
Tonight, Seth used it to steal food from the kitchens and sneak it down to the dungeons.
Look, the guy had looked scarily thin, okay? And while it was possible he only the flesh of the innocent, or something, Seth figured it couldn't hurt to at least offer him some bread.
He was relieved to find the prisoner in one of the barred cells instead of that terrible room. He was still badly hurt, but he looked better - enough better that magic had to have been involved at some point.
Judging by the way he was slumped in his manacles against the wall, he was also asleep.
Seth hesitated. He hated to wake him up, but he man clearly needed food, and just leaving it was a risk Seth was unwilling to take. What if someone else saw it?
Seth wasn't sure what Ronodin would do. He was sure he didn't want to find out.
Reluctantly, Seth rapped on the bars.
The man jolted awake. Apparently he didn't have trouble seeing in the dark, because his eyes found Seth immediately. "Seth," he breathed, smiling in what looked like relief. Presumably relief he wasn't Ronodin. "We have got to stop meeting like this."
So he knew the man then, and this wasn't the first time they'd been in a situation like this, so Seth wasn't sure which element the man was referring to. The dungeon? Being on opposite sides of a set of bars?
Seth was glad about the smile, though. It suggested that whatever his reputation for treating prisoners was, he hadn't done anything too terrible. Maybe he was the nicer brother.
"I brought you some bread," he said, pushing it through the bars to a spot he thought the man could reach.
"I'm almost as glad to see that as I am to see you," the man said before tearing into it. "The meal plan here is a good deal more sporadic than the Sphinx's."
The Sphinx. Ronodin had mentioned him a few times, though Seth still hadn't gotten to meet him.
"Speaking of plans, what's ours?" the man asked.
Seth bit his lip. It felt cruel to say it, but . . . "No plan," he admitted. "I just thought you looked hungry."
"I was. I'm glad you brought it down. It'll tide me over till the rescue can get underway."
"This isn't a rescue," Seth insisted. "Unless I can get reliable information about what you've done, I'm not going to even think about opening that door. And I don't have the keys," he added. "So I couldn't if I wanted to."
"What I've - Seth, it's me. You've trusted me for years, you know how I ended up here - "
"I don't even know your name!"
In the silence that followed, Seth almost instantly regretted his outburst. Knowledge was power, Ronodin had told him, and he'd just confessed to having none.
"Bracken," the man said. He sounded pained. "My name's Bracken. We fought at Zzyzx together."
"Was Kendra there?"
"Yes," Bracken said, relieved. "You remember?"
"No. It just fits something Ronodin said." Seth stared at his feet. It had been an ancient battle, then. Back before . . . Before whatever had changed. Maybe Bracken hadn't seen him since then and had assumed they were still on the same side?
"You can't trust Ronodin, Seth," Bracken said urgently, pulling on his chains. "Whatever he's told you, whatever he's done to you, you can't trust him. He's a liar."
"I can't trust anyone," Seth said bitterly. Everyone had their own version of truth to tell him and suddenly he couldn't take it anymore. He turned to go. "I'll try to bring more food."
Bracken sounded desperate.
Seth plugged his ears and ran.
Seth stayed away for two nights before curiosity and guilt drove him down again.
But this time, the door at the end of the hall was closed, and even through it, Seth could hear muffled screams.
Apparently Ronodin wasn't asleep after all.
Seth fled back up the stairs.
Seth laid on his ridiculously opulent bed and stared up at the canopy as he tried to arrange the facts as he knew them.
Once, long ago, Seth, Kendra, and Bracken had fought together. Everyone seemed to agree on that. He and Kendra had apparently been particularly close.
Then, according to Ronodin, they had gone their separate ways. Seth wasn't sure what had happened, but judging by the torture currently going on in the basement, he was going to assume he'd been the one in the wrong.
Enter amnesia. Amnesia Kendra had used, not to get close enough to kill him, but to try to get him back on her side. Either she really wanted his power, or she really missed her brother-in-arms.
At this point, as long as she didn't torture people, Seth didn't much care which.
He'd take Bracken with him. Surely Kendra wouldn't turn an injured ally away. And then . . . they'd see.
But first Seth had to figure out how to master the art of picking locks.
Apparently his magic would do it for him if he got frustrated enough, which was good to know. That was the most definite part of Seth's plans. The rest of it relied on wraiths, luck, and hoping Bracken had some ideas.
Bracken woke up just as Seth was opening the cell door.
"You came back." There was less hope in his voice now. Seth aimed to bring it back.
"I've decided to defect. Mainly because of you, so please don't turn out to be some sort of brain eating zombie." Either the manacles's locks were easier, or he was getting better at this. He made quick work of the shackles.
"Not a zombie," Bracken promised as Seth pulled him to his feet. "What's the plan?"
"You're not going to like it," Seth warned.
Bracken winced as he stumbled forwards. "I assure you, I'll like it better than this."
"Right." Seth looped an arm around Bracken's back to help him walk. "I've learned how to make shields to protect other people from the negative effects of touching the undead."
"And . . . ?"
"And did you know that there are some varieties of wraith that can fly?"