Winterdark

Robert White

1155 Aberdeen Ave NE
Renton, WA. 98056-2828

Prologue

Commander Morgan al'Whaelin d'Arte sat astride his horse and looked across the moonlit field with undisguised dread. Wild K'kava was dangerous at night and it had been night for nearly sixty hours now. The three moons of Winterdark had been frozen in the sky for far too long and the creatures of day and night were all astir in the worst possible ways. The small community at the heart of the K'kava fields was now besieged by both the vines and a pack of Ulthuur that had come to feed on them.
"Sergeant? What do you think?"
First Sergeant Nadrine Guillman turned in her saddle to face her commander. "I didn't even know K'kava could flower."
"Looks more like mouths to me" wafted forward from the ranks.
Morgan looked over his shoulder, "you're more than half right Colin. Got anything Nad?"
"The vines are sparse across the loose shale to the north, but getting back out that way will be impossible with both horse and villagers."
Morgan nodded, "So we can come in from the north, but we'll have to fight our way out. The Ulthuur are having quite an impact to the south east. Maybe we can wait for them to resolve a little more of their issues and then go out through there."
Nadrine looked it over. "That could work sir, as long as the villagers can hold their wall."
"No point in waiting Nad, we can shore up their defenses and coordinate our exit."
"Yes sir, and with any luck, the Draw will come soon and we won't have to do more than help defend."
Morgan didn't shake his head, but he was fairly sure that was a false hope. He sent his mind down into the realm and felt the same wrongness he'd been feeling for at least thirty hours. The Draw was long overdue and Morgan was beginning to suspect it might never come.
"Sergeant, arrange the troop in two ranks, alternating by gender. We'll be using elemental electricity. Polearms and gloves, blood and glass."
The Sergeant wheeled her mount and addressed the troop.
Morgan drove his mind out and down. Somewhere there had to be a good source of energy that wasn't all fouled up by whatever was going on. It was hard to get a line in or through anything but eventually he managed it, almost by force of will alone. A node. A rich node of something odd which was nonetheless overflowing with energy. He spread a bit of himself out in the node and begged it to make electricity for him.
He surfaced from the aether, crackling with potential. Each member of his troop had a short bladed lance out and ready. In this case ready meant they had each socketed a glass talisman into the haft. It was good, old-style sympathetics. The glass had been christened with Morgan's blood, and then the blood of each talisman's owner. It created a sympathetic bond that let Morgan simply open his mind to the weapons as one.
They spread out in his mind, the weapons and the people, arranged in a complex space of traits and properties. He didn't plan anything fancy, simple gender separation. Men with a negative charge, women with a positive. And the thinking was the doing, as the thought formed a buzzing tension gathered about them all.
"Strike in pairs. Center mass. Sequences if you can place them. Any questions?" Morgan didn't expect any, they'd drilled this pattern before, and he knew his people were good. Besides, Nad would really lead the combat. He'd be busy.
They rode forward, Morgan and Nadrine forming the short crossbar of an elongated "H" and Morgan's mind was spinning out ahead of them looking for advantages.
The K'kava was awake in a way it really couldn't possibly have been. It was vaguely sentient, and somehow seeing daylight and night at the same time, as if the field were partially in another world or another time.
The first file surged forward and swept wide, verging into the writhing mat of vines on either side of their path. The second file went a little further towards the village stockade before turning into vines. Both of the leaders had each already found a juicy central trunk and, keeping the spikes on the tips of their lances buried deep into the woody mains, they were dancing their mounts, hoping the next file would find strong hits before the plant rallied itself to do more than grab at the horses' feet.
Morgan could feel a potential between those first two hits, but it was long path that would be too hard to force without intense need.
The third lance went in somewhere on the right and electricity poured loose. Vines writhed and blackened and a keening started up that everyone hoped was just boiling sap.
The next strikes enlivened Morgan's awareness of something being terribly wrong. A considerable current flowed up from the realm, though his mind, through his men's weapons, and out through the K'kava. It connected him. It brought perspectives he shouldn't have had and he didn't really want. It filled him with unwanted energy, a fragment of the differential between what was supposed to be happening and what was actually going on in its place.
It rose in him like bile. He tried to ignore it and then he tried to suppress it. The more he tried to let it go or push it away the stronger it became. It wasn't going away and it wasn't something he could keep. It was a bad thing and he had to get rid of it, whatever it was.
Morgan opened his eyes and threw himself from his horse. He bellowed "Ride for the stockade! Run!" Then he charged into K'kava, ignoring the way the vines snagged at him and unaware of the way every fiber that touched him withered as it fell away. It didn't matter. He had to rid himself of the energy. When he'd gotten as far as he could in the little time he dared risk, he faced away from everything and vomited up a burst of chaos.
A great gout of not-flame, a glowing icy excretion of surprisingly cohesive destruction, whipped itself into existence all around him. He pushed it away from himself and then did everything he could to control the burst, or at least funnel it away in the least harmful direction. To do that he had to reach out and bind all manner of things. Unfortunately everything he touched in the process tried to latch into him. Whatever the wrongness was, it seemed to have an affinity for him, or he for it.
For some annoying and inexplicable reason the knot of destruction refused to go safely up into the sky, so after an unending moment of coercion, he made it leap away at ground level towards the edge of the world.
But the crisis left him with a mind full of bindings and an increased understanding of just how badly everything was going.
Deep inside, Morgan felt the end of the world. The impending, absolute dissolution of his reality, and he decided to save what he could. He wove a shield around the stockade and its inhabitants and began summoning in every useful thing he could think of, peeling away and redirecting the wrongness from everything he strove to preserve.
His half formed plan was to try to push his new-made bubble of preservation out through the margins and into a different reality. It wasn't something he knew how to do, or even really the first thing about how to start doing, but it was the only thing that seemed possible.
He began to feel the crushing change rumbling out from the center of the world. A shifting and a stretching that didn't belong. And gravity. Far too much gravity. It tore down buildings and pressed the life out of man and beast. It snatched birds from the sky, suffocated whales in the depths, and broke the backs of oxen in the fields. And whatever was causing the changes was somehow both horrified and delighted at the suffering.
Morgan lay in the field amidst the dead K'kava and outside his own shields as the wave front passed him. He saw the moons and the stars snuffed out, and utter darkness filled the vault of the sky. As the shifting and the pressing and the stretching and the wrongness pulled him apart and spun him out like candy floss, he searched and prayed he could find a way to save the tiny handful of reality he'd managed to imperfectly preserve.

Chapter 1
Properties

"Do you have a name?"
"Yes sir, my Lady gifted me with the name Seth when she acquired me, sir."
The man behind the desk looked up from the papers Seth had handed him. Seth knew when he delivered them that they consisted of a deed, his deed, and the various papers directing and covering his transfer of ownership. The man's eyes widened slightly as he focused on Seth's face, or really on just one tattoo. High on the center of his forehead, well above the braided pattern marking Seth as literate, was a small horizontal black bar. Positioned just below the hairline, it declared to the world that Seth was untrainable. That mark was rarely seen on a slave older than fifteen years, and never outside the custody of a registered breeder.
That mark should have been a death sentence.
"Do you know why you are here?"
"Yes sir."
"Tell me."
"Upon the death of the Lady Korane Mildaw d'Arte I was, in accordance with her will, to destroy all of her material possessions of personal or professional import, except her journals. Liquidate all she possessed in the form of real estate and investments other than myself, and deliver the resultant moneys, minus incurred and specified expenses, to her surviving heirs. The specified expenses being; those which cover the cost of safely delivering her journals to the library of The Queens College of Arts, Sciences, and Disciplines at Kentarja Mountain; those of my final vetting and certification in preparation for the legal transfer of myself to the ownership of that same college; and those fees to acquire the Solicitor in Probate for the distribution of those moneys.
"Having completed these tasks I present myself in fact, and deed, along with my papers, to you, sir, Master in Situ of Queens College, to make use of me as you will."
"You speak better, and substantially more, than any slave I have ever kept."
"Yes sir."
"You may keep your name."
"Yes sir."
The man scribbled a quick note on a small piece of paper and sealed it with wax and ring.
"Follow me."
Seth followed his new owner, a free man he knew from his inquires to be named Tor Ben Jarren, out of the office building and across grounds to the kennels. Another slave was sent running to the residence hall with the note which requested an appropriately skilled apprentice meet them there. Upon his arrival, the apprentice deftly formed a cold iron ingot into two unbroken rings of sorcerers' steel, the larger fitting snugly around Seth's neck and the smaller handed to Tor. Seth's clothes, substantially finer than those appropriate to his station, were taken from him and he was locked, otherwise naked, into a large cage.
A scribe came shortly after Tor and the apprentice left. In accordance with the law, each of Seth's skills that may interest or threaten a free man were drawn on his skin with ink and needle. Words, being too small to be of use from a safe distance, and being beyond many free men, were not used; curves and lines spelled patterns of knowledge across his skin. Seth stood patiently, following the directions given by the young woman; displaying his front, then back, then each side, and finally each arm extended palm forward. The quality of the inking was superb and the quantity remarkable. The scribe recorded his markings quickly and with great skill, and then left Seth alone with the restless dogs to think about his future, and wait.

* * *

For Tor, Seth was a puzzle. The "untrainable" mark is reserved for slaves that do not have the mental capacity, subtlety, or sanity to accept imprinting and the imposition of skills. In early childhood every born slave in the known world has to submit to an adept who imprints a simple set of required behaviors directly into their mind. A free man who becomes a slave by capture, crime, debit, or outright sale would be killed, or occasionally freed, if he cannot be imprinted. The teacher-adepts, masters of the Discipline of Direct Teaching, the mind to mind transfer of skills, will inform an owner or breeder if a child cannot be taught or healed to sanity. The owner has the choice of destroying the child or marking him.
Of course free men also use teacher-adepts to acquire skills. While it is not cheap by any means, certain skills, like literacy, are often direct-taught, especially to the middle and lower classes. A child of eight can, after a single day with an adept, read or write anything they can say. Lords and cities will often have their foot-soldiers trained to the sword this way, especially in times of war. All the arts and sciences can be taught directly. The only real drawback to this kind of teaching is the skills thus acquired tend to be static and resistant to further learning and development. Only the rich or the gifted attend any kind of school to gain knowledge and skills the long way. The free who are, or would be, unteachable rarely do much better than the slaves who were summarily put down.
No matter what the path, the unteachable, the barred, do not "get better" and almost all invariably become little more than dangerous animals by the time they reach adulthood. They are expensive to raise, too slow or unstable to train normally, and full grown adults simply are not marked unteachable.
Tor knew the law required every significant skill possessed by a slave be inked on him. The law did not, however say every skill inked on a slave be one the slave actually possessed. Occasionally an owner would over-ink a slave to feign prestige or confuse spies, but he had never heard of the black-bar being used that way. As ill omens go, that mark would be like inviting death and pestilence to dine in your home.
The apprentice who had collared Seth was skilled in both metalwork and mind-work. The note Tor had sent to the hall had asked that Seth's mind be scanned while he was collared. Leaving the kennels, the apprentice said all he had found was a strong but simple sense of presence, "on par with a well-trained horse at most." Deeper scans, he said, revealed there was "no sense of anything deeper to find."
Translation: Untrainable.
And yet, there was Seth's excellent speech, and his tattoos. If he wasn't slow he must be so insane his mind was untouchable. Anyone that far gone would be extremely dangerous. Lady Korane had been a formidable mage. If some spell held his new charge, chances are it would already be fading because of her death. If such an enchantment were present and not maintained, it would suddenly fail at some unknown time, releasing whatever it contained. Tor guessed that was why the Lady had had him deliver himself to the school, where such a creature could be disposed of safely. Still, he had seen a lot of strange things at the college so he decided not to act until he was sure.
After some consideration Tor sent an official missive to the academic council requesting any information about Seth that might be gleaned from the journals he'd brought, and made a mental note to have an unofficial chat with a friend at supper.

* * *

Seth examined his surroundings minutely. Familiarity breeds contempt and contempt tends to keep someone from feeling like a trapped animal.
The cage was nice, for a cage. The first few cages near him were all of a kind and, inexplicably, far more substantial than anything you'd need to hold a dog. Of course this was a place where magic was taught and used, so who could guess what these cages were originally intended to house. Built in pairs, with concrete floors covered with a thick layer of straw. The back wall, and a third of the wall separating each cage from its partner, formed an "L", also of concrete. A thick slab built out from the concrete walls at about mid-thigh formed a kind of bench above and a shelter below. The remainder of the enclosure, two and two-thirds walls, and the ceiling, were made of thick steel bars. A continuous, brisk trickle of water coming through a hole four inches above the floor fed a small cistern built simultaneously into and above the floor next to the shelter. A drain slot kept a constant two inches of water available in the "water dish" at all times. The worst thing about his particular cage was that it hadn't been cleaned properly since its prior occupancy. The straw was reasonably fresh but the floor hadn't been washed. The thing stank of angry wet dog, and worse.
Seth cleared the straw through the bars, forming a medium-sized pile just outside the cage door. Then he tried to rinse away the urine using the water from his dish. Finally he just got up on the ledge and sat quietly, thinking and waiting, leaving the stained floor exposed as a silent accusation.

* * *

Seth remembered cages. Actually, Seth remembered everything, it was his true gift, but cages were bubbling up in his mind. He remembered his first cage. That cage happened when he turned five. He had been eager to leave the creché where he had spent the first five years of his life. All he had to do was go in and spend an hour with a stranger, learn the rules for his life outside the nursery, and then he would be free, or freer anyway, to see the world. When his hour was up the stranger hadn't sent him back to his room, he had grabbed him by the arm and, without saying a word, dragged him out of his world and thrown him in a cage. The first of four years of cages.
People had come and gone around him while he sat there waiting for nearly three days. At age five he hadn't understood what was happening or why. Then there was the sudden pinprick of a dart in his back and in moments he collapsed on the floor, paralyzed but awake. Someone turned him over and he was looking up into a face. His tongue was thick, he could barely swallow or blink. He saw sticks between him and the face and heard movements near his ears. Then it began, the sticks clacked together, again and again, and each noise felt like a bee-sting on his forehead. He tried to scream, to cry, to get away but there was only the noise, the pain, and the face.
Yes, Seth remembered cages.
The hot sting of his own tears brought him back from his memory. That cage, that memory, and the nightmares it still sometimes brought him, were his driving thing. He had come a long way from that cage. For four years his own will kept him moving, and then His Lady came into his life. He trusted her, loved her, and she him. She had been his mentor, his mother, and his friend, to his best understanding of those terms. She had been old to start with, and on the day they met she had caught her death. For the twenty-some years that followed she'd held her death at bay by dint of her discipline. And for those twenty-some years Seth had grown and flourished under her. His service to her was more than most free men dreamt of. With the completion of her last will he finally, suddenly, knew he was alone in the world and felt himself become once more, an anonymous slave. Still he trusted her, and through her, everything she believed in. Trusted her beyond her own death. That trust was the single thing keeping him from throwing himself at the bars, screaming his life away with his voice.
Instead he waited, and finally grieved for her, sitting, staring off to infinity, blinking back tears, and looking inside himself for anything solid. His deepest thoughts searching for any kind of support. With two fingers hooked under and unconsciously clutching his collar as if the pliant, ensorceled metal could be wished away. Waiting for his Lady's patient, obscure will to reach out from her grave and rescue him from the lonely world her death had left him.

* * *

The tentative scraping of a rake against the concrete brought him back again, and he was surprised to find he was, for the most part, okay. A man in his fifties was raking away the dirty straw Seth had piled outside the cage, while taking pains to stay as far away from the bars as humanly possible. Seth caught his eye, shrugged, and grinned at him. The man's tension eased palpably, but he still kept his distance from the bars. When he had finished clearing the straw, he came back with a hose. The nozzle had a soap injector, and he used the high-pressure spray to completely wash and rinse the cage, always careful to allow a place for Seth to remain out of the spray. An hour in the bright sun and mountain air dried the cage, and the man piled a sizable mound of fresh straw against the bars.
The man, clearly another slave, never spoke to Seth and Seth made sure to act respectfully towards him. Given his questionable future, he didn't want to take the chance of offending someone who might end up being his keeper for quite some time.
When his keeper had gone off to attend his other tasks, Seth transferred the straw from outside the cage into the sheltered space under the slab. The nights would get fairly cold this time of year and this close to the mountains. With night still several hours away, Seth began to consider how he was going to occupy himself.
The space in the cage, while ample, would be too small for most of his daily exercises, and his most obvious problem would be relieving himself. A small, floor level opening through the wall separating his cage from its neighbor housed a drain, but a grate mounted flush with the wall, not to mention its inconvenient placement, meant it would only be useful for urination. Simply spreading out the straw was an unacceptable alternative. The three elements, eventual sanitary need, plenty of spare time, and the straw, connected in his head. He sat down in the warm sun, leaned against the wall, plucked individual straws from the pile in his shelter, and began humming to himself and weaving a crude chamber pot.

Chapter 2
Humanities

Seth woke an hour before dawn, uncurling himself from his warm straw nest. He crawled out from under the slab and brushed the clinging straw out of his hair and off his body. After relieving himself, he washed up as best he could using the chilled water from his "water dish." In the predawn darkness he began to tend to his body. His duties for the last twenty-some years had grown to include bodyguard to a very powerful woman, and he had acquired considerable combat skills and experience. The habits of exercise and training were a permanent part of his psyche.
He did push-ups with his feet up on the slab; various pull-ups, curls, and leg raises while hanging from the overhead bars; then ran in place, continuing until every muscle in his body was trembling with fatigue. When his body was screaming for him to stop he moved to the center of his cage and began a slow dance of hand to hand combat maneuvers. The voice of Quenth, the Master of Arms of the Southern Marches Keep, barked in his memory; orders, advice, the lessons of combat. Seth relived one of his favorite lectures in his mind while trying to keep himself from trembling overmuch. "The tactics of exhaustion during combat." By the time he finished the slow movements his muscles were recovered from exhaustion and he was all cabled sinew and poise. The sun was nearly two hours above the horizon.
His keeper arrived shortly after Seth finished his workout. He was carrying a large dish full of food, which made Seth acutely aware that he hadn't eaten since the previous morning. After he slid the dish through the opening at the bottom of the cage door, and stood up and back, he spoke to Seth for the first time. "Sorry about the dog-dish, It's all I've got that'll fit through there."
Not moving for the dish Seth said "Thank you for the food, sir, no matter how it comes."
"Well... eat."
"Thank you, sir." Seth said again, coming forward and picking up the bowl, pausing for only a moment as he realized there were no utensils. The dish contained a generous helping of cooked potatoes and carrots, some greens, some meat with gravy, and a large hunk of hardy bread. Even cold, the food was of an unexpectedly high quality. He began eating as neatly as a man could be expected to eat from a dog dish using bare hands.
"I was told to be wary of you and not to let you get hold of anything that could be used as a weapon. What'd you do?"
Swallowing a mouthful of potato, Seth said "I was born under an angry star, sir," and swept back his thick black hair to expose the bar.
His keeper, who had seen more men and animals than most, barely widened his eyes, but remained silent as Seth continued to eat. He finished his meal quickly, wiping the dish clean with the last of the bread, and returned the dish under the bottom of the door.
"There were no orders about your feeding, nor anything else, so I'll make it my business to see you get at least breakfast and supper."
"Thank you for your kindness, sir."
"No problem, just don't go make me have to come looking for you." He smiled and nodded before heading off with the dish, leaving Seth smiling for the first time in days.

* * *

By noon Seth was pacing. Water dish, seven steps, front left corner, three steps, front right corner, six steps, slab, reverse, six steps, front right corner, three steps, front left corner, seven steps, water dish, turn, repeat. Periodically he would stop and try to adjust his collar. The unfamiliar weight clung snugly to his neck just above his trapezius but not quite snug to his jaw. He could slip a couple of fingers under it, and it would yield somewhat to constant pressure, but when he stopped it would flow back into shape around his neck like a sluggish, elastic creature. The extra weight, about two pounds, and the gentle pressure, was actually nauseating.
He was surprised, mid pace, to find the scribe who had sketched him yesterday walking towards him. He stopped pacing and waited by the front of the cage.
She seemed embarrassed as she approached, and Seth suddenly felt his nakedness. He pushed away any awareness of her embarrassment, and with it his exposure, and met her gaze. She stopped just out of arms reach of the bars and looked into Seth's eyes for a moment. "You're not dangerous are you?"
"Not without orders mistress."
She considered his answer for a moment. "I would like to ask you something."
"Whatever is your wish mistress."
"Please don't call me `mistress', my name is Liane."
"Yes Liane."
"Ugh, why do they make you all so formal? It's like talking to, I don't know, a text book or something!"
Seth knew what she meant and decided to switch to the informal, and somewhat sarcastic demeanor he had shared with his Lady. "I humbly beg forgiveness for having to contradict m'lady, but nobody ever made me anything," he said with an exaggerated look of innocence.
She was struck dumb for a moment while she found a new place for him in her world-view, and then all of the tension drained out of her as she realized that she was going to like the man in the cage.
"I actually came by to see if I could get you to do something for me."
"I would be pleased to help you any way I can, but uh..." Seth gestured vaguely at the bars separating them.
"No, it's something you can do from in there."
Seth raised an eyebrow at her.
"I want to bring a group of students down here and, um," the embarrassment was returning to her face, "have them draw you."
Seth felt the warmth of blood trying to creep into his own face.
"It's just that you're so well defined and it's so hard to find a good model for doing detailed body studies, and the contrast of the markings against your pale skin, and well, um," now they were both blushing, "since I knew that you were just stuck here I figured you might not mind."
"Given my station, I think the person you'd need to ask is Master Tor."
"He already said yes," she admitted, "but it won't really work if you don't go along, so I need to ask you. Besides, I wouldn't feel right just showing up with a bunch of students without you knowing. This isn't a zoo or something..." her voice trailed off and she looked away as she said that last.
Seth waited for her to look at him again and said "I sincerely thank you for your consideration, and the complements, and I would be honored to pose for you and your students Liane."
Again she looked at him for a long time. "By the way, what's your name?"
Seth was somehow gratified to realize that the possibility that he might not have a name never occurred to her.
"I am Seth."

* * *

Within the hour Liane returned with nearly a dozen students. Their arrival was heralded by the barking of dozens of dogs unused to the presence of so many strangers in their territory. The brightly colored students' robes, ill-suited for the kennels and most dog-related pursuits, were none-the-less safe, as the kennel-master kept his grounds quite well. Liane had planned ahead and each student arrived with a stool or old cushion in addition to their drawing supplies.
Seth was lounging on the slab, finishing off a meat-filled loaf a boy had tossed him through the bars. He hopped down for a drink when he finished, and then went back to his perch while Liane got the class settled in along the two exposed sides of his enclosure. He worked at seeming to drowse in the sliver of shade provided by the separating wall, while he listened to Liane and got used to his future audience.
"Today," Liane started to address her class, "we will be continuing our work with figure drawing. As we have discussed in the past, the art of accurately recording an individual in a dynamic setting is substantially different than the relatively simple act of portraiture. The primary difference being that the subject will rarely remain still enough, for long enough, to capture a complete pose. Instead it will be incumbent on you to produce a complete, stationary mental picture of the subject and use whatever opportunities present themselves to complete the necessary details.
"Your assignments will vary.
"From the bardic students I will want thorough recordings of the subject. Keep in mind that a bard's duties encompass not only the entertainment arts, but also the recording of factual details which may prove significant not only in the construction of accurate tales but also the construction of accurate intelligence. A royal bard may be expected to act tantamount to a spy in extreme conditions, so your mission is to preserve fact, disguised as art.
"The pure artisans, while also concerned with detail and factual correctness, need to concentrate more on capturing the moment. Setting, mood, action, and intent are all necessary in a masterwork. The artist is given great latitude in the area of literal truth in order to preserve these elements. Explore the subject, and the setting. Be complete, but do not let details overwhelm your artistic perception of the moment.
"Finally, the pure scholars are to be concerned with the individual elements of the subject. Your pursuit of the art of drawing is primarily useful to record the details of your observation. Your goal should be to establish the clinical reality of the elements of the subject. All to often the scholarly diagrams and depictions of a subject are of little value because the qualities of art are missing from them. The use of shading and perspective to detail the three-dimensional nature of a subject, and to provide a sense of scale, are absolutely vital to a proper scholarly work."
Liane paused for a moment to make sure that the import of what she was saying had not been lost on her students.
"You are all very advanced students in your arts, so I will expect a lot from our session today. We are actually quite fortunate that this exercise is available to us. Neither the subject nor the circumstance has been staged. I will, however, supply you with information about the subject that might not normally be available to you in the field.
"Our subject today is `Seth', a slave, and unexpected acquisition of the school. Deeded to the school by the estate of an alumni, and powerful magus, this individual would normally be considered a valuable property. The subject, an adult male approximately thirty years old, has been committed to physical captivity here for evaluation as a potential threat to public safety because, along with an impressive number of skill marks, he possesses a certified black-bar. We are, by the way, instructed to maintain a safe distance from the cage at all times, just in case."
Several of the students drew in slight gasps or murmered and moved restlessly.
"Seth, will you approach?"
Seth was a little annoyed, but as Liane turned to face him the clinical and distant veneer of `lecturing teacher' faded, and she smiled and winked at him conspiratorially. Doing his best to convey a sense of barely restrained, dangerous animal anger, Seth eased himself down from the slab and moved quietly and directly to the bars between himself and Liane. She took an involuntary step back in fear before he caught her eye. He winked back, turned to the students and softly said "Boo."
Small, nervous laughter moved quickly through the students, and the strained silence returned. Seth ran his fingers back through his hair and then stood placid and confidant before the students. While this would normally be unacceptably forward and rebellious for a slave, Seth understood from Liane's opening lecture that a meek and flavorless presentation to the students would not help their education. They needed a degree of dynamic character to find and possess in their drawings.
"Before we begin the drawings, there are some details that I would like to bring to your attention. Feel free, as always, to ask questions as they occur to you."
Liane fetched a long dowel pointer from amongst her possessions and began using it while she cataloged her observations. Seth could have easily taken it from her. Instead he tried not to roll his eyes while she tapped and poked it about.
"First, you will notice that Seth is quite large, with a nearly stereotypical athletic build. The classic V-shape created by the contrast of wide shoulders and very narrow waist means that there will be no room for any kind of exaggeration in your drawings. Do not try to complement his shape, the way one might for a patron or powerful figure, as there is very little room between the reality and apparent caricature.
"Next, the skin is almost abnormally white and gives the impression of near translucence. This is a trait that is very difficult to capture in and of itself, but when combined with his markings, produces an even more potentially troublesome contrast. The markings themselves are quite bright, and represent probably the state of the art in inking skin. Since we are not working in color today, the careful use of shading to pick out internal details will be necessary. Likewise the eyes, being a chromatic shade of powder-blue, will prove difficult.
"Turn around please.
"Nowhere more than the back is it obvious that the skill-marks have been woven artfully into a complete presentation. Notice that the entire picture, while presenting the factual skills as required, also forms a complete image of a Phoenix, wings spread out to the shoulders and flame tapering down to a swirling origin in the small of the back.
"Turn again please.
"Comparing the exuberance of illustration on the back to the minimalist understatement of the front of the torso, which is untouched except for a relatively small cluster of interlocked glyphs on his left pectoral and subtly embellished with the same sinuous flame style, we can see that the entire inking is meant to be considered as a single composition. The swirling liturgy of flames, picked out mostly in dark greens, blues and blacks, which make up the calves and forearms, reinforce the Phoenix motif while highlighting their embedded skills, like bright flares in the curves of the flames. The myriad of animal forms, which the tongues of flame individually transmute into, produce a life-cycle motif in nearly classic symbolism.
"Finally, the complete lack of body hair..." Liane seemed to notice her own observation for the first time as she spoke it, and faltered. Seth traced a line part way through the glyphs on his chest, shrugged open-handed, and mouthed the single word "artists" at her. She took back her composure and continued.
"...Finally, the complete lack of body hair allows us access to every detail of form, musculature, and markings.
"Now, please begin your observations and drawings."
Seth watched the students watching him. And then whispered to Liane, "what should I do?"
"It doesn't matter, just move around and do whatever comes naturally." She whispered back.
"Comes naturally? You must be kidding."
"In a classroom I'd have you sit on a stool or something, but I'm not allowed to give you anything like that. So just be yourself."
Liane retreated from the bars to take herself out of the scene.
At first Seth just stood and looked from face to face. But the students couldn't seem to bring themselves to hold his gaze, and he realized that that wouldn't help anything. Subconsciously he began pacing along the two sides of the cage that were lined by students. When he realized that he was pacing and clutching his collar again, he deliberately made himself stop and get a drink of water.
Looking down into the shallow cistern he saw the hard edge of a hunted expression on his own face. That wasn't good.
He moved to the center of the cage and knelt, sitting on his ankles for a few moments, to reach inside himself again for a little inner peace. Then he stood and began one of the many dance-like combat exercises he'd learned over the years. This one was a long but fast-paced series of punches, blocks, advances, kicks, and retreats. Sharp angular flowing movements that could devastate most opponents. When he completed the sequence he switched to a more elegant sequence that was more about balance, flow, and the mind. He kept it up for what seemed like hours.
When he finished all that, he got another drink and then got up on the slab. He leaned back into the corner, one leg stretched out along the slab with the other dangling over the edge at the knee, and slipped into an afternoon drowse.
He was only vaguely aware of the students when they gathered up their belongings and left.

* * *

Supper came and went for the school, and shortly afterward Seth's keeper arrived with his dish. Potatoes and boiled greens, a flaky white-fish in a pepper sauce and, of course, bread, which filled him up nicely. Seth was impressed with the quality of the food. He wondered if everybody ate this well at the college. When it occurred to him that his keeper might be treating each meal as if it could be his last, he decided not to ask, and thanked his keeper again for the food.
When the man left, Seth curled into his straw nest to escape the evening cold. Sated, he fell asleep quickly. Before he reached the places in his soul where his dreams lay waiting, something woke him up. He moved slowly, snuggling in his nest as if he were sleeping, until he could see out from its shadow into the evening shadows around his cage.
He could just make out a figure in a student's robe staring at him, or rather the pitch darkness where he lay. He watched the figure for some time. Finally Seth softly spoke. "Is something troubling m'lord?"
"You are." The figure responded in a near whisper.
"I regret that I have caused you any displeasure m'lord, is there anything I might do to ease your trouble?"
"I need to ask you a question."
"I will endeavor to answer as best I can m'lord."
A pause.
"Were you born a slave?"
"Yes lord, I know my line to seven generations."
Still another, longer, gap of silence.
"My family is in the trade. I have spent my life around slaves. When I was younger there was a girl who earned the Bar..."
"That is regrettable lord. What became of her?"
"My father... she was put down..."
"That is understandable lord."
"The thing is, well, I see you here, and you seem okay, and now I am wondering if..."
"If her fate was just lord?"
"Yes, if she had grown would she have become someone like you?"
Seth thought for a while about how to answer, he listened to his Lady's voice from within his memory, answering his own questions about his life. In her voice he found the answer to the young lord's worries.
"My Lady, whom I served for more than twenty years, came to that same question. She told me that, shortly after she acquired me, she had studied as many Black-Bars as she could find and she believed that I was unique. Whatever it is that makes me unreachable, that covers my mind with what she called `a blanket of absence', is not what bars others. She was wise, my Lady, and knew more than any person I have ever heard of. I know that she believed what she said."
"Yes, but is it right to treat people like that?"
"M'lord, this is a harsh reality, harsher than most I suspect, and when the Emperor set down the Tenets of Rule, there were many good reason for slavery to be among them. It serves the slave as well as the master m'lord."
"What did slavery ever do for the slaves?"
"Do you know history my lord?"
"Not as well as I should."
"Do you know the story of the people of the Tabor plains?"
"No."
"They were conquered, utterly defeated, some seven hundred years ago. When they fell they were enslaved by the Kingdom of Raleare - their conquers - in accordance with Tenets of Rule. Three hundred years later Raleare collapsed after barely winning a war. During that war many of the Tabor were freed to fight for what had become their homes and families. The freed Tabor re-gathered their people through purchase, and less honest means, and returned to their ancestral land. The Tabor were preserved, intact, by their enslavement. The imposition of the templates held them tractable, which meant that they were never bred to be docile. That slaves are free to be themselves with each other, and behaviorally bound only when dealing with the free, allowed the Tabor to preserve their culture and lore. Finally, through the practice of begarra, the blood of the Tabor moved into the family lines of the free that they were pressed to serve so even the Raleare they left behind had gained some of the Tabor blood.
"Slavery preserves the blood even though it costs the individuals dearly. It is a harsh mimicry of the ways of nature. It sometimes moves in painful rhythms, and there are times when it is too much for one person to bear, but the same, or worse I think, can be said for being free. We are moved with, and as, wealth. There are times when we eat as the free starve. Naming it absolutely right or wrong is beyond me, but it is right enough for our world."
"So, you're happy here where you are?"
"Don't get me wrong lord, I would give anything, if I had anything to give, to be out of this cage and free of this blasted collar. When I let myself think about it, that someone somewhere may decide at any moment that I am to die like an animal, a tight fist of fear clenches in my gut. But if the cost of my standing outside this cage were that I had never known and served my Lady, I wouldn't pay it. I don't lust to be free, I need... other things."
"And if they decide you are to die."
"I do not die easily my lord. A good number of soldiers, assassins, and even sorcerers have learned that the hard way. If my Lady had asked it, I would have cut out my own heart and laid it on her casket as tribute, and I believe she knew that. I know in my heart that she didn't send me here to die. There is a way out of this cage that won't ask me to raise my hand against the people here. If it takes minutes or years to find it, I will find it. Lord."
The figure stood in silent contemplation for a while, and then disappeared back into the night. Seth never learned who his visitor was, though he suspected it to be one of the art students. He watched the place where he had stood, and wondered at his own words for a while, then snuggled back into warmth of the straw, drifting into the world where he and his dreams stalked one another.

* * *

Tor Ben Jarren sat at his desk late into the night, mired in the petty annoyances that were his job. The labor requirements for a place as big as the Queens College were nearly limitless. In every organization the daily operations happen almost by reflex, each person doing what had to be done because that is what they always did. If it weren't for that saving grace nobody would be able to keep the college open, let alone clean and fed. Tor's job was, almost exclusively, to handle the snags, and everybody knows that snags, no matter the kind or size, are annoying.
The snag on the top of Tor's desk at the moment was a big one. A young lordling had filed a complaint against one of the staff claiming that the woman in question had destroyed a month's work by touching a large and complex ritual component in the apprentice workroom. Of course Tor knew it wasn't true, better liars than the young lord had tried to blame their shoddy work on the staff. The idiot's bravado in the matter was the problem, he was demanding a public punishment. The woman couldn't speak fairly for herself, of course, because her imprinting would cause her to wrongly concede in the face of her accusers insistence.
Tor decided that a prudent `administrative delay' would be the best way to disarm the miserable mess, and shifted the paperwork into his `holding' basket.
The shift brought Seth's papers back to the top of Tor's pile of problems. The school's deed had been filed but the matter of his disposition still loomed. The academic council had not seen fit to respond to his missive as of yet, no surprise there, and he had not been able to contact his friend. "A pressing matter in the library", as if there was such a thing short of a fire, had kept him away from the dining hall for two nights. Looking again at the sketches of Seth's skill marks, most of which Tor knew well, and a few he had never seen before, made Tor wonder again how many of them might be true.
The art class had gone well, he had made a point of talking casually with several of the students as well as Liane. He got to look at some of the drawings, and was surprised to see the range of emotional detail they had captured.
An idea took root in Tor. He would get some of the craftsmen and masters of the skills Seth was marked with to go interview him. Maybe find an excuse to get more students down there. Stress the guy into revealing himself perhaps. Besides, the more opinions he could get to support letting the man out of the cage the better. Especially if it turned out to be a mistake. Yes, he thought, that would be best.
Tor blew out the candles in his office and headed to bed, his mind settled on a vague plan.

Chapter 3
Extractions

Seth's dreams came and went as friends, which was rare, and he woke an hour before dawn, as he always did, and he repeated his previous mornings exercise as if it were a ritual he had been doing all his life. His keeper arrived with breakfast and waited silently while he ate. After relieving himself he managed to get one of the boys changing out the straw in a nearby cage to bring the wheelbarrow close enough for him dispose of his chamber pot. He was just starting to plait together the straw for a new one when six armed men arrived. An iron fist of fear clenched around Seth's heart and his hands froze like frightened rabbits.
Seth slowly raised his eyes to the face of their leader, looking to see if his execution were in the other man's eyes. The fist loosened a notch as he read appraisal instead of intent.
Seth set his weaving aside without breaking eye contact with the leader, and shifted his position. He'd been leaning back against the wall in a position that would not be easy to rise from quickly. His adjustment, a bend of the leg and a shift of his torso, brought him to a pose from which he could instantly spring. The leader recognized Seth's move into a defensive posture along with the deceptive casualness of the movement, and a tiny flicker of approval crossed his face.
The leader said, or nearly barked, "come here," nearly blending the words into one while still keeping the words clear. Seth recognized a military order to a civilian slave.
Seth got quickly to his feet and presented himself to the bars, and the man beyond them. He stood at military attention, choosing the relative safety of formality.
"Arm." The man barked.
Seth extended his weapon arm out and down at a sixty degree angle, palm down, fist closed, presenting his markings for inspection. All the way around his wrist, forming the base of the flames rising up his arm, was a cuff of ink three fingers wide. The cuff was not one solid band, it was a pair of closely spaced bands, the blank space between them formed a regular pattern of angular waves. The lower band, jagged edge up, meant "trained in armed combat", the higher band, jagged side down meant "trained in unarmed combat." The smooth edge of each band was inked in crimson meaning that Seth had killed both ways. The full blood cuff was rare on a slave.
The lead soldier didn't miss the fact that the pattern was mirrored on Seth's non-weapon arm as well, telling the world that Seth was more than normally proficient in those skills.
The glyphs amid the flames higher on Seth's weapon arm listed sword, shield, dagger, spear, and bow as proficient weapons and another said that he'd commanded free men in battle.
The leader studied him for a while, and then asked "Are you dangerous?"
"Not without orders, Master."
The arms master, which is who Seth finally realized he was addressing, appreciated more of Seth's answer than Liane had. He nodded appreciatively.
"Lower your arm."
Seth complied, remaining at attention.
"I will speak plainly, I am here to test you, to see if your marks are just bragging. I will expect you to speak plainly in return. I will present several situations, and you will advise these men as if you were their commander. Are you capable of doing that?"
"Yes sir."
"Very good. First situation, these men have come to execute you."
Seth took a quick look at each of the men then lapsed into the frame of mind he had used to command others. He also stole a page from Liane. The situation was too close to his own immediate fear to allow him to talk about himself in the first person. He became "the subject". Having wrested some detachment from his fear he saw his circumstances more objectively. The fact that he might be advising his executioners started a cold trickle of sweat running down his spine.
"First," Seth began, "go back and get spears. The subject is an unknown quantity. Strongly consider killing the subject in the cage before opening the door. Consider the wide spacing of the bars, and the easy access from three sides, remember the adjacent empty cage is an access. All these factors make that approach safest. Do not allow the seeming dishonor of such a strike dissuade you. There is nothing honorable about getting yourself killed trying to carry out a simple execution.
"If the execution must happen elsewhere, you will still need the spears. The subject is an unknown quantity with apparent skill in hand to hand combat. The cage is too confining in both width and height to make effective use of a sword. A skilled combatant could get inside your guard easily in such a space. You might be able to strike a mortal blow against the subject while he is moving in on you, but the subject has nothing to lose by trying, and mortal wound or not, he may kill you just for spite. Always remember, the subject of an execution has nothing to lose by fighting.
"Use the spears to control the subject, reducing his available space. Do not thrust at the subject through the bars. The cage is three paces wide. A spear thrust of any appreciable length will give both leverage and opportunity to the subject, and could allow the subject to take the weapon. One spear should be stationed along each side of the cage, while two spears enter through the door. The fifth man should enter unarmed, advancing between the spears. His job is to bind the subject and any weapons he might have are useless for that purpose, but would be presented hilt first to the subject because of the way sheaths and scabbards are hung on the body. Do not encourage trouble.
"Finally, remember, the subject is an unknown quantity. The meekest, and weakest of individuals is dangerous when backed into a corner. Do not allow yourself to be surprised."
Seth stopped, he was finished addressing the soldiers.
The arms master stepped forward, "I am satisfied. Who did you train under?"
"I had the honor of being instructed by Lord Quenth, Master of Arms of the Southern Marches Keep."
The arms-master acknowledged the name with a brief nod and then led his men away.
Only when he could no longer hear the noise of their passing, did Seth begin to relax.

* * *

The encounter with the arms master began a sparse parade of students and craftsmen that went on for several days. Seth's skills ran the gambit of the arts and sciences. Some of the skills were oddly domestic like spinning, weaving, sewing, and potting, while others were more industrial like smithing iron, silver, and gold. There was the odd smattering wider skills, forestry, husbandry, green-lore, chemistry, and several languages, to name a few. Many of his interviewers later wondered at the odd collection, but none thought to ask Seth why the diverse pursuits. Seth would have willingly told anybody who asked that these were the skills he'd needed to help his Lady prepare her material components of her craft. The incessant testing broke up the monotony of the cage, and Seth found it kind of enjoyable.
Tor, on the other hand, was not entirely pleased. He had hoped that the constant and demanding attention would bother Seth and reveal his nature. It was even more troubling to him that Seth actually possessed all those skills, because several of the interviewers had already put in requests for Seth's service. The only redeeming element was that every visitor Seth had was of the opinion that he should be let out of the cage.
Tor was getting ready to pen an order. He hadn't decided yet whether it would have Seth put down or moved to the kitchens. As he put pen to paper he heard the front door of his building slam open followed by someone yelling his name. Moments later his office door slammed open too and the familiar face of his friend Morgan came charging through.
"Tor! Tell me you still have him!" Morgan's hands, one bandaged to the elbow, landed hard on the desk.
"Who?"
"The guy who brought them." Morgan was gasping and swallowing hard from a dead run across the campus.
"Brought whom?"
"Hua? Not who, what. The books, damn it, tell me you still have the guy who brought the books." Morgan pushed his red face forward across the desk.
Tor paused, "Eh, Morgan... where are your eyebrows?"
"Ash. Burned. Gone." He waived dismissively. "Now," Morgan said very slowly, emphasizing almost every word, "is it true that you have the guy who brought Lady Mildaw's spell-books, locked in a cage somewhere?"
With the word cage certain strange comings and goings Tor had noticed around the school suddenly clicked into place. The "pressing matter in the library", Morgan's general absence from dinner for nearly a week, and some of the stranger miscellaneous requests coming through his office had to do with "the journals" Seth had brought. As sorcerers go Lady Mildaw was nearly infamous both for the quality and far-reaching quantity of her work. Virtually every Magus on campus would be dying to get a peek into those pages.
Then even more things connected up in his head. "Having a little trouble with your paperwork eh?" Tor settled back in his chair with a friendly, taunting smile on his face.
"You might say that," Morgan was tight as a harp-string, "if you figure that three masters in the infirmary and five more resting in their quarters, scorched walls and furniture, water damage, smashed fixtures, and assorted cuts, bruises, and sprains constitute `a little trouble'. I swear that woman must have thought the secret of creation was in her precious books. And I am at my wits end from repeatedly telling every teacher, master, and mage here that I don't know when or even what will be available to them.
"I finally get a chance to get to my rooms and get some sleep and what do I find? Liane grading pictures of the guy who dumped this mess in my lap with nothing more than a `by your leave lord' and a note! She tells me that last week you had the only clue I can think of to getting into these books without getting killed, stuffed naked in a dog cage, trying to decide if you're going to kill him or not.
"So, if you don't tell me whether you still have him or not, I swear by the gods of your choice that I will come across this desk and, friend or not, hit you so hard you'll need half of the math department to help you figure out what happened..." There was familiar humor in the threat but Tor got the point.
"Yes, I have him, and I'd pay real money for the privilege of not having him."
Morgan stopped, realizing that Tor was being deadly serious about his desire to be rid of the stranger. He wasn't sure that he wanted to ask, but he did ask, "Why?"
Tor reached into a desk drawer, brought out a three inch wide metal ring of sorcerers' steel about five inches in diameter and tossed in onto his desk in front of Morgan.
Morgan looked down at it for a few moments, then back up at Tor like he had never seen the man before. "You had him fit with a triphariad collar?"
"Try it out before you damn me with a look."
Morgan slipped the ring around one wrist, where it shrunk into place quickly. A long pause followed. He tugged it loose and then tried it on the other wrist. Another pause and then he pulled it loose again. He studied it for a few moments then stretched it and slipped it around his head till is sat like a prince's circlet. He got a far away look on his face for a while which was then wiped away by puzzlement. Finally he slipped it off his head to look at it again.
"What incompetent made this?"
"Talchaia. And I've had it verified. That is a perfect casting you have in your hand."
"But I barely get anything. I can feel it leaching the life forces which sustain it, barely, and nothing else."
"It gets worse. That muscular mountain is marked like you would not believe." Tor spread Liane's original drawings out for Morgan. "The ones that concern me most are these." Tor pointed out the black-bar and the blood-cuffs.
Morgan got that distant scholarly look for a moment, "well, the ones that interest me are these." He stabbed his finger at the sketch of the twisting interlocking pattern on Seth's chest. "I don't exactly know what it is, but there is something about this that I know I should recognize..."
Both men lapsed into a protracted silence, pondering the sketches. Finally Morgan looked up from the papers and said "I want him."
"I don't know if I even want him alive, let alone out of that cage."
"I'll buy him outright, then it won't even be your problem."
"What? Are you crazy?"
"Yes. How much?"
"I wouldn't stick my worst enemy with this guy, knowing what little I've been able to find out so far."
"I don't care, how much?"
Tor looked at Morgan. "Well, he didn't cost the school anything but one week's board, and he is either very valuable or the single biggest liability the school has. okay, one hundred fifty gold and a promise."
Morgan sucked in his breath at the price, nearly six months' salary, and Morgan was well paid. He knew that Tor was trying to dissuade with that amount, and that having set the price, he would not negotiate. "What's the promise?"
"That you don't take off that band, or let him out of your sight without locking him up, for at least a month."
One thought about the treacherous books waiting back at the library and his mind was made up. "Done. Get the paperwork. I want him now, before I change my mind."
Having set the price Tor couldn't back out honorably, but he almost did anyway. Grudgingly he dug the sheaf of papers out of his holding basket and the two men set out for the school's business office.
The emptying of Morgan's savings and an order to deduct a hefty chunk from his pay for the next six months, not to mention various witnessed pieces of paper, saw Morgan the proud owner of the slave Seth.

Chapter 4
Arrangements

The only time Morgan had seen Seth in person had been in the library, and from a respectable distance at that. Standing in front of the cage, Morgan came to realize how small he was compared to his new acquisition, and felt glad for the steel band around his left wrist no matter how mute it was. It wasn't that Morgan was small. By any measure five feet ten inches is a good, healthy height. Seth being easily seven feet and change however, made Morgan feel tiny, and the crimson bands around Seth's wrists were suddenly much more ominous as Seth approached the bars.
Seth stopped directly in front of Tor, bowed his head and said, "Master Tor."
Tor looked back and said "No longer. You have been sold to this man," and indicated Morgan.
"Yes sir." Seth turned to face Morgan and again bowed his head, saying "Master." He only had a moment to sum up the stranger. Not a student, nor a professor. About thirty years old. Not a laborer, which was good for Seth's prospects. Not a merchant. His new owner was some sort of Talent, that was obvious. Something well above artificer or hedge wizzard, but he didn't have the twin auras of suspicion and superiority fount about a master magus.
Tor said to Morgan "He's all yours," and simply walked away.
Morgan looked at Seth, swallowed once, and asked "Are you dangerous?"
"Only at your command, Master."
Morgan thought about the answer for a moment and then yelled for the kennel master. When the man arrived Morgan had him open the cage. When the door was opened and Seth was out of the cage, Morgan found he was suddenly at a loss for what to do next. He'd been around slaves in the abstract for his entire life, but he'd never actually considered owning one before.
Seth sensed his new master's dilemma and decided to risk speaking first. "Sir, if I may, I haven't had a opportunity to bathe in a week and I must be quite offensive. Perhaps you should get me cleaned and dressed, and then dictate your standing orders for me."
"Good idea, follow me."
Seth fell into step behind and to the left of Morgan. Morgan really had no idea where to go, so he headed for his residence. He was intensely self conscious the entire way, while Seth seemed to radiate a placid calm, as if he were exactly where he belonged. Morgan set a purposeful pace and was surprised at the way people seemed to part for his passage. It never occurred to him that Seth was, reflexively, acting like a bodyguard and so an air of potentially dangerous protection proceeded them like a wedge. Their path led them across nearly the entire length of the campus and then beyond its low walls, and the entire way Seth was building a mental map of the place, usually by snapping his head up and staring pointedly at each structure for a moment as they passed. By the time they reached Morgan's rooms, rumors had started to circulate throughout the school.
At first glance Morgan's home was just a small gate leading into an overgrown hillside, but who was Seth to judge?
Behind the gate was a long unlit tunnel wide enough for three people to walk abreast. The smell of old stone and deep, unseen water was everywhere, but the tunnel was clean and dry, dressed stone. The tunnel ended abruptly at a blank wall, but Morgan pulled a handle on the right and a balanced door swung open into the tunnel. Seth hadn't known what to expect, but a large, high ceiling room bright with natural light wasn't it. They'd clearly passed all the way through the hill and the expansive glass frontage would have made a more welcoming primary entrance if it didn't face away from the school, and the town, and if it didn't open into an almost inaccessible vale.
Seth scanned the front room as he entered the suite. The place wasn't richly apointed. Nor was it spartin. Expense had clearly been spared, but the simple furnishings were tasteful and there was art everywhere. Paintings and small sculptures placed about, sometimes carelessley, in a way that said `I made this' rather than `I bought this'. He stopped dead in his tracks when he saw Liane lounging on the couch contemplating some papers. She looked up as they entered and her eyes went wide.
"Seth! What are you doing here?" Liane smiled brightly.
"I am following my new master."
"Morgan?" Her eyes shifted to the smaller man, the smile shifting to chagrin. "You bought him?" Seth marked his new master's name, since nobody had, as yet, bothered to tell it to him.
"It seemed to be the thing to do. He was stuck there in that cage and people are killing themselves to get into his last owner's books. I saw your drawings and I just followed my instincts."
"My drawings? So that's why you went tearing out of here." Liane put down her forgotten papers, got up from the couch, and walked over to them both. She said "Welcome to the family" and impulsively hugged Seth's arms to his side.
Seth stood there stunned, arms pinned in her hug, with no clue how to respond. Morgan was no better off, his mouth hanging open in shock.
She broke the embrace and stepped back. She looked up into his eyes, crinkled her nose, and said "you need a bath."
"Yes, Mistress" slipped out of him automatically.
"I though we had all that settled..."
He thought for a moment, and then said "uh, yes Liane," and grinned in embarrassment.
"Come with me." Liane said as she started to pull him by the arm. Seth looked at Morgan for permission. Morgan gave him a resigned, open-handed shrug, which Seth took as that permission, and allowed himself to be lead.
The suite was huge. The hallway had eight rooms off of it, one of which was a large windowless space with bathing and laundry tubs built into it.
"Get cleaned up and then come back out to the front room." Liane propelled Seth through the door and walked away.
Seth went to the laundry sink. After some investigation he found that a sluice and gate let cold water into the sink, and he began quickly washing himself.
"Don't be a goof," Liane's voice interrupted Seth mid-scrub, "use the tub."
She came back in carrying towels and fresh soap, closing off the sluice as she passed him. He watched her stow the towels on a rack and the soap next to a large tub that several adults could occupy comfortably. She operated another sluice and hot water began filling it. She saw a look of shocked non-comprehension on Seth's face and realized she would have to give instructions.
"Let the tub fill, then wash and soak in it for a while, when you're done drain it here," She indicated a pedal near the floor with her foot, "dry off with one towel and then cover yourself with the other and come back out to the front room.
"And take your time," she smiled again, "I have to talk to Morgan," and then she left.
Seth had never had a leisurely hot bath before. He'd had many quick, occasionally warm baths between his duties in his Lady's house since she liked things clean; and he'd taken his time at more than a few lakes and streams when his duties took him out into the field; but never all three at once. He was awkward and self-conscious as he got in. Soon he was enjoying himself, playing in the water like a kid. After he'd scrubbed himself head to toe he leaned back, arms along the rim of the tub, and started to drowse. Thinking to himself that a hot bath must be the essence of pleasure.
Seth lost track of time for the first time in years.
He felt a light tug on his hair and a small high-pitched voice said "Hi!" He thrashed like a startled, or perhaps guilty, fish. He looked around the room quickly but didn't see anybody.
He heard a tiny giggle and peered over the edge of the tub. Looking up at him was the smiling face of a little girl.
"Hi!" She said again.
"Hi to you little lady." Seth said, smiling back.
Realizing that the cooling water meant that he had been in the tub longer than he thought prudent, Seth quickly got out. He stepped on the drain lever and snatched a towel off the rack. Moving as quickly as he could, he dried himself off and then secured the dry towel around his waist. During that time the little girl would periodically repeat her favorite word, `hi', and he would smile and say it back.
When he was finished he hunkered down in front of her.
Her eyes got really big, she touched the ink on his forearm and said "horsey!"
Seth brayed and snorted like a horse, making the little girl giggle again.
He stood back up and looked down at her. She stretched her arms up to him and said "pick me!" He bent back down and she wrapped her arms around his neck. He reflexively crooked his left arm to give her someplace to sit, and then stood up again. She kissed him on the cheek, then said "horsey!" again, and Seth felt a warm place in his heart open just for her.
Seth padded quietly out of the bath room and back up the hall to the main room, bouncing a little extra with each step for the little girl's benefit. Seth moved with a natural quietness, and so when the little girl said "hi!" to Liane, Morgan, and the room in general, they were both surprised to find him practically standing over them.
"I see you've met Shiea." Liane said, craning her neck to look up at him from the couch.
"Mommy, horsey!" Shiea said imperatively.
"Do you have experience with children Seth?" Liane asked.
"None at all. My Lady had no children and my service to her kept me away from the children in the keep." Seth apologized.
"Well, you seem to be a natural so far, let me take her from you." Liane rose.
Seth felt a little pang of jealousy when Shiea reached down to her mother, but didn't let any of it show at all. The transfer complete, Liane excused herself and headed back into the bowels of the suite.
"I have just spent a the better part of an hour having Liane tell me exactly why and how much I can not afford to keep you."
Seth felt the thinest cut of uncertianty in his chest.
"Fortunately, a few minutes after you went into the bath several slaves arrived, loaded down with gear, and a note from Tor saying that it was all the things you brought with you into his possession. Since that solved the immediate problem of getting you clothes, Liane agreed not to eat me for lunch."
Morgan was wired with tense frustration. "Even though this suite is huge, there is really no room for you. With Liane's studio, Mieka's lab," Seth noted the new name for future reference, "my workroom, the study, Liane and Mieka's bedroom, Shiea's room, my room, the bath, the kitchen, the den, the closet, and this room; we are all out of rooms. I have spent my savings, and more than I can afford out of my pay, so we are both going to be eating on Liane and Mieka's charity for a while.
"I sure hope you are worth all this..."
Morgan seemed to have exhausted his thoughts by the last sentence, leaving Seth unsure how to respond to this seemingly volatile moment. Thinking through the short speech Seth realized that Liane and his new master were not married as he had first thought, the so-far-absent Mieka was clearly Shiea's father, or at least Liane's consort. While he had no idea what his price may have been, clearly none of his new household were well moneyed. That went with the furnishings, but not the real estate.
"I will do everything that I can to be worthy of your investment. I will defend your person, house, and interests with my life and make utmost use of my meager skills for your betterment."
Having survived because of, or perhaps in spite of, his aggressive curiosity, Seth decided to speak further. "May I ask why you have chosen to acquire me?"
Morgan was feeling the exhaustion which had first brought him to his rooms earlier that morning. "We'll talk about all that later, right now I need to sleep. Your stuff is over there. Get dressed. Then try to make yourself useful, but do not leave this suite. I don't know how long I'll be sleeping. Talk to Liane if you have any questions."
Morgan got to his feet and headed off to bed.
Seth waited until Morgan reached his room and noted its location. Then he went to examine the bundle of gear Tor had sent over. Everything that he had brought to the school was there, and Seth put back on the clothes that had been taken from him at the kennels.

* * *

The habits of work found Seth and drove him back to the tub room. He looked at the towel he had worn, and the one he had dried himself with and decided to start with doing some laundry. He tracked Liane down in the kitchen and waited patiently at the door for her to acknowledge him. He watched her feeding her daughter and a protective instinct rose in him. He was puzzled to find a strange expectant feeling tinged with doom welling up in him. He didn't know where it came from. He already felt that he could find a place for himself in this strange family, but the feeling of something threatening farther off loomed over him momentarily. Then it was gone.
"Yes Seth?" Liane had finally realized he was waiting for her to speak.
"I ... thought I might see if the laundry, or perhaps something else, needs to be done."
Liane was a naturally sensitive person, and knew that Seth was groping for a starting place in a, perhaps vast, unknown.
"Actually, I think a better place for you to start is the porch."
Liane took him back to the main room and out through curtained glass doors onto a wide stone terrace. Early fall, and years of neglect, had visited the trees and planter boxes. A litter of dried and drying leaves covered a smattering of windblown dirt which in turn blanketed the entire scene. Ancient stone benches sat slightly askew all along the margin between stone and earth, and a disused fire-brick platform was overgrown with withered vines.
"This runs all along the south wall here but we don't use it as much as I'd like. The boys keep promising, but they never get out here and take care of it. There are some tools in there." She pointed to a small wooden door in the outer wall. "Just do whatever you can." She gave Seth a resigned, perhaps even commiserating look and headed back into the house.
Seth went back into the common room and traded his shirt for a pair of heavy cloth work gloves. His pants were a medium canvas that belied the wear they had already seen, and his boots were both tough and broken-in enough for the job. Re-equipped and already formulating a plan of attack, he investigated the tool locker.
He knew as soon as he tried to open the door that the pickings would be lean. He'd give two silver if anything in there had been touched in the last year. The lathe tines of the rake were rotted through and the hoe was rusted and useless. He emptied everything out of the tiny closet, spiders and all, and sorted through the mess. A reasonably serviceable broom, a reparable pair of hand shears, a small gardeners fork and trowel were the only things worth keeping. His natural fondness for tools set his head wagging slowly at the waste.
Nothing made sense here. This land, this structure, was amazing. It all spoke of money or position, but so far the people were just average in means and demeanor.
Starting with the shears Seth visited each planter box and quickly cut and sectioned the overgrowth, not bothering to carry it away once it was free. The remains of decorative plants run amok interwove themselves with the weeds and windblown opportunists. The soil underneath had been sucked dry of nutrients, leaving a dense crusty plaque of dust in the stone basins.
Seth looked at everything as he worked. The stonework was old but unflinchingly sound. The high hills and subtle sharpness of the walls of the vale would make it damn hard to get into the place, while the shape of the land afforded a sense of openness. And the glass, it was everywhere. But when he looked into the rooms there was just stuff, the cheap everyday items of a small family.
After he had visited, pruned, and generally cut free each of the planters he started in with the broom, systematically sweeping the dirt and debris to the far edge of the flagstones. He was part-way through his third pass, digging weeds out from the cracks in the massive stonework floor when he noticed the light was getting ready to fade. He was on his knees, straightening up to stretch the kinks out of his back when he realized that he was looking straight into Morgan's room.
Morgan was asleep on his back, his head upside-down, lolling over the edge of his bed. He had clearly been exhausted since he was above the bedclothes and still fully dressed. Seth really hadn't thought about his future when he had served his Lady. That, in turn, had been replaced by the general dread of sitting in the cage and being owned by a place more than a person. Now he was staring at his new world, in there on that bed, and for the first time he wondered what kind of person this stranger was. He wasn't good at reaching out. He'd never really had to before, and nothing felt perminant any more. The whole thing was almost paralyzing.
Seth, arms hanging loose at his side, just knelt there watching Morgan sleep for a while. An air of earthiness seemed to surround the sleeping man. His short-cropped hair was a deep lustrous brown with tiny glints of finer blond hair showing through. His skin was fair from spending too much time indoors, but had the unmistakable gold and olive-slate undertone that promised it would brown instantly in the sun. Morgan's hopelessly mixed ancestry was in no way contradictory to the subtle ubiquitous clues about how he lived his life. The room was casually messy and had no hangings or art that might tie him to any particular station or heritage. He was a prime product of the long bland mixing of both blood and culture that the anonymous masses both suffered and enjoyed.
A blurry frame of overcast late afternoon light crept slowly up Morgan's face from hairline to chin. The simultaneously spreading and dimming light slowly penetrated Morgan's sleep while Seth knelt there in contemplation. Morgan's face slowly squinched up as the setting sun burrowed into his dreams. Morgan's mobile features, made ridiculous by the temporary lack of eyebrows, dragged an epic grin up out of Seth's deeper reaches. There was the briefest sense that things might be good here.
Morgan opened his left eye to the sun and Seth shifted slightly to cover Morgan with his shadow. Morgan refocused on Seth and caught and shared his grin without knowing why.
When Morgan moved the spell of the moment was broken. Seth bowed his head in deference and turned his grin back towards his work. There was no point in assuming that this man would even think twice about him once he had what he wanted.

* * *

Dusk overtook Seth quickly, and he headed back inside.
Liane was in the front room playing with Shiea when Seth entered, the tiniest corner of his mind envied them that. Just as that feeling nudged him, Liane looked up and saw Seth was bare-chested. She sprung to her feet and squeeled "Seth!"
Seth froze, guilty and embarrassed for his thought.
"You were outside all that time with no shirt on? Are you insane? You must be burnt to a crisp!"
Seth bowed his head, sheepishly releived. "No lady, uh, Liane, I don't burn, or tan. At least I haven't yet."
As he stepped out of the ruddy sunset and into the common, Liane saw the deep redness that had panicked her washed away by the even light from the lamps. Under the ink his skin was still the same even, healthy white it had always been.
Liane was amazed, even shocked. She was naturally dark but she knew that five hours on a white stone terrace, even with the overcast, would burn her bad enough to need a doctor or healer. Someone with Seth's milk-white skin should be near dead. She reached up and tentatively touched his shoulder top, still expecting him to flinch in pain. There simply was no burn.
"Strange..." She let her hand drop. She went back towards her seat, then noticed Seth hadn't moved. He was waiting for her permission, or instructions. She turned to face him, put her fists on her hips, and waited right back at him. With his head bowed his long black hair fell forward and obscured most of his face.
He glanced up from the floor quickly and then back down again without moving his head. Then looked up and met her gaze as best he could through his hair. She kept her pose, lifting one eyebrow at him, and kept waiting. Finally he lifted his head, not all the way, but far enough to satisfy Liane.
Sternly, without yelling, Liane started, "I will not stand for..." Seth ducked his head down again.
"No, you look a me." Seth looked back up at her, hunching his head down and shoulders up protectively.
"I will not stand for that behavior in this house. It's too damn much work to have you demanding my attention for your every move. I expect to be able to relax in my own home, so you act like human being in here, got it?"
"Yes lad..., uh Li.., um, yes ma'am." Seth was stuck, he didn't know whether to move, or stand, or what.
"Well? Do whatever you were doing before I stopped you. Go on... scat!"
Seth, on the edge of bolting, went quickly back towards the bath room. That hadn't been where he was going, but it was the only other place in the house he really knew. Walking down the hall he yanked his gloves off and wadded them up in his fist. As he entered the bath room he threw them as hard as he could at the sink then sank down against a wall. Everything was already so different here. Nothing was what it was supposed to be.
Seth rested his elbows on his raised knees, head bowed, left hand on his collar and right hand at the bridge of his nose pinching a sting that promised tears. Water splashed in the tub and Seth sprang up to ready himself to fight, but cracked his head on the underside of a stone shelf instead. In that moment between impact and pain, Seth recognized Morgan. Seth made a fist in his own hair to fight the coming pain and went back to sitting on the floor, defeated by the situation.
Morgan, oblivious to Seth's situation, had innocently ducked his head under water just before Seth had reached the bath. Seth's almost graceful rise, ending as it did with a teeth-gnashing thunk, didn't even have a chance to startle Morgan before it set him laughing. Seth joined him, his own laugh somewhat thickened by the threat of tears for each of confusion, embarrassment, and pain.
Morgan looked down over the edge of the tub. "Are you all right?"
"No." Seth groaned, still caught between laughing and crying.
Morgan got out of the tub and wrapped himself with a towel without bothering to try to dry himself. He squatted down next to Seth dripping water all over him. "Here, let me look at it."
Morgan pried Seth's hand away from his head and saw blood.
"You're bleeding, I better get Liane."
"No... please don't, she's really mad at me."
"All right, let me see what I can do." Morgan was a powerful adept, but healing had never been his strong suit. He reached inside himself for healing energies and then out towards the gash... and missed. Failure was what he half expected would happen, so he pulled himself back from the flow of power.
Morgan shifted to the more mundane but reliable approach. "We better wash that out so that I can see how bad it is."
Morgan led Seth to the sink, and then opened the sluice. With the lightest touch of his mind, he made a temporary duplicate of the heating spell from the bath sluice, turning the water pouring into the sink blood warm.
Sitting Seth on a small stool, Morgan made him lean his head back over the sink.
It took Morgan a while to find the cut. He had to keep rinsing the blood away while trying to separate the right bunch of hair. By the time he found the cut the bleeding was already beginning to slow. The cut was smaller than he thought it'd be.
"Here, that's not so bad." Morgan got a washcloth off a shelf, "keep pressure on it, and rinse this out every so often and I think it'll stop bleeding in a few minutes."
Seth pressed the warm, wet towel against his split scalp. Morgan shucked his towel and got back into the tub. Seth turned around to face, and lean over, the sink. He noticed his gloves clogging the drain and fished them out with his left hand. Silence descended and Seth went back to feeling like an idiot.
Finally Morgan said, "So why is Liane mad at you?"
"I'm not really sure." Seth said, forgetting himself and his station, he proceeded to tell Morgan about the brief encounter in excruciating detail, leaving out only the moment of envy.
"Well, I see her point. None of us in this house come from money or high station. Having someone hanging on your every word, literally waiting on you, is kind of intrusive. It's like having someone staring at you. It'll make you tense."
"I've spent my life serving Lady Korane. I knew her well enough to know when to move and when to wait. To everybody else I am just a slave, and I've lived the habits of a slave all my life. Now Liane wants me to suddenly be someone else. I don't think I know how."
"Is how you acted with Liane the same as how you would have acted towards Lady Korane."
"Not really. I knew my lady so well that following her will was second nature to me."
"Treat Liane like you would have treated Lady Korane."
"It's not that simple, my Lady was like a mother to me, and I served her so long that I knew her needs almost as well as she did. If I knew Liane as well as I knew my Lady, things would have gone very differently. If Liane had known me as well as my Lady had, she wouldn't have stopped me and nothing would have happened at all."
"That makes sense I suppose." Morgan stopped to think, and Seth rinsed out the bloody cloth and re-applied it to his head.
"How about this," Morgan continued, "why don't you just treat all of us like peers instead of free men."
The thought was appalling. "That would not be appropriate."
"None of us in this house would mind."
And that idea didn't even make sense. "I didn't even treat my Lady as a peer, and if others see that kind of familiarity from me it would harm your reputation and possibly get me killed. Besides, you are my lord and master. I couldn't serve you if I treat you like an equal."
"Points taken. How about this, you treat every member of this house, except me, like an equal when you are in this house, or otherwise in private with them."
"Yes sir. Except as ordered sir." As the pain and embarrassment subsided Seth began to remember his place, he'd have to figure out what those orders really meant as he went along.
"Okay, now as for myself, don't `sir' me too much in private. My name is Morgan, use that."
"Yes Morgan." At least that didn't feel so strange, even a first name could be formal.
"Uh, and sparingly... Address me in the familiar or informal okay? I need to be relaxed to do my work, that formal nonsense makes me feel like I'm someone else."
Seth felt himself coming back onto familiar ground. Lady Korane charged him much the same way for much the same reason. It was something he could do, something normal.
"I was body guard and personal assistant to my Lady. Should I fulfill these roles for you also?"
"Sure. But I don't know how much guarding I need, and don't be too obvious about it."
"What about the rest of your household." Seth rinsed his rag again, satisfied to see that there was much less blood on it this time.
"This isn't `my household.' Liane, Mieka, and I have been friends since we met as freshmen. We threw our lot in together early on, then they got married and had Shiea. We are like a family, but there is no rank between us. Except that Liane seems to run things around here more than anybody." Morgan chuckled at that inside joke.
Seth checked the rag again. "I've stopped bleeding."
The sluice suddenly ran cold so Seth closed the gate.
"I'll need to be shown around your affairs to learn my duties, at your convenience of course, Morgan."
"Sure." Morgan settled in for a soak and Seth dismissed himself.

* * *

Back in the main room Seth began to look through his stuff for an appropriate change of clothes. He studiously ignored mother and child, unwilling to revisit any feelings about anything whatsoever.
Liane came over and apologized to him. "I'm sorry about before. I wasn't really angry at you, I was just trying to make my point."
"I understand Liane, Morgan explained it all to me."
"Oh really?" Her tone was hard for Seth to guess, but he looked her in the eyes and saw a gentle humor there that explained everything.
"This stuff can't stay here, and I can't have you changing in the front room all the time." Liane looked back at the rest of the suite. "Morgan bought you, he'll have to live with you. You're in his room from now on, I'll show you where it is. Move your stuff in when you get the chance."
"No need, I know where it is Liane." He quickly repacked his gear, lifted what had taken three slaves to deliver as if it were nothing, and took it all back to his master's room.

Chapter 5
Tasks

Seth woke an hour before dawn. During the night he had shifted part-way off his mat and onto a pile of Morgan's dirty clothes. Making a mental note to do Morgan's laundry, Seth quietly got up off the floor and retrieved a three foot weighted staff from his belongings. Still under orders not to leave the suite, Seth crept silently through the darkend house, using the map in his memory to dodge the tables stacked with artwork and edge deftly past strange displays of exotic stone nicknaks.
He made it out onto the terrace without incident and began his morning exercises. He was careful not to go so far along the terrace that he would be near the sleeping quarters. With the added room and equipment his workout went much faster. He regretted that he still couldn't take a proper run, but twenty minutes of swinging the weighted Bo quickly through a ritual combat almost made up for the loss. He finished with his normal meditative dance that lasted just long enough for the sun to make itself known.
Seth washed up using the hot running water from the bath-sluice and then rinsed and filled the tub. He returned to Morgan's room and slipped into some linen shorts and was about to lift Morgan out of his bed when pang of loss struck him. He had slipped back into the pattern of Lady Korane's long illness.
Morgan woke from being uncovered in his bed. Seth apologized and quickly explained.
"It's not so bad waking to the prospect of a ready, hot bath." Morgan smirked, and headed off to the waiting tub, unintentionally mumbling "the only thing missing is breakfast."
Seth padded out towards the kitchen tucked in just next to the front room. He was no chef, but a simple hearty breakfast was within his skills. He set flame to wood in the small stove, and went back to Morgan's room while the heat built. He selected and laid out a comfortable set of clean clothes for Morgan, pulled a jerkin over his own head, and then headed back to the kitchen.
Fishing through the small pantry, Seth wondered momentarily at the liberal use of magic when he discovered one of the cabinets had been ensorceled to keep its contents cold. A working like that could take the full attention of an aprentice to maintain, and probably an hour's effort by a master to establish. But this cold cupboard and the hot water on the bath and the sink here in the kitchen all worked while Morgan was asleep. Seth assumed it was Morgan's works since rich people paid good money for full-time staff of decent talents to get these sort of conveniences.
Well, puzzles later and work now... Guessing that Liane would be up soon and, somewhat audaciously including himself since he was under orders, he set up a sizable quantity of ham, and cornmeal pan-bread. There were plenty of eggs, but he didn't want to break into any of those until he was sure the others were nearly ready. He was grating potatoes for hash when he heard someone working the latch at the front door.
With a quick thought to make sure that nothing was ready to burn, Seth moved quietly into the front room. As the front door was gently nudged open, Seth relaxed from an attack-ready stance that only a trained eye would have recognized. He knew that he could relax because few attackers would enter a room back-first carrying armloads of stuff. In quick summary Seth saw dust-caked riding clothes, an overstuffed pack of dirty clothes, a bound bundle of books and other scholarly gear, and a large tired black man of considerable height but little muscle or combat-inspired grace.
"Greetings lord Mieka let me take that." Seth deftly deprived him of the pack and bundle. "Morgan is in the bath, and both lady Liane and Shiea are still in bed."
Mieka easily spotted Seth's station but had no clue as to why the large man was there.
Seth continued easily, falling back on the rituals of formality. "If it please your lordship, I am Seth, a recent and somewhat unexpected acquisition of Lord Morgan's. Shall I take these to the study, and these to the laundry?" Seth indicated each bundle in turn.
Mieka nodded ascent and Seth turned away. He stopped before leaving the room, turned back, and said "I was just preparing breakfast. Ham, hash-browns, eggs, and corn bread. Would you care for any?"
"Sure, some of each."
"Right away sir."
Seth passed a yawning Liane in the hallway. "Mieka is here," Seth showed the packs as evidence, "and breakfast will be ready in a few minutes."
Seth put the books in the study, grabbed a clean towel from a closet and then took it into the bath room.
"Okay, you've been soaking in there long enough, breakfast is nearly ready."
Seth set the fresh towel on the rack next to the bath, and headed back. Seth heard Liane say "sush, he's comming" as he got to the kitchen. It wouldn't take two guesses to figure out what they were talking about.
"Liane, you want ham, eggs, hash-browns, corn-bread?" Seth made his voice carry from the kitchen to the front room.
A panel slid open in the wall joining the kitchen to the main room, and Liane leaned in. "Smells delicious, give me the works."
With eggs quickly scrambled, breakfast was ready. Seth fished a jug of cider out of the cold box, and soon everything was laid out on the table. Seth went back to check on Morgan, partly as an excuse to make sure that he would not end up eating before Morgan himself, and moreso to give Mieka and Laine a chance to talk. When everybody else was seated, Seth also sat down at the table, feeling awkward. Mieka, who had not yet had a chance to accommodate to Seth even being in the house, reacted with vague ambivalence to his seating himself, which was cut short by Liane's under-table footwork.
Then everybody dug in, Seth managing to be last without being obvious or obsequious.
Breakfast was uneventful, with Seth occasionally getting up to serve the others, and a generally lively conversation mostly about Mieka's trip to re-survey a tricky turn in a new canal. Seth's sterling contribution was to ask why the plumbing was more primitive in the house than in the kennels, which in turn started the story of how the three had found their house abandoned, and simply moved in.
If the building had been abandoned then it had been theirs to take when they found it. That explained how they could afford the place. It did nothing to explain how such a place could become lost.
When they were done Mieka went to bed and Liane cleared the table while Seth got dressed to accompany Morgan to work.

* * *

Crossing the campus, once again the people they encountered parted like magic under Seth's casually intense scrutiny. He was dressed unremarkably in shirt, pants, and boots, but the crowd saw his Blood-Cuffs and short swords in their well cared for, but obviously well used, scabbards. The only accent to his clothing was a carefully rolled cloth headband, colored a deep ruddy brown, which held his hair out of his face and `just happened' to perfectly cover his Black-Bar. When Morgan had asked him about it, Seth said that lady Korane had had him wear something like it for years because it `kept people with nothing better to do out of her business.' Morgan immediately saw the wisdom and officially added the headband to Seth's standing orders. Not that everybody at the school wouldn't alrady know what it concealed by now.

* * *

The school library was an old building that had seen many additions and renovations over hundreds of years. It was generally made of carefully set, deliberately massive stone blocks. The sturdy construction was to protect the rest of the school from any `research accidents' that might happen inside. The original portions of the structure were laid out with simple and elegant floor plans. Unfortunately for each batch of new students, who were constantly getting lost inside, the parts that were added on tended to be rather convoluted. Common gossip said that the nastier twisty bits had been put in to help speed the various forms of intrigue commonly found amongst magicians. Unfortunately for the magicians, the common gossips were correct.
Morgan led Seth unerringly through one of the twisting back ways to his office. By the time they arrived there were already several people waiting. The small clutch of strangers were mostly apprentices who had been sent by their masters to find out what access they could have to lady Korane's books. Morgan told them all that nothing had changed. As yet none of the books had been successfully opened, and that as soon as one was opened a schedule of availability would be made up and posted.
None of the apprentices were happy to have to take that kind of message back to their respective masters, and several seemed to disbelieve him, but the few who tried to position themselves or tug at Morgan's sleeve for a possibly more private message tended to quail at the full intensity of Seth's expressionless but undivided attention.
When they were safely behind Morgan's closed door Morgan said "If you do nothing more than frighten off those pesky apprentices while I deal with these books, you're already worth your price."
"You should see me with beggars and politicians."
Morgan smiled and sat down behind his desk, he took a deep breath and asked the question he had been dreading all morning. "Seth, can you help me with Lady Korane's spell books?"
"Yes. Well, probably yes. There is someone here at the school that should be able to open them. One Lord Aaron Eserates d'Arte. He was my lady's school mate and, I think, lover. He supposedly knows how to open at least one of her older books. My lady said he'd know what to do with the others once he opened the first one."
"Excellent! We just have to go find..." Morgan stopped halfway out of his chair and settled back down into it. "Wait a minute." He began to dig through a scattering of papers first on, and then in, his desk. Finally he found what he had been looking for and after scanning through it, whispered a single word. "Damn."
Seth came forward to the desk. "What's the matter?"
Morgan handed Seth the paper and simultaneously said "He's dead."
Seth looked at the papers, they were a month by month registry of the magi and apprentices working at, or connected with the school who had died. Working with magic was dangerous, collecting the more obscure material components could be more so, and occasionally a colleague could be the worst danger of all. Sorcerers gained considerable longevity as a side effect of their craft. In theory a magi might live many centuries. In practice it was extremely rare for one to finish his first. Seth found Aaron's name, next to it was `cause of death unknown', and a date Seth remembered all too well.
"This is the same day that my Lady died."
Morgan snatched it back and frowned at it as if there might be more to the listing.
"Was there anything suspicious about her death?"
"No. It was suicide." Seth got a far away look, lowering his head as he spoke. "My Lady was very ill for a long time. After she finished her life's work she had me prepare poisoned wine. I took her out to her at one of her favorite places, and she drank."
Morgan stayed silent. Seth finally continued, "I would have drank too, but she still had too many things for me to do... She was all I ever had."
A feeling of agonized loss and despair suddenly washed through Morgan. It was like nothing he had ever felt before in his life. He struggled for equilibrium, overwhelmed, and felt himself drowning. The feeling began flickering in and out, then it fizzled away all together. It took him a while to realize that the feelings had come through the control band and its link with Seth's collar. He contemplated the steel ring around his wrist while Seth drifted for a while in his pain. But it wasn't a moment that could last.
Morgan stood, "Let's go check on the books," and headed out the door.
Seth followed.
On the way to the reinforced workspace that housed Korane's books, Morgan got to wondering if maybe it still might be possible to remove Seth's collar without killing him. Since the emotional and motivational links were supposed to form within a few minutes and a triphariad collar didn't typically become permanent for nearly a day, it was possible that the collar wasn't attached to Seth strongly enough to be life-threatening yet. Then again, he thought, the collar had been checked and validated. The possibility that Seth had somehow resisted, or voided, an enchantment as basic and brutal as the collar made Morgan dizzy. His promise to Tor, compounded by the question of who he might trust with something this unique, made Morgan set the issue aside for the moment.

* * *

The first thing to strike Seth as he entered the room was the fading scent of scorching, followed immediately by the crunch of tiny particles under his boots. There was no apparent blood or gouges in the walls, none of the stonework looked eaten by flame, and all of the stuff underfoot seemed well pulverized, so Seth figured that none of the participants had been killed. The number one and two causes of injury during sorcery-gone-awry were shrapnel and heat. Clearly a lot of sorcery had gone awry in this room quite recently.
Lady Korane's journals were on a shelf of an otherwise empty stone bookcase set into one wall. Along another was a fairly standard stock of ritual and material components. Insulating and filtering cloths of various colors and materials, unpurposed stones of various sizes and compositions, tallow candles, dried organics, the usual kind of thing.
Once inside Morgan sighed and said "I don't know where to start again..."
"How about we separate them."
"Why? Separate how?"
"There are three sets of books and a forth single book. My lady kept a personal journal, a research journal, and an encyclopedia of observations, enchantments and conjurations. The last book is the culmination of her life's work."
"How old was she anyway, like two centuries? She was awfully prolific even for that kind of life span."
"No Morgan, my Lady died in her eighty-second year."
Morgan looked at Seth, shocked. "There is no way she could have done all this in only, what, sixty or so years of study..."
Seth watched Morgan, waiting for him to decide whether he would believe him or not. It was Seth's placidity that finally convinced Morgan that there was no duplicity here. Morgan had to remind himself that Seth probably had never gotten the habits of duplicity that the school of Disciplines instilled in its participants. Besides a habit of lying could get a slave killed real easy.
Morgan sat on a stool at the end of the table. "okay, get started. Separate them and tell me what you can about them while you're at it."
Seth started sorting the books with a casual certainty bred from familiarity. "The oldest of these come from my Lady's school days, but you know that, isn't there a requirement that each student here make and bind their first book in order to get their undergraduate degree? Anyway, if you vrec the books you can see a different progressive pattern on the spine of each set. That's the easiest way for you to order them."
"Wait. You can vrec? I thought slaves couldn't be talented or adept."
"You are correct, the talented may not be made slaves. I not only have no talent, I am totally head-blind. I can tell the order of the books because I have been with them nearly every day for twenty years. I even made some of them."
"That's impossible! You're lying. Sorcerers have to personally make everything they enchant. Especially if they want the enchantment to survive their own death."
"I wouldn't know anything about that Morgan, but I did make these." Seth touched the last several books of each set one at a time. "My Lady became too ill to be able to make the paper and bind the books by hand. That required more strength and stamina than she could spare. For the last ten years I have made all the blanks and prepared all the rituals for my Lady."
Morgan closed his eyes to think. What Seth was saying went against everything he had ever learned about sorcery. Every living thing had energy to it, and that energy infused anything that living thing even got near, and intelligence gave patterns to those infusions. That is why magi must harvest, mine, and collect their material components themselves if they intend to channel more than a fraction of their power through it. `Clearing' an object handled by another sentient being is a long and laborious process that makes climbing a cliff to retrieve a single feather look inviting. Constructed objects have to be cleared one component at a time, and since paper is a pressed mass of carefully separated fibers, it could take a year for a mage to clear a single sheet. An entire spell book would take nearly a century what with all the pages, the stitching, glue, covers, hasps, buckles, and such.
The truly distressing part was that Morgan believed that Seth was telling him the absolute truth. The number one cause of death in mages after sorcery gone-awry was death by misadventure while trying to gather materials. Not to mention the cost of traveling all over the fifteen continents and the uncertainty of journeying out into the margins. If the secret of clearing objects cheaply, in human cost, was in those books, that alone would revolutionize sorcery.
Morgan opened his eyes, ready to ask his next question, and was struck dumb. There on the other end of the table was the largest of the books in the set, laying open. He sat up and tilted his head, trying to read the text upside down. Unconsciously he rose to his feet and began slowly walking along the table in a daze. He got close enough to start being able to read the text.
"Coda Prima Creataria: An in-depth study and translation of the litany of prime creation and its selective applications for the manipulation of ...."
Danger! Fear! Urgency! A body slammed into Morgan and carried him to the floor just as Seth's burst of emotion burned through the bracelet and into Morgan's head. Morgan was smothering, his head seized and trapped while the full weight of his assailant slowly crushed the breath out of him. Morgan, his arms spread-eagle on the floor, brought them up, in, and down in a viscous double blow to his opponent's kidneys. The person crushing him contorted but didn't loosen his grip.
In a single moment many things penetrated Morgan's mind. His attacker was Seth. Seth was doing his best to cover Morgan with his body, particularly wrapping both of his arms around Morgan's head and pressing his face implacably into his chest. All around them a massive magical maelstrom was forming. A fire elemental was materializing in the room with them. A very large one. Morgan could feel its sentience, and feel it searching for something. He clutched Seth in fear and did everything he could to pull his mind in on itself. He knew he was nowhere near ready to face down such a creature.
Seth freed one of his arms without compromising his coverage of Morgan and began groping at the edge of the table. He found the book and managed to flip it closed. Moments later Morgan felt the creature bolt away along a strange path. Morgan recognized the line of force it followed as the traces of a scrying. Someone had been watching them via sorcery and was about to get a most unwelcome visitor.
Even after the heat and disturbance had past, Seth remained covering Morgan. Morgan finally patted him on the back to tell him that everything was clear. Seth got off Morgan by doing a push-up and then kind of collapsing to one side. His shirt was scorched and fraying from the heat. When Morgan checked him for damage the worst of it was two bruises beginning to form in the curves of his lower back. Morgan expected he'd be a little black and blue himself from the flying tackle, and he felt very bad about the punches.
Morgan's mind was also racing at the implications of what little he had seen. The code of "prime creation"... translated! The protections on the book, the person or persons who were watching him, no them, and the fact that Seth had apparently opened the books without talent or artifice. Morgan wanted to just lay there with the heels of his hands pressed into his eyes and think but Seth hadn't moved much and was groaning when he did, which was unlike him, so he might be badly hurt. And someone or something might just come, or come back, and he wasn't ready to deal with who or what ever might appear.
"Seth... Seth are you all right?"
"I'll live," a pained groan as he turned over, "Sir."
"Can you walk? Like now?" Morgan was filled with a combination of concern and urgency. "We really need to get somewhere private."
Seth opened his eyes, looked around and listened hard, "we're alone in a locked room, how much more private can we get?" somewhere in his past Seth had permanently linked coping with pain to sarcasm.
Morgan bit back a comment about dealing with mundanes and said "I'll tell you when we get there."
They each took more time than they thought they'd need to stand, and then kind of limped out. Several steps out of the room and down the hall Seth winced and staggered against the wall. Morgan ducked under one of his arms to support him but discovered that he wasn't quite tall enough to be any real help. Seth appreciated the gesture and Morgan stayed there, which saved him from falling over during the next several spasms. Maybe Morgan couldn't hold Seth up, but as guidance and lateral stability he proved invaluable.
Several long minutes of slow progress got them to a different hallway and group of workrooms. Selecting an empty one at random, Morgan maneuvered Seth through the narrow door and into a chair. Morgan reached out with his mind, glad that once enchanted, most materials could be shared, and fed his essence into the small stones set in all six faces that made up the inside of the cubic room. In a few moments the enchantments in the stones keyed to him and flared to life creating a shield against magical flows, in or out, and therefore the only reliable kind of privacy in the building.
"First, are you really sure you're all right?" Morgan lifted the edge of Seth's shirt to find that the bruising was starting to spread.
"Yes sir, you misjudged my size and got me mostly in the lower ribs." Seth lifted his shirt up further to give Morgan a better view but felt the scorched material come apart in his hands, so he took it off.
Nodding in regret for the ruined garment, Seth winced again, and got an idea. He began tearing up his ruined shirt to make a wrapping for his ribs.
"Seth, what happened in there?"
"I am very sorry. I left the book sitting open and I shouldn't have put you in danger that way."
"But how did you open it? And once it was opened why would it be dangerous?"
"I just opened it. I've always been able to open my Lady's books. But I don't know why they are dangerous when I open them, they just are. My lady's last apprentice was killed some seven years ago when she came up behind me while I was working with one of my Lady's journals. I was concentrating so hard I never knew she was there. There was suddenly a burst of heat behind me. Her eyes had been burned out of her head.
"Lady Korane studied the accident for some time. My Lady told me her protections, while quite severe, were designed to be non-lethal unless profoundly provoked. Several weeks later I transcribed an entry where she surmised that one of her protections, designed to destroy any equipment used to scry the pages of the books while they are closed, misfired somehow and killed the girl. I asked my Lady about the incident and she said that when I open the books they don't know they're open, so when they feel a sentient being looking at them they lash out to destroy the means. Since there really is no tool, they go for the eyes. She made me swear to never open them for anybody, so nobody would get hurt. She also said that if anybody ever did see them like that again I should cover their eyes and head with my body, she figured that if the spells didn't mind me they might not be able to find the person's eyes if I were covering them.
"My lady never tested her idea because she didn't believe in using people like that... I'm glad she was right."
"So am I, believe me, I had no desire to deal with that elemental."
"Elemental? How was it an elemental? All I felt was heat and wind."
Morgan appraised Seth yet again. Even animals could feel the mind of an enraged elemental. Seth had to be the most head-blind person anybody ever even heard of to have missed that raging presence.
"Now, why did you open the book?"
"When I was sorting the books I remembered that my Lady had been writing a letter in the days before she ended her life. I realized that I hadn't seen it in any of the things I sold or destroyed and I don't think she had a chance to send it anywhere. That only left the books. That letter had to be important for her to have written it when she was preparing for her own death. I figured it had to be in either the first or the last of her books. I was holding the one you saw when the realization hit, so I opened it. In my excitement I just turned without thinking, to get her oldest journal. When I turned back I saw you looking at the book and jumped on you."
"You didn't get a chance to open the other book?"
"No sir."
Morgan thought for a moment. "Are you any good with those things?" he asked, and pointed at the swords Seth carried.
"I am one of the best swordsmen in the Southern Marches and have done battle with many creatures from the margins. I could probably defeat any man or woman trained on this over-civilized continent." There were just the slightest touches of pride, and weariness, behind his statement. Seth finished tying his impromptu support around his chest, flexed a little to try it out, and found it satisfactory.
"Good, when I told you before that you should act as my bodyguard I was only partly serious, now I think I may be in great danger. You are to protect me and my family as best you can.
"Someone was watching us. The elemental took off after them. If they live, and if they saw even as much of the book as I saw, this school could be split by infighting for control of those texts."
"Sir, whoever was watching us is still alive. The anti-scrying spell, and the elemental it summoned, would only attack the scrying device. The operator would be safe unless they tried to protect the device with epic measures. If they saw, they may already be acting."
"We have to get back to the room and see if you can find that letter... I wish there was some way to protect the books themselves."
"I assure you sir that they are safe from prying, if not theft. I'm ready to move, and fight, as necessary."
"okay, let's go... and try not to look too suspicious. There are probably already enough rumors about the two of us; we don't need any more right now."
The pair left the safety of the workroom, Morgan draining the shields as he went. They met nobody on the trip back to the room holding the books. Nothing had been touched and all the books were still there. Seth finished the sorting `so that the books would look normal,' whatever that meant. Morgan turned his back and reached out with his mind to search for prying powers.
"It's clear. Start looking."
Morgan could hear the heavy book thump down on the table and the latches softly click open. Part of him longed to sneak a single peak but the merest thought of that elemental kept him from even focusing on any of the contents of the room.
"It's here Morgan." Seth said as he closed the book.
Morgan turned back to face the table. A thick packet of paper was sitting on the table. Morgan motioned Seth to put the book back on the shelf and then focused his mind on the envelope and seal.
There was no enchantment on the papers of any kind. That meant it was time to go. Morgan snatched up the papers and tucked them into his shirt. He raised a casual screen about himself. The kind that any adept might use to keep himself from being distracted while studying. Something strong enough to keep away most casual magic but not so strong as to raise suspicion in anybody he might encounter.
Morgan had never been much for the intrigue that suffused the School of Disciplines. On the way back to his house he found himself wallowing in paranoia. The urge to scan every passer-by nearly overwhelmed his common sense. Only the profound calm that seemed to radiate from Seth kept his panic at bay. Seth seemed unconcerned with the world. Only tiny fragments of emotion coming to Morgan through the band let him know it was a well practiced act.
Despite his fears, they reached Morgan's house unmolested.

Chapter 6
Antagonists

Master Calhwin stood in the doorway of his workroom staring darkly at the cooling slag that quite recently had been his two biggest assets. The tiny, secret antechamber to his private workroom at the school had held two very complex devices. The first had been a minute crystal cube, surrounded by magnifying mirrors, which reflected whatever person or location he chose. The cube was tiny, so the conduit it opened was tiny, so nobody ever noticed they were being watched. The second had been a thin plane of tiles made of mother-of-pearl and obsidian. The tiles were held together in a lattice of metallic and organic fibers. It had been a doorway to distant places, the most significant being his even more secret cache of materials and enchantments.
More frustrating than the loss of the two machines was the prospect of having to travel halfway across the realm just to get to his supplies. The cleverness of keeping his materials far out of harm's way had just been turned into a nightmare of inconvenience. Still, he told himself, it had been worth it. He had learned something for his pains and knowledge was power after all. He was the only person who knew the stakes of the game he was about to play, and that put him well ahead of any possible competitors.
There was only one person to bring up to speed. She would be angry as hell about the damage, but she was the better strategist and their partnership had always been profitable. Ruthless and trustworthy were a hard combination to find, but they had found both in each other. Together they were unstoppable and unstoppable was just the odds they liked.

Chapter 7
Consummations

Seth came as close to sight reading Malhablamorung as anybody Morgan had ever met, but it still took several hours of intense work for them to make an acceptable, if stark, translation.
Aaron my love,

I am sorry that I have avoided you for these years past. I have been laid low and I know that you would have bound yourself to me to help me. I could not allow you to make that sacrifice. There was a cure of sorts but I could never pass this on to someone else. You always said that my need to rescue others would be my undoing and you were right. My undoing was a simple spell invented by some backwoods hedge wizard gone nasty. I was defending a local village from a raid when I met its creator. It was unstoppable. Fortunately this one-spell-wonder met his end before he could quicken his deed.
Now I am dead.
I have finished my life's work and locked it inside my books. It was simpler than I thought it would be. I made sure the books would remember you and let you in. I trust you with the secrets I have unlocked but even you will need to follow the path I have laid out to protect them. There was no way to make you an exception.
On these other papers is a formula that will allow a scholar to add a book to my set. Once done the scholar may open the first book in the set. When he transcribes key observations into his book the next book will unlock for him. This process continues until they are all open to him. This way I can be sure that the final book will only open to someone I could have trusted, though it may take them years to finish.
My only other treasure is waiting in the school's slave livery. Without him I would have died many times over and without ever finishing what I set out to do. He is special in ways I still do not understand. There is nothing of prophecy or destiny about him but I know special when I find it. Go find him and see if you can help him find his life.
I love you and have stayed away so that I can die in peace, knowing you survive me. Good by my love, I will wait as near to you as I can.

Korane
The translation sat between them on Morgan's workroom table. There was some sense of violation, as if the dead lovers were close by, disapproving. Morgan guessed, rightly though he would never know it, that somehow Aaron had found out about Korane's illness and bound himself to her without her knowing. He sacrificed himself for her in silence, to help her live for her work, in exactly the way she would never have let him had she known. In silent accord Morgan and Seth burned the letter and translation and vowed to keep this part of those two lives a secret.
The remaining papers were a singularly strange formula. It went on for six pages of dense diagram and notation. The materials, except for the blank book, were exceedingly common and could probably be found within a hundred yards of the house. Morgan figured the preparation would take several weeks and the execution several hours. The formula was a lengthy progression of odd bindings which were often made and broken several times. That it would connect the target tome to some huge working of sorcery was beyond question. Morgan regretted that he would probably never get to execute it.
"Well this sure fixes us on the menu." Morgan dropped the sheaf back onto the table. "When I post this, interest in the books should wane considerably. Most of the magi here are after a quick thunk of power, they aren't going to go in for a long haul, especially not knowing about the payoff. Most everybody will leave it waiting for someone else to cut into the meat of things."
"That sounds like a good thing to me." Seth's innocence shook Morgan for a moment.
"You don't get it at all. Everyone will go back to ignoring me, depriving us of valuable protection. One person out there probably knows what the payoff of those books is, they certianly know you opened the last book. They know they may be able to turn you into a shortcut. That alone is dangerous whether they saw the contents of the last book or not. I have no money, title, rank, or position I can use to protect either of us."
"Isn't your rank as a Magus, or Master, or whatever here at the school going to work for you?"
"I don't have a rank at this school. I have never been able to complete my associate project. That's the reason they let me run the new acquisitions projects at the library. In the big games they play here I'm stuck a pawn."
Seth wasn't sure he should ask. He just sat waiting for Morgan to continue.
"Look Seth, when I was fourteen I was working in a mine. I was moving a heavy piece of ore when I heard a pebble fall. It was like the loudest sound I could imagine. I looked up at the mountain above my head and knew it was about to fall on me. Without knowing how, I reached out with my mind and pinched together this tiny crack. It took forever for anybody to notice me standing there, staring up at the ceiling, and even longer for them to find someone who could figure out what was happening and fix it for real. I held that mountain up for more than a day.
"That's how I woke to my power. I was brought to this school and tested. I have one of the strongest, most powerful minds anywhere. I am smart, I learn easily, I have an excellent head for ritual and I'm even a nice guy, but I have the hands of a village idiot. To cast a real, lasting enchantment the target item has to be perfect, otherwise the spell won't close. Unclosed spells, like the one I cast on the bath sluice, stay because the caster leaves a line connecting himself to the spell. If the line is cut or the caster dies the spell quickly fades.
"I was raised a laborer, I've never been able to make a perfect book to enchant." Morgan stared down at his hands for a moment.
"Let's say you do make your book, what rank would you have then?"
"If I made a book, and it were judged adequate, I would immediately hold a rank of Magus. That's about halfway up as things are measured here. Store of credits or not, there are more than a few projects between me and the top. Besides the faculty council would have kittens before they would promote me directly into their midst, no matter that I have done more research than half of the tenured Masters here."
"When was the last time you tried?"
"I have paper drying now."
"Well, I think that we can get your book made no problem."
"I don't think so," Morgan crossed to a cabinet built into a wall and took out a bound volume, "this is my last attempt. Look at it, it's full of flaws."
Seth took the book and began a thorough, critical examination. The stitching was straight and even. The leather work was sound. The etching of the leather was even-handed and aesthetic. Inside, the pages were well attached and a clean, bright white. The binding was firm but supple. The glue along the spine was just the right thickness and well set. The latches and seals common to spell books were subtle and strong. It was singularly the most well made book Seth had ever seen.
"I don't understand sir, this is an exemplary work, I couldn't match it."
"But it's flawed. Look at the roughness along the edge of the pages, the nicks in the leather etchings, and the edges of the pages are not really square to the cover. Targets for enchantment have to be perfect or the enchantment will not hold."
"Everything is flawed somehow." Seth corrected him, "If things have to be truly flawless then nothing would ever be enchanted. I think you're looking too hard sir."
Morgan grunted at Seth, and took the book back.
"I made several of the volumes in my Lady's library. They were not as fine as that book in your hands. She still managed the enchantments."
"Your Lady knew the secret of creation, she could probably enchant anything, or remake it to her needs."
"Not ten years ago sir. Her understanding of creation was nowhere near complete that long ago. The books, I think, were simply adequate to her needs. To their purpose."
"Adequate isn't enough, the book would have had to be perfect."
"To her need, perhaps, but certainly not to any absolute measure. My skill at those tasks were far below what they are today. The books were good. The paper was dry without being brittle, the bindings strong, the covers sound, but none of it was anywhere near perfect. I was struggling to achieve passable. Besides, even scraped hides have been made into lasting scrolls."
Morgan sat down in his chair and looked at the book in his hands. "Then what is it I am missing? What's wrong with me?"
"Morgan," Seth stood behind Morgan and began to rub his shoulders soothingly, "nothing is wrong with you, you are just being too hard on yourself, and your work. Journals and spell books are about knowledge... and thoughts... and lasting wisdom. Their only purpose is to preserve that. Your books are about your thoughts."
Seth's voice began to take on a quiet rhythm synchronized with his gentle massage. The words were a paraphrased translation, a true condensation of some key bits of the ritual of enchantment.
"The pages are white to show your thoughts clearly.
"The pages are dry to thirst for the ink and color of your observations.
"The pages are bound to each other to remember the order of your mind.
"The covers protect the pages.
"The covers protect what the pages hold.
"The covers protect your thoughts.
"The latches hold the covers closed.
"The latches hold the covers closed to keep private your thoughts."
Seth stopped rubbing Morgan's back and started moving silently around the room, keeping his voice level and rhythmic, while he collected things and placed them on the table.
"Look at the pages and see that they are waiting for your words.
"Think about the fibers, how they will swell with ink, how the ink will merge with the page.
"Lines and swirls of thought poring from you into the page.
"They are waiting to serve you.
"Waiting to fulfill the purpose they were made for..."
Relaxed, lulled by Seth's gentle voice and led by the common wisdom of his words, Morgan had a sudden insight. Perfection. Being perfect. Not an absolute measure, but a single quality. The book was perfect. Perfect as a vessel for what he, Morgan, might want to say. With just that perfection the enchantment could be bound forever.
Morgan knew the enchantment by heart. He had been through the ritual a million times in his mind. Without even thinking the words began to flow out of him as his mind reached down into the book.
He found a ghost of a whisper of a memory of Seth within the book. Seth had handled the book just minutes ago, but the book had already all but forgotten. It was the kind of impression you might get from a stone that had been knocked into a stream by the shoe of a horse hundreds of years past. The blacksmith who made the shoe would be remembered by the stone the way the book remembered Seth. Morgan's surprise almost broke his understanding of the book, but instinct and need carried him over the surprise. The imprint was less than might be left over after a formal clearing. The spell washed the last of it away even as he appreciated the oddity.
Each time Morgan thought of a component he should have prepared for the spell he found it near at hand. A candle to light and extinguish, sand to mark time, space, and boundaries. Everything he needed just seemed to appear by itself.
Morgan vrec'd the book and consumed its essence into his mind. He tacked the spell together with the image of the book as he spoke the words and thought the thoughts. In his mind the book was refined and perfected. Every flaw it had was amended away within the boundaries of the spell. The book, in his mind, was perfect, because the book on the table was perfectly suited to his need. With the twisting pathways of power splayed in mind and space complete, he needed a thought, an essential knowledge to key the bindings, and the word that would hold that knowledge and connect the user to the book. His mind recalled Seth and an understanding blossomed in him again. The word came to mind. "Innocence". As he spoke the word he severed all the connections between himself and the bindings he had wrought.
He opened his eyes and released the vrec at the same time. On the table the book looked strangely out of focus. Then it suddenly snapped back. It was the perfect book he had tried to make. Complete and perfect. Transformed by enchantment.

Chapter 8
Disturbances

Morgan stormed out of the office and Seth fell into step behind him. That he was livid was obvious, but since Seth hadn't been allowed into the meeting he didn't know exactly why. They passed all the way out of the building and halfway across the campus before Morgan said a word. Still walking fast he finally broke his silence.
"Of all the stupid, ornery, arbitrary decisions... I suppose, since you seem to know everything, you know what I'll need to travel across these mountains this time of year."
"Yes sir."
"Do you have any dress clothes?"
"Yes sir."
"Are you up for a long journey afoot?"
"Yes sir."
"Good, 'cause I don't have access to a second horse."
"May I ask where we are going sir?"
"To Queen's Landing, The royal court is holding a session there in nine days. I have to present myself at court immediately. We'll have to take Razor pass across to the coastal plains to make it in time..."
Morgan paused to let his anger find a proper tint of sarcasm. "It seems that since I am now a full Magus, I hold royal rank, and must offer fealty immediately if I wish to stay at the school. A ceremony normally performed as a part of graduation." Then he continued, clearly impersonating someone: "`The council, having waived the need for you to wait for the next graduation in order for you to take your rightful rank, requires you to journey immediately to fulfill this responsibility. Your duties at the library will, of course, be taken over by an associate of more appropriate rank.' Those people could steal the joy from a wedding."
"When will we be leaving?"
"Tomorrow morning."
"It will take the rest of the day to prepare for the trip. What tribute will you bring to court?"
"What?"
"It is customary to bring some tribute to the monarch when first presented to court. It's all but mandatory when you are accepting royal rank and entitlements."
Morgan stopped dead in his tracks.
"That's it." He threw up his hands in disgust. "There is no way I can afford to buy anything to present at court. This is an attempt to make me look like a fool. If I embarrass the school it will work against me here for years."
"That may be, but a bought tribute wouldn't be the best choice anyway. Since you are common born, a gift of personal value, especially if it has a good story, would stand for more than anything you could buy."
"How would anybody know all this stuff?"
"My Lady, being who she was, had duties at court."
Morgan started walking again. "No, I mean anybody, from what I've heard it sounds like it would take days to figure out the right way to sneeze."
"That is probably what your enemies are counting on. By sending you immediately they deprive you of the opportunity to research and prepare yourself for your appearance."
"How well do you know your way around court?"
"The courts I have been privy too were well away from here, out near the margins, but what I know from them should serve you well for this."
"What if the traditions here are different?"
"They surely are, but the court herald will recognize the foreign rights and see that the court views them appropriately. Even kings can't keep all that stuff straight."
"I'm not foreign."
"It won't matter. You're a scholar and mage. You are expected to be at least a little unique. And unique is good at court. Most courtiers are fairly... I don't know... starved for experience. A unique display, in good form, will impress most of them. The rest are the type who would act unimpressed by a landslide while it buried them."

* * *

Morgan and Seth made a side trip to the market square in search of a stock of dried, salted, and otherwise preserved food for the trips to and from court. Seth had a good eye for the quality and selection, and Morgan was a shrewd haggler. In short order they had picked through and acquired the best journey rations to be had for a startlingly small sum.
They arrived at the gate to the old tunnel that led through the hill to Morgan's rooms. Seth, knowing that the way behind was clear, stepped in front of him and opened the gate, then strode confidently down its length. The old masonry tunnel was very dark, but Seth's ears told him they were safely alone. He entered the house proper first, as fitted his role as bodyguard, and was greeted by Shiea's delighted squeal of "Horsey!", his apparently permanent nickname.
The little girl came running directly at Seth, and just as she reached him she grabbed his left arm and he swung her up onto his back, where she clung happily while he set the bundle of rations on the table. In the week since Morgan had enchanted his book the two men had done little but go to faculty offices or hang about the house waiting for word. In that time Morgan had gotten over his initial indignation over nobody having ever told him the simple truths he'd realized from just one conversation with Seth. Seth had gotten a chance to better find his place in Morgan's extended family. And Shiea had discovered that Seth would play with her whenever and however she wanted, putting up with things that no grown-up had ever tolerated from her before. She spent almost as much time on, getting on, or getting off Seth's back as she did on her own feet.
More than anything Morgan or Liane had said, that innocent bond between girl and man had helped Mieka find a place for Seth in their lives.
Morgan slipped in the door just as Shiea found her place on Seth's back. He made a B-line straight for Mieka and asked "Is Liane back from her afternoon class?"
Mieka nodded yes, his arms filling with Shiea's things, his mouth already holding the sketches he had been reviewing.
Morgan unburdened Mieka of the papers and some of the ubiquitous child-things he was trying to gather up.
"She is in the studio. I was just taking Shiea back to her so I could take my evening sessions."
"I'm glad you're both here. We have to talk. Seth, start packing what we'll need, I'll be in with you in a minute."
Seth disappeared into their room while Morgan went back to the studio with Mieka.

* * *

Liane was covered with a fine dust. The large hunk of granite on the table was only vaguely shaped and she was studying it in the sunlight. Mieka and Morgan unceremoniously dumped the toys and things in a pile in the corner without seeming to disturb Liane at all. They both waited for her to finish whatever thoughts she was buried in. It was a common ritual around the house, waiting. Each of them had their deep side and understood the needs of thought in the others. Only Shiea enjoyed the right of immediate attention in the house.
Liane roused to the sensation of being waited on and switched gears in her head. She turned to the two men and smiled beatifically. "What is it boys?"
"This is Morgan's meeting." Mieka dropped himself wholly into a waiting couch.
Morgan sat at the other end of the same couch and then started to try to decide what to say.
Liane sensed that this would be serious and pulled her stool near.
"Good news first. I have been promoted to Magus."
Liane and Mieka each congratulated him and then waited for the rest.
"You've heard how things work in the School of Disciplines. Along with them granting me rank I have lost, or at least I think I have lost, control of my position in the library. I am also being sent immediately to court at Queens Landing to swear fealty to the king."
"That's not too bad for an opening shot," Mieka said, "but I get the feeling that there's more."
"There is. I think I am in a very big game. If I'm in it, you're in it, but whatever I tell you can only make you targets."
"We figured this would happen eventually," Liane said emphatically with Mieka nodding ascent, "it's just the cost of doing business with those people. Mieka and I talked this over years ago and we are with you because we trust and love you. We trust your judgment about what we should know, but if you try to pull some noble `I'm leaving' nonsense we won't put up with it."
Morgan goggled for a second, "It really would be the best if I put some distance between us."
Mieka jumped on that line. "Hardly, Morgan, that would be a totally transparent move. Everybody who has ever met us as a family would know it was a ploy, and the added distance between Liane, Shiea, myself and you, the person who can deal with these people on their own terms, would just increase whatever danger there might be. We knew what we were doing when we threw our lots in with yours."
"Thanks, I figured, but I just needed to hear it I guess."
"When are you leaving for the coast?" Liane changed the subject because she knew what babies men could be about discussing their feelings.
"First thing in the morning."
"Are you going to need one of our horses?" Mieka was the most traveled of the three, being a geologist, and had a good head for these things.
"I do, or would, for Seth, but I'm not going to take one. I think that you three should be ready to travel and you'll need both of your horses if you need to move."
"You think things could get that serious that fast?" Liane was looking at her hands.
"Yes and no. I'm not sure that there even is anything going on besides the normal amount of political interplay. If nobody knows what I stumbled into then there is no game, if somebody else does know then there could be a mage-war over it. Part of what has me screwed so tight is not knowing if I have a real enemy."
"Nice touch, that last bit." Liane looked him in the eye, "now shouldn't you go pack your own things instead of working poor Seth?"
"What do you mean `poor Seth'?"
"You've decided to walk him halfway across the continent and I bet you didn't even ask his condition." Liane had shifted into her mothering mode.
"It's nowhere near that far, I did ask, and we'll share the horse."
"Please, he'd knock you out and tie you across the saddle before he'd ride while you walked." Mieka nodded agreement with Liane and deep down Morgan knew it was true too.
There was a moment's pause, then Mieka cleared his throat pointedly. "Morgan, what do you really know about Seth?"
"Uh, I think I've told you everything. Why?"
Mieka had an awkward look, which was very unlike him. "I've been getting... messages."
"What? What kind of messages?"
"Well, offers really..."
Liane jumped in on that "you too?"
Morgan looked from one to another, "offers for what?"
Mieka looked at him for a second, Morgan could be so innocent some times. "For Seth. Offers for Seth. Offers to buy him, or `take him off our hands'. Some are pretty vague, and some are kind of... lavish."
Laine corrected him, "crude, you mean. Or insulting. I've been unsure which a couple of times."
"A couple of times? How many offers have there been?"
Mieka said "I've been getting four to six a day now, counting repeats."
Liane snorted "That few? I'm up to at least ten a day. It's getting to where I cannot walk through the School of Arts without running into a member of the council asking after my welfare, or hinting about a bigger office or a better schedule. But I guess it is more impressive that they are managing to find you over in Physical Sciences dear."
Mieka grinned, "yea, a smooth lot they are, finding their way through the terrain models all `coincidentally' just to find me."
Morgan's head was spinning. It didn't make any sense. There was no way that many people could know about the book.
Mieka and Liane just let him stew for a moment. They'd gotten him thinking. That was what bonded them together originally. When the they were together they were smarter than when they were appart. Mieka was all about the physical, the practical. Liane had enough asthetics to choke a horse, and Morgan's head was full to bursting with the arcane. It was symbiosis, whenever one would get stuck they only needed to think with the others to find the possibilities expanding.
If the answer had been purely arcane, it would have been obvious to Morgan, but it wasn't obvious, so it wasn't arcane. Liane would see paterns, each line, each offer inspired as one but acting alone. Mieka would see the books, not a power but as facts, and Seth was clearly a fact as well, and then there was the money. The money being offered and the money already spent.
It all clicked into place at once. People would assume Morgan had known something when he went out and bought Seth. When he had all but slipped Seth out of the school's possession under cover of darkness. Of course he knew things now, but they would assume that he had learned something from the books that inspired the purchase. Morgan had had Korane's books, then he'd had Korane's slave, and now he had jumped up in rank by doing something he had been unable to do for fifteen years.
Of course they would want him out of the library, away from the thousands of obscure arcane artifacts and texts he had managed all these years. They'd particularly want him away from those books they'd assume he'd opened. Everyone would also want Seth out of his hands at the least, and in their own if it meant they could figure out the secret they presumed he had. A secret he did have, even if there were no real reason to beleive it existed.
Morgan settled back in his char, looked at his family, and said "Damn..." as they nodded in unison.

* * *

Seth had an array of things laid out on Morgan's bed. Amongst the clothing Morgan saw some weapons and pieces of oddly thin gray leather armor, but the thing that caught Morgan's eye was a foot-long steel bar with manacles built into each end, connected to a wide belt by a short chain. It was brightly polished and the leather work was quite fine. He raised an eyebrow as he picked it up. There was a chuck key dangling from the belt by a small thong. The belt itself was not adjustable, clearly designed to fit only Seth.
"Why are we bringing this?"
Seth turned to glance at Morgan then went back to rummaging in his closet. "It's usually illegal to go armed in the presence of a monarch. By law, since I am property and skilled in unarmed combat, I am a weapon. Before we enter you'll lock me into that."
Seth bent into the wardrobe, drawing a giggle from Shiea, who was still firmly clamped on his back, and pulled out an old pair of well worn but serviceable boots. "Do these still fit?"
"I think so."
"Try them on to be sure." Seth handed Morgan the boots and then dove back into the hanging clothing.
After a few moments of rummaging Seth came back up for air while curiously unwrapping an oil-cloth bundle. Before he could get it unwrapped enough to see what it contained a small note fell out of it. He deftly caught the note and had read it before he could help himself.
"Are you very attached to this?"
Morgan glanced up from the boot he was straining to get his foot into. "Not really, why?"
"It's perfect for your tribute. Personally momentous and a good story."
"Works for me." He grunted as he got the boot on, calling Seth's attention to him.
Seth knelt down and examined the fit. "Does it pinch at all?"
"Nope. The're just always a little hard to get on."
"Wiggle your toes and bend your ankles around a bit."
Morgan did as he was told while Seth carefully felt each movement.
"You ever get blisters or abrasions wearing these? Could you walk in them for a couple of days?" Morgan thought for a moment that, just maybe, Seth might take his turn on horseback, then realized that he was just being thorough.
"No and Yes."
"Good, they'll do nicely for the trip."
Morgan realized that Seth had already selected the few belongings of his own that he would take and was concentrating totally on Morgan's things. Morgan wanted to help but whenever he tried he felt like he was just getting in the way. Almost before he knew it Seth had finished. There were two back-packs, a pair of saddle bags, and traveling clothes ready for the morning. Even with the lifting, folding, and whatnot Seth had kept Shiea entertained and did things faster than Morgan ever could have. He briefly felt that living with Seth's stoic, friendly competence might eventually drive him mad, then he grinned at the idea.

* * *

The next morning Seth forwent his full morning ritual on the grounds that he would be getting plenty of exercise over the next couple of days. He stretched himself out and dove straight into the last preparations. He had packed the less perishable food in the saddle bags last night, but he wanted to take a few treats for the first night's dinner. He'd been on more than a few miserable journeys in his life. He expected this one to be easy going, but he had no idea how well Morgan traveled, and an unhappy companion could make a vacation misery. He knew anything to assure a good first night was effort well spent.
Seth washed up and started drawing Morgan's bath, then rousted the sleepy mage straight into the filling tub. Seth had learned, in his short time with Morgan, that Morgan was not really a morning person, so he set out to make the morning go quick and easy. Before Morgan was really awake he'd been ushered through bath, dress, breakfast, and his own front door.
They emerged from the tunnel just as dawn broke.
Morgan's first worthy thought of the day was about Seth. Seth had his pack on his back, and was carrying the saddle bags over one arm and Morgan's pack over the other, and he seemed ready to walk all the way to the shore that way.
"I might as well get used to that now." Morgan yawned at the pack as he stopped walking.
Seth put down the saddlebags and deftly shifted Morgan's pack in his grip.
Morgan backed into the straps like a trained plow horse and started to cinch them up.
"No," Seth said, shifting his grip on the pack so he'd be free to use one of his hands, "tighten this part up around your waist first."
Morgan followed direction and tied off the waist cinch.
"Now you tighten these... not quite that hard... so now they balance the load more than support it. Good."
Seth let go of the pack and Morgan almost staggered under the weight. Then he discovered that the weight was easier to take than he thought. The fact that Seth had supported it with one arm while he'd pointed and gestured was not lost on Morgan, though from what he could see it seemed to be lost on Seth himself.
At the stables they shed their packs. Morgan pointed out his horse, and turned to talk briefly with the stable master. Seth approached the horse and Morgan caught him staring into its eyes for a while. The horse nuzzled him and he slipped it a carrot. He felt along its flanks and legs and then carefully checked the horse's shoes and hooves. Satisfied with the animal, Seth set about adding feed grain to their supplies. Morgan finally got free of the stable master and got to brushing and then saddling his horse. Turning his mind to the horse he began feeling into it with his skills, making sure it was healthy and ready to travel. In almost no time, all that remained to do was actually leave.
Seth helped Morgan get his pack back on. Morgan went to mount but found it harder to do than he'd expected. He suddenly felt a ghost walk through him at the thought of leaving. That, combined with the odd weight of the pack, made him falter part way ahorse. The second time he put foot to stirrup he practically floated into the saddle as Seth lifted more than the extra weight of the pack into place. Once in place the weight of the pack disappeared. It took him a moment to realize that the way Seth had packed the bundle and bedroll, it rested squarely on the cantle behind him. Seth grinned up at him and winked.
Seth's own pack looked huge to Morgan's guilty eyes, but he swung it up onto his back as if it were weightless. He cinched the straps, bent at the waist until his head touched his legs, straightened up, and then drew steel. Morgan hadn't even noticed Seth was armed. He had two short swords, one on each hip. He drew them cross-body and put them back. He drew them again with the near hand, thumb to pommel, so the blades ran back along his forearms, and put them back. Then he drew them one at a time, swinging each one and then putting it back. Satisfied that he would be able to fight without the pack slipping or hindering him, he looked up at Morgan, clenched his fist in a warrior's salute, as if he were tugging a cable connected to his heart, and grinned again.
Morgan turned his horse to the door and started out at a slow walk.
Seth fell into step at his stirrup and they were on their way.

* * *

Kentarja mountain plugs the eastern end of a verdant inland valley that parallels the southern shore of the central continent of the realm for hundreds of leagues. The mountains which separate the valley floor from the coastal and inland plains were formed old and worn. Instead of lofty spires of barren rock plunging high into the realms of permafrost, these have a rolling, comfortable shape covered with trees and woodlands. They are, in many places, welcoming and easy to cross any which way. Near Kentarja, however, the peaks form long-running ridges with treacherous rock faces. Three passes lead through the mountains near Kentarja. The first, Traders Pass, is a welcoming gentle passage inland which brings traders from the eastern half the continent south into the valley. A wending road leads from the valley proper up onto the plateau which holds Queens College. From the plateau a broad even way runs north by east over the left shoulder of Kentarja to form the second. This way, called The Headlands, is nearly too wide to be considered a proper pass and by traveling along it one can reach the far north-east foot of Kentarja then go south directly to the coastal plains. People make their lives along that full way, making it a genteel journey between small towns, trading posts, and Inns. The third pass, Razor Pass, leads due south. It goes straight up and then down the right shoulder of Kentarja through a harsh, narrow, and rocky defile that in many places can only be taken single file. The inability for wagons to pass those places makes Razor Pass useless for trade.
Razor pass' single virtue is that the southern shore can be reached a full week sooner by that route. That virtue tended to attract a select group of travelers, namely those in a hurry, with few possessions, and little need for the company of strangers. If the same people likely to discuss the intrigue at the college are to be believed, most people taking Razor Pass were likely to be in the habit of villainy. The name, it was said, came less from the straightness of the pass than the condition of those few, more honorable sorts, whose bodies had occasion to be fetched from its heights.
The limited opportunities for his mission led Morgan due south to the pass. If he missed the court at Queens Landing he'd end up chasing it across the continent back to the capital, or cooling his heels in his apartment for two thirds of a year, waiting for the next graduation and the royal proxy he could swear fealty before. As it was he was only expecting to make the last two days of court. There was no way he could take the Headlands.

* * *

In almost no time the road dwindled to little more than a path and started its no-nonsense rise towards the cleft of the pass proper. Seth, who had been walking tirelessly and without comment at Morgan's stirrup, finally broke the morning's silence.
"Eh, Morgan... sir?"
"What?"
"Seeing that we'll be going single-file, would you mind if I went first? It keeps the footing more, eh, predictable."
His head was down and his manner shy. Morgan didn't really care one way or the other, but a moments thought brought understanding. He wouldn't spend two days walking behind a horse if he could manage it.
"It'll also help the horse to keep a walking pace."
Morgan waited for Seth to look up at him and then said, with an overly considering look, a nod of his head, and mock-serious tone, "what ever you think is best."
Seth grinned his most infectious grin and Morgan gave his head a roughly friendly shove.
He all but scampered ahead and then they were traveling again.
For a long time no discernible thoughts passed through Morgan's mind. He found himself watching Seth march up the path in front of him, and realized that was all he had been doing for quite some time. He hadn't even been guiding his horse. The beast seemed content to follow the man indefinitely. Both man and beast had fallen into a ground-eating rhythm and Morgan felt content with it, letting his body move effortlessly in complement to the horse.
Thinking about Seth took Morgan's mind inexorably to the subject of the collar. He slipped the ring from around his wrist and studied it for a while. The enchantment made the raw iron shiny and smooth as mercury. It was pliant and warm in his hand. It made him a little queasy to think that the other half was connected to a human. Morgan centered himself and then reached for it with both vrec and prev.
Variable Ranged Eidetic Cognition, usually just called vrec, is like sight and smell; it tells you about things that are away from you. Point-Relative Energized Vector Modeling and Manipulation is more like touch and the sense of movement; it's more immediate, though it can be centered on a vrec'd location. Most people just say prev, and have for as far back as written history goes, because almost everybody can agree that the first four initials are pronounced like the start of the word prevalent but the prevmam versus prevum and prev'M debate is sure to come up if you get to the more dangerous end of the acronym in the presence of freshmen. Both vrec and prev are really and completely unlike all of the other senses, but for a young mage the basic working of space is already tough to master, and reaching beyond the four basic dimensions can be downright traumatic. The math alone, with ten dimensions for basic work, twenty six for dealing with the concepts of other realities, and countless more for comparing realities to each other, can frighten students into paralysis. Eventually though, the student adjusts to the analogies that vrec is sight and prev is touch, and then they begin to be able to cope. Using the two together fully is an overload to the normal senses so they all shut down and the brain re-maps their functions to the needs of magic. The practitioner begins functioning on what lay-folk call the astral plane. Traditionally any blending of vrec and prev is called "asense," or "asensing," apparently just to avoid another painful acronym.
From his higher vantage in the astral, Morgan could appreciate the spell and forget about its victim. It was a simple trimunerative. Simultaneously three separate and one single object, two physical and one astral. In his `fingers' the solid band was really a cable of tiny strands twisted together. Not just twisted, but twisting. The spell moved and writhed like the living thing it was. He knew from study that the strands were not actually separate but were in fact loops of a single strand. One growing strand. Somewhere in the bundle, one of the loops was dividing along its entire length to become two separate loops. From within the twisting braided bundle each loop erupted once and frayed into what looked like a tiny ball of fuzz before re-condensing into a strand and twisting back into the ring. Each little fuzz ball was a point where the spell gripped, linked with, and fed on, Seth.
One of those fuzz balls was the original. The point where the spell was first anchored and the two ends of the single twisting strand were brought together there. That was the one place where the spell was safe to work. If that link could be opened the spell could be unraveled. The problem was the only way to distinguish the special link was to probe it deeply, and there was no good way to keep track of which elements you had probed already.
The strands were not particularly strong, he could break them with the slightest thought, but he knew better than to try. If you cut a bird's feather through the quick of the shaft the bird will bleed to death slowly over the course of hours or days. Blood cannot clot within to the lining of the shaft, so the clots that try to form are constantly washed away by the blood behind them. The shaft of the feather is like a tiny straw that drains the life from the bird. Pluck that bleeding feather and the bird will live. These strands were like growing feathers, cut one and the life essence begins to drain from the victim. Unlike the feather, unfortunately, cutting the strand leaves two straws bleeding out life energy. While you chase along one path, destroying connections, to pluck that strand, the other is still bleeding. On top of that, each connection you destroy is a tiny injury in itself, which makes the victim bleed faster from the dangling end.
Cut them all at once and the victim dies before you can get more than a few connections out.
When the spell is young the number of connections is small and the strand can be cut anywhere and unraveled quickly enough to cause only minimal trauma.
If you could gather the connections together you could destroy them all at once, but the gathering would require astrally folding the victim hundreds of times. That itself would be fatal.
The only way to unravel the spell was from the end and the only way to find the end was to pick a fuzz ball at random and probe it. If it's the end, you got lucky and you're nearly done, if it's not you pick a direction and begin tracing. If you can't find the end in one sitting, next time you try there is no way to figure out where you left off let alone which way you were going. If you stop you've lost your work. With luck on your side you might be able to find the end before you are too spent to do the unraveling. With luck against you, you might start one away from the end and pick the wrong direction to go in. If luck hates you, you might find the end when you were too tired to use it. Once you start unraveling you have to finish or the target dies.
Simple, powerful, brutal.
Morgan picked his target and probed. It wasn't the end. He picked his direction and began tracing the looping strand. The fibrous bundle resisted his probing and he had to feel his way along to the next node. Not it. For a moment he considered his approach. Statistics weren't his strong suit so he briefly wondered if repeated random picks might be a better choice. Since once you let go of a node you'd loose it in the shifting mass, you could easily pick the same one again and again without knowing it.
He decided he'd have to accost the next statistician he came across.
He dove into the problem, checking and tracing and checking and tracing...

* * *

Eventually Morgan came back up for air. He had the metaphysical equivalents of eye strain and writers cramp. He was displeased to realize that it was late afternoon. He'd been expecting Seth to wake him for lunch but he realized that without orders Seth wouldn't have. They hadn't stopped for lunch at all, he would have roused if the horse had stopped. He only hoped that Seth wouldn't ever march himself to death for lack of orders to the contrary.
Seth seemed to be moving along fine, showing no outward signs of fatigue as he trudged up the path. Morgan jacked up his hearing and listened for signs of distress in the man, but Seth's breathing was deep and even. He was showing the kind of strength and endurance expected of any prime beast of burden. Horsey. Shiea knew more than she thought.
Looking back along the trail Morgan realized that they had already made it further than he had expected to go the first day. When the trail leveled a little and burrowed into a copse of trees Morgan reined in. Seth stopped within a pace and turned to look back at Morgan.
"I don't know how you keep going, but I'm beat."
Seth shrugged, not a motion Morgan would have thought likely to come from a man wearing a full pack he'd just marched up a steep hill all day, and asked "should I pick a camp for the night or are we just taking a break?"
"Camp."
Seth started a slow pivot to his right, stopped, and pointed at a dense cluster of trees. "The best spot is just through there, but you'll have to dismount."
Morgan thought `no problem' but discovered he was very wrong part way down. He hadn't tapped any external energy source for his work. He'd been burning personal essence all day. Using up the precious sugars from all the cells of his body while just sitting on the horse. With the thinning air and without the normal trappings of physical exertion, like deep breathing and increased blood flow, all the waste products just stayed where they were. Morgan was mage-bound, the scrawny-bodied equal of the cramps and stiffness usually caused by extended over-exertion. The only reason he hadn't crashed straight to the ground squealing was a combination of male ego and a spasmodic grip on the pommel.
With each of the four crushing heartbeats that followed, Morgan had a distinct thought. One, if he could get a line out and into some energy he might be able to gloss over his condition. Two, if Liane found out about this he'd never hear the last of it. Three, he'd never be able to face down a freshman section of `General Health and Body Maintenance During Ritual Magic' again. The fourth thought, something vague about drinking-water, potassium, and what a seizure might feel like, was swallowed by an acrid taste in his mouth, the rush of blood in his ears, and all the pretty colors.

* * *

Seth, steel bared, was standing over Morgan within moments. The only other time he had seen a man drop like that he'd found an arrow sticking out of him. His every nerve was tuned to the environment, looking and listening for the signs of attack. Finding nothing more threatening than the sounds of nature going about its business, he slowly unwound from `urgently defensive' to `curious but ready' and re-sheathed one blade. With his free hand he checked Morgan for injury. His skin was cold and clammy and he was shivering in shock, but beyond that Seth had no idea what was wrong with him. He sheathed his other blade and began to separate Morgan from his pack.
Morgan came-to, for the most part, looking up into Seth's face to see a mixture of concern and wounded-puppy fear there. Groping for something light and reassuring to say he came up with "you should have roused me for lunch," and regretted it immediately when he saw Seth react as if stung. His parched and shivering voice made it sound too pathetic and accusing, which only added guilt and shame to Seth's demeanor.
Seth got Morgan free of his pack and looped the horse's rein through the pack strap to keep it from running off. Then he carried Morgan through the trees to the clearing he had chosen for camp. Then he disappeared for a moment, returning with the pack and horse.
Fearing he'd make things even worse, Morgan didn't say or do anything except try to smile reassuringly and say "thank you" while Seth got him into his bedroll and then took care of the horse and set up camp around him. By the time the fire was lit, Morgan had recovered his most basic faculties. He could barely move from the thick agony in every muscle but he could think without thick cottony distractions floating through his head. His body wouldn't let him even start to reach for power, even though he knew it would help. His body would only listen to nature's urging, and wouldn't give up the necessary essence for him to start the replenishment.
Seth was squatting across the fire from Morgan, arms crossed, elbows on knees, and feet flat on the ground, just staring at him with a slightly sad but mostly blank expression.
"I really am okay, despite my own stupidity. Some food and some sleep and I'll only be `nearly too sore to ride'."
At the mention of food, Seth nearly leapt at the packs, glad for something to do besides worry. Morgan begged a canteen of water and a thick heel of bread out of him and things took on an almost human rhythm. With the food cooking and Morgan carefully munching the hard bread between sentences, he told Seth what had happened to him and more or less why. He never mentioned the collar or alluded to what he'd been working on, he just stuck to the nature and details of his stupidity and the even worse consequences it could have had, all in excruciating detail.
He could see Seth drinking in his every word the way no student ever had. Morgan suspected that should he ever need to draw deeply from himself again Seth would recognize the condition and have some exactly correct treatment at the ready.
Dinner was less than Seth had hoped. The meal he'd originally intended, a thick and tasty kind of trail-stew, was one of his favorites, but he decided it was probably too heavy for Morgan to take in his condition. They had a seasoned grain porridge and some jerked meat reconstituted in hot water. They both ate heartily, Morgan just took longer with his share. When Seth finished his portion he excused himself and disappeared into the woods for a while. He came back with a bunch of wild berries and things which he crushed up in a large metal cup. He added a little water, and then set on a hot rock near the fire. Morgan suspected some sort of medicine was brewing, but when a spicy-sweet smell started to come from the bubbling mixture he wasn't so sure.
Seth produced two ripe green apples and several oranges from his pack. He deftly peeled, sectioned, and diced the apples into the bubbling cup. He was more careful with the oranges, peeling and sectioning them and then opening the sections lengthwise, trying not to break the tiny juice pockets inside before setting them up on a plate. About the time Morgan was finishing his meal Seth decided the cup was ready and, passing it quickly from hand to hand to keep from being burned, he poured its contents over the oranges.
Nursing his slightly scorched fingers, Seth waited for Morgan to return the plate he'd been using before bringing the fruit around to his side of the fire.
"Careful, it's hot." Seth handed Morgan a spoon and then held the plate between them while he dug in with his own.
The deep, sweet, herbal, and slightly tart flavor edified Morgan in an almost transcendental way. It was one of those refreshing but slightly odd flavors that people remember for years. Seth had somehow managed to eat only after Morgan, even though he'd taken the first spoonful, but clearly in this case deference ended there. Seth was going hard at the shared dessert. They practically raced to get the lion's share.
Resting his head on his pack Morgan drifted on the edge of sleep as Seth cleaned up and the evening wind began to stir through the pass. Seth finally set out his bedroll, really little more than a mat, just up-wind from Morgan, putting Morgan between himself and the fire. Before Morgan could rouse himself enough to object Seth pulled a huge gray fur pelt from his pack, wrapped himself in it, and laid down. Only after he'd stretched out on mat and found his place did Seth unbuckle his sword belt, leaving it spread out and under him as if it'd been flayed from his body where he lay, ready to be buckled back on at a moments notice.
Morgan's fading thought was about what a nice, warm, and companionable wind-block Seth was.

* * *

Morgan woke to the soft whisper of his own name and the feeling of Seth's arm around him.
"Morgan, wake up."
"What?" He grumbled, barely awake.
"Someone's coming. Two or three people. Through the trees to the south. Stay down. Keep as still and quiet as you can and I'll take care of it."
Seth rolled back to where he'd been sleeping and soundlessly cinched his sword-belt back in place. Rolling back towards Morgan again, he passed over him crab-like on fingers and toes and then knelt by the far side of the fire. Morgan reached for power but he had only been asleep for a few hours and he couldn't even vrec properly. Morgan, lying still and staring up at Seth, realized that south was behind him. He wanted to turn over and watch for the attack but he didn't think he could do it without groaning.
The waiting seemed to go on forever. Moonlight seemed nearly like daylight and sweat started trickling down his back. Morgan knew that he would remember that moment until he died. Morgan still couldn't hear anything coming from the wood. Seth looked still and placid, a penetrating but accepting expression on his face, he watched the wood. Suddenly Morgan saw Seth as a stranger would, pale face, light eyes all but washed away in the moonlight, set in a mane of jet, almost floating over a great mound of gray fur, under lit with deep red from the embers. He was a chilling premonition of death.
"How may I serve you, lords?" Seth's voice, though loud and firm, didn't seem to break the night's silence, as if he were talking to the night as an equal.
The startled noise of a single foot shuffling through leaves made its way to Morgan. A voice, further off than the foot "Be at ease, we mean you little lasting harm." A long pause. "I fear we have come to take some few things that can easily be replaced, and then we will leave you only as harmed as you oppose us."
Morgan instantly didn't like man for playing at being some kind of gentleman thief.
Seth was completely unimpressed.
"I will protect this camp, taking your lives if necessary. Go away if you want to keep them."
"A confrontation then..."
Seth rose almost slowly, and strode over the fire and Morgan, saying "Be warned, I have eaten things larger and more dangerous than you lot" and Morgan got the sense it wasn't just hyperbole, Seth was speaking literally.
Right after Seth passed over him, Morgan's curiosity exploded and he couldn't stand not looking a moment longer. He rolled over onto his other side to watch. The effort threatened to cramp every muscle in his body, emphasizing just how helpless he was. There were three men widely spaced at the edge of the clearing. When he moved, as if that were a signal, things started to change. He could feel the energy of the glade, tauntingly unreachable, begin to dwindle as misty cobwebs of bindings encircled him. One of the men was a mage who recognized Morgan as a mage in turn, and there wasn't a thing Morgan could do about it.
The two men flanking the speaker came forward, and together, to meet Seth. One was old, or at least as old as any highwayman was likely to get, perhaps eight years Seth's senior. The other was just past the first blush of manhood. Seth could tell that the young one was much too inexperienced with is blade to be facing anybody in combat. Seth decided to take care of him first. The way he was holding his blade and shield, Seth figured that he might not need to hurt him that badly to take him out. The older man needed killing.
Seth drew his blades cross-body and stopped, choosing his ground. "Lords, please leave, I don't really want to harm you." He said, knowing that they wouldn't take this last chance at escape.
The young man went first. Seth knew he would. The unblooded get eager, and often get dead shortly thereafter. The older man started to move in too, to protect the foolish youth, but drew up short when he saw Seth move.
Seth led with his left. With a mighty swing of his left blade out, up, and then down as if it was an ax and he was splitting wood. Seth struck the man's sword out of his grip. Continuing the movement he stepped forward and wide on his right foot. Bending his knee halfway into a crouch and pushing hard with his left, he pivoted all the way around on his right to bring both of his swords around and then up at his opponent's small shield. His spin let him strike with his full weight behind both swords. The man's shield was driven up into his body and face. Then it fell from his slackened grip and he was just standing there, both arms numb and useless from the blows, nose bleeding, waiting to be slaughtered.
"SIT!" Seth pointed to a spot comfortably well to the side of the action.
The young man obeyed.
Seth swung his left blade in his grip so it was laying back along his forearm, and stood to meet the older man. The man was blanched with fear, and in a rage, but he didn't attack right away. They moved and feinted some, testing each other and crossing steel a bit. Seth heard the young man off to the side, trying to inch his way back into the trees without being noticed.
Seth said "Move again boy, and you're dead." Deliberately letting his eyes drift slightly from his opponent.
The man moved in. Seth figured he would, and was ready for it. Instead of stepping back from the attack he stepped in. As the man's blade came in and down at him, Seth used his left arm, and the shield-like protection of the blade along his forearm, to push the enemy's swing out of line, beyond center, and past him completely. Continuing in, he pinioned the rushing man's sword-arm against his own shield with his protected arm. As they met, body to body, Seth looked down into his eyes while the blade in his right hand came up through the man's unprotected left side and punctured his heart.
He pulled the short sword free and stepped back before the man could begin to fall, so that he wouldn't have either blade wrest from his grip.
Stepping over the fresh corpse, Seth strode towards the last man. He was just a little younger than Seth and Morgan, Seth somehow knew that he didn't really belong with the other two. He was just standing there as Seth approached. Seth intended to put a blade to his throat and demand his surrender, when it met with some slick slippery resistance. A shield.
Seth had played mage before, and it always surprised him how stupid they could be, always staring off at something, or nothing, when you'd come to kill them. With mages you had to be extra thorough. If you didn't get them all the way dead, and all at once, they were likely to get back up and bother you again. They also were mighty strange about those shields.
Flipping both of his blades back along his arms Seth stood straight in front of the mage. He spiked his right blade down, point first, into the ground, and then punched the mage in the face. With his concentration, and probably his nose, broken the mage staggered back a step, losing his balance and his shield. Bending down some to scoop up his sword underhand as he went, Seth quickly advanced on the staggering mage. As he straightened up he brought the reacquired blade up along the man's stomach. You can't really put any force behind that cut so it did little more than cut open his clothes and score the skin of the mage's abdomen. The blow really served to keep the mage off balance. Even as Seth's right arm was rising high above his head, he was advancing. His Left arm swung in across his body, dragging the blade along the man's throat, cutting his head halfway free. As the mage fell back and Seth's left fist passed under his own right arm swinging the blade down past his hip, he continued to advance. He brought his right arm down in an overhand stabbing motion at the collapsing mage, following it through with his full body weight as he dropped to one knee, driving the sword through the neck of the mage, severing the spine and pinning the corpse to the ground.
"And that," he thought to himself as he yanked the sword free, "is the proper way to kill a mage."
Seth returned to the shocked young man. He motioned for him to follow him back to the fire. Seth laid him face down in the dirt. He bound his hands together palms out, behind his back, and then put a cinch between his elbows so that his arms were locked straight and his shoulders were pulled back as far as they would go. Then he tied his legs together just above the knees and also at the ankles. He bent his legs up and ran a rope from the ankles, to the elbow cinch, and then up, through his mouth like a gag and back to the cinch, pulling his head high up and back.
Seth finally looked at Morgan, who was staring back at him in complete shock.
"It's a harsh position, but he won't be going anywhere, and by morning he'll tell us everything he knows about who sent them and why, without all the bother of an interrogation. You should try to get back to sleep while I clean up the mess."
Morgan laid there staring at the bound, softly weeping man for a while. Then up at the sky for a while longer, pointedly not looking in the direction of Seth's cleanup. All the while his mind was running over what he'd seen and sensed again and again. The killing had been nearly too fast to be fully horrible. What he couldn't get out of his mind was seeing and feeling the huge field of a fireball forming like a halo around Seth as he stood in front of that mage. The thing he couldn't understand was exactly why the mage hadn't let it loose and toasted him to a cinder.
The image, and the question, chased Morgan into his sleep and haunted his dreams.

Chapter 9
Transits

He was running short of breath, the footing was getting treacherous, and he had so much more to do. There was a new face in the crowd, that made seventeen. It was a man this time, not that that made any difference. He had a job to do. They were just standing there, waiting, watching silently with unfocused eyes. Asking the same question with their unseeing stare. He did his business and moved on. He just kept on doing what he had to do. This time he slipped and felt gore gush up into his boot. Again and again, he had to keep going, he had to. His blood was pounding in his head. He couldn't catch his breath. His arms ached, but he had to keep going. It was the new face again and he dipped his steel in and the face fell away, again. Behind it the first face waited again, unmoving and unseeing. He hated their question. He knew he had to keep going. He just wished he could remember why...

* * *

He was standing in a gentle bowl-shaped ravine. He had a branch set across sawhorses and was sawing a short length from its blunt end. There were people standing around the rim staring down at him. He could feel them watching him intently, and with malice. Around him huge forces were being summoned and then thrown at him. Fire, ice, wind, waves, rock, everything he could imagine. Everything missed him by a fraction and vanished. He wanted to grab it all and throw it back but the branch needed to be cut first. He was sawing and sawing and sawing. The pile of sawdust was mounted but he seemed to be making no progress through the branch. It made no sense, and he knew it, but it had to be done. He just wished he could remember why...

* * *

Morgan woke to find Seth's arm draped over him again. He waited, but this time there was no urgent warning voice. This was, he decided, a much better way to wake up.
The odd thing was that he was awake at all. Something was tugging at his awareness. A quick mental survey revealed a burning sensation at his left wrist. With awareness came a sensation just short of pain. Behind him Seth kind of grunted and woke. Within moments Morgan was sitting up, trying to stretch the metal band off his wrist while Seth was engaged in a similar but far more futile attempt against the band around his neck. Seth's difficulty removing the collar was natural, but the wrist band should have come off instantly.
Not being stupid, Morgan dropped a quick line into the ground seeking an open channel of energy, thanking whatever fates there were that he had recovered the strength to do it. As soon as he had a line he began generating a field of cold, or more precisely an orderly absence of heat, about his wrist. Before he had really started to make any headway there he turned and gripped Seth's neck and collar in a classic front strangle-hold and put eighty percent of his effort there. It didn't take more than a few seconds to chill the metal bands, and Morgan dove straight into the astral to examine them.
The spell was damaged. It looked like a spool of cable that had spun free and back-lashed. Instead of a the orderly interlacing braid of fibers there were strands everywhere. Many of the connections were black and crispy tasting. Even as he watched, the spell was healing itself. The damaged connections were sloughing away to be replaced with unbroken strand, which slithered back into the mass. The inference, that somehow those connections were gone, was astounding. They'd re-grow of course, but if he could just figure out what had happened and duplicate the effect, he'd be able to remove the spell. Of course the nasty heating would have to be countered, but there was hope.
Morgan couldn't sustain the effort. Even with the tap feeding energy into his depleted system he was still too sick to stay astral for long. Fading back into the mundane, the sharp ache through his entire body reasserted itself. The emergency was over and even the small amount of brisk motion he'd done to grab Seth was threatening him with collapse. He fought for a moment to make sure he didn't lose his tap. He eased himself back down to his bedroll and concentrated on distributing the energy he was drawing out to each part of his body.

* * *

Seth spent the next few minutes of the morning trying to work some salve onto the reddened skin under his collar while pointedly ignoring the strange looks he was getting from their captive. Since Seth himself had absolutely no idea what had really happened he wasn't surprised that the stranger had a good dose of confusion soaking into his general misery. Seth took some more time out to check the bound stranger. The position he was in could easily be fatal if left too long. Satisfied that he was holding just shy of total physical collapse, but could probably stand another twelve hours before any real lasting harm set in, Seth indulged himself in some of his morning ritual.
Composure is a hard thing to regain when it is lost so early in the morning. He chose stretching and the ritual combat dance as a way to search for his lost equilibrium. He hated killing, not because of any kind of direct guilt, but because of the memories. He had killed more times than he cared to think about, just getting near the topic threatened to bring an exact number and a parade of faces and details that he would rather do without. Killing without cause was wrong, but many had been killed without need. He could never convince men he knew would lose, that they should just give-over or run away. It wasn't bragging, it was pathetic experience. He simply didn't lose. He went for the clean wound whenever he could, except with a mage, but a day's ride out from everywhere... there clearly was no other way the night could have gone. It was still going to stay with him for life. Like always.
The more immediate problem to Seth's mind was their guest. He'd either have to be kept bound until they could deliver him to, well someone, or they would have to let him go. There was no way he'd kill him after managing to keep him alive, and if Morgan told him to, he didn't know what he'd do, but the kid would live. He decided he knew, deep down, that Morgan would never give such an order. At least he hoped he knew. Then again he'd only been with Morgan for about a month, how well did he really know the man. The question nagged him unreasonably.

* * *

When Morgan stirred again Seth was as ready to face the lion as he was going to get. He untied the length of rope that gagged and pulled back the head of the stranger. Then he untied his hands. Gripping each arm at the elbow just below the cinch, he twisted them halfway around so that the palms were facing in instead of out. That unlocked his shoulders and would give him some degree of movement even with his elbows still cinched. Then he tipped the man up into a kneeling position. The muscles in his back and neck were exhausted from holding his head up all night so he couldn't lift his head. The net effect left the man in the classic position of submission, and relieved, no glad, to be there. The perfect mental and physical condition for getting a few straight answers out of a would-be highwayman.
Morgan taking his cue from Seth, began to ask a few questions. It took longer than Seth had expected, but still not enough time to leave anybody but the captive hurting for breakfast. The answers they got meant nothing to them or their situation. He'd left his home and family because he couldn't stand farming. The two swordsmen had been working together for about six months. The mage was a recent addition to their group, but several weeks ago, before the books had even arrived at the school. They had moved up into the pass from the coastal plains in the last few days because the plains were under more strict patrol to protect the royal court. They were usually sneak-thieves, and hadn't had anybody even notice them since the mage had joined them. The mage was supposed to give them cover, and help in case of any kind of combat. He hadn't had any designs on them in particular, but the old man and the mage had done all the planning, so he couldn't swear to that.
There wasn't anything particularly threatening in that information, but it didn't make Morgan feel all that much better. The fighters were doubtless just what they were, but the mage had been too powerful and disciplined to be just a hedge wizard. Despite the danger of paranoia being always near where ever magery was involved, Morgan looked at it all to see if it fit a pattern of direct manipulation. If it was, it had probably failed. There was always a chance that it was designed to fail. That could explain why the mage hadn't released on Seth. But then why would he have gathered something so offensive if he didn't intend to use it and why did he let himself get killed? No, it wasn't a veiled feint, face value was the best way to take it. A random encounter with thugs.
"So what do you want to do with him?" Seth asked.
"We don't have time or provisions to take him on with us, or take him back."
"True."
"I don't really have the energy for much right now..." Morgan paused thoughtfully, "I say we give him a choice, submit willingly to a gease or we kill him."
Seth didn't like the sound of that at all and was about to protest when Morgan caught his eye and a winked.
"I'll take the gease, what will I have to do?" the captive was eager to keep his life, a fact that Morgan had been counting on.
"I'm going to compel you to, upon release, go directly to Queens College, present yourself to a man named Tor Ben Jarren, the master of slaves there, confess your deeds here to him, and submit to imprinting."
The man seemed to slump even more. okay, I'll take it."
"Good, now relax and try not to resist..."
It took only a few minutes to lay the gease. They ate, feeding their captive a good breakfast since he wouldn't be able to stop for food or rest once he set out and the gease took hold. They also delayed a bit, letting the man rest a little. When they cut him loose he headed straight down the trail toward the school, and most likely the life of a slave. If he had people, relatives or a family that could vouch and pay for him, he had the right to contact them and they had a right to ransom him free. Given his condition and circumstances that seemed unlikely.
They stood looking after the man for a few moments.
"Do you think I did the right thing, sending him to Tor?"
"You probably did him a favor. It's unlikely that he would have survived very long without his friends."
"I just feel kind of tainted, I never have had much use for slaves..." Morgan's voice trailed off and he looked sidelong up at Seth, "You know what I mean. It just seems kind of harsh."
Seth smiled down at him, clapping him on the shoulder almost too hard for him to take, and kind of pulling him in, feeling glad to know Morgan. "He'll do all right, life seems good for a slave at the school, and you can check up on him if you're really worried."
They struck camp in short order and got started back up the trail a little later than optimal.

* * *

Seth knew boredom, though not as well as he sometimes wished. The thing about boredom was that it was usually a partner to work. The steady hike up hill was far from the most straining thing he'd ever done. He felt that if it were necessary he could keep it up forever. Still, the far side of the mountain was something he was looking forward to. Even in the cold he was boiling under his jacket and armor.
The thin sheets of wyrsa hide against his skin moved with him like it was his own skin. He was thankful that it was wyrsa and not some thick boiled cowhide monstrosity. From time to time he'd had to go in common leather, or worse metal armor. Heavy, awkward, and ill-fitting were things he could do without for a seven-day march. wyrsa was tougher anyway, he'd killed enough of them out on the margins to know that. The continuous sheen of sweat between him and it was getting to be a bit much but the living hides steadily drank that moisture. He toyed with the idea of stopping and taking off the jacket but the occasional blasts of arctic air that cut into him said no. There just wasn't any comfortable middle ground to be had. At least there wouldn't be any snow to trudge through.
When he finally caught the rhythm of the climb he let the minor miseries slide away, they were replaced by musing thoughts ranging from the odd concept that in other realities noon happened at different times in different places, to whether a large ball could make it all the way back to the valley floor if he tossed it back down the trail. Somewhere in his head he had the math and topography to deal with both questions, and most of the other things he thought about. He didn't pursue anything that far since that might distract the part of him that was watching for dangers or opportunities. Besides, interesting and distracting thoughts good for marching could be easily ruined by too much analysis.

* * *

Morgan was miserable on the horse. He wasn't a good enough healer to fully replenish himself. He'd staved off the worst of the previous day's abuse, but the profound soreness would be with him until his body fixed itself the natural way. He couldn't escape into the astral now even with a good tap into the ground. It was too much work and the gease had taken more out of him than he thought it would. He simply wallowed in his discomfort and watched Seth's constant, tireless assault on the trail.
He used to be strong like that. Well, not quite like that, but strong nonetheless. Not that he had any desire to go back to the life of a miner. It was more that he was beginning to feel a little inadequate under the onslaught of Seth's presence. Somewhere along the line he had completely lost his connection to his body. The idea of ending up frail, or corpulent, like many of the Masters at the school was suddenly repulsive. He wasn't that far gone, but if he didn't make a point to start doing something about his physical condition soon it could easily go past the point of no return.
He worked with higher energies, which didn't promise a long life span, but if he were careful and lucky he could make more than a century. He had just about stopped aging, what with having to use the energy mostly raw up till now, but the idea of taking care of himself beyond simple survival was strangely new to him. Seth would probably have some ideas on what to do. Seth. The man was taking up a larger and larger part in his life, like he belonged there all along. It was almost hard to see how his life was before Seth had come into it. He wasn't sure he knew how to feel about that, but it made him comfortable somehow.

* * *

They had a late lunch at the summit of the pass and camped for the night more than a fifth of the way down the southern slope. When night came and went without incident and the whole next day passed without any life-altering decisions Morgan began to feel like a human being again. They camped about an hour after reaching the bottom of the pass. That fourth morning of the trip, if you count the morning they left, found Morgan content with the journey. He'd barely stirred when Seth got up, feeling safe and happy under the man's protection, lounging until Seth stopped exercising and started working. He was finally recovered. He even managed to give his horse a good brushing and strike his share of camp by the time Seth had breakfast ready.
Within an hour the tract widened and merged with the more traveled road to Queens Landing. When the road widened Seth dropped back to walk at Morgan's stirrup. By noon they found themselves being slowly overtaken by a large mounted party coming down from the headlands.
"Let's stop for lunch."
Seth looked up at Morgan and then back up the road. "Good idea."
They found a small patch of grass by the side of the road and set in for a cold lunch of salt-beef, bread, cheese and water.
As the party approached one rider broke from the group and rode up to where they were eating.
"Greetings Lord, my lady Teichia of Plains Haven sends her greetings and asks with whom she shares the road this day?"
Morgan stood to meet the stranger while Seth maintained a casually ready crouch masterfully disguised as simple loafing. This greeting was really the guard's way of making sure they were not laying in wait for his charge.
"Greetings to your lady, I am Morgan, Magus of Queen's College, traveling to court at Queen's Landing."
"Well met, Lord." The man turned and rode back to the oncoming troupe.
It was a surprise when the man returned. "My lady also travels to court, and requests the honor of your company for the remainder of the journey."
"My man Seth is afoot and I fear we would slow your lady unforgivably, so we must decline."
"I'm sure my lady has ample room for all of your possessions amongst her wagons."
Morgan found himself in a sudden fit of dislike over this stranger's attitude. A tiny nudge at the back of his mind, however, said that this was a good opportunity. A quick check in the name of paranoia demonstrated that the nudge came solely from his own thoughts and not from any airy or subtle compulsion of magic. He glanced down at Seth and read a tiny change of expression which said, he hoped, "take the offer."
"Your lady is most gracious to extend such a courtesy and we," he deliberately used the inclusive just to irk the stranger, "would be glad to see ourselves in her company. See to the arrangements within your ranks and we shall wait on your lady's arrival."
The man turned his mount and crossed the diminishing distance. By the time the party reached them they had finished eating. Morgan was mounted, his horse facing the road, and Seth was loaded down with both packs. The train made no move to stop, instead the guard reined off and turned his mount full around so that he was just to Morgan's right.
"This second wagon has room for your goods and your man." He gestured at the wagon in question and then went on. "After you've seen to your things my lady asks that you join her in the fore."
The wagons were moving somewhat faster than a comfortable walking pace, and the man timed his remarks so that Seth would have to run with the gear to get it, and himself, into the moving wagon. Morgan was pleased see that not only was this no kind of real strain for Seth, but that Seth performed a practiced, nearly jaunty, mount of the wagon's tail-gate which made that fact obvious to the sergeant. Morgan didn't seem to wait to see that Seth had accomplished any part of his task before he guided his mount forward and to the right, cutting off any move the sergeant might have made, and forcing the other horse to back half a step. The net effect was a snub of the man's attitude toward the pair, executed as if they had been practicing it for a lifetime.
Morgan brought himself forward until he was abreast of the carriage window. On his way he asensed for talent or sorcery and found none. Lady Teichia was dressed for travel but presented an air of refinement nonetheless. She was perhaps twenty years Morgan's senior. "Greetings my lady, I am Morgan, Magus of Queen's college. Your hospitality does me great honor."
"Nonsense Lord Magus, it is I who am honored by your company. Would you care to join me inside? I'll call a halt so that you may board."
"No need to trouble yourself or your men my lady, though I would be honored to join you."
Gripping the luggage rack atop the carriage with his left hand, he swung his right leg over the saddle and lowered himself to the running board. Morgan was a fairly good horseman, but he cheated a good bit using some deft twisting of hastily summoned forces to insure that nothing would turn this tiny act of daring into memorable buffoonery. Knowing that Seth would still be watching him, he flipped the reins over the horses head before releasing them. More trickery on the bit lead the horse back to the wagon and into Seth's waiting hands. Then he casually opened the carriage door and stepped inside.
They dispatched the mandatory pleasantries in record time, setting aside titles in favor of simple names.
"I must confess Morgan, I invited you to join me because I have been traveling without any talented retainer."
Morgan briefly cast out across the band and found only the slightest wisps of magical ability.
"Isn't that kind of dangerous?"
"Exactly the point. Plains Haven is large, but not particularly wealthy. I couldn't spare any of my talent away from their duties to accompany me even though I carry a year's taxes. I have been relying on the assumption that no party this large would travel without talent to protect us from any kind of hedge-wizard we might encounter."
"That sounds risky, wild talent is pretty common."
"Yes, I suppose so, but I think robbery is mostly a crime of cowardice. I brought a lot of guards. Still, I feel better with you here, however long that lasts."
"It's my privilege."
Morgan spent the rest of the day in pleasant conversation on many topics. Lady Teichia was quite well read and had years of experience entertaining. A skill which she practiced with ease.

* * *

Seth's afternoon went rather less well. Even with a canvas cover tied down over the worst of the load, the wagon possessed a foul reek. It didn't carry with the wind, but up close it was a smack in the face. He didn't quite recognize what it was, but tannery and the related arts came to mind. He just thanked whatever powers there were that the wagon wasn't fully covered. He immediately dumped Morgan's pack and then stripped off his own. By the time Morgan sent his horse back Seth was ready to get away from the wagon.
He looped the reins over a stay on the back of the wagon and dropped down beside it. Jogging along he quickly got the saddle bags free and in with the packs. Normally it would be bad judgment to separate himself from the horse, but Seth couldn't see forcing the horse to deal with close exposure to the smell if it were unnecessary. Recovering the reins he led the horse wide of the moving column and slowed down. Behind the third wagon was a draw-line with several spare horses.
He resumed jogging with the horse and approached the young man running the line. A few quick but respectful words explained his needs and, having seen the horse safely into the line he ran forward, back to his place on the wagon. He sat patiently on the back of the wagon, watching the other bored travelers and ignoring the smell. It didn't take him long to realize that he was the only slave in the company. That didn't really surprise him, slavery was much more common out in the margins. The story of the third son going out to the margins to make his name, and ending up imprinted and back in his home county was cliché, but unlikely. The third son was most likely to get himself killed if he didn't settle down fast, but if he did get imprinted he wouldn't likely get further than 100 miles from the spot where it happened for the rest of his life. This close to the center of the realm slaves were mostly local criminal types owned by governments and institutions.
"Hey son," the wagon driver hailed him, "come on up here out of the stink."
The driver was easily ten years Seth's junior.
"Thank you sir." Seth replied, and began carefully making his way across the canvas covered mound of goods.
The wagon's seat was far more comfortable, being high enough above the cargo to elude the stench, and spring mounted to absorb the constant jarring motion of the old road.
"So, son, how'd you get stuck back there?"
"The sergeant told me to ride there sir."
"Yea, he would, that boy has an attitude problem a mile wide."
"I wouldn't know sir."
"Well, you will if you spend much time with him. He doesn't care for your kind at all, or people in general for that matter, but he's good at his job. I'd just steer clear of him as much as I could if I were you."
"I'll keep that in mind."
The wagon driver shifted his mind back to his job and things went well for about a mile, then the sergeant noticed Seth sitting up on the seat and reined in. When the wagon pulled up along side him the sergeant struck Seth fairly hard, a blow Seth knew was coming but let land full force.
"I told you to ride back there."
The truth, that he'd said no such thing, was something that wasn't going to do Seth one bit of good. He intended to comply with the new order but he felt the driver's restraining hand on his shoulder. Free people could be difficult to deal with and since he didn't know who outranked who here, he yielded to the hand.
"Look Jase, take the attitude back to the barn, which is where you'll end up if keep that chip on your shoulder."
"What, you gonna go yowling to the lady about how I treat this baggage?"
"Think son, this baggage is owned by someone who is sitting in with the lady right now. If you go on like you are, he may take exception."
"Well," the sergeant addressed Seth directly, "what do you think, baggage, will your master take exception?"
"Sir, I can not speak for my master."
"What can you do for him then?"
"Whatever he desires sir." Seth took pains to keep his tone respectful. Jase was a bully, and a simple one at that. The few times he had been down this road before it had not ended well at all.
"What has he... desired... lately?" The intimation was clear but Seth didn't care to notice.
"I guard my master and his family and assist him in his various interests, sir." In a way Seth enjoyed the sparring, since he was unimprinted he wasn't the guaranteed victim Jase expected. He just hoped he'd have a chance to head off the probable disaster before anything important was compromised.
Tired of his first round of baiting, Jase resumed his place at the head of the column. Seth knew he'd be back, if not on the road then when they stopped for the night.

* * *

Two hours before dusk the entourage landed, intact, at one of the regularly spaced inns along the coast road. Lady Teichia had, in accordance with her skill at conversation, discovered the depths of Morgan's relative poverty and had made a more-or-less official arrangement for Morgan's, hopefully negligible services in exchange for room and board. Seth, baggage and all, regrouped with Morgan and they waited while the bulk of the group got the wagons and horses in order for the evening. When the people were clear Morgan set protective wards over the wagons that would have stymied any of the masters at the school. He wasn't showing off, there probably wasn't anybody nearby that could see his work, but ten years of temporary-only high-energy casting left him with artistic but intense habits.
They deposited their belongings in their small room. After getting a few things out of the packs Morgan set wards over them also. Seth took a few minutes to apprise Morgan of the situation with Jase and then they went down to the common room to eat.
It hadn't been totally certain to either of them that there were no other slaves among lady Teichia's party until they got to the dining hall. In particular a vague air of tension spread through the room when Morgan told Seth to sit at his table. Seth, instantly aware that it was a mistake for Morgan to have said it aloud but unwilling to disobey an apparent order, sat. Morgan realized it was a mistake a beat later and decided to bluster through his mistake by ignoring it. He started to bespeak the innkeeper with his order but cut off the magic before the man knew that he'd started. His habits were those of life near the center of the largest concentration of talent on the continent and had no allowance for having a slave.
"Your pardon sir, but perhaps your man would be more comfortable eating in the kitchens." The innkeeper seemed solicitous, but imperative.
Morgan was not dressed well enough to hold off common approach so he decided that a little attitude would help stave off any further blunders. "Obviously, my good man. When I have finished with him here, he shall. I do not like craning my neck up at my servants and I felt the need to sit."
"Of course, my mistake." Satisfied that Seth would not be eating with his proper patrons the man went back to the preparations for dinner and the nights other custom.
Morgan pitched his voice not to carry. "Hopefully that will give us a few minutes of peace."
Seth answered with a slight grin.
"I have made a deal to guard the caravan for the rest of the trip to court. Since that means we will be with these people for the next several days we had better try to find a way to deal with that guard. As near as I can tell these people are just what they seem, and they seem like good cover. I don't want any incidents on the road."
Seth nodded.
"I also want you to start teaching me how to defend myself by mundane means. I was totally helpless back at the clearing and I didn't like the feeling."
"No problem, but we'll need to work outside. Do you think it wise to be seen taking instruction from me?"
"No, probably not, but I think it's necessary. With enough attitude it should work out. Besides I want to be there if and when things come to a head with that guy. I figure it's best if it happen in the practice yard and this will get us both there."
"Sounds about right I guess. If you're serious about learning to fight, eat lightly or you might get sick."
"I am serious about learning, as much and as fast as I can."
Seth started thinking about how to start Morgan's training and with what weapon.
Morgan signaled the innkeeper to approach and Seth to stand.
"See my man is well fed, he knows my orders for his upkeep, and then have him returned to me."
Clearly relieved that Seth was no longer at table, the innkeeper bowed and then led Seth back into the kitchens.
Morgan's dinner was tasty and filling and he was careful to keep to the lighter foods. He stayed with water instead of beer or ale, relying on magic instead of alcohol-content to make sure it was potable. Seth returned about halfway through his meal and stood at something just short of attention behind him, fulfilling his role as bodyguard and furniture. Morgan tried not to feel self-conscious but ended up eating the second half of his dinner somewhat faster than the first.
Once they made it outside into the cover of darkness and relative obscurity they were both relieved. They headed across the courtyard to the small staging area that could serve as a practice yard where Seth started Morgan's education in combat. Seth had chosen the staff as Morgan's first weapon. It is not a really good killing weapon, but it is fast, makes the best use of the wielder's strength, and can disable or knock out an opponent fairly easily. In short it is an excellent defensive weapon. He explained all this to Morgan and then demonstrated the basic moves.
He started Morgan off doing simple alternating strikes against a practice dummy. Things went along nicely until a small contingent of the guard came onto the field. Servants had lit a series of torches all around the small field giving the dusk a surreal flickering quality that was lost on all of them. Seth was barking short but encouraging commands at Morgan, mostly things like "harder" and "put your weight behind it", all in a effort to keep him motivated.
Jase broke from his contingent and struck Seth. "You don't yell at free men, slave."
Morgan stopped his exercise and set the staff against the post. "Thank you for your interest in the well-being of my property. Might I ask, did you find any other errors in his behavior or instructions?"
"None that I have seen so far, beyond a certain arrogance not befitting his station, lord."
"I see. Do you train the men under your command sergeant?"
"Yes sir, I have that honor."
"I ask because I have only recently acquired my man and I feel the need to have his skills evaluated by a skilled but objective third party."
"I would be honored lord."
"Excellent! Please give me a moment to make my orders clear to him, you know how difficult it can be to work with these brutish types."
Jase totally missed the sarcasm. "Certainly sir, would you mind if I brought my men over to observe."
"By all means, the more the merrier."
When Jase went back to fetch the other men, and no doubt brag about how he was going to get to beat up the slave, Morgan turned to Seth.
"Don't really injure him or humiliate him too badly but give him a nice memorable bruising, and be subtle. okay?"
"No problem." The grin came and went quickly, but with an intensity that made Morgan wonder for a moment if this was such a good idea.

* * *

The "test" went on for a little more than a hour. They used wooden practice swords. In that time Seth followed Jase's orders perfectly, executing each move as ordered. Jase never once got close to penetrating Seth's guard while Seth managed to strike a huge number of light blows that were punishing but not obvious to the spectators. Jase's ego didn't let him acknowledge the beating he was taking in front the watching crowd. Working on pure bluster, Jase finally declared Seth's performance "fairly competent" and quit the field.
As he left Morgan tacked a tracer onto Jase just to make sure that he wouldn't be up to any mischief. Late that evening, when Jase went alone to the bath house, Morgan got the sudden urge for a bath himself. He wasn't quite finished with the thug. He had Seth fetch some working clothes, it wouldn't do for Seth to dare free-man's territory as an equal, and they went for their "chance encounter".
When they reached the baths Morgan made sure Jase was alone inside before they went in. Morgan stripped while Seth changed his clothes in the most conspicuous way possible. To this point Jase had only seen the literacy markings on Seth's face. The law was quite specific about the display of markings, but armor was a clear exception. Seth's bucklers and jerkin completely covered his more significant marks. As he watched Seth change, Jase paled considerably under his bruises.
Morgan lowered himself carefully into the steaming-hot common bathing pool while Jase brought himself to a boil of anger. Just as he was about to explode his wrath all over Morgan, Morgan gathered the flows of water, air and steam and used them to seize Jase in an unbreakable grip. The binding was so tight that Jase could just barely blink and move his tongue enough to swallow.
Morgan casually scooted over to Jase and took a moment to enjoy the hot water.
"I just thought I'd drop in and share a few thoughts with you." He paused for effect.
"My man Seth is under orders that give him some pretty extreme latitude for a slave, and should someone, say even a free man, interfere with his duties severely enough, he is even empowered to act to protect himself so that he can complete those duties. I don't know about you, but I am sure glad that nobody made that kind of mistake...
"But I digress...
"You know one of the first lessons a man learns when perusing his Talent is the responsibility that comes with power. Granted some don't take that lesson to heart, but it is still an important lesson. The whole point is that when you have an overwhelming advantage over someone you must go out of your way to treat them with respect. I suspect you feel the same way about the advantage you might have over someone that was, say, imprinted as a slave and so almost defenseless to the will of a free man. The kind of person that would push that kind of advantage just because he could, well it would be hard for anybody to really respect someone like that...
"Besides, it's against the law.
"You know, were I to encounter such a person I would probably be forced to imprint them myself. Not that I would be any good at that mind you. It's not my field. I'd be likely to overdo it and leave the poor guy barely able to function. That'd be terrible because under the imprinting he'd still be himself. He probably wouldn't even be able to take the steps necessary to have the job fixed. Probably end up tending a midden or some such for the rest of his life.
"I'm certainly glad I've never encountered anybody like that. I think I'd find it tough living with the kind of guilt I'd feel over such a botched imprinting."
Morgan in fact had no training or experience with any mind work as delicate as imprinting, or for that matter the kind of redaction used to adjust an obvious mental imbalance, much less fixing something as basic as a plain bad attitude. A treatise on unorthodox magical combat gave him the hints for what he did next. In one section it talked about binding a field of strong but undifferentiated emotional energy over an opponent. The onslaught of intense but undefined emotions tended to wash away the real feelings of the target, leaving them in a neutral but active mood. It could all but paralyze a person and force them into a state of intense introspection during which they would be vulnerable to other attack. Morgan's idea was to wash away Jase's immediate anger so that he'd have a chance to cool down before things snowballed. Besides he figured that a little introspection wouldn't do the man any harm either.
Morgan set up the intense field around Jase and bound it to him, setting it to decay over the course of the next twelve to twenty hours. He'd stay up all night in a near-meditative state, so he'd get some rest, and by morning it would be wearing down enough that he could do his duty. Morgan saw the act as immediately necessary. What he couldn't see, and was likely never to appreciate, was that that single act derailed Jase's otherwise ignoble fate. Before they'd met Jase was doomed to become an increasingly lonely, bitter and difficult man who's inability to accept the word of others would have seen himself, and the men under his command, wiped out during a military skirmish some years down the line. After their meeting that night Jase's future promised a family, some wisdom, and a healthy old age.
Morgan was simply relieved by the thought that the rest of the journey might just be peaceful and easy. Seth, having no clue what happened between the other two men, figured that things would probably be getting worse.
Morgan released Jase from the physical restraint and said "You're getting all water logged, you should probably go get some rest. And thank you again for working out with my man."
When Jase had left the baths, Morgan gestured at Seth to join him in the tub. After they had washed, Morgan found himself drowsing comfortably next to Seth. "I think the rest of this trip is going to go all right."
Seth grunted, skeptically-indifferent.
Morgan turned out to be right, to a point. The rest of the journey to Queens Landing, or at least to the gates of that city, went nicely without incident.

Chapter 10
Entries

The security entering Queens Landing was a joke, too long in the telling, and not a good one. The city was small and old, bordering on the ancient. Like Queens College, every century or so, usually at a time when the monarchy passed from man to woman, a debate would flair over what queen of which age had lent her title to the many "Queens" what-have-you dotting the area. Almost perfectly opposite those times of genteel inquiry by the literati there would come a time of hardship, unrest, or famine. In those bad times the sheltered and defensible harbor of Queens Landing was most likely to become a bone of ardent contention. To that end the city was walled, the gates well positioned and rather small, and the guard uncommonly arrogant. Inflamed by the visiting court, these factors made passage into the city almost not worth the trip.
Tradition and simple wisdom required that Morgan, with his goods and business, make his way through the gates apart from Lady Teichia and hers. After all they really could not speak for one another the way they could for their own retainers. More than one political maneuver in the history of the realm had been spoilt by attentions aroused for less cause than arriving in the wrong company. The lady was truly a master of her station and she passed her entire entourage into the city nearly without breaking stride. Morgan fared nowhere near as well.
At each gate to the city there was a long, slow moving line of people, horses, and carts waiting to get into the city proper. Scribes and guards were working the line like novelty vendors at carnival, asking each person what business they had in the city, checking paperwork, and so on. When he was finally approached Morgan produced a letter from the school which repeated the requirement that he swear fealty. The letter was properly signed, sealed, and so forth by all the correct officials at the school. When he was asked to step out of line and accompany the guard to the gate-house Morgan didn't know what to think.
At the gate-house, which was actually a largish freestanding wooden structure outside the city walls, Morgan was obliged to leave his belongings outside the building, an act that included chaining Seth to a sturdy post amidst a light but sorry sampling of other slaves, and then to go inside and wait. Most of the space inside seemed to be devoted to a large number of simple benches occupied by a wide cross-section of humanity with a smattering of other sentient races sprinkled throughout. At the far end minor functionaries were summoning people by name. Their job seemed to consist largely of listening to any number of ranting excuses and then telling the supplicant that they lacked some from of paperwork and sending them back into the crowd to continue waiting.
Morgan's hours-long wait was, it turned out, because he had not countersigned his own orders. An act he could have performed at any time up until he'd handed them to the guards. An act he also didn't know was necessary and served no purpose he could imagine. After finally getting to talk to someone who would actually answer questions instead of simply asking them, it only took a few minutes to sort out. Seth was questioned separately and then the transgression was redressed. Morgan had missed the whole first day-session of court. If he hadn't ridden in with lady Teichia he could have easily arrived on the last day of court instead of the first, and missed it completely for that mistake.

* * *

Morgan lightly asensed the city as he passed through the gates. Various hot-spots throughout the city were clearly obvious, and a surprising amount of low-level energy glossed his perceptions. The city obviously contained a good number of herbalists, practitioners, and hedge mages plying a generous trade in spells, charms and potions. High in the castle he could sense a significant water elemental bound in a cistern that fed fresh water out to the entire city. The creature dozed contentedly, dreaming out the pathways its water traveled, living the ebb and flow of the city that drank its essence. He touched his mind to the creature and added a thread to the tangle of its outer bindings as law required. Taking as he did so, a quick survey of the other full mages in the city.
They traveled a short distance around the rim of the bowl that made up the harbor city and then down an angled street, Morgan scenting and gathering in the trail of his own residual energy which had sloughed away from lady Teichia's wagons as they'd moved through the crowded streets. When they reached the inn Seth dealt with stabling the horse while Morgan turned loose the traveling bindings over the wagons and replaced them with a more subtle weave suitable for overnight protection. They dumped their gear in their room, played out their separate nightly meal rituals and went out for Morgan's staff work.
Several members of the guard had taken to joining them each night. Seth and Jase walked among the practicing men offering advice, encouragement, and the occasional example. Jase was still less than comfortable with Seth in general but they had developed a rhythm between them that seemed to be working out all right. Jase even took a bit of technique from Seth a couple of times. There was perhaps a tad too much enthusiasm between the two whenever they were sparring for the benefit of the onlookers, but nothing too unseemly happened.
Seth drove Morgan to exhaustion, and not just Morgan's definition of the term. When Morgan started to show the first signs of quitting Seth stopped letting him find his own pace. He stood behind the padded post and barked commands at him. He would touch the post where he wanted Morgan to strike and snap the order out, naming the target or organ, and then take his hand away just in time to avoid the blow. Morgan did his best to please Seth on one level and on another, his best to smack that hand and erase his smug, confidant grin. Morgan had surrendered his trust to Seth's judgment and even with his heart pounding in his ears and his head feeling light he kept up the increasing rhythm. Only when his blows became wild and he started to stagger did Seth call a halt. It was harsh treatment but it would get Morgan ready to save his own life in short order.
Seth helped Morgan cool down after his workout and then through his bath. When they got back to their room they found that someone had gone through their belongings. Whoever it was had been careful, trying to put everything back exactly the way it had been, but everybody does things a little different and you know when someone else has crammed your things back into your pack. Morgan kicked himself for forgetting to throw wards over their own stuff after having been so careful with the wagons. Morgan asensed the packs but found no foreign energy. Whoever had done the job had had magical cover, otherwise there would be mundane traces.
They emptied the packs onto the bed and did an inventory. Nothing was missing. Nothing had been added. Morgan sifted through everything with every sorcerous nuance he could think of and found no traces. He began to doubt that anybody had actually touched their gear. Talking as softly as possible Seth and Morgan went over the evidence of intrusion and concluded that someone had in fact gone through their stuff no matter how senseless it seemed.
Running through the possible reasons for the intrusion Seth brought up the idea of diversion. Morgan goggled and then snapped ready for attack and sent his senses spinning down and out to the wagons and the horses. It took a wile to check the wards but they showed no sign having been disturbed. Morgan sought out each member of the party and found them each healthy and undisturbed. Finally he ran over his room and everything in it board by board and nail by nail. There simply was nothing else that had been disturbed. Morgan set a weaving over and through the room that would dampen sound and magic and barely let air pass and drove out the tiny creatures that make their homes in even the best kept rooms as he did so.
When he returned to his body Morgan found Seth sitting behind him, guarding his body, a sword across his knees and an intense but relaxed look on his face. Morgan summoned a feeita, a tiny air elemental, and bound it to an empty candle-holder. He set it to creating a continuous gentle stream of pure, fresh, breathable, warm air. When his ears popped gently at the increased air pressure and he could feel the air seeping out of the room through the bindings he felt content. Nothing was getting into the room without him knowing it.
They went to bed, Morgan insisting that Seth share the bed with him because the bindings on the floor sent a tiny shiver up his spine whenever anything on the floor moved. As he drifted off to sleep, warmed by the furnace-like heat pouring out of Seth, Morgan reconsidered the intrusion. One of several things had happened. Someone spotted him as mage-gifted and had tried to loot him for some stray enchanted object he might have left unguarded. A casual sneak thief with a wisp of talent who probably worked at the inn had searched their things and didn't find anything worth risking their mundane job over. Some mysterious foe had searched the their things and was satisfied that nothing more needed to be done to trip them up. Or, just as likely, whomever it had been had come and tussled their belongings just to play with Morgan's head. A last reasonable possibility was that he and Seth were collectively losing their minds and falling into the ever-waiting maw of paranoia.

Chapter 11
Functions

Everything looked equally bland and unpromising the next morning. The one thought that cemented itself firmly in Morgan's head overnight was that they were going to have to dive in and get firmly entangled in court politics. If the foe were real and had made their first move last night, the only place to go looking for the markers in this probable power game was the brightly colored sluggish morass that was, at the moment, clinging to the boots of royalty. Cleaned and dressed in their finest, Morgan and Seth set out for the city keep, and the royal court.
Morgan's finest clothes were simply cut and functional, but they fit him and his personality perfectly. He wore a calm but strikingly pure blue shirt with onyx buttons and cuffed long sleeves, and black pants without frill or decoration tucked neatly into equally black, well polished, calf-high boots. His belt was black leather worked with ample sliver and had a small purse, black doe skin gloves, and ceremonial dagger hanging from it. His cloak was hooded and made of heavy silk, jet black with a foggy gray lining. Turned open from his chest so it hung down his back nearly to the floor, the cloak had the insignia of his various arts skillfully worked into collar and hem in a tiny continuous line, like piping. It was his aotahe, the shielding garment worn by formally trained magi during high ritual magic and occasions of state. The aotahe give no indication of the rank or power of their wearer, and when closed around the body and properly energized, render the wearer nearly invulnerable. Two traits that make it an excellent garment for meeting with strangers and dealing in intrigue.
Seth was another matter entirely. While he had mostly the same black on black pants and boots, he was wearing two belts. The first was the same one he'd worn nearly every day since they'd met. It, and the two plain scabbards which hung from it, were freshly cleaned and oiled but the well worn scabbards and grips spoke plainly. The second was the restraint, turned backward so the metal bar with its cuffs and chain were nestled in the small of his back, temporarily bound close to the belt along with a small bundle. Two inch wide white cloth strips ran up the out-step of each boot from just above the ankle to just below the knee, held in place by loops built into the boots for that purpose. Those strips had the skill marks which each boot covered embroidered on them. His shirt was a bright blood-crimson. Instead of the expected skill patches on the front, back, and sleeves, Seth's entire inking was painted and dyed into the fabric in remarkable detail, the only difference being what was set in Seth's white skin in red was set on the red shirt in white. His head band was the exact same crimson color as his shirt. Not only was the effect striking, perhaps bordering on the majestic, it was functional. When a slave wears a red shirt or vest it is a warning that he is a bodyguard, a killer, and he is on duty.
Morgan noticed that Seth's crowd-parting effect was magnified by his crimson shirt. When Morgan's aotahe was added in to the equation the way it never really could at the college, the people on the crowded central city streets virtually rolled away from them like a strong ocean wave. When they reached the keep Morgan presented his properly countersigned orders and was admitted to the outer court without incident. In short order he got himself onto the court schedule. The time slot was not ideal, being late in the afternoon. He would have a long time to stew in his own apprehension, but at least it would not take days to complete his business.

* * *

The outer court is really a series of small parties, buffets, and lesser halls where the courtiers listen, and occasionally talk something more than pleasantries to further their various machinations. Morgan was somewhat disappointed that their entrance hadn't drawn more of a reaction. In the streets the crowd had boiled away from them as they passed, in the halls they weren't even noticed.
Seth moved in close behind Morgan and softly said "remember the landslide."
"Unimpressed, even as it buried them", Morgan put on a game-face. "Thank you Seth."
They selected a rather large outer hall to wait in. The room was near the kitchens and so had a large buffet along one wall. One corner sported musicians keeping a continuous flow of gentle melodies in the air. It was a pleasant room, just large enough to prevent the intimate moments that make for intrigue, and the people in it seemed to be less into the court and more into the food. It would be possible, and perhaps even pleasant, to spend the bulk of the day there without much difficulty or danger.
Seth peeled away from Morgan as they entered and took up an obtrusively unobtrusive position near the musicians while Morgan raided the buffet. Morgan spent the bulk of the morning gorging himself on fresh fruit and talking at length about absolutely nothing with whomever was handy. Seth had a better time standing next to the wall and watching the people go by. He listened intently to everybody within earshot, without seeming to be aware of anything happening around him at all. He'd become an expert at "standing around" over the last twenty years.
Halfway between breakfast and lunch the musician yielded his spot to an apprentice. The apprentice began a very old, but once popular ballad, whispering the words to himself to keep the melody on pace. He got to the bridge of the piece and found himself lost for the correct phrase. He made several abortive attempts at the bridge instead of simply playing past the mistake. Seth took pity on the young man and whispered the correct string of notes to him.
"What?" He had been concentrating and had missed Seth's words.
Seth repeated the unlikely combination of notes.
"That doesn't make sense."
With his pretense broken, Seth closed the distance between them. "The ballad you were playing, lord, was written for the Syriene Harp, a fixed-tone harp cannot play the original as written, so those notes are used to give the same feeling."
"Please show me." The young man gestured to an old Syriene sitting in a case against the wall.
"As you wish, lord." Seth carefully took the instrument out of its case. The harp was not old, it was ancient. A finer harp Seth had never seen. He looked to the apprentice again and saw past the apprenticeship to the young lordling of high station beneath it. Always dangerous ground. "I hope I can do some justice to such a fine instrument lord."
Seth sat carefully, managing the harp and his sheathed swords masterfully so that the hilts would not touch, and possibly mar, the ancient wood. He made sure he could see Morgan clearly from his seat then turned the bulk of his attention to the instrument. The lever, which defined the difference between a plain harp and a Syriene, moved smoothly as he cocked it and tucked the harp under his arm. He braced the harp with his leg and chin and then played a simple chord, squeezing the lever under his right arm, listening to the strings change their pitch as the lever moved every other bridge, teaching him the true and the rate of the harp. He found his fingering, and then addressed the young lordling again.
"This is the original scoring lord. The original progressions rely on the lever to bend the notes in order to change keys."
Seth set out on the piece, reading the sheet music out of his memory as he played. The melody was powerful and haunting, and he played it with intensity. Without thinking he presented the piece to the hall, playing much louder than the previous background airs. The bodyguard part of his mind kept an eye to Morgan's safety but the rest of him failed to notice, or more precisely care, that he had attracted an audience. The melody was one of longing and loss, the bending chords crying out of the harp.
The last notes faded into the silent room and Seth finally noticed his audience, bent his head further over the harp and started to blush. He had previously only played for Lady Mildaw.
It was the young lord who rescued him from his audience. "I see," he continued the original conversation, heading it off into the less intriguing technical aspects of music, "so the notes" he plucked out the notes Seth had whispered to him with more discord and difficulty than necessary "are intended to mimic the changes of the lever." He continued on with similar observations, rhetorical questions and poorly executed musical fragments.
The crowd was instantly driven away.
Without lifting his head Seth whispered "Thank you lord."
"No problem, where did you learn to play like that?"
"I was about to ask the same thing." Morgan looked down at Seth and raised his eyebrow at him when he looked up. "You know Liane is going to be angry that you haven't played for her. Sometimes she drives Mieka crazy trying to make him play."
Seth began to carefully put the ancient harp back into its case.
"Is he yours?" The apprentice bard looked to Morgan. "I don't suppose you'd consider selling him?"
"No," Morgan looked at the young man again and caught the nobility there and added "lord," just a hair late "he means too much to me to part with." Morgan placed his hand on Seth possessively.
"Would you at least loan him to me long enough for him to play for some of my teachers?"
"I don't know that I can commit to that right now, where might I find you later?"
"I'll be at the festival this evening on the east patio playing with the other musicians."
Morgan paused to think. "I think that I will be able to make that."
"Very good, I'll look for you there."
Morgan bowed slightly and motioned for Seth to follow. They left the room after a quick stop by the buffet to load down Morgan's plate and refill his cup.

* * *

When they found a secluded spot Morgan handed Seth the plate and cup. "I figured you'd be hungry by now."
Morgan gave him time to wolf down some of the food and then said "you know I have spent hours talking to all sorts of nobility and I haven't learned a single thing about anything, weather included."
"Well," Seth said around a piece of melon, "two separate contingents from the north west are here to ask for troops to quell some recent wildings in their territories. Each of them is prepared to accuse the other of over taxing the land and causing the problems. To hear them speak of it they each think they are themselves blameless."
Seth paused for a chunk of hearty bread. "Several, five I think, of the groups who came and went quickly are trying to bid at least one of their daughters in a royal betrothal, but I couldn't quite figure out what member of the royal family was the intended victim." He grinned around a piece of cheese. "Any number of people were speculating as to who you are, but none of them seemed to take more than average interest in you."
Morgan looked appraisingly at Seth, a habit he seemed to have picked up since meeting the man, "how did you find out all of that?"
Seth gestured vaguely at himself with another piece of fruit "nobles tend to ignore the furnishings, I just stood there and listened to whatever I could."
That seemed kind of weak to Morgan, "that doesn't sound too smart for the masters of intrigue that are supposed to be at court."
"None of them knew I'm not imprinted, if they had I probably wouldn't have heard a thing. You ever try to talk to a slave other than me? A free man couldn't get an unvarnished word out of a typical slave to save his life. What the slaves know amongst themselves is a different story, but what slaves know is unlikely to get out to the hands of the free."
"Why?"
"It's just the way things are. When you're compelled to serve someone by overwhelming duress you kind of develop a habit of being a little less than, well, helpful, when you have the luxury of discretion. Besides it's dangerous. Think what would happen when whoever you crossed up finds out it was you that wrecked his plans. That imprinting wont even let you try to defend yourself."
"Good point. So would you be able to find out what the slaves around here know?"
"Probably, but now isn't the time, they'll all be working as hard as they can under their orders. Tonight, when the parties have started to run their course, is when the gossip will start to flow."
Seth handed the plate and cup back to Morgan, wiped his hands on his pants, and put himself back into character.
"I just hope I can get the hang of this in time."
Seth gave Morgan a gentle sort of full-body shove by way of reassurance, the kind you might get from a very big dog, and then they were back out of their alcove and back in the game.

* * *

The afternoon session before the king was less than spellbinding. It opened with round one of the wilding issue, wherein both parties maintained that they were not responsible for the overtaxing of the land that caused the region to soften and let in creatures from the margins. The two seneschals and several geomancers were called and testified to the proper use of the lands under their care. To Morgan it sounded like a typical example of the way things just happen sometimes and the only people who seemed to feel that any kind of mismanagement or duplicity was involved were the minor nobles. The king agreed that some degree of outside assistance was in order and that an appropriately vague number of hunters and soldiers really ought to be dispatched to help hunt down the creatures that were escaping into the good people's territory from the rents in the local fabric of the realm.
The marriage issue that Seth had heard tell of made no appearance that Morgan could discern but no doubt it was stewing just under the surface somewhere.
Seth was implacable as always, but Morgan was uncomfortable standing there next to him. Seth was unarmed and locked in irons. The key, really more of a wrench than a key, was a burden on Morgan's mind and in his pouch. He still wanted to reach over and start unscrewing the chuck that held the manacles shut. He hadn't enjoyed the experience of putting them on him. The fact that Seth seemed to have no problem with them at all, or maybe even felt proud to wear them, just jarred Morgan somehow.
Standing there silently with nothing to do wasn't helping, and it just went on and on for a couple of hours. Finally it got to be his turn and Morgan experienced a sudden twisting of dread in his stomach when he heard his name.
"Morgan of Queens College, son of Whaelin of the Iron Mountains, Magus of the First Order, here before the court this day on a matter of fealty; Come forward and be recognized."
Even as he began moving Morgan wondered for a moment if the long-winded announcements of the herald were intended to give a chance for stage fright to increase, or decrease. Seth, carrying Morgan's tribute, moved smoothly in behind him as he made the long walk out into the middle of the floor.
When he had placed his name on the docket the herald had given him a quick lecture on how to move, where to go, when to kneel and stand, and when to leave the royal presence. The man had described the tiny ceremony by wrote, nearly making a single monotone word out of the several sentences. After the short meeting Seth had helped Morgan work out a script of what they would do and say.
Morgan walked down the middle of the hall and stopped at the spot where the carpet conveniently changed to indicate that people in his position should stop. He announced himself to the court using only "I am Morgan, son of Whaelin." It would have been considered boastful to add his rank. He then went down onto his left knee and waited. Seth stopped two paces back from Morgan and remained standing, seemingly oblivious to the entire situation. The court doesn't normally recognize a slave unless that slave is claiming some action under the Tenets of Rule, so kneeling or otherwise demanding attention would be unacceptable.
The herald went next. "Will any here speak for this man." Having no patron at court Morgan would remain silent until the herald bade him speak for himself. At least that is the way it was supposed to happen. Somewhere near the back of the hall someone began to move purposefully out of the crowd. Morgan could hear them coming and wanted to turn and look to see who it was nearly more than anything, but was bound to stay where he was and remain silent.
Seth knew that whoever was coming would add nothing to Morgan's simple cause, but could cost Morgan dearly or at least tend to bind him to whomever it was in the mind of court and king. He wished he had his blades in his hands instead of Morgan's tribute. If he were armed he might be able to intimidate the interloper. Lost for any other option to protect Morgan, Seth spoke. "My Lord's King," he couldn't place the king relative to himself, a slave, so he spoke from his role as Morgan's property. He could easily be put to the lash, or worse, for addressing the court, but one or two well phrased sentences could and would put the lie to whatever the approaching stranger might have to say, so he pressed ahead despite the risk. "My master has come alone, at short notice, and in great haste to appear before this court. It is his great sorrow that he can call on no one here to speak his cause."
The court was struck silent, waiting for the royal response to Seth's unprecedented action. The approaching footsteps faltered slightly and then proceeded on to some other destination as if they had never been headed toward the throne. Seth struggled not to grin at his victory and was determined not to flinch at whatever would follow.
The king, semi-permanently bored at the normal flow of court, sat staring at the men before him. The reason for the slave's intercession had not been lost to him, nor was the precise and effective nature of his action. It was probably unplanned but since the kneeling man was a Magus it could have been the result of compulsion. An interesting puzzle, or at least distraction, that the king decided to pursue.
The king leaned forward in his throne addressed Seth directly. "Would you speak for this man?"
Seth swallowed hard, "My lord's king, that would not be my place."
"That would be for me to decide."
Seth bowed his head in silent acquiescence.
"Morgan, son of Whaelin, rise." Morgan did so and remained silent. "What assurances can you give us about this man you bring into our presence?"
It was an odd question but one he took to heart. What could he say about Seth and how could he make his words and feelings count in front of all these people. Morgan looked about himself for answers. When he turned and looked at Seth things clicked into place. Seth trusted him. Even more Seth liked him and was willing to sacrifice himself for him. The manacles and the key in his pouch were a symbol of Seth's trust in him, something with the strength of a pledge. It was something like a pledge that Morgan wanted to return in front of all these witnesses.
Morgan's eyes and mind sought, and found, the bar where criminals would be brought to stand before the kings justice. As he expected it was ensorceled. Anybody in contact with that length of cold iron would speak true, or feel pain in proportion to his falsehoods. It wouldn't compel a man to speak but it would insure that the words he did speak were true to his best knowledge.
Morgan slipped off his right glove as he approached the bar. He didn't mount the small platform but stopped next to it and reached out to rest his hand on the end of the bar. Murmurs rippled through the crowd even as the ensorcelment poured into Morgan's mind. He'd been under harsher transient compulsions as a matter of course during ritual magic and had usually had to simultaneously carry out complex activities to boot. Speaking his mind under the bar wouldn't be a problem.
Standing there, glowing faintly under the truth spell, Morgan picked his words carefully. There were, after all, things he most certainly didn't want to reveal.
"Your Majesty. This, my man Seth, is under no compulsion that would prevent him speaking freely to this court under the Tenets, as is provided by the rules of imprinting." A true statement that could be made about any imprinted slave, and more importantly, any unimprinted person. "I have given him no instructions about what he may or should say about me. He is free to speak his mind without fear of any kind of retribution by me or mine. Moreover I have entrusted my safety to his steel and I trust his words that much and more. I will stand by his words and trust them with my life." Finished, Morgan lifted his hand from the bar, breaking the spell.
He was, of course, free to go back on his word if he chose. The bar did not compel obedience. It did however, tell the court that when he spoke his words he believed them to be true. The king and court were duly impressed. There probably weren't four other people in the room that could say likewise at the bar about anybody in their own lives including, or especially precluding, their closest family. Morgan himself was surprised that he felt that strongly for Seth.
The king turned to look at Seth. "Well, speak."
"Uh, your Majesty." Seth hadn't thought out anything to say, and was embarrassed to be speaking, he paused often to consider his words. "My lord Morgan is a good man of common birth. I have only known him for about a month and in that time I have seen him to be a good and loyal friend who inspires the same in others. He is uncle by courtesy to the daughter of his companions, a beautiful child which he obviously loves as his own. He has been both just and fair to those who have sought to harm him. I serve him with pleasure and what will is mine."
"That is a fine endorsement." The king settled back in the throne. "What of his allegiances?"
"I have never heard him speak of politics and I do not keep his council there your Majesty. His tribute is sincere and genuine." Seth advanced and knelt at the base of the throne so that he would not have to simply drop the heavy object to the floor. He began unwrapping it with more dexterity than might be expected of a man in rigid manacles. This was the only part of the ceremony that Seth had expected to participate in, and he had practiced with the package before hand. Inside the bundle was an iron ingot.
Seth did know how to tell a story, that much went with his musical training. He told the king and court the story of Morgan's awakening to power. How he felt and halted a cave-in while moving ore at the bottom of one of the mines his family had worked for generations. He nearly made the audience feel what it would be like to hold a mountain together inside their untrained adolescent mind, paralyzed for fear of loosing the collapse. Waiting for someone to notice and then waiting again for aid. Seth had prized some details out of Morgan during some odd moments of conversation while they had waited for the faculty council to act. What details he didn't have he embellished. He gave special treatment to the people whose lives were saved when Morgan prevented the mine collapse and the physical ordeal that went along with the mental awakening. Finally he worked his way back to the iron ingot.
"When Whaelin heard that his son would go to Queens College to study the arts he gave him a gift. This weight of iron is the piece of ore he held for a day and a night, smelted and cast by his father, so that he would never forget his origins or what his power could mean to others. This is the thing my master has chosen to surrender to the court in tribute."
Completely out of things to say Seth bowed his head to a smattering of applause. The king, a man of middle years, rose and went to the bundle. He lifted the ingot, surprised at its weight, and carried it back to a small table next to the throne; it was an unprecedented action.
"We are honored to receive such a gift."
The herald called Morgan before the throne where he offered, and the king accepted, a simple oath of fealty to kingdom and king and they were dismissed from the royal presence. When they left the hall they discovered they were celebrities. Word seemed to flow through the court faster than they could walk.
Imperatively casual invitations to parties and meetings began to filter their way in toward Morgan and Seth. Morgan was tempted to bolt from the court in his best attempt at never being seen again. He resisted the urge, thinking that he should at least make an attempt to keep the tentative date he had made with the young lordling. Seth agreed. There was something like a hint of commitment there and there was no way to know who they might be snubbing if they ran out on it.

* * *

It didn't prove difficult to find the youth and his masters, they were providing entertainment at one of the central gatherings. The master musicians were anyway. At first the masters were "politely interested" in the alleged talent and knowledge of the slave that their apprentice had so diligently found. Seth, however, quickly captivated their actual interest.
Apparently Lady Korane had possessed a taste for some very old and unique compositions. Mostly things she had found in her researches. Many of the pieces Seth knew had never been played publicly, having come from the more private musings of some distracted mage or otherwise obscure, deceased scholar. Not only did Seth remember the complete pieces and their origins and know enough to discuss them intelligently; he was a good enough musician to do them justice.
Seth ended up playing several complete compositions and a good number of exemplary fragments over the course of the evening. He kind of bloomed to the attention, getting over this shyness to perform in record time. Morgan stood close by the entire time, partly out of pride and partly to protect his interests. The musicians seemed ready to abduct Seth and try to drain him of his knowledge. Morgan made sure that they were satisfied with the pages of notes they took.
As the evening wore into night, Morgan caught a look from Seth and called him away from the group. Morgan and Seth split up shortly after they left the musicians. Seth set out into the slave community to gather intelligence. Morgan was fairly tired and headed into the keep to find someplace to relax.
Deep in the keep, not quite far enough to get lost, Morgan realized that he was being overtaken.
He stopped suddenly and turned.
Coming toward him down a hall was an apparently middle-aged woman wearing an aotahe. She stopped a minimally respectful distance in front of Morgan and he was tempted to shrug his aotahe forward over his shoulders.
"Greetings Magus, I am Teila Ja, astrologer to the keep of Queens Landing."
"Greetings." Morgan clearly didn't need to introduce himself to the woman, and he had nothing else to say to her.
"I would speak to you."
Morgan waited.
"In a more... private location. Would you do me the honor of accompanying me to my observatory?"
Morgan had no intention to follow this strange practitioner anywhere.
"I offer you keth'yetal by way of assurance that my intent is not malicious."
That deeply disturbed Morgan but changed his mind about following her. The mind hold was easily accomplished and Morgan's grip on her magical centers was complete. She could not act against him mentally and should he die with that hold on her mind she would be stripped of her power and possibly her sanity or her life. Keth'yetal. The complete surrender of a vanquished mage. Once established, if he so chose he could effortlessly hold her power for the rest of her life.
Morgan strongly suspected he would not like anything she had to say. Whatever could make someone willingly offer keth'yetal, be it knowledge, person, or thing, didn't promise comfort. It was, however, an irresistible draw.
After some time they arrived on a wide flat roof. There were a few spires in the keep that were taller, but that wouldn't matter to a powerful astrologer. Inscribed on the roof's special slate surface was the largest astrolabe Morgan had ever seen. Easily three hundred curves and perhaps twice as many line segments had been etched into the slate using chalk and force of will. At least seven obvious wards of protection, divination, and control were superscribed around the astrolabe itself.
Teila closed her aotahe about herself and energized it. An act that Morgan's hold allowed him to watch, and abort if he so chose. She crossed the protections and each one was cataloged and detailed directly into his mind. Finally she touched the astrolabe so that Morgan could appreciate its structure and inherently nonthreatening nature.
Realizing that he should follow, and knowing that nothing could or would harm him within the epic construct, Morgan closed his own aotahe and followed. The spells worked for him the same as they had for her. Once inside Morgan released the keth'yetal. If Teila wanted to harm him she would choose someplace other than this. The construct, clearly a work of decades, would be shattered by any kind of combat inside its perimeter. Her offer had clearly been to get him here and let him know that no threat was intended. Even if that hadn't been the case the 'yetal was too ugly an entanglement and he wanted to be free of it as soon as possible.
She bowed slightly to him in recognition of his gesture.
"How much do you know about astrology?"
"Why did you offer me 'yetal?"
"I don't like games and I needed to speak to you with some urgency."
"There are better ways."
"Name one. You will be gone from here in a day, possibly never to return. You still live in that cesspit of lies" a reference to the less savory generic reputation attributable to any large gathering of mages, let alone a school, "so there was no way you would have followed me here short of a royal order or intrigue-majure. The former was not available and I didn't have time for the latter. In any case neither would have gotten you here alone and unobserved. What I have to say I think only you should hear."
Morgan took the allotted moment to think about that and found himself in agreement with her logic except for one thing. "How did you know I would release you."
"Call it faith."
He wondered what in, but decided not to ask, ceding the conversation to her lead.
She nodded a little too knowingly. "Back to my question, what do you know about astrology?"
"Just the basics, I've read Rassalos."
"So, basically, nothing."
Morgan eyed her.
"Rassalos' work was aimed at the casually curious, but it doesn't address the technical elements with much merit."
"So why do they teach it?"
"Tenure."
Morgan knew exactly how that went, he'd been teaching several texts that weren't worth the velum to copy.
Teila took a deep breath and started in. "Creation," the word made Morgan flinch visibly, "dictates that this realm is shaped much like a disk. Mean sea level describes a plane parallel to the roughly circular faces of the disk. Approximately one fourth the volume of the disk is below sea level and the remainder is of course above. I call the disk roughly circular because the outermost edge of the disk is not accessible due to the wilding effect at the margins."
Morgan was a little insulted that Teila started at such a simplistic level. Everybody in the realm knew this much if not more.
"The realm grows in response to the pressure caused by the occupation of the lands and seas by sentient beings. Outside the limits of the realm lie the elemental plains; the layers of reality just above pure chaos where mixtures of the prime material and life energies mingle and the sentient forces of physicality commonly called `elementals' are born and live.
"It is precisely because life energies can and do propagate both forward and backward through time, an effect called temporal diffusion, that the realm can grow, and occasionally shrink or otherwise respond, to the needs and actions of its inhabitants.
"There are many side effects to this design that are radically different from the naturally occurring realities at the higher levels of order."
Morgan was beginning to wonder how he had gotten himself signed up for this lecture. The material was neither new nor terribly interesting to him.
Realizing she was loosing her audience Teila tried to cut to the chase.
"Since the sky is, in fact, an illusion here, it was functionally decorated in an approximation of the sky one might see in an organic realm. I say `functional' because unlike other realms the stars and planets in our sky are not real independent objects, they are plotted points representing the forces which are or will be effecting the realm's structure."
Teila energized the astrolabe and various points of light in the sky around them were suddenly brought much closer. Morgan realized that he could all but reach up and touch them.
"What most people don't fully appreciate is that the sky appears differently from different vantage points across the realm. The prime markers are constellations that are fixed and common to the night sky the world over." Dim lines appeared connecting the elements of these constellations. "These markers make navigation and astrology possible by giving fixed points to measure other things against."
"Local markers," another set of constellations were marked out, "are each visible to specific geographical areas. On average about twenty of these can be seen from any given point in the realm. If you knew them all you would be able to figure out where you were, anywhere in the realm, to within fifty miles. The rest are all `plots' that can be read and used for divination.
"A new global plot might appear in the sky perhaps once every decade, it will last between thirty years and four centuries, and will typically represent things or events of continental scope. A truly local plot like a shooting star may last only a few seconds, hours, or days and might represent something as small as a family or even a person. Things like speed and geographical visibility are used to determine the scope and urgency of the information."
Morgan, not normally this impatient, was getting tired of the lecture. "I hope you are getting to the point, I've had a long day."
"Certainly," Morgan felt a sudden chill, "in the last three months six new plots have appeared at global scope."
The six plots floated down from the cluster and became suspended at waist level in the space between them. They were an interesting group. Each appeared to be a small solid globe of different texture and composition. `Planets' by the common reckoning. Beyond that they were meaningless to Morgan.
"First this one appeared alone, moving in a decidedly strange way, its course shifting oddly hour by hour like it were being hammered by unseen forces. Then these two showed up on two successive nights, they are moving in complement to one another. Later these three come all at once. Which nights each of these showed up varies all over the realm, but the order and the pattern was the same.
"Where this first one will go nobody can tell for sure, but the remaining five are all on separate orbits to the same point. Here. The center of The Cradle. Different plotting from different locations has them all arriving simultaneously, but the exact date varies between one month and three years from now, depending on where the plot is taken.
"In short these six strangers are, by the rules of astrology, impossible. That means that the realm is in great danger. A danger that threatens the actual structure of the realm."
Morgan looked pointedly at the planets, feeling queasy at the possibility that he and Seth might have something to do with the `pair'. "What does the king think of all this?"
"He doesn't know. Nobody knows except myself and some of my fellows spread across the realm."
"Why not?"
"Because everything we have been able to get out of these strangers says that if anything disrupts whatever is happening things will probably get worse, and all politicians ever do is meddle and disrupt."
"So why tell me?"
"Because, as near as I can figure, that" she pointed to the lone planet, "is you."
The lone planet, not one of the pair. If what she was saying was true whatever was happening didn't have Seth pinned up in the heavens. At least not separate from him.
"How do you know that's me?"
"I saw your hand on the Bar today. I also saw it there when I did a scrying of the first planet."
"What did you see for the others?"
"Nothing, absolutely nothing. Just a blurring fog. None of my fellows even got the one image of you I received. Whatever it is, its outside our power to divine."
"So I've got some destiny and you can't tell me a thing about it?"
"No, not a destiny per se. Destiny, big `d', comes from far off in the future. It is presaged by years, or even centuries of portents and omens and so on. It has structure. Purpose. You are not destined to anything. You are caught. Tangled in something that is new, immediate, and unforeseen. The happenings of the moment."
"How is that not destiny?"
"It just isn't. It's catastrophe... or not. Destiny includes outcome, this is just something very important that will happen and change everything or fizzle away without lasting impact, there is no sense of outcome here. Who can say what this thing is, but it is most certainly not destiny. Win, loose, or draw, whatever is going to happen involves you, and its important, and it doesn't tie in with anything else in this world."
"What am I supposed to do about it?"
"I have no idea."
"Why did you tell me?"
"Because I thought I should, its the only reason I could come up with for having seen you there."
"This is sure going to help me sleep..."
"Maybe that's the whole reason I was supposed to tell you. Who knows. I can tell you that the answer is not up there." Teila gestured skyward.
Morgan's feeling of dread was steadily growing and a second, more powerful, sickening and trapped feeling was quickly overtaking everything. With a sudden sagging snap something was inside his head. It felt like a tiny fist was clenching itself around an equally tiny part of is brain. Morgan reached for the wards around the astrolabe and then dug into the earth below him. He tapped a flow of the energy that comprised a fundamental feature of the realm and diverted it into the wards. The tiny fist didn't notice at all. After it finished, another appeared and began to close. Morgan flailed out seeking the source of the invasions but there was no power flowing to him from any source he could find.
The plucking and clutching feeling accelerated until it felt like someone was using a microscopic melon-baller to scoop his brain away one piece at a time. A thundering wave of blinding panic overtook him. Needing to escape, to be rescued, Morgan desperately needed to run, but he knew he couldn't. He knew he was trapped. It wasn't until he heard his own name called out from the core of that desperate need that he realized that these feelings were not actually his own.
Seth.
He was feeling Seth through the collar. It took almost everything he had, but he wrest his mind out of the grip of the band. Focusing on the band itself he could barely stand the forces it was emitting. When he had first used it he had willed it to amplify whatever it could. Before him Tor, more than once, and however many people he had taken it to, had probably done likewise. All piled up the spell was wound unbelievably tight. He pushed against it, commanding it toward silence.
When he had the spell back to manageable proportions, the keening wail of tearing distress was reduced from a mind-destroying avalanche to a simple, total imperative. He had to reach Seth immediately. Whatever was happening to him had to be stopped.
Knowing full well that if he hadn't been in the circle and under the discipline of the aotahe the back-blast of Seth's torment alone would have crushed his mind like a bug under a cart wheel, Morgan didn't hesitate to go to Seth.
Morgan dispatched the astrolabe and its wards without a thought, and stepped from the circle. He all but glided across the slate surface. When he reached the granite wall, he vanished.
He hadn't even known he had the talent for stone-walking. He had sent himself out looking for the shortest path to Seth and the stone had answered. The stones of the castle had once been part of a single mountain. They remembered being one, and each knew the faces that had rested against one another. Morgan's apparition appeared and vanished repeatedly throughout the keep, sometimes near a wall and sometimes in the middle of a room. Some rooms were visited more than once as he skipped, each stone a heartbeat, along the path through that onetime mountain from the stone of his first touch to the stone where Seth lay wracked in pain.
Partway there he finally felt his own pain. The skin on his left wrist was beginning to sear from the heated steel band. Remembering how he hadn't been able to get it off his wrist last time he didn't stop to try. As he passed through a flagstone in a small garden somewhere, he simply left the band behind, buried in the heart of the rock.
As soon as he arrived he knelt, sweeping his aotahe over Seth. Barley a touch of prev told him everything. There was no attack. The collar was suddenly taking hold. Instead of growing slowly over the course of weeks, the complete invasion was happening in seconds, tearing his mind and body as it went.
Morgan watched in horror as the individual tendrils reached out and blossomed. Sometimes they would collide with one of their peers, both would recoil and then try again. He tried everything he could think of to stop them but he couldn't. The collar fed from Seth's own life force, it was his energy. There was no difference between one and the other. Stranger, and worse still, the only pathway he could find to Seth was through the collar itself. Fortunately it wasn't searing hot the way the band had been. At a complete loss for anything else to do Morgan pulled Seth's head up against his chest and tried to hold it there so Seth wouldn't open his skull on the pavement as powerful spasms tore through his body.
The thing that frightened Morgan the most was that between wracking breaths Seth was making tiny, vague, barely audible whimpering noises.

* * *

After a few of the longest minutes of Morgan's life Seth was finally still. Frightened to look, Morgan forced himself to vrec. The spell had changed. The tiny fuzz balls were all huge, grown into a near solid interlocked mass of super-fine cottony tendrils. As he probed one he could feel Seth all through it. It was a totally different thing than before but it was also the same as it had always been.
Morgan let out a howl from the center of his being, screaming at the heavens in guilt and shame. This, what the collar's spell was now, was what he thought it had always been, each bundle bonded to Seth's body and mind. What it had been before was nothing. If he'd known what he was doing, what he'd been looking at; he could have just cut the spell free. The pathetic little anchors hadn't been large or deep enough to have threatened Seth in the slightest. The whole spell would have probably died at the first cut. Only now was the spell permanent.
After a time Morgan found his way far enough out of his guilt and self-directed fury to realize they were not alone. A slave, an older man, was standing near them. He was at attention or something.
Still cradling Seth's head against his bruised chest Morgan asked the man "What are you doing here?"
"I witnessed the incident my lord."
"And?"
"I have remained here as I am required sir."
Morgan didn't really know all that much about it, but he figured that there must be something in the imprinting holding the man there. "What happened?"
"We were talking my lord when he collapsed, then you arrived."
Not a terribly useful answer. Morgan was about to dismiss the man but changed his mind. "What were you talking about?"
"Those collars my lord."
Having heard Tor's stories about trying to get anything useful out of a slave, and not eager for a game of twenty questions, Morgan tried to phrase his next more usefully. "Tell me, starting at the beginning of the conversation and to the best of your recollection and ability, everything that was said on or near the subject of the collar."
The man thought for a moment. "Well into the conversation I asked this man what crime he had committed. He said he had committed no crime. I asked why then he was wearing that kind of collar. He asked what I meant. I told him that those collars were only for the most dangerous of men and usually they didn't live very long with them. He asked me to tell him what I could about the collars. I began to tell him the story of the only other person I had ever encountered who had one. I met the man when I was very young. He had..."
"Skip the details of the story, when did you notice he was having problems?"
"While I was telling him how that man had described having his handler take over and control his body, I noticed that this man was kind of wide-eyed. I stopped and asked him if he was all right. He started pulling at the collar like he was trying to take it off. I tried to calm his struggles and tell him it wouldn't do him any good, that it would kill him before it let him go, that I had seen that other man die trying to remove his collar. After a while he stopped struggling, the fight just went out of him and he sat down. I reassured him that he would be all right, that it was probably like the imprint, once he got used to it, it probably wouldn't really be that bad. A few moments later he began kind of shaking and then having a fit. Right about then you arrived and proceeded..."
Morgan cut him off. "That's enough." Blinking back tears Morgan tried to figure out what to do next. He had to get rid of this stranger and then do... something. "I am this man's owner. You have done well in your report and you may now go about your business. Your part in this is over."
"Yes lord." The man bowed deeply and left.
The key words kept circling around in Morgan's mind. "The fight just went out of him."
Morgan whispered to Seth. "Is that what happened? Did you just give up? Is that why it suddenly got hold of you?"
For just a moment a fist of impotent anger formed in him and he wanted to hit Seth, "You're the strongest person I've ever met. You wouldn't give up to anything!" And then it faded. "What did he say to you? What did you feel? why did you give up?" He began trembling and rocking back and forth a little. Afraid to move. Afraid to let go long enough even to go get help. Seth's eyes were open and unseeing. His entire body was slack and nearly lifeless.
"I'm sorry I wasn't here.
"I should have told you.
"You were winning. If I'd told you what I knew this wouldn't have happened.
"If I'd stayed with you you'd be okay.
"I'm sorry Seth.
"Do you hear me? I'm sorry"
That was all Morgan had left in him, guilt and sorrow. He just kept whispering "I'm sorry" to his friend over and over, at a loss for any other thoughts or feelings.

Chapter 12
Exigencies

Seth moved, well flinched really, but it was enough to bring Morgan back. For the better part of an hour he had been holding Seth and talking to him. Seth was still rag-doll limp. To his asense Seth felt like little more than blood-soaked moss. That slightest touch made Seth groan a deep and distant animal sound. He'd been ground up and wadded back together. Until he'd moved Morgan thought his brain might have been totally gone.
He didn't dare use power to move Seth, the added forces might tear him apart. Nobody was within easy earshot and he didn't want to yell with his talent. Mind work wasn't his strong suit, he couldn't seek out some nearby stranger and nudge them into coming to him the way some of his peers might. He decided to try for Teila, he'd held her power just an hour or so ago, he ought to be able to find her using a low enough power that it wouldn't backwash across Seth at all.
The thought was a picture, a sense of place that mapped to the secluded corner of the garden. He tacked on an imperative need and sealed it with his own power signature. He tied her power signature to the bundle of thought and slowly let it leak from him into the stone of the fortress. It could take hours to find its way through to her. He was counting on her being as sensitive to him as he had been aware of her. Gentile as it was, that thought sealed with his signature should hit her like a grating noise hits a hangover.
Sure enough, about fifteen minutes later Teila padded softly up the garden path. When she saw him lying there, protectively cradling Seth's head, she dropped the array of offensive and defensive power she had summoned.
"Please, can you help me? I need a litter and a quiet room away from everyone. He's... he may be..." Morgan couldn't bring himself to say anything.
She began to asense and Morgan could feel it coming. His aotahe was still charged and he gently pushed her away.
"Any touch could... please help."
She nodded and drifted away. She came back a little while later with a litter and four strong men to carry it. They were incredibly gentle getting Seth onto the litter. Morgan kept his aotahe wrapped around Seth as best he could, worming his way out of it so it would cover him better.
Nobody spoke and the men moved as if they were handling explosives. Morgan didn't realize they were scared to death of him. He didn't seem to realize anything except what was happening to Seth. Morgan had an almost insanely protective aspect and whenever they made the slightest misstep the look they'd get from Morgan was indescribable. On one occasion one of the litter poles struck a balustrade as they were working a tricky turn, Seth groaned and Morgan snapped his head up growling. The only thing that kept the men from bolting outright was the fear of what fate might befall them if they dropped the litter.
They finally got Seth safely to a large, soft bed. The men took their litter and beat a hasty retreat. Morgan thanked Teila, barely, and lay down next to Seth to keep the protective charge in the aotahe. If he lost physical contact with the silken garment it would lose power and Seth's ground up essence would be left exposed. Morgan could even sleep and maintain the psychic bandage, the discipline of the aotahe had been drilled into him night and day for years at the school.
Morgan thought he was too wound up to sleep but he was too drained to stay awake in the warm and silent room.

* * *

Oblivion, without dreams and without torment, passed into wakefulness with a snap.
Seth was still all but dead. Morgan checked him as gently as he could. His heartbeat was stronger and his asenses showed some firming of the pulpy mass that represented what was left of Seth. He knew he had to release the aotahe to get out of bed and he had to get out of bed in order to take care of Seth so he took his best shot at a substitute psychic bandage. It was adequate but no kind of masterwork. The profound feeling of guilt was at least manageable so Morgan arose.
Sharp pain in his back and a persistent throbbing around his left wrist greeted him. His wrist was alternately blackened and blistered where the control ring had seared into his flesh. His back was a complete surprise. When he finally got the blood-caked shirt off his back he found a jagged tear in his skin. He'd been lying on something sharp in the garden and he hadn't even noticed.
Almost as soon as he was clear of the shirt Teila walked in carrying a tray of food. "So how long do you think I'll be feeling your every move?"
"No idea, I never held anybody 'yetal before."
Teila put the tray down at a table and turned the low chair in front of it around. "Sit."
Morgan sat backwards in the chair and began stuffing himself with food while Teila summoned hot water into a clean rag and began cleaning the cut in his back. He was far hungrier than he thought.
"Thank you for helping us last night."
She chuckled a little, "Nonsense, it was the right thing to do, but don't expect any of those men to come running to your aid any time soon."
"Hua? Why?"
"You don't remember?" She leaned around to look him in the face. "You were..." she paused to search for a word "insane... last night."
An image of himself as they must have seen him rose in his mind. He dropped his head and then winced "Ugh. What an idiot, by now this place must be glowing with gossip. Apologize to them for me."
"I already did. As to gossip, they're good men who can hold their tongues, for a while at least. You need to get out of here as soon, and as quietly, as possible."
The other big news of the night came back to him and Morgan slunk lower, and then lower still. A big something happening and him being alone in it all made sense now. Seth was out of play and he was probably going to have to go on without him. Something he just wouldn't do.
"I won't leave him. I just wont."
"I don't doubt that. I saw you last night. I wouldn't try to get between you and him for all the gold there is."
"I'm going to have to though aren't I, your stars said so."
She let out a heavy sigh.
"They didn't say any such thing."
"Well he wasn't up there with me now was he?"
She went back to concentrating on his back for a while then said, "I see you still don't understand. It doesn't work that way. That planet could be an army, in fact it should be a kingdom given its significance. It seems to be you, but that could mean it's you and a band of others, it just doesn't say. If it is you alone, given how important he is to you, then one of the others could be him. They also just don't say."
"If he is one of the others then we are on different paths."
She harrumphed in an uncanny imitation of Morgan's mother. "Of course you are, If you were chained together for life you'd still be `on different paths', that's why it takes so long to learn Divination. If all that" she gestured upward vaguely "were just a game of connect the spots everybody'd be doing it. There you go."
She patted Morgan's back and he realized the pain was gone. She'd healed it while they were talking. He looked askance at her and she said "you can't make a living on just astrology, too much bad news and not enough details to get the bills paid."
They exchanged grins of a sort, Morgan's being too hag-ridden to count for much more than a good effort. "Uh, I don't suppose you could do anything for him."
"I'm sorry, no. I vrec'd him first. He's got a good deal of muscle strain and so on. Some small scale physical trauma to every part of his body in fact, but nothing large and particular enough to heal. All the real harm is metaphysical. I've seen that kind of psychic damage in victims of rape or torture, but that's usually a few profound tears caused by the uncontainable emotional energy of the experience. He looks like something went into him and shredded him on purpose..."
She stopped when she realized that Morgan had begun trembling and made a mental note to beat herself up later for her bad sickroom manners. She vrec'd Morgan and saw that he'd suffered a couple of pretty serious tears himself. There was no comparison to Seth's psychic injuries, but if she'd seen just Morgan she would have been plenty concerned. Mind healing could let her take down the swellings of volatile emotional energy, but she didn't dare try to redact Morgan. She was still to sensitized to his power, and he was clearly at least an order of magnitude more powerful than she was. Trying to touch his mind would be begging disaster to visit.
She opted for the centuries-old cure for emotional trauma. She'd try to get him to talk. It didn't take much, he was more than ready to let the guilt out. She knew he was editing something important out of his story, but in short order he got through the entire story of the collar. The gaps in the story, like why he had bought the man, were huge and obvious omissions, but she knew better than to push another mage to reveal details. If she pushed him at all he'd likely clam up and be unreachable.
At least the important parts were opened up. The strangely suppressed collar spell. His thoughts on how to remove it. The dammage the spell had seemed to suffer in the mountains. The shared experience of its sudden awakening. And finally Morgan's intense feelings of guilt. He blamed himself for not handling the collar correctly. Worse, he blamed himself for withdrawing from the link and allowing Seth to suffer alone.
The control-ring burn on Morgan's arm was most strange. Seth showed no signs of burning so it wasn't a normal side effect of the spell's awakening. When she tried to heal the burn she found it resistant to her touch. It'd have to heal naturally.
Her final judgment was that both men were devastated. In a way the unconscious one was the luckier, he'd heal however well he could, but it would likely be a long time before Morgan stopped tearing himself open with guilty self recrimination. If he let it cut into him too deep or too long it might eat him away physically. If it breached any of his power centers... that would be a gruelingly slow and ugly death.
The two most immediate needs were to get the mage back onto his horse, so to speak, and to get both of them out of the city as soon as possible. They needed to be somewhere private and safe if they were going to heal. Neither of them were up to a long trip ahorse, so it would have to be magic. Nobody but Morgan was going to get any kind of power near Seth, at least not if Morgan was really anything like the man she had seen last night. It would have to be Morgan doing the apport or it wasn't going to happen.
Besides, in the name of rampant self preservation, it was best for her if they left. Strange circumstances were starting to coalesce around them and a little distance from them probably wouldn't do her anything but good.
"Morgan, do you have somewhere safe you can take him?"
"Just back home."
"That's at the school I take it." Not good, but better that than stay this close to the royals'. "Private suite?"
"House cut into a hillside."
"You live alone?"
"No, with really good friends."
"Even better, you have to get him home... today if you have the strength and means, otherwise things are going to get complicated."
Teila took Morgan on a short tour of her reasoning, a not unconvincing list of reasons that it would be best if he got away from court as soon as possible. The centerpiece of her argument was their notoriety. Once it was out that Seth was injured there was no way half the kingdom wouldn't find out about it. Whatever was afoot, and she didn't want to know anything in the way of details, having a gaping public weakness wouldn't help his cause. Morgan's protests that he wasn't involved in anything fell on deaf ears, she knew people pretty well and she had appreciated his complete lack of surprise at some of her intimations in the observatory. Morgan surrendered to her inescapable logic.
"Is there a portal here in the city that I can use?"
"'Fraid not, besides if there were you wouldn't want to use it, it would stay focused where you went and make you too easy to follow." She didn't want to injure his ego, given his fragile state, so she didn't say anything further on the subject. Part of her wanted to scream at the guy. Whatever his game, if he didn't learn to think things through a little better he was going to lose. Details unknown, she instinctively knew he was the right side to be backing.
"Without a portal I have no idea how to get him home."
"Teleport."
"I don't know how."
"You did a pretty good imitation of it last night."
"I was stone walking, and I don't even know how I did it, or if I can do it again."
She raised an eyebrow at him. A mild response since only dwarves and gnomes were ever known to have that talent.
He shrugged, "Twelfth generation miner."

* * *

After considerable conversation Morgan set bindings and wards around Seth and the room he occupied, and then let Teila lead him back to the garden where Seth had been struck down. The place stank of Morgan's power signature, and he spent some time clearing the worst of it. During the clearing he found the gnarled tree root that had gouged his back open; it didn't have any of his blood on it so he left it alone.
When he couldn't find any other way to avoid it, he finally addressed the flagstone he had used to get there the previous evening.
There wasn't anything peculiar about it but he knew it was the one. He could all but taste its mineral tang in the back of his throat. Paying more attention than he had last night, Morgan reached for the stone and hoped the instinct would return.
At first he felt nothing different in the stone than he had felt from any number of other material components he had used in the course of his training. It felt just so. It vibrated this way and that. It had temperature, mass, weight, color and any number of properties. In simplest terms it was nothing special, and yet he could feel some difference.
Then everything changed. It was like one of those tricky visual pictures where one moment you see one thing, and the next you see something totally different. A subtle change of mental landscape. Stone became like empty space and everything outside the stone became a solid something else. He was mentally inside a tiny space. From there he could feel the air above the flagstone and the dirt surrounding it on every other side.
Superior to, but more distant than the feelings of the stone's immediate environment, was a feeling of comradeship with its companion stone. Everywhere around him were stones, the larger the stone the easier it was to sense. Fortunately the sand, grit, and other tiny fragments caused by things like polishing and erosion were too small to sense. The golden question was `which way?' He'd expected a pathway like he kind of remembered from the night before. What he had was a three-dimensional space of stone that didn't even have anything to do with real world orientation.
After what felt like an age, Morgan realized that he could feel an echo of himself in the stone. That echo was the him he had been the night before. The overwhelming worry and need he'd felt for Seth was different than the basic concern and guilt he was feeling now. The strength of those feelings marked a path through the stony space. If he had felt any less intense the night before he wouldn't have been able to distinguish himself now from himself then, and he'd have become lost.
He mentally hopped to the first adjacent stone in the path, felt the exposed side of the stone, and pulled his body into that space, not exactly sure how he managed it. He repeated the process several times before he realized that he didn't have to move his body every time. Mentally hopping from stone to stone was much less tiring after that. He came to the stone containing the ring and found it cold and quiet. When he tried to touch it, it flared to life, so he drew himself away.
His mission had two parts, clear the stones of his influence and retrieve the ring. He set himself to the former task first. He completed the journey to the observatory roof and then began withdrawing stone by stone, clearing himself from each one as he went. When he got back to the stone containing the ring he looked out from the stone and found an empty patio tucked into a niche between two buildings in the older keep. At least he thought he was still in the keep. He pulled his body into that space, and then went about clearing the remaining stones.
Working from the garden pathway flagstone back to the niche he cleared each stone until the only stone with his signature was the one with the ring embedded in it.
Morgan stepped from the stone back into his own body. His head was full of stony echoes, memories of seasons gone past. Things that fit within him as a stone but were crushing and ponderous for a man. It took him some time to find a place for the mountain within his mind. It finally found its place in his head right next to that other mountain from his past.
Everything clicked together. That other mountain was what had introduced him to stone so intimately.
Why the control ring was rejecting him was another matter entirely. Not that he really had any interest in touching it now that it was working. Before, the violation represented by the collar was just that, a representation, it hadn't really been anything. Now the deepest essence of Seth would belong to whomever possessed the ring. It created an invasion of body and a suppression of mind unequaled in magic. With that ring he could put on Seth's body like a glove and listen in on his whole mind. When applied to a human it completely removed all the elements of the victim's privacy and self control at the absolute whim the owner.
The spell was vital for the use and control of the triphariad, a sub-sentient shape changing species, but Morgan, staring down at the patio, fervently wished it had never been invented. Since it had been, he wished he could just leave it buried in the stone, but then anybody who found it could... he didn't even want to think of it. The only way Seth would be safe is if Morgan kept the ring safe.
Finding no way to directly touch the ring Morgan decided to leave it encased in stone. He blew a bubble in his mind and sent it into the stone. When it was deep in the heart of the stone he stretched it into a gracefully-smooth elliptical lozenge that surrounded the ring. Then he let the lozenge of stone rise to the surface while he pushed an identical shape of air into the stone.
When he was finished he had the ring, encased in a wrapper of native rock, leaving a flaw deep in the foundation stone that nobody was ever likely to find. He cleared the foundation of his signature, and slipped the smooth, extra dense slug of rock into his belt pouch.

* * *

Only when he broke discipline did he realize how spent he was. He hadn't overdrawn himself like the first day of the trip, but he had run a good bit of energy through his system. A good bit of the vital energies had now were from outside sources, making them slightly alien and unresponsive. It was like he was and was not tired at the same time. A few minutes rest would give his systems a chance to tune the foreign energies to his needs and make them his own.
He set himself down on a old stone bench on the patio. It had clearly been there for centuries, and its permanence felt soothing to his rock-filled mind. Unwilling to suffer under the burden of guilt, Morgan's deeper mind lulled him into the dream of stone. He sat in the courtyard for a while, feeling the sun warm him body and soul, when a tiny recognition soaked into him. He could feel echoes of his family in the bench. Not his parents, brothers, sisters and such; He could feel Mieka, Liane, and Shiea as if they were sitting right near him.
He jumped up like he had been burned.
When he looked at the bench he was sitting on he recognized it immediately. Not that he had seen the very bench he'd been sitting on before. He recognized the workmanship. He had four benches just like it sitting on his patio back at home, and he mistrusted the coincidence.
Pacing back and fourth in the tiny courtyard Morgan tried to think things through. Clearly Queens College and Queens Landing were connected by more than a collateral name. Some nine other places within the nearest several hundred miles had the appellation "Queens" in common. The argument about exactly which historical queen or queens were involved was legend. How likely was it that there would be something from his house that matched something from a keep eleven days distant?
That all depended on who's house they had found and moved into.
It had been cut into that hillside at considerable effort or expense. Its very uniqueness was probably why it hadn't been occupied for several centuries, nobody had even known it was there when Mieka had first found it. The private little valley with its otherwise inaccessible beauty spoke of a certain level of affluence on the part of the original owner. It did make some sense that a powerful person who'd had cause to be in both the college and the keep might have funded some commission to have the benches made and one set shipped the distance to the other location. The rich and the powerful were peculiar about that self-indulgent kind of waste.
The immediate threat seemed minimal, but the general good fortune of the convenience just couldn't be passed up no matter how odd and unlikely. The affinity between the stone benches would give him a perfect way to get Seth home.
Morgan was about to cast himself back into the paving stone when he realized that he'd erased his trail. He'd have to find his way back through the keep the old fashioned way.
One of the benches had cracked under the stress of repeated freezing every winter; he worked a wedge of rock loose from the bench and slipped it into another pouch.

* * *

The only doorway leading from the private patio would have been wedged permanently shut by debris if it hadn't long ago decayed away to nothing. The same could be said for everything else in the small suite of rooms. They seemed empty of any sign of humanity.
Morgan realized that wasn't quite true when he found three perfectly preserved, bound books. He recovered the books from their damp tomb and put them next to one of the stone benches so he wouldn't forget them. Then he re-assayed the room with his asenses, finding echoes of power deep in one pile of dust and leaves.
It was a body, or at least what was left of one that had lain exposed to weather for several centuries.
He pawed his way through the rest of the suite, looking for the door, only to realize that the chamber didn't have one. Turning his eyes skyward he found a subtle enchantment of disinterest lining the cornices of the buildings that closed in this patio. The gap between the roofs was probably seen often but quickly forgotten as insignificant by the viewers. Few ever probably got as far as looking down into the opening let alone wondering how to get into the space.
The story came clear to him. He was in the private quarters of some mage that had sealed his rooms against intrusion. Rooms that had been built with no door common to the rest of the castle. That same mage had died, no doubt peacefully, here in his room; the rest of the world believing him disappeared for some mysterious reason of his own. With his rooms sealed away as if they'd never existed, nobody had ever come to find the body.
The rooms were, no doubt, wedged between some parts of the keep that were never used together. That's how Morgan would have chosen them anyway. That way nobody would ever have cause to be on each side of them in close succession, and thereby led to wonder at the inaccessible space. If it weren't for the piecework nature of paving and roofing a large structure in stone, this sanctuary would have likely gone undiscovered until the keep had been leveled.
Listening through the stone Morgan found a small armory storage area on one side and some servant's quarters on another, he skipped the other two walls, choosing to drift through the wall into the armory.
It was small and not recently used, no doubt reserved for some noble purpose when the Queen's Writ was coming to ascendancy. Having had several kings in a row, and currently holding a male heir, the kingdom's many lands and deeds held exclusive to a hereditary queen were suffering from a lack of patronage. Queens College was a fortunate exception, there being no Kings College to steal its thunder. For Morgan the ascendancy of the male line was good fortune since it let him pass into the better used portions of the keep without being noticed.
Even with his line to Seth's psychic bandage as a guide, it took Morgan several hours to find his way through the twisting bowels of the castle without attracting unwanted attentions.

Chapter 13
Returns

Morgan had arranged for Teila to send his horse and most of their belongings off to the school by messenger. Teila herself was hiding deep in the basements of the keep, sensitized as she was to Morgan's power, she would likely be struck unconscious even at that insulated distance when he made his attempt. He decided against trying to bring any of their suff along in the apport. He had to risk the messenger and the gossip. As it was the teleport was going to be a chore and a half if he could even figure out how to do it.
When he had gotten back to the room he'd made an abortive attempt to carry Seth home. He'd discovered that stone walking was a more personal matter than he'd suspected. The discipline that had come to him so easily couldn't, or at least wouldn't given what he knew, carry more than himself and his intimate possessions.
He'd used a portal exactly once, a necessary part of his education, and had never seen any in-depth discussion of direct teleportation in any of the writings at the school. Common myth had mages teleporting too and fro at whim, but remote travel without some kind of portal, if it had ever been done, wasn't something any mage had ever shared with posterity.
What he was going to attempt, an impromptu ritual casting of a direct teleport, was based solely on insights he'd taken from comparing his memory of the one portal he'd used to stone-walking. The ritual he'd concocted was going to be messy. The core of a spell has to dissipate all the energy components it does not use. A good, well closed spell incorporates all the elements necessary to do that. An instant spell requires the caster to simply drown those forces with personal energy. Morgan was going to do something in-between, he didn't have time to invent a fully closed the spell and he didn't have the resources to swallow the backlash. He was going to cast an open spell, just push the waste energy away and let the chips fall where they may.
It was going to be the kind of magic common folk think of. The kind used by desperate sorcerers near the end of a duel. Thunder, lightning, earthquake, whatever. The actual casting would only last a second, not nearly enough time to cause any real damage. More important, not long enough for anybody to put together, extend, and lock any kind of probe to trace him.
The preparations had taken all afternoon.
He'd found a fetish-monger just off the central market, an old woman with the genuine gift and a superbly light touch. Since this wasn't going to be a lasting enchantment using components that someone else had touched wasn't an issue, they were expected to explode, besides he didn't have a choice. The old woman couldn't cast her own way out of a damp fog but her creations were well made and as thoroughly clear as any mongered components he'd ever touched. He'd paid seventeen gold for a brace of herb-scented tallow candles, a shallow wooden bowl, and a large block of chalk. A good price and merchandise almost clear enough to use direct. She had a few other items that she'd made, or collected, that he'd have loved to buy, but he didn't happen to have the seven years salary that the cheapest cost.
Back in the room he'd moved the bed into the middle of the room so he could get around it. After tuning the components to himself, he summoned clear water into the bowl, added a few drops of his own blood, and began his casting. Using every scrap of the components he'd brought from home in addition to the purchased stuff, he inscribed a pentariad on the floor. Three internal and one external zobaelest in the pattern would respectively focus on him, Seth, the fiew things he'd had to keep with them, and the spell books he'd left on the patio. The candles, several small piles of herbs and grasses, splashes of water here and there, and some river stones, each tied to him with a drop of his blood to improve the sympathetic bond, were placed throughout the chalk and charcoal drawing.

* * *

Morgan took up each element in the pentariad in his mind, setting each of the 63 points, twelve arcs and 27 lines to their purpose. He set each focus and locked it with a geasairia, personal compulsions set on himself that would take hold when the ritual was complete. He dedicated various physical pathways of his mind and body in order to channel the energies of the spell; sealing them away from himself until they recovered. To hold himself he would not eat for a night and a day. To hold their belongings he would not carry any weight for three days. For the books he would not comprehend the written word for a week. For Seth he would exercise no power nor vrec nor prev for four days.
He hadn't expected to spend so much to hold Seth, but when he'd tried to reach into his injured mind he'd found the living kernel of Seth'sessence to be inordinately hard to surround and contain. It'd taken his entire emotional bond to the man and the strong geasairia to make anything even remotely like a firm connection. At the last it had felt like something outside his control had relented in order for the bond to form.
He'd been planing to use his power as the geasairia to span the distance to his home. The only remaining thing that fit in the spell construct was motion. Morgan bound a life and death element into the pentariad both for the needed power and for the protection it would offer. To link the spell through the stone to the distant garden at his home and fend off any threatening influences, he tied down his entire motor nerve system. He would be completely paralyzed, unable to breathe and without heartbeat for just under two minutes when he arrived, if nothing went wrong. Without his power to compensate after the fact, the sacrifice was more than slightly dangerous.
He didn't have a choice.
With a touch of fire from his mind the candles were alight and the small piles of herbs were smoking vigorously. He held the stone wedge out over the shallow bowl of water and reached through it to find one of the stone benches in his yard at home. From inside that distant stone he looked out, pinning the pertinent parts of the pentariad into exact place. Returning his awareness back into his body, he took six hard deep breaths, hyperventilating himself nearly unconscious, trying to store up enough air for the next few minutes.
He dropped the stone into the water with a plop, triggering the spell.
In the split second of translation the candles burned down and out in a single eruption of flame, releasing the life energy stored within their animal fat composition in a singular surge. The chalk of the pentariad lifted from the floor and writhed with momentary life as it strained to change from a description of origin into the shape of destination. The herbs flashed to smoke and fragrance imparting an element of structure and memory to the flowing force from the candles. The river stones fell to dust, their solidity, elemental structure, and locatedness consumed. The water evaporated, bringing departure. The bowl's only contribution had been simply to hold the water, but it was consumed in the back-blast along with most of the bed, as the unbalanced energy of the spell sought out expression.
At each terminus of the spell lightning flashed and the earth shook a little. Both Queens Landing and Queens College, and who knows how many other places in the realm, would be having unexpected and quite severe storms with rain and unusually large hail. The door of the room in the keep was blown out, and most of the glass in most of the windows at his house were blown in. As each of the geasairia channels opened, the intense flows of energy started, and Morgan felt himself lose those dedicated capacities; that's when he realized that he probably should have shut his eyes.

* * *

In transit Morgan could feel the target stone draining energy from his spell. The benches were part of some construct that was still intact and very near the house. The construct was an interesting piece of information. The energy loss was cause for panic. Every iota of energy lost in transit would stretch the geasairia channels, making the spell take more time, and leaving him used up and paralyzed longer afterwards. Worse in many ways, he felt Seth's mind twisting and, kind of... crunching, under the stress of transport. It was, of course, far too late to do anything about anything.

* * *

When he fell backward his head struck the paving with considerable force. He was partly hoping that it would knock him out but no such luck. Eyes frozen open looking into the sky, Morgan wondered if he were dead. He wouldn't know until he breathed or died. At least, he thought, if he died he wouldn't have to wake up and find out that he'd killed Seth. Not that he knew for sure Seth had even made the transit. He'd lost the last of his asense about halfway through. All he could do was listen to his heart not beating and his lungs not breathing while the stone lay hard under his back and the rain began pelting his open eyes.
As a silent red haze began frosting over his vision and he began screaming in his head trying to wake his body to life, he thought he heard Mieka call out his and Seth's names. He blacked out, only to find himself sitting up spasmodically and sucking in an aching, huge breath of air. He was inside on a couch. Liane was next to him clutching her forehead where their heads struck when he'd unexpectedly sat up. Mieka was still struggling against the wind, and the ruined door, trying to haul Seth inside. Liane slapped Morgan's shoulder once, hard, in annoyance; all Morgan could think of was air and the crushing spasms in his heart.

* * *

Things didn't settle down inside or out for quite some time. With Seth inside and Morgan back from the dead, Liane and Mieka set about covering over as many shattered windows as they could. The two bedrooms were quickly protected by heavy blankets nailed over the broken windows. Where that wouldn't work they moved what they could away from the open side of the house. The blast had been centered at the north end of the patio, sparing the studio, and the valuables it contained, from more massive damage. Only the den, Shiea's room, Mieka's lab, and the bath room were wholly safe, being on the other side of the hallway and so without windows.
Morgan was as useless as Seth. He thought he'd managed to avoid any kind of backlash, but he couldn't be sure. Stripped of his power and weak as a kitten because of the geasairia, and struck by migraine from the lack of oxygen and the subsequent spike in blood pressure, he could do little more than wish he were dead.

* * *

Morgan struggled to his feet and went to check on Seth. Oddly the trip seemed to have done him some good. His eyes were open and he looked like he might be in there for the first time since the trauma. He still wasn't moving or talking but there was some kind of intensity to the way his eyes were tracking Morgan's face. At least he hoped so. He talked to him a little, generally trying to let him know he was safe, worried over, and missed.
When what could be done had been done, Mieka and Liane came to Morgan for answers.
Morgan made one quick pass at everything that directly led up to his and Seth's respective conditions including what he knew of Seth's collaring and then started retelling everything that had happened on the trip starting with his first attempt at the collar. It took several hours to go over everything and get through their questions and suppositions. By the time he finished it was nearly midnight. Seth was asleep, not just unconscious, and Morgan was ready to join him. He got Mieka to move a chair near the couch so that he could be there when Seth woke up. He was barely settled when sleep overtook him.

* * *

Day two got off to an inauspicious start when most of the house was wakened by a prolonged squeal of utter surprise from Liane. As was her morning habit, she'd gotten into the tub and opened the sluice to enjoy a nice rush of hot water. What she got was an acrid dousing from a bone-chilling mountain spring in early winter. She was not happy. In short order a groggy Mieka got fires set and going in the main hearth and the kitchen stove while Morgan explained again about his blocked attributes.
Liane put on a robe and began planning a large breakfast while the stove heated up; it was still fairly warm out during the day so with Morgan's power out the food in the cold cupboard was going to go bad if they didn't eat it. The rest of the morning was full of similar realizations for Liane and Mieka. Morgan had bound and ensorceled more around the house than any of them had ever realized. He was also no help as labor either to replace the missing comforts nor to repair the damaged windows. Beyond that, Seth was infirm and impaired, unable to see to even his most basic needs; something else Morgan was physically too weak to assist with.
An impromptu family conference was called right there in the living room. Liane, more wily than Morgan had previously given her credit for, started by making the point that they had to make sure nobody knew that Morgan and Seth were back, let alone completely incapacitated. A plan, Liane's plan, was quickly laid out. Morgan would watch Shiea, keep the fires going, cook, and do what he could for Seth. He had no strength, but he had enough energy to keep up with the little girl and do the cooking. Liane and Mieka would get Morgan's bed out of his room and set it up in the living room near the hearth. Once they got Seth changed and set up in the bed they'd go out and get the supplies necessary to put weather resistant canvas hangings over the windows. In the longer run everything would be relatively in order by the end of the day, and Morgan would have his power back in three days.
The plan generally worked out, Liane and Mieka even managed to teach their sections without incident. Once Seth was awake they got him sitting up. Even though he still couldn't seem to move of his own volition he was watching everything that happened in the house with an almost frightening intensity. Once Shiea understood that Seth was sick, she decided that she was going to "better" him, and spent the rest of the day contentedly explaining her world to him with lots of gestures and visual aides, namely her toys. By the evening she was exhausted and Seth was picking at and studying all the toys. Morgan, on the other hand, had a completely miserable day.
He really only had two things to do; worry about Seth and mull over everything that had happened to him since those books came into his life. Things had been moving pretty fast, when they were moving at all, and for all the concern and consternation he'd not had a chance to really think. The kind of thinking that you can only do when you are either in complete control, or completely helpless. Late on that first day Morgan came to grips with his helplessness. The knowledge that it was temporary having little mitigating value when he was standing there faced with a note he couldn't read. The surrender to that helplessness was clarifying.
His mood had begun devolving in an intellectual way, playing mind games with himself about "his sacrifice" and the self styled nobility of it. Morgan was too honest, or to smart, to fool himself that his motive to that sacrifice had been far above fear. Self protective layers, as they will from time to time, began peeling away from themselves until he was, at least a little, exposed to himself. Even that imagery served to protect him from too much truth to quickly. When he had Shiea put down for an afternoon nap and Liane and Mieka were away, Morgan felt the bubble of depression that had been building up all day rise out of his chest and burst.
He remembered his ignorance. The memory came from his other life. He'd been working in the mine that day, like he had almost every other day, but he and his friends had arranged to have some time to themselves after work. It was late afternoon and they were all half watching the sunset and talking about their plans for the future. Looking back, the reach of their aspirations had been so tiny, dreaming of running the shift, becoming a foreman, or even breaking out of the underground and becoming a master smith. Those had been the biggest people in their world. When the sun finally began to break up and dissipate for the night, one of the guys had gestured vaguely at the sky and said "You ever wonder how it works?" He'd scoffed at the guy, said "No" in a way that called the guy an idiot for thinking about something so pointless, and then shoved him just hard enough to tip him off the rock he'd been sitting on. A mostly playful scuffle ensued to both blow off some steam and to suppress that alien thought from their common lives.
Remembering that clean, almost virginal and predestined ignorance filled Morgan with awe. Looking up at the person he'd become since then he couldn't really recognize himself. He could go back to his home, find that guy and tell him exactly how the sun worked and any number of other things, and that other man wouldn't understand him at all. For the first time he wanted to hold that iron ingot because he finally understood what his father had been trying to tell him. The things he had learned in the last fifteen or so years were huge, and they had killed and buried the ignorant lug that he had originally been destined to become. Worse, and better, even given all he knew, he was huge.
The stone walking and the teleport were unprecedented. That he'd repeated the first and then literally thrown the second together based on it was... impossible was to big a word... but not by much. It was something way too big to have come from him. And still he could already think of ways that he could do it better. Closing the spell so that it didn't plunge a quarter of the continent into stormy darkness every time he used it would be a breeze. More, perhaps a different component here, sending more raw power there, and given a little time to think it through, he could probably make the spell nearly an instant, something to be cast with barely a word or gesture. He knew he could do that, and that was simply too big.
His talent was simply too broad. He'd never read anything about the kind of power he seemed to have. Granted, magi are not always truthful about what they can and can not do, but the difference between what he had done and what was supposed to be so easily doable was immense. Sitting there without it, he could see that he had never really plumbed the depths of his abilities. Ideas began to tumble around in his head about how far he might be able to go, and as he followed those thoughts along a new kind of thrilling fear began to make itself known to him.
He was afraid of himself. Looking at his power from the outside was sobering. It was just as well that he wouldn't have it back for a few days. If it'd been lying around ready to use when these realizations hit he might have tried to draw deeply on it without thinking. Mages more experienced than he had killed themselves, and in the process leveled buildings bigger than his house, by reaching for more power than they could grasp.
When he tried to push away those thoughts he found himself thinking about the long-dead mage who had carved that little niche out of the keep. The mage must have had a lot to do with his house. The idea that the house might, for ill or good, be hiding something took root in his brain. He began to pace out the different parts of the house first with his mind and then with his feet. There was something there all right, but he couldn't quite make himself see it.
As soon as he would manage to clear one of these lines of thought from his head the other would rise up and grab at his attention. The due consideration of his own, fearful magnitude and the mystery of the house grew to occupy nearly all of his higher processes. He became moody and distant, almost as hard to reach as Seth. He did his work and took excellent care of both Seth and Shiea, but he was also nearly a stranger to everyone.
For three more days he all but haunted the house.

Chapter 14
Recoveries

Morgan's power came back in a rush, like a cairn of dried Winterdark trees set ablaze.
It came back with a headache on its heels. Four days hadn't quite been long enough a block for the channels to heal so they squirmed and surged as they came back to life. He sagged to his knees, eyes watering, while the channels rediscovered their connections and nestled back into place in his mind. He wasn't sure if it had just been his recent musings but the channels themselves seemed larger than before. Within seconds his thoughts returned to Seth.
Moments later he was settling in at the foot of Seth's bed for a protracted scan. Seth hadn't continued to improve after that first day. He still seemed to be trying to understand his surroundings with all his might, but he wasn't really getting anywhere. As soon as he got a look into Seth he understood why. Metaphysically Seth was bent up and stuck together by the bindings of the collar. It was like someone had taken a fine garment, wadded it up, and then put random stitches in and through the wad to keep it shaped in a crude lump. Now that he'd healed enough to be safe to probe, it was obvious that all of his physical channels were crossed up and bleeding energy into one another. Nothing would be able to pass through that mess and make any sense.
Morgan dropped a line into the earth to keep his energy up and began to work on Seth. The process was incredibly slow. He would seek out a tangled channel and then identify the binding node of the collar spell that was holding the tangle closed, and snuff it out. He'd gotten the idea from when he'd seen the spell damaged. If he held both ends of the strand together he could pop the node like a grape and it would heal into a solid strand. Of course he'd always check to see if the node was the start of the strand, but he didn't get that lucky. The individual nodes would eventually re-grow themselves but if he could get Seth straightened out enough they would grow the way they should have in the first place.
He did just over seven hours of work on Seth in that first sitting, rising out of the trance only once to tell Mieka what he was doing and hand off the responsibility of watching Shiea. Every time he popped a node Seth would twitch or groan. At the end of that session Seth had regained essentially unimpeded access to his sensory and motor centers. There was plenty of more work to be done but Morgan couldn't take the concentration and emotional strain any longer. To the plus, the prospects were excellent that Morgan might be able to remove the collar by the time he managed to finish. More than half the nodes in the collar were involved in bad implantation in Seth. That meant that there was a fifty percent chance that he'd come across the initial node while he cleared the tangles. The bad bindings would act as markers of which nodes hadn't been checked. If the initial node was one of the bad bindings he could find it, memorize where it lay in Seth's physiology, rest up, then go right to it fresh and ready to destroy the spell.
Just after he finished that first grueling session he reached out to touch Seth to say he was done for now. The man didn't grin but he did let out a long breath and fall almost instantly to sleep. The whole thing must have been like slow torture and Morgan hadn't dared allow any kind of emotion to pass between them. Even that had been a kind of strain, being unfeeling was hard work no matter how much it was necessary. He needed to do something simple to relieve his mind.

* * *

Morgan went into the small private vale just off his porch and sought out a couple of small clear stones. The little unassuming lumps of granite would make excellent spell locks. The enchantment took only moments, and again he wondered at how easy it was to perform enchantments, the skill having been hidden from him for so long. These locks were only the second and third complete enchantments he'd cast in his entire life and yet the strictures flowed in him as if he'd done it a million times before.
The spell locks were, of course, a cheat. With a lock he could cast a simple transient ensorcellment and tie the open strand he would normally need to maintain into the lock. The lock would keep the spell open like a full enchantment until he, or any other mage that cared to, lifted the lock out of the spell. When that happened the spell and the lock would be lost. A cheat yes, but a very useful cheat. Sometimes the art in magic was more about finding the loophole than solving the problem.
With his spell locks in hand he returned to the house and reset the spells that heated and filtered the water and kept the cold box cold. Since the spells, now that they would be locked, wouldn't be any kind of drain on him he embellished them. It was kind of a first play with his newly appreciated capacities. There wasn't much more to be done with the water heating, hot water was hot water after all, he simply applied it to every sluice in the house and set it up so that it would respond to the reasonable will of the operator; within safe limits the water would run at any temperature desired. This simple cold box spell became a zoned temperature maintainer. Every part of every room in the house would get no hotter and no colder than was comfortable, with the exception of the one cupboard, most of which would stay nicely chilled and a small part of which would be freezing cold. This spell too would respond to the occupants within reason. He set the spell locks, one just above the bath sluice and the other just inside the kitchen. They quickly phased into their respective spells and he felt the burden of maintenance lift away from him. The work was so complete that, if he died, the spells would even keep on working until the mass of the stones had been consumed. The small stones were still visible, and appeared solid, but could not be touched except by an adept; anyone and anything else would pass right through the small apparitions.
The spells were subtle and complex, and represented a substantial outlay of power, and they had flowed out of him virtually without effort. The fear came back on him for a moment. There were no examples of this kind of power anywhere else in the school or it's library. He'd worked into the late hours of the night and he decided to sleep on his issues. In the morning he'd talk to Liane and Mieka; they would have a good healthy perspective. He decided to leave a note telling them that the hot water was back, forgetting until he had actually set quill to velum that he couldn't remember how to make any letter in the alphabet, he spent several minutes trying to resurrect enough memory to draw a simple arrow but couldn't tell if it was successful. Deciding that either they would figure it out or he could tell them when he woke, he settled into the couch next to the bed occupied by Seth.

* * *

Morgan woke to find Seth's bed empty and stripped of it's bedclothes. Startled awake he looked about the house. The bedclothes were soaking in the sink and he found Seth on the porch, exercising.
"Seth! You're all right!" He leapt at the giant and wrapped his arms around him in relief.
Seth didn't really respond and Morgan let go of him and stepped back. "Seth?"
The man blinked at him placidly like a farm animal trying to comprehend the farmer. Morgan didn't know what he expected; when he'd stopped the night before Seth had still been a tangled mess. What he'd accomplished this morning was remarkable, all things considered. For the first time in five days Morgan felt that eventually he'd see the old Seth again. He hugged him again and felt him wince.
A quick vrec showed him that Seth, the real Seth deep down, was struggling against the improper bindings, and some of them were lifting free a little. He didn't know how to tell him not to tear at them like that. Whenever he said or did anything Seth's incomprehension made him struggle harder. He patted the man reassuringly and went back into the house, giving Seth the chance to work out what he could in his exercise and hoping it didn't greatly reduce his chance of breaking the spell outright.

* * *

Morgan managed a nice hot bath before Seth finished or the others woke. He didn't take a long soak because the pressure of his thoughts was beginning to ride him like a hagfish. Seth padded quietly through the house shortly after Morgan finished his bath, then passed back outside with an armload of clean but soggy bedding.
Liane and Mieka enjoyed a particularly intimate shared bath. An occasional exuberance that Morgan had grown used to over the years. By the time they were finished Morgan had shown unusual morning industry and had prepared breakfast. He went outside to fetch Seth and found him trying to wield his staff. He was doing terribly. Morgan barked out his name, Seth started and dropped the weapon. When he turned around he had a bruised knot on his forehead.
"Come in for breakfast."
Seth stood there uncomprehendingly, frustration plain on his face.
"Seth? Can you understand me?"
The blank stare continued unabated but the frustration visibly built toward fear.
Morgan walked over, slipped his hand up to the back of Seth's neck, pulled his head down and gently pressed their foreheads together. It was the kind of gesture he'd learned for dealing with some animals in distress. It largely worked. He led Seth into the house and sat him down for Breakfast.
The meal turned into yet another impromptu family meeting and from there into a kind of general therapy session. Morgan kind of dumped his concerns about his rising abilities on Liane and Mieka. He had to stop several times and reassure Seth, who didn't even recognize his own name when it was spoken. When he'd finished disgorging what had been bothering him for those last few days Liane jumped in first.
"Are you saying you're going to blow us all up?"
"No, of course not. I'm just worried that I'm becoming something..."
Mieka cut him off, "Forget that, it's not like you're losing your mind or something, you are just really good at what you do."
"I don't think you understand..."
Liane: "What's to understand, you could maybe level the school with a thought, maybe you can only mess up the weather and break all the glass out of the windows. Both are really big and neither makes you someone you aren't already."
"But what if it goes to my head and ..."
Mieka: "We've both known you for years, it isn't going to your head, except to get you all itchy about things."
The conversation proceeded along those same lines until Liane got tired of the whole thing and pointedly mentioned that Morgan had more pressing problems to solve, namely Seth. Morgan was as sure that he hadn't managed to get his point across to his friends, as his friends were sure that he'd figure out what to do about himself in good time. He felt a little better for the effort even if they didn't seem at all concerned.
Morgan took Seth over to the couch and got him to lie down. He reached in, checked and popped the first binding, and then came back out. He did his best to make Seth understand that that had been him, and when he figured he'd gotten that through as far as it was going to get he went at the bindings in earnest. Morgan decided that he could go another seven hours that day, and have two more days like it before he'd finished pulling the bad bindings.
Just over four hours into the session everything changed. Seth's inner strength took over and he ruptured nearly all the remaining bad bindings in a single massive spasm. Even as Morgan went after the last one or two he felt Seth seize him in a ferocious hug.
Morgan came back to himself and pried his way out of the man's grip.
"Are you okay now?"
Seth reached for words but didn't have any. His brow furrowed and he looked like he was going to explode from effort.
"Wait, wait..." Morgan locked eyes with him. "Can you understand me at least?"
Seth tried to speak again.
"Just nod your head or something."
He paused and nodded his head.
"Good. You've been through a lot and you're still pretty torn up inside, don't worry about talking for a while... We'll figure everything out and get it fixed okay?"
Seth nodded again, looking a little more relaxed.
"First though, I want to say I'm really sorry." From there he went on through everything he knew and guessed about the collar and what happened. Again he started with why Tor had collared him in the first place and ended up just shy of asking Seth why he had given in to the collar spell. That, he figured, would have to come out on its own, if it ever did. He did his best to make sure that Seth understood how guilty he felt. Seth just seemed to sit there and listen with barely any reaction at all. Run out of things to say and feeling awkward, Morgan just said "well, okay then", got up, and left.
Later that day Morgan caught Seth outside practicing with his staff. He was glad to see that he was back in form. Seth looked well, maybe a little unstable, but that was just the strain of the last few days catching up to him. Morgan left without interfering. He figured that Seth was probably pretty angry at him and would need some time to cool down. He set off to find that hidden something that he just knew was there in the house somewhere.
He started by walking the entire length of the entrance tunnel, probing into the stone, and finding nothing. For all that he had this new-found affinity for stone the distance he could probe through it was limited. He thought about entering the stone the way he had during the walk, but if there were active bindings or constructs fused into the rock, that would not be safe. He wasn't positive but he guessed that when he entered into the stone he became part of it. That maybe meant that if the stone he entered was bound he could become bound himself.
After finishing the tunnel, He moved on to the house proper. Starting in the front room he tried to build a mental map of the house. The floor plan was simple. Two master bedrooms and a study on the left; den, linen closet, bath, and Shiea's room on the right. At the end of the hall a door led into the studio. A door at the far end of that opened into a greenhouse kind of place that Mieka kept green and everyone called `the workroom' because Morgan used it to meditate. The workroom had an all-glass facing but its exposure was separated from the patio by a stone abutment, which had saved the high glass wall from more than the few cracks it already had. Halfway through his second pass from the front room to the work room Seth began to shadow Morgan's movements.
He stayed silent and in the hall, watching Morgan pace his way through each room. Morgan became intensely aware of the scrutiny, all the more because Seth was fully armed. The few times he made eye contact with Seth he found no hint of feeling in the big man's face. It was totally strange, but he couldn't find any fear of the man in himself. After he finished the second pass he stopped and explained what he was doing and why.
Seth's bland and passionless continence was unnerving. At first he thought Seth didn't understand, or didn't care, but then the big man suddenly turned and stalked quickly down the hall. When he got to the far end he started back, stopping at the linen closet. He opened the door and looked inside for a moment and then went through the next nearest door into the den. Morgan followed and Seth laid his hand against the wall nearest the closet. The light came on in Morgan's head. The closet didn't go as far back into the hillside as the rooms on either side of it.
Morgan probed through the stone and found it hollow.
Weighing the possibility of releasing something bad into the house, against the probable danger of only having magic as a way back out of whatever lay beyond the wall, Morgan decided that it would be better to breach the wall than it would be to walk through it.
"Seth, I need an iron rod about so long. Any Ideas?" Morgan held his hands about as wide apart as his shoulders.
Seth thought about it for a moment and then turned and left the room. He came back a minute later with the iron poker from the fireplace. He grasped the business end and the shaft in either hand and twisted. The threading held true and he managed to unscrew the end with only minor difficulty.
The resulting shaft was exactly to his need, even if the handle was unnecessary.
"I'm going to cut out wedge-shaped blocks that will come sliding out by themselves. I need you to catch them and set them aside." Seth didn't even acknowledge that Morgan had spoken which Morgan decided to take as ascent.
Morgan set up a lattice of energy to guide the iron shaft. The gap created by the rod would be fairly large and both faces would be quite smooth, but if the cut wasn't straight and even the stone would lock together like puzzle pieces and make the extraction very difficult. He struck the iron against the wall to start it vibrating then tuned and reinforced the vibrations until it made the stone, and his jaw, ache in sympathy.
The sound made by the bar was barely audible but the energy Morgan invested into it was immense. The idea was not to cut or burrow into the stone so much as persuade it to flow around the iron and out of his way. The rod sank into the stone facing with ease, the extra rock puckering around the rod in a very un-stone-like way. Morgan listened and scanned the stone carefully as he moved the iron along its path. If he were to blunder unawares through flaws or different kinds of stone the tuned energy could leak directly into the stone and make it shatter or explode. The technical term was denaturing. At these power levels the typical result was death. There was no good way to control elemental energy at so intimate a level and maintain a protective barrier between himself and the target. With all his lessons, both learned and taught, running through his head Morgan made the task look like slicing bread.
He made four vertical cuts from just over Seth's height to the floor and then joined them with a cut across the top. Having described the new doorway's outline he began making crosscuts with the rod at about a thirty degree angle. Each time he reached a vertical cut a brick would be set free and begin sliding out of the opening under it's own weight. The cut faces were smooth as glass and only the puckering effect kept their edges from being dangerously sharp. As each block came free Seth deftly caught it and stacked it to the side. The fact that Seth had to wait between bricks was testament to the care Morgan took not to get them dead.
It took the better part of two hours to cut the doorway, the floor level cuts being particularly tricky since he'd had to use a tweak of energy against the handle of the rod, making it fall to a fine iron dust, so that he could get the rod level with the floor. He'd decided to cut the complete doorway since if he just cut an access it would be a hassle to recreate the spell to complete the job. Morgan could think of several reasons that it would have been better to hire a stone mason to do the job, not the least of which were his frayed nerves. If he hadn't been so curious and if this weren't the kind of thing that was best kept secret, he'd never have used such a dangerous technique. He never even thought of just going and getting a sledge hammer until Mieka brought it up casually during a conversation several weeks later.
Morgan grabbed a lamp and started for the opening but Seth shouldered him out of the way and preceded him. Seth went into the small space and stood with his back against the far wall. Morgan started in and slipped on the smooth surface of the fresh-cut stone. Lightning fast, Seth's arm shot out and grabbed Morgan's shoulder. Morgan started to laugh a little nervously but Seth still didn't have any kind of discernible emotion. Morgan felt better and worse about Seth; better because now he knew that Seth was still watching out for him, worse because before the accident Seth would have laughed at him not just turned back away.
The small space they had opened up was maybe seven feet wide and ten feet long. A tight stairway started a right-handed spiral down at the end of what amounted to a short sealed hallway. Sticking to the left wall so that he could see as far around the spiral as possible, Seth advanced down the stairs slowly, ready to draw steel at the slightest need. Morgan followed two stairs behind holding the lamp over Seth's head to give him the best light.
What struck Morgan first, as scary excitement yielded to curious excitement, was the complete lack of stuff. There were no spider webs, grit or guano under foot, not even a layer of dust. Wherever they were going, it had been sealed perfectly and permanently with sorcery. With Seth watching ahead Morgan felt safe to look closely at the stairwell as they descended. From what he could see the stairway had been cut from the hillside using a technique something like he'd used to breach the wall. There were no seams, joints, or chisel marks on any surface, even the treading of the stairs looked to have been textured using sorcery.
Morgan lost track of the direction after about three turns down the stairs. At the bottom a small hallway stretched maybe twenty feet and ended in a "T". Morgan saw a familiar pattern of scoring in the ceiling and decided to risk a quick scan. The scoring was what he thought. The school used a persistent lighting spell which ran along identical pathways along the ceiling of the common areas of the School of Disciplines. Apprentices were made to maintain the spells as part of their duties, a waste of energy but one which served to impress the visitors. Risking a little more, he felt his way along the pathways that had been eroded through local space by the previous usage of the spell. There were a few connections from the old light spell to some other constructs, probably each part of a general maintenance spell, but nothing threatening. He energized the long dormant lighting spell, being careful to contain the flows so that nothing would touch whatever other elements had once been tied to it.
A hazy tube of luminescence began to form a few inches below the ceiling. It never got to looking solid, or all that bright, but soon everything was awash in a clean neutral white. Morgan blew out his lamp and set it down against the wall. Seth was looking at him. If it had been the old Seth it probably would have been a look of reproach for announcing their presence to whatever might be waiting for them down there.
Morgan didn't much care.
Anything that could have survived several centuries in a sealed set of rooms probably wouldn't care much about the light either.

* * *

This time Morgan shouldered Seth out of the way, sort of, and headed left. The corridor simply opened into a small square room full of stuff. Mostly enchanted stuff. He knew that because the mundane stuff had largely gone to dust. Well not dust exactly. When he touched a chair it had simply dissolved. It made sense. With no dampness and no drying, and without any kid of air movement the mundane organic things had become separated like standing milk. As soon as the things were disturbed they became dust. It was the large number of things that didn't become dust that intrigued Morgan.
Morgan left to check the rest of their new found basement.
At the other end of the short hallway was an even bigger find. The construct Morgan had felt during the teleport. The room was circular and about forty feet wide; the whole room was one large casting circle cut out of the living rock. In a way the room was really two rooms, one inside the other. The outer room was a perfectly circular corridor about three and a half feet wide and the inner room was a pentagon. The two rooms were arranged so that the points of the pentagon laid on the outer boundary of the circular corridor. The stone that would lie within neither space had been left, forming five pillars. The corners where the outer curved face met the inner flat ones were sharp enough to draw blood. Virtually every vertical surface was covered with glyphs and symbols. The floor and ceiling were inlaid with marble and quartz. Shafts, some as wide as a fist others fine as a quill, were bored straight through the structure at odd angles, passing deep into the surrounding rock.
Unable to read the inscriptions, Morgan had no idea what the room was for. He wasn't even sure if he'd ever read the name for anything this complex. Running the name fragments through his head; pent, sect, lith, ari, len, zo, liagh, gram, chai, set, bahl, and qat all seemed necessary to cover the shape. This was definitely out of his league. That little nagging voice in the back of his mind sheepishly suggested leaving immediately, sealing the wall back up, and saving the whole mystery for his retirement. Unfortunately he knew he didn't have that kind of common sense.

Chapter 15
Invasions

Everyone had mostly grown used to Seth's silent impassive presence and Shiea still hung all over him as if nothing had changed. He and Mieka had nearly finished a bookcase wall, cum secret door, to cover the opening to the new addition and Morgan turned out to be a natural at glazing windows. Now it was Liane who was walking through the house with a feeling of impending doom. Mieka insisted it was just her turn, but not when she was within earshot.
Morgan had finished exploring the old maintenance spell and determined that it didn't operate anything dangerous so he'd fully energized it. In one of his less impossible, impossible feats he'd grafted the old spell into the locked room controls without unlocking, and then losing, the original. One of the useful things it did was something akin to the attention avoidance thing he'd found back at the keep. It was a neat trick and one he'd never read about in the library. It also went a long way toward explaining why nobody had previously discovered and occupied the house. He was counting the seconds until his last geasairia wore off so that he could get into the books he'd found, and so maybe the purpose of the room.
One of the more immediate benefits to finding the secret room had been a small cache of money in the equipment room. That money covered the considerable cost of the new glass, a commodity much in demand after the wreckage left all over by the night of freak storms. It also covered the cost of the "other renovations" and left a hundred or so to spare. They'd been careful to try to make sure that their sudden wealth hadn't drawn attention, and neither Morgan nor Seth had, as yet, left the house. This made Tor's arrival a complete surprise.
When the pounding had come at the door Morgan had set aside a pane of glass, gotten Seth, and went to hide in their room. Liane had answered the door and greeted Tor with her usual grace, and Tor had responded politely as a friend of the family. When she'd invited him to sit he declined, and then bellowed "Morgan, get out here, we have business" in a friendly but no-nonsense way.
Liane looked him in the eye and knew he knew Morgan was home. "I'll go get him."
She went back to his room and, in quick whispers, told him that Tor already knew and he might as well go out. He faced up to it and went back into the front room with Liane while Seth went back to his work in the den.
"Hi Tor, what brings you by?"
"Official school business."
Morgan looked askance at him for a moment, "What kind?"
Tor did not look at all pleased to be saying what he was about to. "As you know your old position as library curator is now being held by Garreith al'Eraian," Morgan hadn't known. That noble-born brat couldn't classify his way out of a topiary. "which means that you hold no position at the school until you are reassigned by the Faculty Council. As such the payment agreements you hold with the school, bound by your stipend, are no longer valid. I have a Writ of Demand here that requires you to surrender all moneys owed, fifty six gold or equal value in the coin of the realm, or the slave Seth."
Morgan looked at Liane, who went to plunder the household account for the needed sum. Liane delivered the money to Tor who refused it, looking pointedly at Morgan. Liane handed it to Morgan who in turn set it on the stack of papers Tor had laid on the table.
Tor said "Seal them please." At which point Morgan lifted the small stack of coins in his fingers, five platinum ten-marks and six gold, and then dropped them one at a time, about an inch, back onto the papers, setting his seal along with the date and time in each coin as he did so.
"Now as to the matter of Thal."
The name meant nothing to Morgan.
Tor sighed, "The man you sent to me for imprinting. I need to know whether you intend to pay for his imprinting and other costs to date and take delivery, or deed him to the school outright."
That seemed like so long ago that Morgan had all but forgotten the highwayman. "I never really thought about it. Deed him to the school I guess, we've got no use for a slave, do we Liane?"
Tor raised an eyebrow at the contradiction. "I'll need your name on a few papers then."
"Take it as done, but that'll have to wait a couple of hours." Morgan didn't explain exactly why, but it was Tor, so his word was good.
"Then our business is concluded." At those words Tor's whole aspect changed. "Now can you tell me what in the outer chaos is going on around here?"
Tor was one of Morgan's oldest friends at the school. When he'd first arrived Tor was a master carpenter working in the dormitory where he'd been placed. Tor was common born and Morgan knew it right off because he didn't have a lot of extra vowels clogging up his name and he knew how to swear like a miner. Ten years Morgan's senior, Tor had instantly become a point of stability in Morgan's uprooted life. Morgan had followed him around like a lovesick puppy for weeks until he'd settled in and gave them a chance to become regular friends. Drawing on that old friendship, and his knowledge of the older man, Morgan looked at him and said "You go first."
"First there's Thal coming down the mountain yammering that Seth is some kind of monster. A few days later I get called in front of the faculty council to get roasted for selling him to you. A few days after that half the school is either muttering your name or afraid to hear it and I get told to find you with a Writ of Demand. Then there was what people have been calling `the night of storms', the kind of mess you hear about in the old tails, and your horse arrived today without you."
"By the way, how did you know I was back?"
"I didn't really, but with canvas and lumber and then more lumber and glass coming over here I had my suspicions. Mieka and Liane were cool customers getting all that but I know you all are just making it by and shouldn't be able to drop three hundred gold marks on glass and supplies in two days time. Besides that's almost all the glass this place'll take, and while everyone had some damage, nobody was hit that hard around here."
"So do you think others know I'm back?"
"No, but they will when I leave. I have to turn this over to the school right away." Tor nodded at the small pile of coin.
"And why'd I have to seal that?"
"The council chair didn't want me covering for you. He said it'd be from your hand or else. Now, can you tell me what's going on?"
Morgan thought about it for a while. He trusted Tor the way he trusted Liane and Mieka, but like them it could be unhealthy for him to know too much. "It's the books. Seth opened one of them and what's in there... I don't think anybody should know."
"Big?"
"Mage-war big. The first three words were more than I wish I'd seen." It felt good to let this much out and with things moving at the school it was clearer than ever that he and Seth were in play. That said, letting Liane and Tor know this much was only fair.
"Since the council is getting their hands in on this, whoever has discovered what's in the books must be someone pretty high up in the ranks here."
"I agree, so let's get into it." Tor began to go over everything that seemed at all different over the last few weeks and then they all spent the rest of the evening building up a list of suppositions.

* * *

At first Seth thought he was having a nightmare, but then again everything had felt kind of nightmarish since that night at the keep. He still didn't feel like himself. Actually he didn't seem to feel much like anything at all. It was like being in a permanent daze. A big part of him was missing.
Every now and again he'd reach down inside himself and try to feel something, anything. But all he felt then was horrible. It was like being trapped; clutched in the hand of something barely alive, or long dead. A wraith had a grip on his very essence and it dragged at him, coloring everything, drawing away its vital reality. Still he had nightmares, he knew the nightmare landscape intimately, and this wasn't one of his own making. He was awake.
He was jogging across the campus. It was somewhere between late night and early morning, and he was jogging up the main plaza toward the School of Disciplines. He didn't have the slightest idea why. He kept trying to stop himself or turn aside but he just kept jogging. The reason he first thought it was a nightmare was that he'd actually woken up halfway between the house and school. He knew he was really awake because in dreams it doesn't take a long time to get somewhere, and in a dream when you are only wearing a small clothes in the mountains late at night you don't get anywhere near as cold as he felt.
Without breaking his stride Seth bounded up the front stairs of the library and slipped in through the front doors. They were always unlocked because almost everything of value was under less mundane protections and nobody was generally stupid enough to think they could get away with anything on the premises. Bare feet padding across stone, wood and carpet he made his way up through the building to the workroom that held Lady Korane's books. He'd figured that was where he was headed.
Still unable to influence his actions at all, he selected the last book of the series and took it to the table and tried to open it.
It didn't work.
Seth was kind of surprised that the book hadn't opened, but what really set a shock to him was when his own voice sounded in the little room.
"Open it." Sure enough, those words had come from his own mouth but he couldn't even find the place within himself that knew how to speak.
After a few seconds the crushing dead hand loosened its grip and he found himself in control of his body again. He tried to find within himself the will to speak, but found nothing inside to say. Instead he reached down and tried to open the catches of the book. They still refused to yield to his touch. It was as if they knew that something was wrong. Knowing his lady, that was altogether likely.
"I said open it!"
Seth tried to reply but was at a loss for how. There were no words in him to say, nor anything to write with, and worse, no feelings to spur the desire to find them.
Seth tried to open it once more, and when it didn't work he set it back on the table. He could all but feel the frustration coming through to him from wherever.
Finally his own voice said "go home" and he felt the dead weight over his soul loosen till it was the familiar sensation he'd been growing used to these last few days.
Running back to the house Seth tried to figure out how to tell Morgan what happened. No good ideas came to mind, and under the whitewash of his antipathy the importance of the evenings events began to fade.

* * *

The next day was unremarkable. Seth continued work on the bookshelf wall. Knowing that there might be someone watching through his eyes, he was glad that they didn't have to open the secret panel to finish the rest of the shelves. He felt the faint stirrings of deep affection whenever Shiea was there and more profound but less identifiable feelings when Morgan was around. Those tiny flashes of feelings were what kept Seth sane. That minuscule stirring was all that kept him from believing himself permanently dead inside.
Almost for that reason alone, Seth was happy to follow Morgan when he went to the school to find out about what duties, if any, he was going to have. Walking through the central administration building, Seth started thinking again about the events of the previous night. He still couldn't find any way to communicate what he knew, but a touch of concern tainted with rage passed through him in a rush and then was gone.
Once again he was left outside while Morgan went into chambers to talk to the council. This time he came out in decent spirits. He told Seth he'd been granted a full time teaching position in his school and correctly surmised that that was because the council had members of all the schools, not just the School of Disciplines, and the masters of the mundane schools were essentially more familiar with ideas like loyalty and justice. He and Morgan made their way to Morgan's new office. A small room deep in the school, full of boxes and debris that needed to be cleared away.
Seth got started moving the boxes while Morgan started setting spells on the office. Once things were to Morgan's liking, or at least clean enough to occupy, they went back to the house. Where Morgan worked till bedtime on new lesson plans while Seth tried to think.
He was not surprised to wake outside the house that night. He'd even slept fully clothed in expectation. Morgan hadn't said anything but Seth thought he'd noticed. This time the surprise was the apparent destination. He was headed into the wood on the north slope of school grounds.
He arrived at a small outbuilding the foresters used when tending this stretch of land. Inside he found a gathering of people waiting for him with a look of anticipation he knew he should find unsettling. There were seven of them, three women and four men, sitting around a small table in complete silence. Two more people hung back in shadows that seemed to swirl like murky swamp water. One stepped forward and the shadow moved forward too. Clearly sorcery. The book landed on the small table with a thud that no one seemed to notice.
"You have three choices," the voice was female and had a almost musical lilt to it, "you can open the book yourself, tell us how to open it, or play with our associates."
Seth stepped forward to open to book. It wasn't any kind of disloyalty, it was a cold act with a distant hint of just malice. Whoever these people were, he bet they deserved, one and all, to go a round with his lady's magic. He reached out to pop the catches the way he'd done countless times in his life, but the tiny mechanisms simply wouldn't respond. He lifted his hands from the book.
His second choice was no option. Not only was he without words, he didn't have the faintest idea how these people might open the book. He had no discipline and no knowledge of how those with discipline might go about unsealing the books. He'd never even encountered it in those very texts. That, logic told him, left the associates.
Seth quickly discovered that what those associates brought to the table was a taste for the perverse. The idea, as near as Seth could figure, was to humiliate him into surrendering the information. Counting on guilt or shame to move his tongue. Clearly whatever was happening to him, his complete emotional detachment was not something these people really understood. Several times in his life Seth had fallen to the hands of wealthy or powerful people while separated from his lady, people who had, in turn, used him for their pleasure. It was one of the hazards a slave traveling alone occasionally faced. There was probably even a noble brat or two out there who could call him father. The first thing he learned that night was, for all that he thought himself worldly wise, he'd really had no idea where the realms of depravity set their borders.
He learned a few other things as well. Whatever hold these people had on him, it didn't give them access to his thoughts. The converse however, was not strictly true. At one point several people were trying to share his perspective at the same time. He could hear their conflicting thoughts as they strained the spell which held him. The thoughts he heard were completely consumed by the novel experience of seeing and experiencing the world through another body. Whoever these associates were they had no interest in the book themselves, they were there as tools of the pair in the shadows or just simple players of flesh.

* * *

The next night the story started out much the same. Seth still couldn't open the book or communicate this fact to his captors. The same seven were present. This time there was also a young man and woman there, possibly against their will. They had both already been sorely used and Seth's abusers used his body to act out their twisted wills on the two. He'd actually tried to resist his captors in this, and when they sensed that, it inflamed their darker passions in a way that did not bode well for the captives so he relented. The previous night had inspired nothing in Seth, but during this ordeal it came to Seth that these seven people were broken. Twisted inside in a way that probably called for their deaths. It wasn't quite resolve, more a detached understanding that these people needed to be undone. He marked their faces in his mind so that if he met any of them when he was free to act he'd be prepared.

* * *

The fourth night the pattern changed. Seth woke because he was pinching the tender skin high up on the inside of his left bicep. Clearly they wanted him awake inside the apartment. When everybody concerned realized he was awake, he found himself standing up.
He, or more correctly they, were staring down at Morgan has he slept. It took Seth a while to untangle the impressions he was receiving from the crowd in his head. Finally he realized they were there to choose a victim. For the first time in seeming forever, real feelings stirred in the depths of Seth's soul. He kind-of hoped they'd choose Morgan. Morgan would be best able to defend himself. These people might have Seth's body but they didn't have his skills and Seth would rather die than harm any member of this household.
The unseen seven, however, knew that Morgan was a mage, and so Seth found himself slipping quietly from the room. He stopped at Liane and Mieka's room and looked inside. Fully entrapped in the nightmare feeling, Seth felt them debating inside his head. In the end the seven were cowards, even though they were in no first-person danger. The cowards didn't like the idea of taking on one to capture the other. Seth felt himself moving on and a knot of tension formed in the pit of his being. There was only one other person in the house and Seth knew that she would perfectly fit their twisted plans.
As he opened Shiea's door he felt their approval and twisted intent foment inside his head. The knot twisted when he started forward and rose with each step until he reached her bed. The knot became a bubble of rage which instantly erupted up and out of Seth tearing out of him with a protracted bellow of the single word "No!"
His shout woke Shiea, Liane, and Mieka. Morgan, however, was already awake and standing behind him. Morgan had awoke the night before to find Seth gone, so this night he'd set bindings to let him know if and when Seth moved. He'd followed Seth, masking his moves with magic, so Seth had no idea Morgan was there when he turned around. Morgan came within half an heartbeat of loosing his head to Seth's steel, and he knew it.
Almost before Morgan's identity had registered in Seth's conscious mind, Seth was past him, down the hall and outside the house, moving toward a certain out-building at a dead run. Morgan was flatfooted in shock for several long heartbeats. He'd never been so frightened of anything as he was of what he'd seen in Seth's face. By the time he'd gathered enough of himself to send a line out searching for Seth he couldn't find him anywhere. Liane and Mieka burst into the room to check on the screaming Shiea, which stirred Morgan into action.
Morgan figured that if he couldn't find Seth directly, he could use the control band to find Seth through the collar. He bolted for the chest where he'd set the stone bubble in an envelope of protection. When he reached into the stone he was stunned to find it empty. It took a few measures to verify that his bindings had not been tampered with. The ring had been removed before he'd set them. Idiocy again! he hadn't checked the ring inside the stone before he'd set the protections. Instead of some elegant magic solution Morgan was going to have to go out and search for Seth. When he got outside he found his first break. A light snow had fallen and Seth's tracks were plain as daylight.

* * *

Seven faces were frozen in Seth's mind. His journey was at once infinitely long and as brief as a gust of wind. He encountered the first of those faces before he reached the actual building. It wasn't an efficient kill, not graceful nor well marshaled, it was butchery, but there wasn't a cleric or necromancer in the realm that could bring that man back from the hell he'd sent him to.
Five more of the seven waited in the small building, trying in vain to regain control over Seth. As soon as he burst through the door one of them ordered the collar to terminate him. He immediately felt the collar begin to shrink around his neck, though he didn't know or care why. Seth didn't even connect the sensation to anything happening around him. He performed his grizzly work with a lust and abandon he didn't know he was capable of. By the time he finished, it would have taken a resolute man with a strong stomach to figure out for certain how many bodies the shed contained let alone who they were. But Seth still wasn't finished. There was one more.
Outside again, his pulse pounding in his head and virtually unable to breathe Seth looked at the ground and read the passage of the last enemy in the company of two others, moving quickly. He went after the last man. Seth realized the collar was killing him even as he chased his final prey. He pushed and willed against the collar while he ran. He was desperate for that little extra time it would take to finish his work.
Somehow he caught up with his man. He was a person of some position and the two men with him were his bodyguard. The two men came at him but Seth wasn't even aware of killing them. His business was with their lord and whatever it took to end that last vile life was exactly what Seth would do. The man tried to defend himself with his own considerable skill but Seth was unstoppable. The man's defense simply prolonged his suffering as Seth shattered both of his arms while dispatching sword and dagger. When he'd finished his task he found he'd also long since finished his air and he sagged into darkness.

* * *

After the scene of the first killing Seth was much easier to track. Blood stands out on snow even at night and the after image of spent life force could be asensed easily. Morgan didn't even bother to open the door of the small building. He didn't need to. The aether was rank with carnage and the cabin all but glowed with horror. The final leg of his journey was short and again he found blood and ruin. What surprised Morgan was Seth's body sprawled face-down.
Morgan ran to him and flipped him over onto his back. His face was bright red and his eyes and tongue were bulging with blood. He was alive but just barely. The collar was tight about his neck but it no longer had the liquid-metal sheen of sorcerers steel. It was just a shattered ring of pig iron being held together by an intense magnetic field.
Morgan reached in to revitalize the spell in an attempt to restore the plasticity of the metal. There was nothing of the spell left. The iron itself was in fragments but the magnetic field was so strong that he couldn't make the pieces budge by hand. The shatter lines were quite sharp, Morgan cut his hand wide open when one piece slipped a little. Acting quickly he slipped into the band and demagnetized the iron. It was a little tricky because he had to do it evenly so that it wouldn't slip apart and cut Seth's throat.
He got it off in time and the bright purple-red color began to fade from Seth's face.

* * *

While Seth's body worked to recover, Morgan cleared away a patch of snow, sat down, and adjusted his personal protections. He hadn't had time to change out of his sleep clothes. As Seth came-to Morgan said "Now what are we going to do."
Seth sat up and then started to sob quietly.
Morgan moved closer to Seth, pulled him in, and held him for quite a while.
"We have to get away from here Seth." Morgan wasn't quite sure if he meant the scene of the crime or the continent just then, but being found with the bodies certainly wouldn't further their cause at any level.
Morgan got Seth moving and they backtracked. Before they left he gathered up the pieces of the shattered collar. At the shed he closed his mind as best he could and went in for the control ring. Finally, heading for home, when they reached the first body he began to summon wind to cover their tracks. There was no way he could do anything about the greater astral havoc without making things worse. On the way home, for the rest of the night, and well into the next day they talked things out.
Seth was whole again, though not healed, and they both really needed get things clear between them.

Chapter 16
Responses

Morgan came in the front door carrying a few critical supplies.
"... his words. So I tried to look inside myself for anything like that. I found it waiting there and it jumped me. I ... there was nothing I could do to resist. It just ..." Seth shuddered at the memory.
Mieka had always been the best listener of the group and he was truly fascinated by Seth's recent ordeal. Morgan walked a wide line from the front door to the den so that he could playfully slug Seth on the shoulder. Then he went down into the basement to prepare. What he had in mind was touchy, difficult, and wonderfully deceitful.
It was more than an hour before Seth came down stairs. In that time Morgan had charged the protective circles and prepared his new work room for the casting. When he'd regained his ability to read he'd discovered that the ancient construct had been used to disrupt the fabric of the realm in some past mage war. He had nothing like that in mind, but the multilayered work of genius could be energized in portions. The protections were sufficient to hold back tides of chaos; nothing would be able to break them. With complete safety and privacy assured, they were going to lay a trap.
Seth stopped at the edge of the construct and looked in a Morgan. He was deathly afraid. Naked fear was not something Morgan had ever expected see in Seth.
"Are you sure you are willing to do this? If you aren't we'll just do something else."
He couldn't bring himself to say he wanted to go along, but it was a measure of Seth's trust in Morgan that he started to come forward.
"Stop. Take off your clothes first, we need to keep stray elements out of the spell."
Seth complied, shaking but resolute.
"Will it be like it was before?"
Morgan looked up at him, "not at all, I promise. This will look like the collar spell physically and astrally, but it is actually nothing like it."
"Will I be able to take it off?"
Morgan didn't know the best way to say it... "No. But if you want it off just say so and I'll take it off right away."
Seth nodded his head, "okay, let's do it."
`Doing it' took several hours, this wasn't the simply brutal spell that made the collars, it was something much more intricate. Morgan started by having Seth sit down opposite him and then tapping into both his own and Seth's life forces. Out of those forces he spun a candy-floss cocoon around them, the fabric of which would look and feel exactly like the binding contacts of the original collar. Next he took an iron ingot and formed it into a thick band of sorcerer's steel and then split it into three separate rings. The first ring was thick and heavy, it matched his best memory of the original collar, and he stretched it over Seth's head and then pulled his long hair out of the way so that it could close in about his throat like the original. The middle ring was the same mass as the control band and he left it hanging in the air. The third and final ring was very like the first and he slipped it over his own head and let it shrink down to cling to his own throat.
The next little bit was inspired by the disinterest field spell he'd learned at the keep. Classic invisibility, while possible, involved far more effort and danger than it was usually worth; Morgan wove an illusion around his own collar with a healthy dose of disinterest, whoever saw it would perceive some common and uninteresting piece of jewelry, if they noticed anything at all. With all the materials in place Morgan began to weave the body of the spell but found an unexpected resistance.
He could feel Seth's essence squirm under his touch as if it were about to break away and struggle out from under his influence. He pushed a little harder and Seth's energy seemed to become slipperier. He almost lost the matrix and denatured the iron, which would have beheaded them both, but he relaxed his grip on Seth and things stabilized. That was the exact opposite of the way it should have worked.
"Seth, are you resisting this?"
"Um, I don't think so, how would I do that?"
That didn't sound right. "I guess we'll have to figure that out later..." Morgan paused to think. It could be some natural resistance, that would make sense given the way the original collar spell had been delayed for so long. Right then he'd need Seth to work toward the spell at whatever level he could. Seth was still afraid, and that was more than enough to rile whatever defenses he might have.
Morgan sat back tried to be reassuring. "I'm having real trouble holding you. I need you to want this."
"I do, kind of, but it's hard..." Seth fell silent.
"Come on, Seth, talk to me."
"You don't know what it was like."
"I know."
"He said that... I... I just can't face that emptiness again."
"There won't be any emptiness, you wont be alone in this." Morgan unraveled the spell a bit to show Seth his collar. "We are both getting almost exactly the same treatment here."
A little bit of the old Seth showed through when his grin made a fleeting appearance.
"Do you understand what we are doing here well enough?"
"It's a trap."
"Well yes, but... hmmm." Morgan took a minute to work out a simple explanation. "The collar you were wearing before was like... uh... being tied up in barbed wire. The control ring let them tug that wire and control your body. What I'm doing here is giving you a spool of barbed wire and making it look like you are tied up in it. If anybody tries to tug on that wire we'll be able to wrap them in it and control them instead."
"What will it feel like."
"Hopefully you wont feel anything beyond the physical collar. The rest of the spell will be made out of our combined essences so you might get an occasional flash from me, or something of what I am feeling, but nothing more, at least until the spell is triggered. With both of us anchoring the spell it wont be able to get away from us. Neither will whoever tries to use the ring."
Seth thought about it while Morgan held the partial spell balanced around them. Finally he relented and Morgan could feel a voluntary, even willful, flow of energy coming from Seth. Head-blind or not, Seth definitely had some kind of peculiar influence on his own flows.
From there on the spell set like clockwork. As promised Seth felt no different after the spell. They got dressed and went back upstairs.
Mieka was waiting for them there. Morgan had arranged for him to be a test case. Morgan set the control ring on the table and backed away. With Seth braced for it and Morgan ready to stop, or even rupture the spell if necessary, Mieka touched the ring.
It was a kind of creepy feeling. Morgan and Seth could feel Mieka through the link like his fingers were touching their spinal cords. Morgan gestured and Mieka backed off. Morgan grinned at Seth, who would have blanched if he weren't already so pale. He tweaked the spell, reducing the gain by nearly three orders of magnitude, and then motioned Mieka back in.
This time when Mieka picked up the ring Seth and Morgan became aware of it at an almost subconscious level. For the trap to work, they'd have to be able to tolerate the manipulation of the ring without it intruding on them. At any higher level of awareness the control ring could be a potentially lethal distraction.
Mieka stretched the ring and put it around his wrist.
"Excellent! Now, Mieka I am going to ask you to take over Seth." This part of the spell was not symmetric, Mieka wouldn't have any sense that Morgan was there at all. "Seth, I want you to let him have his way, try not to resist at all."
Seth and Mieka both nodded, then nothing happened. There was a mental trick to using the real collars, and this simulation was hopefully exact, it would take Mieka a while figure it out. Then all three of them felt it take hold. Seth stood up and walked around a little.
"Outstanding!" Both Seth and Mieka said it in perfect sync.
Morgan used his link through the spell to mentally pat Seth on the back, and felt his recognition in turn.
"Okay, now Mieka, just try to make Seth stand still. Seth, you should be able to walk anyway. Subduing the link should feel kind of like closing an eye inside your head."
Once again there was that long pause, this time it was Seth figuring his way around the mental trick. Finally he took a step, turned, and grinned his old grin at Morgan. Mieka was slack in his chair, his motor skills and most of his awareness transferred to Seth but blocked there.
"okay, now the tricky bit..."
Morgan, who had been riding along with everything happening to Seth, test-fired the trap. He only let one loop curl out and snag Mieka, but it hit the mark well and bit deeply. If he'd let the whole thing go it would have taken over Mieka much the same way the collar had taken over Seth. This spell was much more merciful however. Morgan and Seth each had one end of the binding so it could be removed almost effortlessly if Morgan decided it should be. Moreover the binding, while swift, would occur in a strict order so there wouldn't be any of the cross bindings Seth had suffered.
Satisfied, Morgan recalled the coil and then talked them all back out of the spell until once again the ring sat on the table. The only question left unanswered was whether this spell would block Seth from opening the spell books the way the collar had. Both eventualities had their uses but they'd have to know which way that would go in order to make plans.

* * *

The unfortunate thing about being the target of someone else's schemes is that they rarely act when you are ready. Morgan had been expecting the massacre in the woods to have stirred the fire but he never heard a word about it from anywhere. He'd made one astral sojourn to the site more than a month later and found it wiped of all traces of the incident. Their opponents had clearly not wanted any kind of investigation and could muster enough discrete manpower to dispose of the bodies and all but rebuild the little cabin. The only trace of scandal was the suspiciously collateral disappearance of a local merchant, most likely the man with the escort.
All of their lives had taken on a nearly normal rhythm and they were looking forward to Winterdark. Every year there was a long night when the Realm synchronized its rhythms with the outer organic realities. The long night, Winterdark, was typically a few hours longer than any other night of the year, but it had occasionally stretched as long as two days. There were always three full moons on Winterdark and people decorated their homes with whatever lights they could. People gave the traditional gifts of scented lamp oil and decorative candles to their neighbors and parties featuring sweet confections, rich food, bonfires, and general debauch were held everywhere. Tradition, and as much research as the subject could stand, held that Winterdark was the birthday of the Realm.
Winterdark was also a day of high ceremony. In previous years Morgan had been spared many of the official school functions that Liane and Mieka had to attend. Now that he had rank they were all to attend the main faculty functions. It wasn't technically mandatory, but it was optional in that uptight, official, political way. They were going to drag Seth along ostensibly to watch Shiea but more in the hope that he might recognize one of the mages he'd encountered in the wood.
In that month many things had changed for the better. Seth had largely recovered but sometimes Morgan would catch a look of distress and sadness crossing his face. Of course Liane and Mieka could say the same for Morgan himself. Morgan had been laying spells like a madman, subtle but strong protections and bindings to keep Liane, Mieka and Shiea safe; he left himself and Seth exposed in the name of prudence. Shiea and Seth's relationship had continued to deepen and her trick of mounting him at a dead run was growing more spectacular and annoying to everybody else in the house. Even the way Seth's affect would change when they were in public had taken on the cast of a conspiratorial inside joke. In all, when they left the house that Winterdark, they were a family.
They were all in their finest. This was the first time that Morgan or Seth wore the clothes they had worn on that disastrous night. Just seeing Seth in the scarlet shirt made Morgan experience a pang of dread, but the spirit of the night, and Seth's jacket, quickly saw him past the twinge. The evening would start early and end quite late, so just before sundown they all left the house and started walking to the central mall. It was an enjoyable walk with a good bit of laughter.
Virtually everybody at the school turned out on the mall and took part in the sunset benediction. As the sun reached the celestial horizon it released great gouts of ruddy colored flame that chased across the sky, turning it golden and then red and finally surrendering to the black night sky. The dissipation of the sun was always particularly spectacular for Winterdark, or at least it seemed that way to almost everybody. The three full moons formed in the sky in east, the north west, and the south west in a perfect triangle, and then began their rise to the center of the sky; and the crowd began to break apart and go to their various feasts. Morgan's family headed for the great hall and the faculty dinner.

* * *

After the bulk of mandatory speeches and whatnot, the Winterdark feast actually succeeded in becoming a party. There was, of course, no seat for Seth at table and he ended up waiting on the rest of them. Morgan could tell through their collars that Seth was indulging himself with a bit of the grape whenever he was in the kitchens. The rest of them found out likewise when the juggling started. It wasn't a big show, consisting of only Seth and a few key elements of their deserts, but it did wend its way through the crowd to some applause. Rules were different on Winterdark, and so apparently was Seth.
He wasn't drunk. He'd only been drunk a couple of times in his life, and always in the line of duty. This night he was relaxed and content. He knew a lot of tricks, most of them having their origin in weapons, fighting, or working a crowd of drunken arms-men for information. Juggling, petty tricks with knives and flatware, and the odd acrobatic stunt were his forte and he'd been going at it with the help in the kitchens. He hadn't even thought about it when he'd come out of the kitchen juggling.
The delicacy he was tossing about was three brandied sugar-melon, and one without for Shiea. When he reached the table he set them out and sliced them in a dazzling display of knife-work. He winked once a Morgan, did a black-flip to a hand stand and exited on his hands to a round of applause.
A voice out of the crowd barked out "Hey Morgan, finally decided to buy a man, a?"
Before he could react a jelly pastry winged its way from Liane's hand straight into the man's face. The comment drew a smattering of laughter, the wet plop of impact drew a louder laugh and a light hail of follow-up debris down onto the speaker's head.
Of course none of this was that significant. The entire hall was low-table and in full spirits. The stodgier high-table guests were in the Chancellors Hall or the president's house. Anybody who took coin or recompense for any kind of teaching was invited to this feast. It was a spirited bunch of bachelors, aides, teaching fellows, graduate students and who knew what else from every school and discipline in the college. Riotous action was the norm. Morgan was holding back from the party just a little because he had someplace serious to be in just a little while. After that he would be able to really sink into the occasion.
All of the sudden a quiet fell across the room, and the realm. Every person and creature everywhere felt it. In the span of a few heartbeats the entire realm came to a stop. Wind and water still gently moved of course, creatures breathed, and time passed; but weather no longer threatened, the clouds disappeared, the moons and stars in sky went still, and even the night hunters settled. It was the Ease, when everything that was the realm let out its breath and rested. Winterdark was upon them, and would hold until the Draw, when everyone would feel the reverse happening. When the Ease had come in full a bell in the school tower began tolling twelve long, slow strokes and when it finished a cheer rose up from those assembled.
Everywhere that sentient mortal beings held sway in the realm the scene was similar; at least everywhere anyone cared to think of. But Winterdark had another name that made people a little less comfortable. By custom as old as the realm itself from Ease to Draw there was no law beyond individual conscience. In some places the Long Night had seen whole families wiped away in fits of revenge or avarice. On rare occasion mobs formed and things burned to right various wrongs, either real or imagined. As to why exactly this was rare nobody was really sure, but that all were in good spirits and none sought harm here at the tolling of the bell was reason enough for cheer.

* * *

The tolling of the bell called to Morgan for other reasons. He had a public ritual to attend in the first hour of Winterdark. When Seth came out of the kitchens again Morgan took his leave of the family. The ritual was potentially dangerous but necessary to his position at the school. They all knew it was coming, and few ever came to real harm, but his leaving was one of those odd bittersweet moments they would remember.
Seth accompanied him out into the corridor and they met up with several other magi on their way to the library. Morgan's mind was on what he was about to do. Seth's was fixed on making sure that nobody had the opportunity to take a Long Night privilege on Morgan's person. It would be a terribly unsubtle move but Seth was naturally suspicious. As they got closer to the library the density of mages steadily rose until they were part of a steady stream of the talented.
The ritual was called the Drawing Out. It was something of a show, where younger mages, having reached a certain rank in the previous year, would publicly perform a specific enchantment for their peers. They would each create their athame - an oddly shaped dagger used in key rituals throughout a mage's lifetime - in the presence of their peers. The more power harnessed by the mage during creation the better the athame. The two purposes of the gathering were eminently practical. Those assembled to witness the act would hold the shields to protect all involved and free the mage to use his utmost power on the blade, and the older mages would have the chance to judge the power and suitability of the new talent with an eye toward alliance and future ritual.
At the door to the ancient central workroom each mage closed his aotahe about himself and charged it. Seth's entrance on Morgan's heels drew notice but no comment. There was nothing secret about the ritual and there was no prohibition against observers. His presence was simply... unique. He followed Morgan through his paces as Morgan approached the circle set in the floor, touched it with a line of power, and then retreated to one space reserved for the new adherents.
The circle was the main protection and little more than a blast shield. Anybody who let their power get away from themselves within it would be confined with the devastation. Drawing out their athame was likely to be the highest power solo enchantment performed by a mage in their entire lifetime. If the spell went bad or denatured there was sure to be a heck of a lot of waste energy flying about. Not a pretty way to go, but a thorough end indeed.
Morgan had chosen to go last. He had decided that he wasn't going to hold anything back in his casting and he didn't want some stranger standing around full of apprehension over their upcoming turn to interfere with his thoughts or power. While most everybody gave it nearly everything they had at their drawing out Morgan thought of this as two special opportunities in one. First was the chance to see just how deeply he could draw without the risk of killing anybody else; second was a chance to intimidate the two unknown enemy mages into leaving him alone. Whoever the two mystery mages were, at least one of them was certainly in this room right now.
Of the seven other candidates performances, only one was remarkable. She didn't die, but it was close. She had a prepared blank athame of silver with a bone handle. Her set spells were delicate and beautiful for both their conception and technique. Her flows were even and quite strong. It was a perfect execution. There was, however, a flaw in the heart of the silver tang. When she opened the final tempering channel, the big one that would characterize the blade forever, the flaw set up eddy currents. As one the room went to harden the barrier while the spell started to denature. Without thinking Morgan reached into the haft of the knife and lifted out the offending particle and released it into the air. A fountain of sparks blossomed over the blade and then disappeared. The wonderful set spells took over there and corrected the flows and the spell was complete.
Morgan found himself suddenly filled with insights. Nobody else in the room had even thought to lift a finger to do anything but protect themselves. The only other person there who even seemed to realize that the woman had been assisted was the woman herself. She hadn't caught who'd done it because she had been to busy trying to back out the spell. When her eyes searched the crowd and caught his, he thought he saw her deduce his role, but he wasn't sure. Finally, Morgan realized that he was the only mage in the room who was not loaded down with fetishes and foci, the props and tools magi used to help direct their powers, if he had been dependent on those kinds of external tools he probably wouldn't have been able to react in time. In that moment of clarity Morgan learned something important about the dangers of magic, but exactly what and how far reaching that knowledge would prove to be would take some time to puzzle through.
When it came his turn, Morgan had Seth pass him his bundle. He passed into the circle and went to the table in its center. He'd elected not to use a prepared blank, choosing instead to fashion the blade from raw materials during the casting. It was those he laid out before him. Years ago he'd thought to use the iron ingot he'd gifted the king, but even if it'd still been available to him today he wouldn't have used it. His wakening affinity to stone led him in another direction and he chose obsidian and river-stone.
In his mind he already saw the completed athame. The blade would be smooth and midnight black and the handle would be a slightly coarse, speckled gray. It would be heavy and cool to the touch. He might wrap the handle sometimes but the raw stone would welcome and honor his touch. In his mind it was already finished, a made thing that need only be called out of elements before him, and that is exactly what he did.
Years ago, in the throws of despair over his inability to cast an enchantment, he'd asked Liane how she could sculpt stone. She'd said "I look at the stone and see a shape in it and then I cut away everything that doesn't look like that." He'd thought the answer trite at the time, but that was because he hadn't understood. Other people at other times gave him the same kinds of answers and he'd never understood. Then Seth came to him and now it was so obvious that he could no longer fathom his previous ignorance.
He lifted the piece of obsidian and a fine dust formed on its surface and sloughed away, leaving the blade and tang fully formed in his hands. Then he lifted the gray river stone and again dust flowed down to the table in a surreal way. He spoke the strictures and the set spells formed around the pieces almost effortlessly. He pushed the tang into the handle and the two formed in and against one another inextricably. Then it was time for the tempering.
The instant he reached for the stone beneath him he understood why Winterdark was the perfect time. The very stillness of the realm was pure power. He felt all the physical elements through stone, through the earth. Water ran over stone, fires burned over stone hearths, air moved around and even slowly through stone. All of this was power and he drew in the deepest breath of it he could. He left the ephemeral elements out of his work, the athame was a thing and his casting was about things. Tools like this had no place in the spirit realms.
Morgan looked at the crowd of mages and smiled an implacable and beatific smile. He felt like he was on top of the tallest mountain in the realm. He felt like he was about to play a particularly clever joke on the assembled mages. A joke they wouldn't get. Then he just exhaled all that power into and through the blade.
The blade quickly flashed from cold to warm, then hot, then glowing and on to brilliance. Waste heat began to soak into the stone table and he felt the crowd stiffen the barrier around him. Still he had more power to let flow into the blade and it became a thing of plasma and intent. He caught sight of several people as they quit the room and still energy flowed from him. At some point he realized that the blade was as complete as it was going to get but still there was power in him.
For just an instant he panicked. There was simply too much energy for him to comprehend. It was the sight of Seth, standing bored and ignored in the back of the room, that brought him from the brink. What could be done could be undone. Nothing was threatening to overwhelm him, he simply had more of something than he needed. In that light this was no problem.
The thing at odds was the flow of power from the stone beneath him. Earth power is not generally considered to "flow" so much as "pool". He hadn't run out of energy because he'd made it flow and that flow was replenishing him. He closed the inner eye that looked upon the stone and the flow stopped. The spell finally ran its course and was complete. Using mostly his personal energy he summoned away the heat in the table and blade so he could touch them.
With a glacier slowness Morgan came to appreciate the room. His head was full of stone that weighed his thoughts, but once stone started to move, it finished. He'd been stupid again. He might have warned off the two but then again they just saw an unrivaled outpouring of power that would make them hungry for the secret of the book. He knew that the book had nothing whatsoever to do with what happened here but they couldn't know that, and he had no way to tell them even if he knew who they were.
Worse, he'd probably just frightened a good twenty of these people into enmity. He'd proved himself a power to be reckoned with, and reckon they would. For the frightenable and the petty, that meant politics and intrigue at the least. Others would want to use him and then perhaps discard him with prejudice.
Morgan reached blindly for his new blade and got it by the atom-sharp edge. It didn't matter, he couldn't cut himself with it. It was forever his tool and would only cut as he chose. He slipped it blindly into his belt and quit the circle. He was exhausted from quenching the heat and he didn't dare reach into the stone to replenish himself. Seth fell in beside him and they too quit the room when nobody seemed eager to approach or congratulate him. Unconsciously he headed back to the feast.
He needed a drink.

Chapter 17
Predicaments

"I've gone and done it now Seth. I swear if I survive my own stupidity it will be a miracle"
Seth grunted noncommittally.
"You do know I messed up in there."
"Ugh Ha."
"What was I thinking."
Seth shrugged.
"How can it be that everything I do makes things a little worse?"
He raised an eyebrow.
"Cut that out!"
They walked the rest of the way back to the feast in silence but Morgan felt Seth kind of mocking him the whole way anyway.
The feast had long since passed the point of no return. The children were all stashed in a sleepy pile in the corner being overseen by some of the more conscientious guests. Morgan set in for a little food and drink with some intent. He all but forced Seth to sit and join him. He didn't dive into his cups but he indulged himself with a light fog which lifted his spirits.
Not long after, the family got itself together and they left for home.
They were laughing and talking as they went. Morgan was just coming into a clear spot along the path when something tickled its way into his awareness. Personal life energy propagating backwards through time. It took as long for him to realize what the feeling was, as it took the arrow make its flight. It sank into a tree just next to Mieka's shoulder. The shot was very poor; naturally wide of Morgan it would have hit Mieka square in the chest if Morgan's protections hadn't been on the man. The spell nudged it wider still all along its arc until it seemed an unfelt wind had blown the projectile far off course. Morgan blinked back the fog behind his eyes to try to make everything register.
"Down!" Seth pushed Liane and Mieka in a way that sent them sprawling and then had Shiea flipped down off his shoulders and tucked between them in an instant. It looked like they practiced doing that all the time.
Morgan started to reach for power but found himself drowning in a fast pool of earth power. Earlier, when he'd closed his eye to the flows of earth it had continued to flow toward him. Earth power was great for leveling a building or an army, but for personal combat it would be a last resort. Unfortunately with that much around him finding any other power was like trying to read with the lamp between himself and the text. That is to say blinding and impossible. He closed his inner eye and drew his athame.
Morgan had barely stepped off the path when somebody reared up in front of him. Without any thought to skill or style Morgan swung his athame. It connected with the strangers blade, cut through it cleanly and continued on through armor, chest, and shield arm.
On the other side of the path Seth dispatched two would-be attackers in about the same time.
A fourth ran from Morgan but he didn't follow. Without the element of surprise any half decent swordsman should be able to take him even with the athame. It was good that the fleeing man didn't know that.

* * *

The assailants were armsmen, professional soldiers wearing a familiar livery.
"They're the same guard." Seth was putting up his steel.
"Same as who?"
"From the woods."
Morgan recognized the clothes then, the merchant who had fled the shack had been guarded by men in the same uniform.
"The first archer let fly too soon or we'd be dead." Seth sounded like he was reporting on the weather.
"Let's get out of here before they come back."
Liane popped up her head. "What in name of Kyphon was that about?"
"One of Seth's little friends from the woods had a few friends of his own."
"How worried should I be?"
"Not very, I figure they are after him, or me, and we are both leaving for a little while."
Seth raised an eyebrow at Morgan but remained silent.
"I thought we'd settled that running away thing a while back." Mieka said while he brushed some of the dirt off of Shiea.
"This is a completely separate problem. I just reached for power and I've got a load of earth energy to unload before the Draw or all hell is going to break loose. I think I should get as far away from any kind of population as soon as I can."
"Oh."
"Mieka, can Seth use your horse?"
"Of course. Any idea how long you'll be gone for?"
"And," Liane sternly interjected, "should we board up all the windows this time?"
Morgan glared at her for a second before he realized she was joking. He didn't mention that if he didn't get away before the Draw she just might not find her own comment very funny at all.
Seth proceeded them down the path, alert for any strangers. They reached the house without further incident, and then Morgan discovered something interesting. It seems that Seth is always packed and ready to leave. Within three minutes they were back out of the house and headed for the stables.
They were no more than halfway there when the Draw started.
Morgan dived into the astral to search out a way to prevent an epic earthquake. There was no place to put the energy; no way to channel it safely away. Filled with a kind of despair Morgan waited for the disaster.
As the Draw built he cringed, but right before the moment he expected it to explode in cataclysm the whole pool of energy withered away. He just caught a fraction of a glimpse of the means. It was something in the fabric of the realm itself. As it came back to life it... corrected itself. The fabric of space opened like a million tiny mouths and the pieces of energy dropped away to somewhere he couldn't follow.
Then it was over.
The realm went on about its business and it was as if the energy had never been there. No earthquake, no catastrophe. Nothing.
"Well?"
Morgan came back into himself and looked as Seth. "I don't have the faintest idea. It's just gone."
Seth looked a question at Morgan.
"No point in running off now I guess, let's go home."

* * *

Seth was busily transcribing a drawing from a book onto a huge sheet of velum while Morgan tried to puzzle out useful ways to describe N-dimensionally matrixed energy transfers to a bunch of pre-initiate teenagers. It would be the hairiest and most important lecture of his upcoming course. He was just trying to mix together a metaphor about solving a puzzle made of live eels when someone began insistently pounding on his office door.
His idea lost, he yelled "In!" at the door.
"Magus Morgan?" a young initiate in a soiled aotahe opened the door as he asked the question, his control over the garment wavering as he tried to juggle the enchantment and his words in his mind.
"Yes?" Morgan half pitied the kid, being sent on errands while still learning the protective disciplines, but his annoyance at the interruption showed through more.
"The chair summons you to his office."
"What? Now?" He really didn't mean to bark at the kid.
"Um, yes sir," the charge on his aotahe dipped perilously close to failure, "the matter is one of some urgency."
"What matter is it?"
"I do not know sir, I was just sent to fetch you."
"Damn... all right." Morgan flipped his book closed and rose with a sigh.
Seth was silently and automatically behind them as they cleared the door.
When they reached the office of the chair Seth was allowed to accompany him in for a change. Morgan knew the chair to be a generally accessible man known for his frank manner. It is an odd truth that with all the infighting common between mages, the very highest seats of power at the school tended to be held by honest and forthright people. Even the schemers seem to need trustworthy people in the top-most positions.
"Greetings Morgan, quite a performance at your drawing out."
"Thank you sir, you sent for me?"
"Yes, are you aware of the rash of wildings in Raith`taria province?"
"Vaguely sir, they were discussing it at court when I went to swear fealty."
"Well things are getting ugly up there and the crown has asked us to send someone."
"I take it I've been chosen to go."
"You clearly have the capacity to deal with some of their problems and, quite frankly, since you have not begun to teach your sections yet, you are the most expendable... That isn't the best word but you know what I mean."
"I think I understand sir. What exactly am I supposed to do?"
The chair pushed a sheaf of papers across his desk. "There are writs of authority, acquisition and demand there. I've scheduled you a slot on the gate at second noon bell in three days. The school will cast you, your man, two horses, and whatever possessions you choose, to the kings garrison in Raith`taria. Once there you will do what you can. Your main duty is to discover why the wildings are happening and see what can be done to stop them. There are combat trained personnel and magi there to deal with the immediate threats.
"The death toll is rising out there so I am giving you a recaller and whatever else you want from the library. I want this solved but I want you back safe."
"I understand sir."
"Good fortune to you Morgan."
The meeting was over. Morgan turned and left for home. He handed Seth most of the sheaf of papers while he started on the first. The royal charge was exactly as the chair had said, a demand for assistance in discovering the cause of the wildings. The writs of acquisition were direct and complete, he could take anything he chose from the schools collection of books and equipment but if he survived he'd better bring it all back. He was also entitled to whatever mundane items he wanted, and which would be subject to far more lax accounting. Not only that, they were providing access to the gate and he wouldn't have to charge it himself, the school would be providing mages to operate it. The situation was obviously very serious indeed.
Morgan's comings and goings were getting to be common and Seth was, as always, ready to see them off at a moments notice. The collection of magic materials was more problematic. The recaller was an obvious choice, but the single use device would not allow him to bring anything back apart from what he carried on his person. He'd have to take what he needed on the first try and only use the recaller to save his neck. The question was what would he need. He could take half the library if he chose but he couldn't possibly use half the library in any kind of timely way.
One thing they did get was a horse for Seth, bought outright with the writ of demand. Seth picked the most unlikely specimen, a huge, slightly shaggy beast with something of an attitude. It wasn't quite ugly but it was close. They cut a deal on a used saddle and tack and Seth spent the better part of the day riding it `just to get the feel'.
That's how, three days later, they arrived in the gate chamber with two horses and less gear than they had taken to Queens Landing. Beyond a change of clothes each and the tools of their respective trades they carried three books, the recaller, and a couple of the more obscure pieces of the schools collection of enchantments. One book was on geomancy, one on magical creatures, and the third was Morgan's personal log. As for the enchantments, they were of the lens-and-filter variety, used to juggle power in several different, almost generic ways. They were both expecting to rely on Morgan's wits and Seth's steel more than anything else.
The school's gate was one of largest and most powerful of its ilk. It was also the oldest known to still function. It wasn't a portal, the typical doorway kind of gate, instead the contents of an entire room could be cast to a remote location. It was a slow thing to focus and it could be tricky to find a place where the space in the room could match free space at the remote end, but nothing else known could move the mass that the old gate would. Its slowness to focus was the main reason that the gate schedule was always so packed. That and its usefulness for shipping bulk goods. The school did a lucrative side business casting things all over the realm. The fees were... extreme.
Morgan was a little unsettled at letting someone else fling him most of the way across the continent but he didn't have any choice. The room in the old school that was itself the gate had wide doors leading out to a small courtyard. It was through those doors that Morgan and Seth led their horses. When Seth closed the doors behind them Morgan could feel the unknown mages energizing the gate.
The room was gloomy and dark, and huge. The twenty minutes or so it took to focus the gate felt like forever. The wearhouse sized room redefined the words echo and silence. They were free to move around the empty room but there was nothing whatsoever for them to do. They couldn't even really talk because those mages effort meant they were not really alone. With barely enough light to see by everything else was ruled out. Finally the walls of the room turned misty and the floor started to get kind of soft and insubstantial. Then in a snap the room was gone and they were in the middle of a small parade field. They'd been flung, sent to their destination without actually materializing the gate room at the far, now near, end. A full two way transport would have taken much longer.
"Whoa, that's annoying" Morgan blinked back tears and shaded his eyes from the sudden direct sunlight.
"Where are we supposed to go?"
"Over there, I think." Morgan pointed to a low garrison building that was flying the king's colors.
Seth began walking his horse toward the building and Morgan followed. It was just close enough to be not worth mounting.
The parade field obviously hadn't seen much recent use, the same could not be said for the garrison. Mud from the last several rains was tracked in and throughout the front room. It was always a bad sign when dirt was left in place on a military post. The front room was deserted so Morgan followed some noise back into the building.
The noises led into a side hall and then into a barracks room that had been converted into an infirmary. A more torn up lot of men and women Morgan never hopped to see. These people had literally been through the wars recently. The creatures that show up at the margins and that come out of wildings can be really nasty, and clearly this region was suffering more than a little from those sorts of visitors.
"Can I help you?" A haggard mundane doctor approached them, clearly hoping the reverse would be true.
"I'm Morgan, a magus, just come from Queens College. My man Seth." He gestured. "I'm looking for someone in charge."
"You a healer?"
"Not much of one, but I'm good in concert if you have one here... I'm really here to try to find a way to stop the wildings."
"Even better if you can do it. You just missed them, the last of the healthy just rode out to stop a pack of Cheothera before it reaches Earn freehold. The commander is down in the next ward but Ithria might be done with her."
"Thank you, I'll try there."
That more torn up lot that he'd just never hopped to see was waiting for him in the next room. The injured here made the other lot look like malingerers. Ithria was apparently a talent and healer of the first order if not the greatest power. There was a webbing of power stretched across the room binding all of the patients to one very tired woman. She clearly didn't have enough energy to completely heal any of her patients but she was keeping them all alive by using herself mercilessly. The bindings would slowly heal all the people if she could keep them up long enough. She was bent over a woman who had suffered a nearly complete disembowelment. For just a moment Morgan wondered what it took to end up in the morgue here, and instantly regretted the thought.
Ithria finished with the woman and she stood, the very picture of exhaustion.
"How goes it?" Morgan asked.
"As well as I can make it. They'll all live I think, but I haven't got the strength to do any more."
Morgan ran a quick scan on her. "You need to rest your channels as soon as you finish with this lot. You're near systemic collapse."
She sat down in a overstuffed chair near the center of the room. "I've had this same weave going for a month, every time I get one stable enough to release there are two more needing in. I'm just a local healer, this is the only way I can handle the load at all."
A month, that was a feat of magical stamina. The magnitude of her strength might not be that great but its breadth was impressive and the weave itself was subtle and effective. "I'm no healer but maybe I can help. You do concert work?"
"Sorry, no, I've never had that kind of training."
Morgan tossed Seth his pack and then fished one of the schools smaller artifacts out of his coat pocket. He sat cross legged in front of her and prepared himself. He wouldn't be able teach her concert work without her loosing her grip on the web, but he could do something a little more drastic. He offered her keth'pethod, a mind hold that would allow her to use his power via her talent. It wasn't the unbreakable submission of keth'yetal but it was a first cousin to it.
Ithria had no idea what he was doing or how to respond so Morgan touched her a little on a different mode and showed her. "This is my essence, grip like so and draw thus, it will respond as if it were your own. Do not worry I will slow you if we approach my limits."
Morgan felt her struggling to master the new idea and technique. After a little playing he felt her awkwardness fade. Her healing talent made her understanding almost instinctive. He felt her question even though she obviously wasn't even up to his meager level of mind work. "I'm ready, go ahead."
In truth Morgan wasn't ready for what came next. Where her skills at mind work and general magic were small, she really was an exquisite healer. He felt himself drawn out and spun around in a dizzying series of interlocking spirals. The amount of energy she took was greater than he'd thought healing would require and in no time he found himself drawing on the artifact. It was a hollow iron tube twisted in several loops then joined end to end with itself. The space inside was filled with the powdered remains of who-knew-what. True to his research the device let him draw earth power from all around him and turn in into other forms of energy. Exactly how it worked was beyond him but it did work and he found himself loosing track of how long and how much he was drawing.
The patterns of power Ithria drew him out into were etched in his mind where they would stay until he puzzled them out. He'd felt fire used to speed cellular metabolism with air providing oxygen and drawing off carbon dioxide. Water and earth were used to wash and grind away dead tissues. Odd mixings of the various forms of spirit had been used to tell the cells how to grow to fill the gaps in hard and soft tissues and generally keep body and soul together. Even though all the parts made sense in and of themselves the whole was hard to grasp. Through it all the stony awareness was grinding through his mind, and in the distance he could feel a wrongness that he finally recognized as the wildings themselves.
He was only vaguely aware of it when Ithria finished the weaving and released the 'pethod. She'd asked him if he was all right, which he was, and then Seth helped him into a for lack of any other placed to put him. This sorcery was very like weaving, where the sorcerer was weaver, loom, and thread. Healing at this level wasn't something that happened all at once. The cloth was made but Morgan would have to be that cloth for a little while for it to finish its work. After Seth made as sure as he could that Morgan was indeed all right, he took a seat on the floor at the end of the bed and waited. Ithria herself fell asleep in her chair, free of her web for the first time in seeming ages.
Feelings of hunger, extreme hunger, began to impose themselves on Morgan's mind some time later and he realized that the healing was beginning to take hold of the patients.
"Seth, food! Find food! They need to eat and it's killing me."
For the next couple of hours Seth and Ithria saw to the patients' mundane needs. Seth having to nearly restrain Morgan to keep him from eating himself to death in sympathy.
Once the last, most seriously injured patients woke and began eating, and the first of them dropped out of the new healing net, Ithria was sure Morgan could and would hold the weave so she excused herself. Even just the rest she had taken in that time had done wonders for her. Morgan's eyes started itching when she did a few minor healings in the other room. Deft as she had been, Morgan had been shuttle, loom, fiber, and cloth to that hand and it had bruised his channels. He'd be a fool not to get out of there before the next round of wounded got in.
"Who are you?" It was the woman who'd been nearly disemboweled. She was talking to Seth who'd just brought her some food.
"My name is Seth ma'am." When she was clearly not satisfied he added, "I was gated in today with my master, Morgan," he kind of nodded and pointed with the tray, "Magus of Queens College."
The woman took the tray. Around her fourth or fifth mouthful of food she looked over at Morgan and said "What are you doing abed? Run into trouble already?"
"No, just recovering from the healing."
"A healer? Blast!... Sorry, no offense intended, and personal gratitude and all, but what we need is someone to close up these wildings, and they send a healer..."
"Um, I'm no healer, I just helped yours out a little. I am here to see what I can do about the wildings."
"Thank the gods... Its getting pretty rough here."
"I take it you are the commander. I intend to ride out as soon as I can unless you have a better idea."
"I think I may, if you can wait till morning."
"Fair enough."
It was more than fair as he didn't think he'd be ready till the following afternoon.

Chapter 18
Strangers

The door slammed open. "... saying that it was stupid!"
"No, you damned hothead. It was dangerous, unnecessary, even foolhardy to flank a bull Quaviesh alone."
"Bull. If I'd waited for orders, or even `till someone else could join me', we'd have lost E'tsar, and probably two or three more."
"How do you know." The second of the two men flipped the door shut behind him.
"I know damn it!" The man in the lead rounded on his companion. "Three cows and a bull, seven sword and a geomancer, that's tight odds in the first place. Two each for the cows, and lucky at that they were grazing on their kills, leaves me and E'tsar for the bull. Now he's a fine piece of work and sniffs them beasts out better than I can figure, but he's no use in a fight and we'd all be off the spit an in the fire if we lost him. So that leaves me and an angry bull when them cows get ta' bawling."
"So you go riding off `n play tag with something that would have eaten your horse and barely noticed you were on it at the time!"
"I kept him busy long enough for everybody to finish up and come help. If I hadn't we'd have more than a few light hurts among us wouldn't we?"
The second man looked at the first with no good response, shook his head as if to say `you just don't get it', and walked back into the depths of the building.
The first man saluted, "Commander Briene!".
She returned the salute.
"You look much better, I wasn't expecting to see you up for days. Ithria find inspiration?"
"No, we have new help. This is Morgan. He's here from Queens College to see if he can stop the wildings."
The man extended his hand as an equal "Raiolal Neizchka, First Sergeant, glad to have you here."
Morgan shook his hand, "Glad to be here, if I can help."
Ithria passed quickly through the room and outside without a word. Moments later Morgan's eyeballs began to itch and burn again in response to her magic. He grunted softly, leaned against the table, bent his head, and clasped his temples with thumb and middle finger of his right hand. Within heartbeats he felt Seth's hand on his shoulder.
"I'm okay, it's just sympathetic..."
"You want anything for it?"
Morgan couldn't guess what Seth might possibly be offering but he nodded. Whatever it was would be interesting to know anyway. Seth left to prepare the aforementioned `anything'.
Shortly thereafter Morgan caught Raiolal giving him an odd look. He wasn't sure why, but he decided to keep it in mind for a while.
Ithria and some soldiers brought through the recently injured and recovering. True to his hope, Ithria had been able to fully heal this batch of wounded, even though they'd not been that badly off, it still hurt his head and he didn't want to be around for a major work.
Seth returned with a cup of odd smelling but delicious tea and began rubbing his neck in a way that was damn close to magic by itself. Whatever was in the tea began blocking out those bruised places in his mind while Seth's hands, kneading at the base of his skull, brought some real relief from the damage he'd already suffered. Seth seemed to know when he'd done enough and he quietly stopped.
The whole group was waiting on him, it seemed, and able to concentrate again he focused on them. The geomancer, a young man named E'tsar from an even further northwest corner of the continent, had joined them without Morgan having noticed. Maps were out on the table and there was nothing now to stop them getting to business.
The maps were exquisite and far too valuable to mark up, so a sheet of glass was laid atop them and grease pencils were used to mark the glass.
"This is where the wildings first began." E'tsar marked a series of contour lines that followed along the slope of a small valley. "Everything I can sense says that the center is still there somewhere."
"Nobody has been able to get near there in months. The mist-wall has been advancing in spurts." Commander Briene drew a series of lines and half moons on the map punctuating each drawing with the word "here". "So now, even with most of the construction removed and the land reverted it still won't clear and nobody can get anywhere near it."
Seth spoke "Has anybody tried to ride through the mist?"
Raiolal all but cut him off "That would be suicide."
"No, sir, not necessarily." Seth broke in. "One of the things I learned on the Margins is that the mist-wall will recede for a small group of strong-willed individuals."
This was news to everybody else present.
"You've actually seen this?"
"I have actually done it sir."
"The whole mist-wall moved? That's impossible!"
"No sir, not the whole wall, it kind of bulged in. Sir."
Morgan paused a moment, thinking simple circular geometry "Seth, won't the mist-wall close in behind us if we go in more than a short distance?"
Seth sorted through his experiences and some of that hidden knowledge in his head, "Probably, but if there is anything of the fabric of the realm behind the mist there should be a stable bubble around the group."
"Risky..." Morgan thought about it for a while, but there was one inescapable truth, "if there are any answers they are going to be in the middle there so I don't see we have much choice."
Morgan hadn't been thinking beyond himself and Seth when he said `we' but the commander clearly had a larger group in mind, and began discussing who should accompany them. Given the relatively tiny number of hale soldiers at the garrison, and subtracting the minimum necessary for patrols, it was decided that only two could go with them. Raiolal and the named but not present Carteher were both good soldiers and apparently the `strongest personalities' on base. From what wasn't said Morgan thought it'd be a less than peaceful little group.
There was little need or time for ceremony but Morgan pulled commander Briene aside and pulled the ring off of his left wrist.
"Do you know what this is?"
"Yes."
Morgan knew that she didn't really, but as long as she was familiar with what is was supposed to be it would be enough. "I want to leave this with you just in case you need to reach me."
"Won't you need it to control him?"
"No, I have complete confidence in him."
"His imprinting that good?"
Morgan realized he was going to have to rephrase his approach. It was said that a person who'd needed to be collared sometimes was twisted enough to slip their imprinting. He didn't want this woman or her charges to mistreat Seth should they become separated.
"No, I have complete confidence in the man, not the imprinting. He was marked and collared because of the well-meaning ignorance of a previous owner. Should we be separated, or he return without me, he knows where he should go and what he should do. Don't interfere, help him if you can."
Commander Briene studied him for a moment and decided to agree. "So why are you leaving this with me if not to see him safely controlled if you don't return."
"As I said, if you have to reach me you can through that, and him. I'm not sure what kind of emergency that might be, nor what I might do from a distance, but just in case..." Morgan kind of shrugged.
"I understand." She believed that Morgan felt the need to be connected so he was leaving it behind.
She was partly right, but even more, a trap is no good if you never leave it alone in the wood to snare its prey. Morgan handed her the ring and a shiver ran up his spine when her fingers passed inside it. It didn't really matter how much of the operator was inside the ring and so fingers counted all the same. Across the room Seth didn't so much as twitch but Morgan was sure he felt it worse.
"One more thing. Please don't handle it unless you need to use it. Just touching it is enough to send distracting pulses through to him and I don't want him to be distracted while he is busy saving my hide."
"Aye. I hear that." The commander locked the ring in her desk.

* * *

Carteher, as it turned out, was a Wythria, a leathery-skinned pseudo-quadruped about the size and shape of a large, long-limbed alligator. His skin bunched and layered at the joints like a Rhino. There was also something of the dolphin to his look, mostly about the face, though there was no blow-hole and you just wanted to think of him as a lizard despite the lack of scales. Fast, supple, strong, and as intelligent as any man, but known as generally rampant misanthropes of the first caliber. He'd come as part of a delegation from a neighboring continent. He was there to observe human military technique. Morgan was as surprised to see the creature keeping up with the horses by running on its knuckles as he'd been when he'd first spoke. In all the two additions made a study in tension. Not only didn't they like each other, but neither of them seemed to care much for Morgan and Seth. If that wasn't going to be enough passive mental output to push back the mist nothing would be. Still, Morgan felt the commander might have dumped two of her problem cases on him.
They rode, or whatever, in silence.
The countryside they passed through seemed unremarkable at first glance, but as they went the signs of wilding became more apparent. Most of the residents here couldn't afford to up and move away, but they didn't seem to be venturing out to tend to to their business. It wasn't an image of rampant ruination, there was just a air of disuse and neglect around the edge of everything. Even the road looked largely undisturbed since the last rain with none of the hard-packed dirt churned loose into the normally all-pervasive dust Morgan associated with travel.
For a while Morgan tried to get a good look at Carteher and the way he walked. Finally he got a handle on it in his head. Take a normal size man, double the length of his torso, give him a long muscular tail, beef up the arms and legs to carry the load, replace his head with the long snouted skull of a flesh eating lizard and finally cover him with dense leathery hide. Of course he didn't really hint at a human form at all, but the image fit. The trick to walking on `all fours' with his hands clenched into fists was odd too, but biology had provided horny plates across the knuckles of a hand with symmetric metacarpals. Some distant relation to Dracos Hybera or Draconis Tieseia no doubt, he didn't have the third pair of limbs, usually wings, of any of the major dragon-like species. Wherever his racial origin, it was damn difficult to strike up a traveling conversation with Morgan on horseback and Carteher's head only about a foot and a half above ground.
All in all the horses were taking it well.
Raiolal was another puzzle all together. He'd seemed affable enough when he'd come in this morning, but since then he'd been annoyingly distant. He didn't actually say or do anything rude. When he spoke, what he did say had to be beaten out of him with a stick. Morgan hadn't caught any more odd looks or anything. Apparently that first strange look had set his mind aplenty.
Morgan decided to study the text on wildings and wait till something else nudged the group off dead center.
Morgan's stomach started grumbling sometime in the early afternoon. The part of his mind dedicated to making odd observations realized that never getting his midday meal while traveling might be some twisted little part of his eternal fate. The hunger was just getting noteworthy when something unappetizing impinged on the edges of his awareness. He reined up short and all but sniffed the wind, trying to get a scent on the disturbance.
Seth turned his huge beast of a horse almost instantly and brought it back alongside Morgan facing the other way.
His close proximity, like an prearranged signal, sent Morgan's mind spiraling outward looking for the disturbance. He had no idea exactly what it was, but within instants he knew where. Opening his eyes he could see the small farm house several hundred feet down slope from the road. Nothing looked amiss but something from another realm was there abouts, going about some form of noisome business. Business that didn't belong in this realm.
It took only minutes to get to the house, where silence reigned oppressively. There was a slight metallic tang to the air but no hint of commotion anywhere. The four automatically split up to check the house and surroundings as if they had been working together for years. Morgan, his asenses extended as far as they would go without compromising his normal awareness, clutched his athame as he entered the front door.
Things were wrong inside. There was a soft mossy looking coating on everything. Morgan felt at it first with his gloved hand and then ungloved. It looked like moss, but it was dry and rubbery like a drying squid. He poked it kind of hard but there was no reaction.
The carpet of stuff, he realized, was not everywhere. There was a clear space around the edge of the floor and it seemed to spill out of the next room like a pile of sand. Morgan eased around the occupied space until he could get a good look through the doorway. Inside the next room the stuff, whatever it was, became a smooth shiny mound of translucent goo. Five people, a man, a woman, and three youngsters, were buried neck-deep in the stuff.
"Hey in there, are you all right?" Morgan said it simultaneously loud and soft, he wanted the people to hear but he didn't want to stimulate the... thing... if he could help it.
None of them reacted at all. Morgan first thought they might be dead until he saw one of them blink their eyes reflexively. They were each staring in rapt attention at a point that was just out of Morgan's line of sight. He circled around the other way and looked into the other room. He could now see the thickest part of the thing and what came to mind was a giant frying egg, or amoeba. The thickest point, the yolk to his mind, was a mass of slowly shifting shades of pink, blue, and gray. He shifted to his asenses in an attempt to figure out what exactly it was and what he should do about it.
The creature was operant, if not outright talented. It was engaged in a steady interlacing manipulation of energies, mostly odd forms of emotional and spiritual energy. The pattern was intriguing but it didn't seem to be accomplishing anything he could detect. He began to tentatively probe the mass to see if it was intelligent. His probes met no resistance going in but as he started pulling away he realized his mistakes. The punch-line of a joke as old as magic went scampering through his head, 'but it was so enchanting', even as he lost his way among the scintillating fibers of spirit.

* * *

Seth had taken to the barn first. The homestead was well established, several generations had probably worked and lived in these buildings. His search of the barn was relatively quick but quite thorough. Years on the margins had taught him where and how to look for out-world creatures. It took him a while to check all the dark corners, under the hay and straw, and behind the shelves in the root-cellar that had been dug in next to the barn proper. The only thing out of the ordinary was the way the animals seemed to have gone without care for several days.
Actually, the fact that the animals were even alive told him things. Most everything he'd ever encountered in the margins would have eaten the placid, domesticated animals if they'd had the chance. The overlong absence of people was the problem most evident in the barn.
When Seth spotted Carteher propped up against the house, staring into what was probably the kitchen window, he started to get suspicious. The soldier wasn't moving at all but he would have been clearly visible to the occupants, so he wasn't engaged in stealthy observation. Seth watched him for a few moments and his patience was rewarded. Carteher dropped slowly back onto all fours and languidly padded his way around to the back door and into the house.
Seth had watched the man-beast while they'd been traveling. Even at a, for want of a better word, jog, Carteher had been keenly aware of his surroundings. He kind of oozed awareness. The Carteher he'd just seen was as totally the opposite. Inward looking and inured to his entire environment. A zombie or a sleepwalker.
Not good.
Seth had seen men and beasts beguiled and charmed by creatures from beyond the mists before. Carteher clearly counted as one or the other. He'd never himself fell victim to those particular whiles himself, but that was no reason to get cocky. His lady had made some vague intimations as to why he'd been resistant to magical charm when he'd pressed her. She'd also said that someday he might come up against something that would be able to take him over. It was a toss-up.
Seth looked in the window, doing his utmost to make it nothing more than a momentary glance. With his back to the wall he contemplated what he'd seen. The first rule of making things dead is `right between the eyes'. That clearly would not apply. Thinking of his old arms master and going down the list, as it were, he came to `cut out anything unique'. It'd have to do.
Glancing again he figured out the best way to the center of the thing. It was smooth looking. If it was hard, the footing would be treacherous. It was also fairly thick.
There was no point in putting things off, he slipped in the back door.
As he crossed the mossy outer fringe he pointedly didn't look at any part of the creature. He closed his eyes and listened. He could hear everybody breathing. What the thing was doing to them he couldn't tell. The family had clearly been there much longer than his party yet they seemed to still be alive and whole.
He moved to the center of the creature by touch. It was smooth, and firmer than it looked, and the footing was as bad as he'd guessed. He plunged in his blade. The creature's outer layer was tougher than it looked too, but inside the globe of shifting color was both rigid and free to move away from his short sword. He wouldn't be able to do it much harm with what he was carrying.
Looking over his shoulder he spotted the great sword on Raiolal's back. He slid quickly across to the statue-still man and took the sword.
Struggling back to the high center with the great sword, he knelt on the beast and balanced the sword across his lap. Using his two smaller blades he repeatedly stabbed the creature and pushed the softly glowing globe until it was up against the cupboards and in a corner. Then wedged them in place, holding it pinned there.
With the great sword in both hands he plunged it in and through the creature. He'd deliberately aimed in at an angle that would miss the globe and dig the point into the floor. He didn't have anything much to push against, so he dug his toes into two of the holes he'd made with the smaller blades. Anchored as best as he could manage he began to lever up the great sword, edge first, against the glowing sphere.
He started to make some headway, using the cabinet corner and the blade like a cheese slicer. Just as the first damage began to show on the core, the outer membrane split from the great sword back to one of his footholds.
Suddenly Seth was swimming in a small lake of viscous sludge. He sputtered to the surface in a near panic. Surprisingly he was not being burned by acids the way he'd expected. It was like being waist deep in aspic. The inner surface of the bottom of the creature was wet and slicker than the outer. It took him a while to pound footholds into the lower skin but he did. In a way the rupture had been a great help, it gave him the chance to get some decent leverage. He pushed with all his might and the blade slowly began to cut the globe in half.
He had to re-seat the point of the great sword twice before he was halfway through, but when he got to that halfway point the glowing glob burst and went dark. Gray ooze rushed out and started to mix with the clearer jelly all around him.
Turning about in the glop, Seth searched for something else to do to the creature and was glad to see the people waking up. Morgan's slackened expression just showing the hint of awakening made him grin and he slid the great sword down the slick slope to Raiolal. As he reached for one of his own swords he felt the mass thickening around him. He tried to move carefully but forcefully. Once he had one of the maneuverable short swords he'd be able to use it the way he might use a small pick to draw himself up out of an ice-fishing hole.
He started to turn toward one side, at first nothing moved at all and then one foot came free. "What the..." he didn't get a chance to finish. All at once the thickening mass around him slipped free of the inside surfaces of the creature and he had no kind of footing at all. He was slurped into the gaping wound and instantly surrounded by more of the gelling mass.
He was enveloped, and instantly contained, by the things internal juices. He had nothing to push against and the pliant envelope stretched and rebounded with his struggles. He could do nothing beyond twitch like a bug caught in amber. He didn't even have a choice about holding his breath, his mouth and nose were sealed and he couldn't have forced out a fraction of a breath, let alone inhale.
Seth could hold his breath for over four minutes, when he had a full breath of air anyway. Unless someone woke enough realize where he was and then could get to him in that time, those four minutes were his expected life-span and he knew it. He kept struggling a little, trying to maximize movement and minimize effort. He knew it wouldn't help directly, but he hoped that someone would notice his movements and come for him.

* * *

Morgan had been twisting in the sea of spirit energy filaments for what seemed like forever. The hair-like strands came and went with incredible speed. What he cut and how seemed to make no difference at all. Harder still was the constant bombardment of his senses with the input from the others trapped in the creature. It was like trying to sort a huge bowl of live pasta by length, from inside the bowl, while it was being stirred by seven other people. Despite all that, and by virtue of hours spent studying the collar spell, he was making considerable progress.
With no warning, and for no reason he could detect, the writhing mass of energy suddenly stopped writhing and began to fall apart around him. Taking that gift without question he began laying about himself with a few strands of his own. Like binds-and-cuts like, and while many of the strand forms of spirit differentiated to emotions and states of mind he couldn't even come close to imagining, he quickly matched each one's characteristics, cut every one like it he could reach, and moved on.
It was impossible to tell how long it was taking him since he was trapped in his asenses where time was a raw material not an experience. Still he found himself hurrying in response to an urgency that was as much outside as inside him. Even as he was cutting the mass of the fibrous enchantment the back of his mind was sorting through the experience and becoming increasingly alarmed. With a final incisive thrust the remaining spell fragments fell away and Morgan found himself blinking in the late-afternoon sun.
Once he was free of the burden of his asenses his mind quickly sorted through everything that had happened in the real world. It took several seconds but he finally knew Seth was dying; both how and where. In what was becoming habit, Morgan went from lesser stress to near panic in moments.
Slipping back into the astral, voluntarily this time, Morgan prev'd the beast and found it far too flammable for comfort. Not only was it organically active in the oil-fat pathways, it was chock full of cellulose and fibers, and had a good bit of sugar-alcohol activity too. If he touched it with any form of fire they would all go up in one great big fireball. Stooping to the mostly-mundane Morgan set to carving himself free with his athame. The creature had enveloped most of his legs in the short time he'd been enthralled, apparently eager to make sure it kept him prisoner.
A few more seconds and Morgan was free. The feeling of crushing suffocation was growing inside him. The link between their collars had often given Morgan brief flashes of the pleasant and comforting sense of Seth's existence, now that link was flooding him with that distress. It was only natural, since the collars were woven of their combined essence, but it was infuriating now. The possibility of that link being fatal should one of them die never occurred to him. The only thing in his mind was the imperative need to breathe flooding out toward him from Seth.
Seth was thrashing reflexively now deep within the creature's rubbery mass, making it difficult for Morgan to climb up and across to him. Morgan was desperate to reach him and starting to hyperventilate in sympathy of his need to draw breath. He stabbed into the creature with his athame and made a long cut, but the creature's mass pushed the incision closed. He began cutting long triangular slices free but when he got to the liquid mass there was nothing to cut and no way to make progress. As thoughts of using a weave of tidal forms of water to split the creature started making their way to the front of his mind Carteher clawed his way up beside him.
"Think! send him air boy." Carteher all but had to whack him with his tail to make the words sink into Morgan's panic, once there the immediate solution was obvious, if a little tricky.
Opening a channel through space to allow the air to flow wasn't practical. At least not as far as any of what Morgan knew. What he did was summon a minor elemental, the smallest he could imagine, and set it to work conjuring a stream of air into and then away from inside Seth's throat. The bindings were precise and Morgan had to watch and tweak them for a bit to make sure that just the right amount of air flowed to and from Seth. As the pressure of Seth's need eased itself from inside Morgan's mind he began to be able to think more clearly.

Chapter 19
Bindings

It'd taken the better part of an hour to finesse Seth free of the creatures mass because all of the obvious techniques would have torn him limb from limb in the process. The thing was resistant to magic, mindless, and just plain hard to deal with. Two more hours went to finding a way to dispose of the creature. Seth hadn't killed it, just destroyed its ability to enchant, and there was no way to know how little of it needed to remain for it to be able to regenerate back into full potency. Even burning the house down wasn't a sure way to dispose of it completely.
Morgan had bound earth, air, fire, and even a node of elemental chaos the size of his two fists together into a structure that would grind expel and burn every molecule of the creature, and probably strip the veneer off the furnishings of that part of the house. That was assuming the creatures essence hadn't soaked into the structure there, in which case those parts of the structure would be scoured away to nothing. A plume of orange and blue flame as wide as a man and several times as tall hung in the air next to the house. Few things had ever been burned so thoroughly, and that process would take all night.
Come sunset the flame had attracted several armed men from the neighboring homesteads. Once the circumstance had been explained the five victims were delivered into the care of their neighbors. The two adults were brother and sister, the children were one of his and two of hers. They would all recover in a few days. At least seven others weren't so lucky. Their parents, spouses, and other children had been consumed. Morgan had found at least that many remains, possibly more, in digestive vacuoles spread throughout the creatures mass. Those bodies would be burned away with the rest of the creature.
Morgan had set and tied off a spell which would roam the countryside for months searching for any more of the things. Morgan hoped never to encounter anything fully sentient from whatever reality had spawned it. The others were thinking much the same thing as they made camp just a little too close to the homestead for comfort. Morgan couldn't leave while the spell rooted out and burned away that terror.
"What?" Morgan realized someone was addressing him.
It was Carteher, "I said `I take it you are no combat mage'."
"Eh, no, I'm a scholar and practitioner in high-energy magics."
Raiolal probed the fire with a twig, "Do you know what that thing was?"
"Some kind of parasite. It trapped sentient creatures, consumed their life energies until their ability to generate them broke down, and then it would digest the bodies. Very nasty."
"Is that what it was doing to your jen'ne'atahe?" The shape of Carteher's mouth made the `U' and `W' sounds nearly impossible, and Morgan had never heard that last word before. He took it that Carteher was referring to Seth.
"No, I think that was a defense, or maybe something like a scab. I don't really know which, but it wasn't like the other... bodies."
Raiolal looked at Carteher, "So how'd you know he wasn't a combat mage?"
"The way he lost his head, no one raised to combat would have. Especially when only one man was at risk."
A spontaneous awkward silence descended.
Without looking up from what he was cooking Seth dropped a few words into that silence. "Well I, for one, am glad he got upset over just one man being at risk."
The silence resumed for a few heartbeats, then Carteher and Raiolal broke out laughing at the same time.
"Well said boy!" Raiolal barked out between laughs.
Morgan and Seth both joined in the laughing and the tension broke all around, but the corner of Morgan's mind that was always watching noted the `boy' anyway. Carteher had called him boy too, back in the house. It had the feel of something that was going to stick. Morgan had no idea how old Carteher was but Raiolal was certainly no more than a handful of years his senior. He was going to have to lay that `boy' nonsense to rest, at least as soon as he could see a way to do it that didn't somehow prove himself the child.
In that nearly annoying, competent way Seth had about him, he finished producing a delicious smelling dinner using their bland field rations and gods only knew what else. He divvied up the portions and passed out the plates. Raiolal looked at his portion as if it might bite him at first, but the aroma won out and he dug in with some gusto.
He hummed in delight at the taste then really spoke directly to Seth for the first time. "You been in the field before boy?"
"Yes Sir."
"Can you use that steel?"
Morgan butt-in, "Seth, show him your marks."
Seth nodded. He slipped his thumb under the edge of his wyrsa hide armor and peeled it back. Two layers of hide tore apart with the wet sound of tearing flesh. Morgan had never noticed the way the hides clung together with the tenacity of life. He was fascinated with the armor. He'd seen Seth before.
The two soldiers were, however, quite impressed. While the three of them began talking combat, strategy, and the ways of war, Morgan picked up one of Seth's bucklers and vrec'd the hides.
They were still alive, after a fashion. The armor was made of two layers of hide with the suede sides pressed together. The pieces were cleverly mismatched so that each had a tongue free that would match up with the other and bind them closed around Seth's arm. Peering closer Morgan could see the residue of saliva. Applying a little of his own, Morgan saw how the suede regained motility. When he touched the two layers together the tiny fibers interlocked and drew the hides into a nearly unbroken whole. It took a surprising amount of force to separate the layers. Letting himself become engrossed in the experience of discovery, he explored the oddity at some length.
When he looked up from the skins he realized that he was being studiously ignored. Seth had re-armored except for the buckler Morgan was studying. He handed over the hide and resumed eating.
"So your man here tells us you are very talented." Carteher was half asking a question and half making a statement.
Morgan shrugged.
"I think he must be the strongest mage anybody at the school has ever seen." Morgan was oddly pleased at the hint of pride in Seth's voice.
"Why you think that?" Raiolal asked.
"Oh, the way they all scattered when he did a little showing off. That's how he pulled this duty." Morgan squinched up his face remembering the blunder that got him into all this. Seth winked at him and the other two guffawed a little. Field soldiers bonding. Go figure.
"So mage, you like to show off... you do any tricks?" It took Morgan a heartbeat to realize Carteher was being friendly.
"One or two." Morgan reached into the campfire and drew out a large chunk of flame plasma. The fire flared forge-hot for a moment as he forced it to burn faster than was strictly natural. He held the plasma for a moment while the other men's eyes cleared from the brief flash. To hold it without burning himself he'd changed the balance of heat and light, and a few other things. Most people thought the seven prime houses of magical energy were pure, but inside each there were hundreds of flavors and purposes. To make a hand-sized ball of plasma that could be held took a good bit of twisting inside the structures of the house of fire.
Morgan gave the plasma weight, broke it into several fist sized chunks and began to juggle. It was exactly the kind of thing that common knowledge said was too dangerous to do lightly. For Morgan it was almost an idle hobby. Some ten years ago he taken to choosing a house and playing in it. Some five ago he'd begun playing amongst the houses, making sculptures of mixed elements like flame and ice. Over time those idylls had become a kind of meditation for him, even though this kind of play was the exactly the kind of thing that got students expelled. As a full Magus, he no longer had to care.
Keeping five orbs of flame moving in and above his hands; without his power he could barely manage to juggle three mundane objects; he made eye contact with each of the three men in turn. Then, in a way that no mundane juggler could have managed five became six. Normally he could have managed twice that many but with the incineration, the wards around the camp, and such, six brought him to the edge of strain. With enough fire in the air to keep him honest, and occupy the parts of himself that might flinch from the truth, he began a confession of sorts.
"I made a lot of mistakes today. Enough that I find Carteher's assessment... generous." he began in a halting voice that revealed some of the strain he'd put himself under. "First, I didn't charge my aotahe or shield myself, a mistake I wouldn't accept from a first year student. Second I didn't shield any of you which was just plain stupid. Third, when you see a bunch of people staring in rapt attention... where they look, you shouldn't. Fourth..."
He had a lot to get off his chest and generally think through. While he was roasting himself before them, he also varied his tricks to keep things interesting. He even let each of them play with a little plasma, handing it around like children at show and tell. He also drew them out a little and got them to talk about the way things should have went. What Morgan hoped nobody noticed, except perhaps Seth, who noticed more than he'd ever say to anybody, was that whenever anybody made a particularly good point he'd allowed himself to be burned a little. Not enough to do himself any real harm, but enough to put a sting to the words so that he would not forget.
By the time they had finished Morgan's hands were an angry red, and throbbing.
The "show" ended and all four of them were talking freely. The topic ranged across memory and whimsy as any unforced conversation will. By opening himself to the two strangers Morgan had done something few mages had ever done, not that he'd done it on purpose. He'd become accessible in their minds. Somewhere just above hedge-wizard, mages tended to break free of their dependence on the rest of their communities. As a rule they'd go over all mystical and distant. While that separation had its uses, it didn't make for good company in the woods a continent away from home, or, for that matter, loyal compatriots who would think to watch your back. To both the guardsman Morgan just became `the only human mage they'd ever met'.
When they finally turned in, Seth quietly slipped Morgan a tiny pot of salve without comment.

* * *

Seth was hunted by his dreams all night. The worst was the new one. Helpless and suffocating and waiting forever. Bad as it was he didn't stir in the night. He never did.
Morgan's dreams were, even by comparison, a thundering mess. The small node of chaos suspended inside the incinerator spell disturbed him continuously. Holding a chaos node had been known to render mages temporarily, or even permanently, insane. Nothing of that night made any sense at all, and he thrashed in his sleep so much that he might have been better off staying awake.
The incineration finished just after daybreak. The kitchen area of the house fared better than Morgan thought it would. It looked like someone had scoured everything with a harsh wire brush, but nothing structural had been claimed. Outriders from the neighbors came and had a final chat with Morgan where nothing new was said. And finally they got back on the road.

* * *

The mist wall, a neutral gray border between solid creation and something much less dependable, rose straight up through the roof of the realm. By way of some mechanism that nobody really understood, the more than seven mile high phenomenon wasn't at all visible until you got as near to it as it was high. The entire realm was surrounded by that mist, and on rare occasions something would perturb some place within the realm proper and a regional mist wall would rise up. As that place healed under the bandage of mist, the enshrouding cloud would shrink away. The last time a mist wall had been seen this far away from the margins was nearly four centuries ago.
This region of mist was growing, not shrinking, and creating even a small mist would take the concerted effort of three or more strong talents hell bent on mutual destruction, laying waste to everything around them. That wildings were happening all through the region, letting nasty and mundane things of every description slip from their home realities into the realm, was just icing. Morgan was ahorse and rapt in study of his books when the group passed inside the Lathrein Limit and the mist became visible.
The huge cylinder of haze was oppressive and the subtle change it caused in his companions was what brought Morgan up from his book. The smooth surface rising straight up and curving away to each side assaulted the mind. It was just small enough to be like swallowing infinity; infinity itself being too big for the human mind to comprehend and so generally only perceived as something small and flat. Morgan vrec'd, barely able to span the seven miles, but the wall of mist didn't register as anything at all. He closed his book and stuffed it into a saddlebag. Things should be getting less stable as they approached the wall, and he wanted to be ready.
It happened as if on order. Morgan saw a slight shimmer surround them and bellowed "Hold!" far louder than he'd intended.
Seth and Raiolal reigned in as one with Morgan's command. Morgan looked around but didn't see Carteher anywhere.
Raiolal rounded his mount and searched for threat. In a few beats he looked to Morgan, "What's happening? Where's Carteher?"
"We're wilding. Stay still and wait for it to finish. Carteher's on the other side of the boundary. Hopefully he will know not to cross the boundary, or if he did cross he'll know to cross back out."
"So we're in some other realm?"
"Yes... well not really, were still kind of in our own reality, a chunk of it that has temporarily traded places with a chunk from another reality altogether, any way. In a while they'll switch back the way they belong, but anything that crosses the boundary an odd number of times will be in the wrong place when things straighten themselves out... So we stay still and wait."
"E'tsar said he could collapse the wildings if he caught them happening, why don't you do that?"
"Because we're inside it and there's a good chance that it'd leave us stranded."
"That doesn't make sense, if collapsing the thing puts everything right like he said, then we'd get put back where we belong."
"It doesn't work that way."
Raiolal didn't look at all convinced.
"Look at the mist."
"Yea so?"
"Well the mist is only in our realm, it can't happen in a naturally occurring reality." Morgan paused to look around, "now look there." He pointed just above the horizon to the apparent west.
Raiolal stared for a minute at a moon, still visible in the mid morning sky, "That's not one of ours..." The reality of their situation starting to sink in.
"From inside here we see both realms as equally real possibilities, kind of a `some of each' proposition with a touch of `neither' thrown in for measure. From outside I could know what went where. From inside there is no telling what I might snare if I threw out a line, so if I tried to move us where that line went, it'd be like sailing an ocean with my eyes closed. No telling where we'd dock."
Raiolal thought it through for a bit and remembered yesterdays encounter with a shiver. "Eh, maybe we should just wait..."
Seth spoke up. "We should probably dismount just in case anything comes along to spook the horses."
They dismounted and stood there in the middle of their tiny spot of safe ground for several hours.
The wilding finally reverted when a small bird flew into their little chunk of reality. There was no sensation. One instant the slight shimmering was there, the next it was gone. The bird didn't even seem to notice, or change its course, despite having been plucked from its home universe.
Carteher was curled up in the middle of the road, back the way they'd come about a hundred yards. They all walked toward each other.
When they met Raiolal asked him "Did you cross?"
"Yes, right when it happened, so I just got back out and hoped you'd all noticed."
"How'd you know whether you belonged inside or out?" Morgan asked.
"You folk spend too much time too far away from the ground... I just looked for our tracks."
Ask a naive question, get a useful answer.
"I think I'm going to have to come up with something better if we are really going to go into the mist..."
They all stopped for a while so that Morgan could do a little thinking and subsequent work. The three of them generally left him alone and were as quiet as possible while he worked. A couple of times Morgan broke out of thought and more or less raked Seth over the coals in search of some esoteric piece of knowledge or experience he might have tucked away in his memory. At one point he demanded a spare bowstring from Carteher, who's bow was quite a bit longer than a human might use, and then went back into his mental retreat.
About an hour after getting the string Morgan pronounced himself prepared, and proceeded to cut a length of the string and tie it twice around each of their wrists. He didn't bother to explain anything about what he was doing. The strangers took it with no more protest than Seth. The casting was messy with plenty of waste energies arcing harmlessly, but spectacularly, from Morgan to ground at seemingly random intervals. Said discharges never failing to startle everyone but Morgan.
Finally he took several quick steps away from the party, said "hold onto the horses", and then all hell broke loose around him. There was light, and noise, and wind, and all manner of other disturbances for several heartbeats and then there was dead silence. Morgan gave no indication that he was finished however, so they stood their distances and fought the horses. A deep bass rumble rose slowly up from everywhere and then subsided. Then Morgan brushed his hands together like a baker removing flour and walked back to them smiling.
Seth looked at him and asked "How'd it go?"
"A nice piece of work if I do say so myself. We are all now tied to each other and to the realm itself in two different ways. Whatever we cross into I will at least be able to bring us back... provided nobody looses a limb." He tapped the string tied around his wrist meaningfully.
"Can we get on with it now?" The more Raiolal had time to think about this mission the less he was liking it.
Seth snatched Morgan out of the air when he fell trying to mount his horse. A sudden attack of weakness or dizziness often follows impromptu spell-casting. A fact Seth knew better than Morgan, having spent more time in the field. Field mages, especially combat mages, don't always get a chance to balance their spells completely. Every bit of energy they didn't account for in the casting has to be suppressed by their metabolism, usually a short time after they set aside their power and without their conscious participation.
"Whoa, backlash" Morgan muttered while he tried to regain his senses.
"Is he okay?" Raiolal asked from his horse.
"I've caught better." Seth answered, sure Raiolal would not get the joke.
Seth got Morgan standing and turned to face him, held both his shoulders and watched his face for signs. Backlash could amount to anything from the kind if dizziness you get if you stand up to quickly to a fatal cascade of energy. Seth had seen one sorcerer lay waste to an entire battalion only burn to death in his own waste energies a minute after he'd finished.
Morgan shook his head once or twice and then smiled up at Seth. "Thanks for the assist, it's okay now."
Seth asked the question Lady Korane told him he should always ask. "What'd you miss?"
Morgan blinked up at him uncomprehendingly for a beat or two then understanding dawned, "um, potential energy, difference in altitude between here and the garrison. I used the control ring as one of the anchors." He pause again. "Why do I know that...?"
"My lady told me that every Mage could figure out what backlashed if they thought to ask themselves while they were still recovering. She instructed me to always ask her. I assumed you'd want the same."
Morgan had never heard even a hint at that backlash could be diagnosed... "Outstanding, keep it up but ah... don't spread it around..." He kind of thumped Seth on the chest to signal his complete recovery.
Seth let him turn and mount, trying not to be too obvious about hanging close just in case he fell again. The cumulative mass of four people raised several thousand feet equaled enough potential energy to do more than knock a man loopy for a half a minute or so, and Seth knew it. Nobody noticed him shake his head in wonder as he mounted his own horse.

Chapter 20
Uncertainties

Within a mile of the mist wall things had gotten really unstable. It seemed as if small areas were wilding and clearing every other minute. Once or twice they were almost enclosed again but true to his deeds Morgan's spell collapsed those wildings before they had a chance to fully form. Passing anywhere near the things made their collective hackles rise. They thought they were just being jumpy until the first one tried to envelop them and tiny blue sparks leapt everywhere while strands of their hair stood away from their heads. Morgan's spell, it seemed, would have one annoying side effect.
The second time it happened Morgan mumbled "Sorry guys" while he tried to pat his hair back against his head. They finally got within a stone's throw of the wall when the horses simply refused to proceed. Whatever they saw in the mist was simply beyond their horsey sense of propriety and nothing would move them forward.
Morgan considered binding them with a compulsion but a strong enough compulsion would make them unable to act naturally. That would make them more of a burden than they would be worth. It wasn't acceptable to set them loose, they were all but certain to wild away, or fall victim to something that came in through a wilding. Morgan picked out a suitable effect and prepared to cast.
Seth came up behind him, set his hands on his shoulders, bent down, and whispered "don't mess up" into his ear. It was a joke, but it was also a serious reminder.
They staked down a picket line, tied up their horses, and took what they thought they'd need from the saddlebags.
Morgan picked up a pebble and stared at it, squinting his face the way he sometimes did when working with the peculiar. Then he grinned and turned to Seth. "Handy things, rocks." He said, and tossed the pebble in amongst the horses.
There was an odd flickering between and around the horses. Then a dimming of sorts. Then there was a smooth reflective dome over the place where the horses had been.
"Wont the beasts starve, trapped in there?" Carteher hissed gently.
"Nope. There is no time in there."
Raiolal walked up and touched the dome, really part of a complete sphere that extended into the ground, and exclaimed. "I can't feel it!"
Seth touched it too. "No time, no energy transfer, no friction... no texture."
Raiolal asked, "How long will it last?"
"Until I open it, or a month passes without it encountering more than the normally light touch of chaos. That way they will be safe indefinitely for as long as the wildings last even if they are swallowed by the mist."
A picture of the three horses spending a millennia inside a silver sphere floating in the mist came unbidden into Seth's mind. Oddly the image was banished just as fast by the certain belief that Morgan would be able to fix the mist. If he couldn't they probably wouldn't make it back out of the mist anyway.
As they walked to that inner edge of the real world Morgan led the way.
"How big is it?" he asked to the group at large.
Seth brought the map up in his head. "Something like sixteen miles across, a near perfect circle... call it two hundred square miles."
Raiolal whistled.
They got quite close to it before the mist yielded at all. The land it revealed as it receded looked no different than the surrounding countryside. They kept walking, abet slowly, and when they reached the point where the mist had been there was a half circle of cleared area in front of them.
"A thirty foot radius, tight quarters, not much warning if anything comes out of there." Raiolal was not pleased but what had to be done had to be done.
As the mist closed in behind their progress, completely obscuring any kind of landmarks, Carteher spoke his first concern about the mission. "Do you think distances are consistent in here?"
They were completely enclosed in a haze of lower chaos, the apparent dust and moisture of the mist was supposedly a result of the elemental forces leaking into the realm, which itself was being constantly torn apart and rebuilt in tiny quanta by the effect. All this went through Morgan's mind as he turned back toward Carteher and, consequently the way they'd come. He found he had no answer and wished Carteher hadn't asked that just then. He shrugged, a gesture that was foreign to Carteher's anatomy, and turned back to the task.
"That's what I figured." Carteher said to himself and to the group in general.

* * *

The mist was odd. Creepy odd. The only noise they could hear was what they made themselves and while there was plenty of available light, a normal daylights worth, the sky above them was speck of continuously changing hues which produced the occasional flash of intense colored light. They were at the bottom of a well seven miles deep and sixty feet wide which opened up on the raw media of whatever lay outside the boundaries of the realm. Seth was just glad there was air, and gravity, while Morgan wondered if anything out there might be able to come down that passage and `encounter' them. The two soldiers studiously ignored as much as they could while waiting on edge for something unspeakable to appear out of the mist.
A while later a noise came to them. It had clearly been the last remnant of a very loud noise, a very organic noise. Something inhuman screaming away the last of it's life. They heard it only faintly, a mouse scratching, with all of the detail gone from the sound. They'd all been keeping close and before the noise finished they were all touching, pushed together by the very emptiness of the sound.
Carteher asked "How far?"
"Aye, and which direction?" Raiolal asked back.
Seth unslung his pack and fished out a length of rope and proceeded to tie it around his waist. "We have to know..." he said and handed the free end to Morgan.
With no more apparent concern than he might show walking across the common room back at the house, Seth headed straight ahead into the mist. The clear space around them stretched into an ellipse, then something kind of egg shaped. Finally the strained plastic border surrounding them collapsed and mist pored between Seth and the others. The clear area around the core group shrunk in notably, emphasizing the feelings of being trapped and isolated in the mist.
"Can you hear me?" Seth's voice wafted toward them. Direction was still clearly discernible. He hadn't yelled exactly, just spoken in the kind of voice someone might use to bespeak someone fifty feet away in a quiet room. It was oddly louder but somehow more diffused than they expected.
"Surprisingly well, how do we sound?"
"I can hear you fine. I'm at the end of the rope, how big is the clear space?"
"It's about twenty feet from here to the edge of the clearing."
"Let go of the rope and I'll try going fifteen more feet."
Morgan didn't like the idea much but the need was clear. He dropped the rope and said "Go ahead." He was disturbed, watching the rope snake away from him across the sparse grass and scree. True to his words and estimates the rope stopped with about five feet still showing.
"How do I sound now?" Seth's voice was greatly diminished and the sense of its direction was all but gone.
"Not too good at all, come on back." Morgan tried to use the same voice he'd used before and not to sound as concerned as he felt.
The rope, of course, didn't move and then all at once the mist parted and Seth returned, bringing with him his concomitant increase of clear area. "I was talking this loud" he said as he returned, "how loud were you?"
"This loud" Morgan said in his best imitation of his prior self.
A considering look crossed Seth's face as he continued toward them, coiling up the rope as he came.
When he reached them he didn't say anything, just kept coiling the rope with a consistent, rhythmic motion. When he finished he looked up at them and grimaced. "No less than sixty yards, no more than one hundred."
"What?" Raiolal asked, puzzled.
"That scream, presuming a few things of course, like an average creature normally capable of screaming at a reasonable maximum volume, like a horse or monkey, but nothing larger or louder like a dracoform or itheriaid, and assuming that the mist is consistent, that scream came from no less than sixty, and no more than one hundred yards away. No way to tell the direction..."
That was far too close for comfort. Morgan could tell that Seth was sure of his estimate even if the evidence seemed skimpy. Nine seconds as a man ran, four as a horse galloped, generally not a good comfortable time distance to have between yourself and anything that could illicit that kind of scream from anything. The whole group was doing the figures at the same time, and soon a renewed urgency came over them all.
"We should get moving" Carteher suggested, but Morgan overrode him.
"We have to get a lot closer to the center of this thing before I'll have any chance of figuring it out. Any ideas how to find the center without any landmarks?"
Seth had a tracing of the map which he fetched out of his pack and spread on the ground. They gathered around the map. "We're no more than eight miles from the center if we are anywhere inside the mist. The center is in a small vale here." He pointed to the markings.
"If I remember right," Raiolal said, "the entire area was marked out as a steady rise from here, where we came in, to the ridge along there."
"So if we keep going in on as straight a line as we can, being sure to go up hill, we should pass within two miles of the center." Carteher added.
"Eh, but the slope will invert as we approach the vale." Morgan traced a rough line around the map. "You're right about the two miles, that's about the size of the vale. If only we could be sure when to stop going uphill and start going down, we'd be set. We'll just have to hope I can sense the core from that two miles..."
It would have to do.
They resumed their march. Seth led the way. Morgan, all but in his shadow, spent his time jumping in and out of the astral trying to get any kind of bearing. Raiolal and Carteher were behind and to either side watching to the flank and rear. At times other noises would filter in to them. Sometimes a distant squeak and sometimes something closer and more sinister. Once the mist to their right began to churn and thin as something very large passed altogether too close.
Every time he went astral Morgan felt something like the tiny footsteps of a swarm of ants crawling all over his psyche. Even more creepy, the sensation started following him back into the mundane. The feeling of ants. Walking. Going about their business in his mind. It was getting distracting.
They continued to go uphill, and had made what they figured was five miles, when the light began to dim.
There was no way to build a fire. They hadn't passed anything more substantial than a bush in the hours they'd been in the mist and nobody wanted the job of trying to gather firewood. There was no way Morgan would be able to sustain even a mage-light all night without completely loosing his mind to the ants.
The evening faded into complete darkness except for the tiny pinpoint of light at the top of their private world. Its changing colors and occasional bright flashes didn't alter one bit. As darkness overtook them completely, Morgan abandoned decorum and all but crawled under Seth. He didn't exactly set out to do it. He'd meant to simply lay down near his comforting bulk. Then he'd shifted this way and that, and before he knew it he was on his side, his back pressed to Seth's chest. Seth threw an arm and a leg over him and he was happy for the weight.
Morgan was the last to fall asleep. Part of what kept him awake was the realization that as each of them fell asleep the area around them shrunk noticeably. The rest was the ants. What finally lulled him asleep was the rhythmic stroke of Seth's breath against the back of his head.

* * *

Morgan's dreams were a taxing hash of chaotic imagery. Several times during the night Morgan was driven from his dreams in a silent near-panic. The only thing that kept him from bolting was Seth's weight, actually it also kept him from sitting up. Seth himself was sound asleep, but a couple of times Morgan heard him grunting or kind of simpering in his sleep. Something that he wouldn't have been able to hear from one inch further away. In all, the night seemed to go on forever.
He woke fully when he felt Seth's protective weight lift away. Clearing his eyes as light slowly crept into the world, he looked around. Raiolal and Carteher were gone, their gear and bedding was right where they had left it but the men themselves were absent. Morgan dared the ants and sent out a probe along the bowstring bindings. The two felt physically healthy but their minds were blurred and they were wandering somewhere out there suspended in a half sleep. Morgan didn't wake them, instead he added a small compulsion to the bindings that would bring them to him.
Drawing back from the casting Morgan found the feathery touch of the ants would not subside. Clearly the local aether was too saturated with chaotic flux and it was going to get trapped in his castings the way wine soils linen. In for a copper, in for a crown, the deed might as well be worth the price, he retouched the compulsions and set mage barriers and a touch of aversion around the two absent men. They were already useless to themselves, overcome by the influence of the mist, so he made them safe. They would only be able to see a few feet around themselves but hopefully no harm would be able to reach in to them as they came. If he could have, Morgan would have shielded himself and Seth, but that would block all of their senses and they'd never find the center.
Morgan shivered as he pulled away from the casting.
"How is it?" Seth asked.
"Pretty bad, we'd better get their things together and get moving or I might not be able to stand this."
"They're alright then."
"I think so, they're confused under the glamor from this place, but healthy and I have them shielded."
Seth had very little confidence in magic shielding, seeing how it had never stopped him for more that a heartbeat or so, but the options were limited. In short order they had split the extra burden and gotten moving. Despite the weight and strain Morgan pushed their pace, it helped to keep him from focusing on the growing sensations feeding back to him from his asenses. After a while, two hours can seem like an eternity, he came to realize that the sensations were growing because they were reaching their goal. Soon thereafter a sense of direction and distance accompanied the feeling.
Even though it was like running into a burning building Morgan did run the last quarter mile or so downhill to the center.
At the center was a stone about two feet high and three across. Normally unremarkable, this stone had weathered and cracked down through its core and a bright hazy light was just barely visible, shining out from the crevice. Certain that they'd found the center Morgan could finally do something he'd been dying to do for days. He charged his aotahe and sheltered his mind inside its relative protection. A good bit of the chaos got in to him anyway but it was like cutting a stabbing pain down to a dull ache. Settling in unceremoniously on the ground at an intimate but respectful distance, he dove right into the task at hand.

* * *

At least twenty thousand years had passed since the realm had been cut out of the core of the elemental planes. The older continents near the center of the realm were littered with oddities, ruins, and who knew what else. A single stone this size clearly and conspicuously placed in the middle of a small vale was the kind of thing that people wouldn't think twice about. Locals, if there were any that lived close by, might have taken up picnicking at such a conveniently sized stone. This stone had undoubtedly seen its full measure of mundane uses since it was placed. What none of those users had known was that it was not some long disused object but instead it was the focus of an old and powerful casting.
Even things made `permanent' wear out over time. Entropy and time demand their due. What does not live and grow must pass and fade. Three maxims that can not be escaped. In the case of the stone it was weather that did it in. In the centuries it had sat doing its job water had seeped in, and froze, and melted, and froze again. Stone does as it must and finally, two winters past, the core gave way and cracked open. Ruined foci can not last long. The spell focused there finally failed.
Morgan's first postmortem told him the story of the stone in broad strokes. It was a cap, like someone might place on a well, and it was sitting directly on an uprising piece of basalt; on the very foundation of the realm. His second postmortem was very nearly his last sane act. He reached out gently to touch the glow and was scalded by the substance of raw chaos. Not any one of the forms he'd ever seen before, not a simple node conjured for some purpose, this was the fundamental substance of disorder. This was the prime essence of what lay outside the protective bubble of the realm. The true unordered aether. If he'd been any less tentative in his reach he'd have been filled instantly, and then popped like an old bladder.
Morgan skimmed in along the edge of the aethric flow the way a boat might skim across an ocean, reaching in and down for the source of the flow. There was a tiny channel bored into the basalt that went down and down. It was wider than a hair but no wider than the finest stalk of grass and it was cut perfectly smooth and straight down through the floor of the realm. Following the trace was like skimming his fingers along the edge of water blasting out of a high pressure hose, all smooth and sensual, and none to smart a thing to do. There was at first no clear evidence of how the hole had been cut. Morgan simply forced himself deeper until he reached the very limits of the realm. The flowing aether actually ended up helping him reach down those long three-plus miles. There at the bottom of that narrow well was a elemental bound into a shape like a small grommet, holding open a small breach in the last layers of the realm.
That last layer was unlike anything he could imagine. His first touch was mesmerizing and revolting at the same time. The essence of some incredible conflict had been extruded and rolled flat. He didn't follow anywhere it led. He wasn't ready to know what that knowledge might do to him, instead he concentrated on how the elemental had been drawn through the fibers of the barrier and then made to hold them open.
When he'd learned all he could stomach in one sitting, he drew himself back up that great distance and back into his body. Once there he discovered that more time had passed that he thought. Standing about three paces from him was Carteher and Raiolal, both still be-spelled and under the hazy weave of Morgan's protections.
"How long have they been here?"
"About five hours."
"Damn... Well, I better wake these guys up."
Morgan got up to see to the men, stretching his painfully stiff knees. Dispelling his protections was simplicity itself, more like opening a closed mental fist than an act of high sorcery. The tiny leak of ant-feet lifted from Morgan's mind, causing him to sigh aloud. The direct effect of the mist was a little trickier. It took a while to find the key to their symptoms. Morgan finally traced the disturbance back to obscure pieces of lore he didn't even know he'd been exposed to.
Whatever energy was leaking into the realm through the well, it was causing the mass of the broken stone cap to flicker in and out of the local reality. This in turn was causing vibrations in the local space which, in turn, carried stray energy right into their brains. The men were shorting out internally and having what amounted to a long magical seizure. When they'd gone to sleep their natural resistance to low power magical disturbances was reduced and they'd been overcome. Thinking it through Morgan realized that he'd nearly suffered the same fate. Since Seth had basically had him pinned, whenever he'd started to move he'd woken up. Seth had consistently shown signs of a higher than usual resistance to magic and that was the only thing that could explain why Seth hadn't wandered off himself.
As far back as anybody could remember the first thing each new student of the disciplines was taught was The Silence. It was a way to kind of fold a tiny ring of space about the size of a grain of sugar. It had the pleasant side effect of damping out stray and unfocused influences anywhere near it. The tiny manifold couldn't be made any bigger without becoming unmanageable but certain things can be done in seven dimensions that make absolutely no sense in four. Using something like a chain-stitch Morgan described a circle of the tiny effects just above and around Raiolal's head. When he closed the circle a vague halo of fluorescence flickered into the visible, and a few seconds later Raiolal regained his senses.
Morgan had made him a muffler. It took only a moment to repeat the effect, drawing his finger in a quick circle over Carteher's head. The rings would follow the two around and keep them safe, though neither would have liked to know why that was so, since some of the space he'd folded was, in fact, occupied by their brains.
Morgan's more stolid personal defense, provided through the aotahe, would keep him well enough from there on and there seemed to be no point to even trying to shield Seth. Exactly why would have to wait for a safer, more experimental setting.
After the two men regained their senses Morgan brought them up to date on what had happened. Neither was pleased about their own performance but there was little that could be said one way or the other.
"So what next" Raiolal asked Morgan.
"Well, we get some sleep and then in the morning we move that rock. After that there is no telling how long it will take me to figure this thing through."
"What does that leave us to do?"
"Well, there's guarding my back, and I suspect that our provisions may not last as long as this is going to take."
Carteher had no discernible expression but Raiolal's puzzled look turned sour in a few beats. "Searching for food? Hunting? Out in that?" The words were flat and resigned.
Carteher looked up at him and softly hissed "Worry about it tomorrow."
Raiolal paused for a moment and then grinned.
They all pitched a more permanent camp and saw to their evening's business.

Chapter 21
Requirements

It took Morgan two days of intensive concentration to figure out exactly how to close the rift and another one to figure out that he didn't have the raw strength to do it alone, at least not without doing something drastic. He'd barely spoken to any of the others during that time, though he had kept up the kind of consistent muttering conversation with himself that, in other circumstances, would have labeled him mad. By the end of that third day he knew hat he'd have to do, and he didn't like it much. He'd have to take it up with the others over dinner.
"The news could be better."
"How much better"
"Oh, a whole lot better."
Raiolal didn't seem at all surprised. To his mind the whole mission had been going down hill for some time now.
Carteher gently hissed "Details?"
"That is a hole, straight down and out through the bottom of the realm. It's hard to decide whether something is leaking in or out but the whole area is getting kind of `soft'."
"You went over this before." Raiolal again there.
"I know. This hole is like a wound. You stick a triangular blade in a body and the wound doesn't want to close, same thing happens, only worse, if you stick someone with an apple corer. When you take out an odd shaped chunk like that the body doesn't know how to close the wound. This hole is like that.
"A doctor facing a wound like that re-cuts the wound to give it a chance to heal. That's what I have to do here. The thing is I am not strong enough to do it unaided and we don't have time to find a group of magi who are strong enough, trustworthy enough, and willing to take the risk. What that means is that we have to take care of this now with what we've got."
"Why don't we have time?"
"I told you the area is getting `soft' right? The local structure of the realm is losing its shape and resiliency, like land turning to swamp, but more like rock turning to fog. In another couple of weeks this whole place may be gone. Odd as it sounds, normally that would be all right because then the area could heal naturally, but the magic holding the hole open would probably simply expand."
"Right, that is out of the question. You sound like you have a solution though."
"I do, but it wont be pleasant, in fact it could get downright ugly. I think I can use a variant of blood magic to gain the strength necessary to close the rift."
At the mention of blood magic Raiolal and Carteher went pale and visibly thought about running away or trying to kill Morgan on the spot. Blood magic was the common name for truly foul and vile practices. Everybody knew that a mage could torture power directly out of the flesh of living, sentient creatures. What most didn't know is that the practice is actually a perversion of valid medical and metaphysical techniques. It was, in essence, a misuse of the healing talents.
Carteher's voice was soft, sibilant, and threatening. "What EXACTLY do you have in mind?"
"First, you and Raiolal are going to hold me down, while Seth cuts me. That should be enough to give me what I'll need."
"And if it's not?"
"Then one or both of you get to decide how much you would sacrifice yourself for the realm. I really don't think it will get that far though, I am not that short of the mark now that I would need more than my own augment."
"What about him?" They both looked at Seth accusingly.
"I have no doubt that he'd do it, but I've already checked. It wont work on him."
Raiolal regained his voice. "So you are going to have us torture you and then, maybe, you are going to torture us."
"It's torturous yes, but it's not necessarily torture...
"Certain kinds of scar tissue can amplify active and latent sensitivities if it is next to nerves capable of carrying power. The actual technique is to cut down to the intended nerve or nerves and then cause those useful scars to grow and close the wound. If it gets to that, and either of you will consent, it will be done with you unconscious and you wont feel a thing."
"No. Blood Magic is evil and the people who do it are monsters. Everybody knows that."
"What I intend isn't evil. What is evil is taking someone against their will. Cutting them, torturing them to weaken or break their wills, and then drawing power through their unwilling minds with remorseless intensity, burning them away and using them up. When the victim is driven into madness and the blood mage keeps using them, he has to take some of that madness into himself and the wicked become monstrous. That is Evil. Those are the monsters. What I am talking about is trading some discomfort for what may be the safety of the realm in a very controlled and limited way."
They did not look at all convinced.
After a while Morgan went back in. "I am not asking you to submit to this, not yet any way... will you at least help me do myself?"
"Do yourself? I thought you said this could be done unconscious?"
"No. It can be done to you when you're unconscious. I have to be awake, I'm the only one here who knows how, or has the talent to make the scars come in right. That's why you two have to hold me down."

* * *

There hadn't been much more to say and they all ate in silence and went to sleep, the three taking turns standing guard while Morgan was allowed to sleep straight through. He woke once when Seth was on watch and spoke to him briefly about what needed to be done. Morgan would have to use their collars to partly take over Seth and guide him in making the cuts. Seth agreed, as always, but he didn't like it one bit. He didn't say anything about it, but Morgan knew. For Seth the collar was the least of his objections. He'd put down several people who'd fallen victim to a Blood Mage. They'd been disfigured, savage, frightened, ruined animals beyond the reach of healing, care, or kindness.
In the morning Morgan set Seth to building a makeshift rack. For all that he didn't like doing it, he did it well. Having given Seth his orders Morgan set about other preparations, mostly digging through Seth's bag of medicinal goodies to make a disinfecting and hopefully numbing salve for later. He intended to do everything he could to make it go as easily as possible.
Carteher and Raiolal kept mostly to themselves at first but eventually joined Seth and helped him lash their few poles together into a reasonably rigid cross and brace.
Raiolal finally muttered "He's really is serious, isn't he?" to Seth.
"Yes, I believe he is."
"And he is going to go first, and you are going to cut him?"
"More or less, actually he is going to use my body to cut himself. I wouldn't know where to cut. It has to be guided by talent to cut exactly as necessary."
"Why are you taking this so calmly? Is it because you know you aren't on the list for this little toy."
Seth barely paused while the thought of punching Raiolal crossed almost compulsively before him. "If he even hinted that I should, I would go first."
"Do you know what this does to people?"
"Yes. Perhaps better than you. I've seen and dealt with what blood magic leaves behind. He knows what he's asking... That's why he's going first.
"I don't want to see him... changed."
"Then why are we letting him do this?"
"Because he says it must be done and we know he's probably right. Because there is nothing else we can do, and because... I don't... know... why..." He said, yanking the lashing tighter with each trailing word.

* * *

The thing they'd made was an `X' with a staff across the top. There was a hole at the foot of each leg and at either end of the crossbar. Lashing above and below each hole would keep the wood from splintering under even horrific strain. It was laid out in a stretch of cleared earth. It didn't look all that sinister, but looking at it Seth felt more foreboding than he could explain.
After the rack was ready and set, Morgan inscribed a generously large protective circle around it, giving everybody plenty of room to maneuver without having to worry about crossing out of the ring. Once the wards and dampers were set on the circle Morgan could remove his aotahe without risking himself against the ambient chaos.
In ritual magic anything can be a ritual even if it has never been done before and will never be repeated. Morgan was focused to the extreme and he oozed patient ritual in his every move. Each part of everything he did seemed choreographed and timeless like each gesture had been taken from some prehistoric text.
Hands to collar of aotahe. First two fingers into the bottom of the hood. Flip it back off his head. Hands twist down and then snap apart to open the front. Pull it back past the shoulders. Straighten arms down to the sides and let it slide off his back. Catch the collar as it reached his hands. Hands together and apart behind the back and the aotahe is in the right hand. Pass it to front and again hold it by the edges of the collar. Fold once at the collar. And again. Raise it with one hand and sweep the free arm out, across, and in. Lower the raised hand and it was folded in thirds. Kneel. Lay it on the ground. Draw the athame. Lay it precisely on the silk bundle...
On and on it went. He was actually moving quite quickly. It took him less than five seconds to remove and fold his aotahe, but the silent intensity and economy of his motions demanded the full attention of them all. The mood was more than contagious, it was compulsory, and soon everybody was moving, or sitting still, with an equal intensity. Continuing in that fashion Morgan stripped to his shorts.
Morgan passed the small bowl of disinfectant salve to Seth and presented him with his back. Seth applied the salve deftly, making sure to cover his entire back and shoulders. Then Morgan began wrapping his wrists with lengths of cloth torn into strips. After his wrists he wrapped his ankles exactly the same way.
With his limbs cuffed for protection, he moved over the center of the frame, laid down, and extended his hands to each side. Seth and Raiolal quickly bound his arms tightly out along the cross member while Carteher got started on his legs. All the bonds were cinched until his whole body was stretched taut and then a few more bindings were added at the elbows, knees, and the top of the thighs. In seemingly no time Morgan was laid out for slaughter in the hazy morning light.
For the longest time nothing seemed to be happening and then suddenly Seth found himself folding a length of cloth and placing it in Morgan's mouth. Morgan was using Seth. The changeover had been so gentle that Seth had actually missed it even though he'd been watching for it. As for the gag, Morgan had realized it would be a good idea sometime after he'd been tied down. He didn't want to break his jaw.
For Seth it was a strange experience. There wasn't the same feeling of distance and pressure he'd felt from his first collar. His body simply acted without his violation. He could tell that the slightest resistance on his part would stop the effect. It was a conspiracy, not a compulsion.
For Morgan things were far different. He used the discipline called Many Minds. He cleaved his consciousness into two distinct pieces. Every person spends a large portion of their waking lives torn between different feelings and impulses. That fundamental trait, that schism, can even permanently tear someone into many personalities under sufficient duress. Most of his intelligence and all of his talent was in the self occupying Seth, leaving his more animal self behind to maintain his body and, coincidentally, experience the pain.
After the gag, Seth found himself looping a bit of rope through Morgan's collar and tying it to the cross-brace. The preliminaries exhausted, his left had slowly reached out for the athame.
The first two cuts were long and slow. They ran down the spine from atlas to coccyx, one to each side of the bony ridge and just inside the muscles running down the center of the back. The cuts angled in to form a "V" that didn't quite meet at the point, nearly freeing up a flap of skin. These would form the primary stalk of the new auxiliary conduit. From the moment the athame entered his flesh, a continuous muffled scream tore out of Morgan's throat.
For Morgan, or at least the part of Morgan that was doing the cutting, there was no conflict. When he'd torn himself in half he'd taken all of his skills, technical knowledge, and dispassion and lumped them into the part that would be doing the cutting. Seth and the others had no such luxury. While he considered and probed for the next cut, the rest of Morgan's self was trying to beg through the gag.
Seth was in a cold sweat and he had to struggle not to interfere with Morgan's work. Raiolal was kneeling on Morgan's upper arms and had his head held straight and vertical, nose to the earth, pinned between his hands and braced by his thighs. Carteher was laying bodily across Morgan's legs. Morgan was stronger than he looked and he'd started fighting when he'd started cutting. The other two men watched Seth, totally bewildered and unsure what to think. Hot tears were running down Seth's face. Everything had a cost and he was scared to think that Morgan hadn't really appreciated what this would do to his own mind.
Remorselessly, he proceeded. Using his power he fired each nerve he was interested in, and then poked his athame down into his flesh and traced the nerve from its tip to the point where it met his spine. In order to keep his active self from becoming impaired, he blocked all the endorphins and symptoms of shock in his own body. In so doing he also denied his other self the last respite of every tortured body. His technique was perfect but his approach was flawed. His operant self had too much of his reason, leaving too little understanding behind to support the suffering. That left only his animal instincts fully able to cope. He came closer to destroying his mind utterly than he would ever be able to comprehend. If not for some flake of self-preservation and self-awareness buried too deep to ever be seen by the conscious mind, the harm would have been beyond reconciliation.
For three and a half hours he cut. When he'd finished flaps of skin and strips of muscle were sagging or hanging free all over his back, arms, and legs. There was very little blood, as he'd stemmed the bleeding for practical purposes. Now the healing began. What had taken hours to open took only minutes to close. Most of the cuts even healed without visible scar, the necessary scar tissue being made deep in the flesh and not having to come too near the surface. What scars were visible were almost pretty, organic curves that followed unseen contours within the body. Looking at them made Seth secretly want to retch.
He found himself cutting the bindings and then laying the aotahe across Morgan's back. Raiolal and Carteher backed away as Seth slipped Morgan's arms through the sleeves. Then Seth realized he was again alone in his body when Morgan suddenly convulsed. Seth helped him sit up, knowing that the wounds were completely healed so he couldn't do any more damage. As soon as he looked in Morgan's eyes every Blood mage in existence gained a mortal enemy.
There was struggle there as Morgan fought to reintegrate himself, but that paled next to the confusion and betrayal that shone out. The part of him that he'd left behind to suffer hadn't understood much about who or why. It was essentially a child who'd been wounded. It was an odd sort of suffering that was happening again as the memory had to be re-experienced by Morgan's whole self. If he couldn't reconcile it completely the artificial fissure he'd made could become a real organic part of his personality.
One or both of those personalities reached out and seized onto Seth, rolled up into a shivering knot, and stayed that way for a very long time.
After a while Raiolal and Carteher's concern and curiosity overcame them and they drew close. Not that they'd been able to get that far away within the tiny clear space.
Raiolal went first, "How is he?"
"I think he hurt himself far worse than he'd thought."
"Will he recover?" Carteher asked.
"I think he will... I think this will have changed him, though I don't know how much."
"I wonder what it's like in there." Raiolal touched Morgan's head where he'd held it during the cuttings.
"He's two people, trying to become one again. The injured one knows full well what roles we each played in this."
Carteher let out a huff of breath. "Then we must hope that the part which understands wins out over the part that holds a grudge, or when he comes to himself we will have one angry dangerous man to deal with."
Seth had known that all along, even if he hadn't let himself think it consciously. If Morgan's sanity were broken he'd have to kill him before he did anyone great harm. Morgan had been explicit on the point. Seth wasn't sure his own feelings of guilt, let alone loyalty and everything else he felt, would allow it. If he did have to kill him, he didn't think he could live long with the deed.
Inside his own memories Morgan was learning the full horror of blood magic. There'd been nothing to cushion the experience. When he'd taken the sense of purpose away from the part that would suffer he'd stripped it of understanding and the mental armor that such understanding could provide. He'd suffered torture without cause or explanation and largely without intellect, the way an animal would suffer. It took him a long time to find any way through to that suffering animal. The chink in its in-drawn mental armor finally came to him. There'd been a backwash of regret and compassion coming from Seth through the link fully as long as the procedure had lasted. The link still had that flavor, mixed more strongly with guilt and concern now, and his animal self was open to that. It was difficult for his dispassionate, intellectual self to mold itself to that path, but eventually it did. To do it he had to all but destroy that part of his mind that could see without suffering the burden of empathy. A deceptively small-seeming sacrifice that would lay him open many times in his future.
There was no easy ending. Seth held Morgan as something between wild animal and invalid. Morgan would shift in a moment between near sentience and drooling emptiness. Seth rode it out with him for two days while Raiolal and Carteher saw to the camp and the food.
In the middle of the second night, tucked in the curve of Seth's body and covered by blankets to keep away shock, Morgan's guttural sounds resolved themselves into coherent crying. Seth felt the change and sighed in relief. There had been no sudden eruption of violence or sorcery. Finally assured, Seth held him tight, but in relief, as he finally let himself sleep. His soul-deep relief, and utter exhaustion, kept away his usual nightmares.

* * *

Neither Morgan nor Seth woke until early afternoon. Seth woke first and his slight stirring woke Morgan. They were slow to untangle themselves, both reluctant and fearful of what they would find. Morgan finally sat up, slowly, and looked around. In that instant he finally knew that he could, in actually, survive and even function with `that day' in his mind.
Seth sat up, and somewhat away, ready for things to fall apart but watching for a hopeful sign. Morgan finally turned to him and gave him a pathetically weak grin, followed by a shiver. Seth all but sagged in relief.
After a while he asked "are you all right?"
"I'll live." It was a weak reply, but it would do.
Another long pause and then he asked "did it work?"
Morgan hadn't yet activated the new channels and he said as much. "Once I touch them to life there'll be no way to shut them off. I think I need a little time to get ready."
Soldiers are good at waiting and making ready. Those are two of the primary skills in the military world. There was food ready and waiting for them at the small fire and the two men kept their distances while Morgan rose and ate.
Seth followed tentatively. He might well be meeting a completely different person here, and for the first time in months his station hung like a weight before him. He wasn't sure whether he should act the same as before or as a proper slave. Hunger was gnawing at him and he moved to the fire like a dog ready to sneak food.
"I haven't changed that much." Morgan said, the grin coming back a little stronger this time.
Still a little timid Seth took his newly accustomed place by the fire and started in on the food.
Sharing the simple activity in silence refreshed the personal bond between them. By the time their hunger was sated they were largely back onto familiar ground.
Morgan sat back restively and contemplated the walls of their tiny oasis while Seth contemplated even more formless things. Finally Morgan said "well, I better finish this before I lose my last nerve."
He stood and moved a little ways away from the fire, flexing and stretching his neck for that last bit of relaxation. Morgan stood with his feet slightly spread, stretched his arms straight out to each side and sparked his new channels to life.
When a baby is first forming in the womb, something called the neural fold, a tiny crease down the length of the body, is the genesis of the spine and brain. The seam eventually closes along its length, and the tiny structure at that closure is a vital part of what makes magic possible. Those two rows of interlocked cells act, in those fortunate few, as a kind of capacitor, allowing the electromagnetically interactive nerves everyone possesses to function in the other levels of reality. Morgan's new scars would perform in much the same way, but in larger, redundant channels. That is, once they were properly structured.
Seth saw Morgan sink to his knees and start foaming at the mouth. Each of the scars needed the proper internal structure to do its job correctly. They were in the process of structuring themselves under the onslaught of the field of Morgan's talent. The physical restructuring, happening just next to the key nerves, re-ignited the pain even as his organic talent tried to deal with the new inflow of energy and information. When Morgan started into full convulsion Seth jumped on him and held him down to keep him from hurting himself too much.
The convulsions lasted little more than a minute.
"Morgan?"
"Are you okay?"
"Morgan?"
And the soft reply "It's so big..."
"What?... Morgan, open your eyes."
He opened his eyes, but they didn't seem to focus at all.
"Can you see?"
"Hua?"
"Can you see me Morgan?"
It took a second, but he finally brought his eyes to focus, and in so doing suppressed his heightened talent back into its proper place.
"Get off me you ox."
"What?"
"Get up... you weigh a ton."
Seth grinned the way he really hadn't since Queens' Landing, and rolled off of Morgan, to lay on his back beside him.
"Everything's going to be okay then." Seth said to the air.
"I do believe you're right." Morgan added, shivering at the hollow sound of a half truth.

* * *

For two more days Morgan hobbled around the camp doing the arcane while Seth, Raiolal and Carteher saw to the business of keeping him content, safe and fed. That he never again mentioned cutting Raiolal or Carteher was much to their collective liking, no matter what he'd said before about it being a much more peaceable activity than what he'd suffered.
Seth also took up some of the duties he'd practiced for Lady Korane, assisting Morgan with measurements and, in this case, doing the bulk of the hammer and chisel work needed to inscribe the basalt. That Morgan was regularly overcome with dizziness and could barely tolerate the touch of anything against his back except perhaps his aotahe was cause for concern, but not yet alarm. A couple of times during the preparation Morgan had started in with that gurgling and foaming at the mouth again, but when Seth questioned him about it he'd mumbled something about finding new balances and then dismissed his concern.
Another oddity was the way Morgan was keeping close to Seth. Even in the restricted sixty or so feet they all shared, it seemed to Seth that Morgan was almost always within arms reach. He didn't so much mind it as worry about it. He didn't have anything to trace it back to beyond the general trauma and he knew that any kind of new emotional imbalance or dependency could prove disastrous. It might throw off his castings and make him fry in an unexpected backlash. He'd never had much use for religion, but every time he felt that whisper of dependency a near-prayer formed itself in his head.
Finally they finished the inscription. It was small, barely eight feet across, and quite simple. That was a blessing because the basalt was hard and the chiseling slow. If more of it had required etching, as opposed to chalk, it might have even taken too long to hear Morgan mumble over it. When Morgan called another evening summit Raiolal and Carteher were sweating visibly at the renewed prospect of the knife. They both watched him with unshielded trepidation.
"No, I don't need either of you." Morgan started, much to their relief. "I have all the strength I need to close that now." His right had was unconsciously tracing back and forth along a thin line of a scar running down his left forearm. "I just want you to be ready for what will happen tomorrow."
"Just after dawn I am going to close the fissure. When I do the ground may heave violently and the gods only know what else will happen. They are going to feel this a long ways away, maybe even back home, but near here will be the worst."
He paused to organize his thoughts and amend his plans a bit.
"I'll put up a few protections for you all but I won't have that much to spare so be ready for a rough span there.
"After the shaking is over it will still probably take several months for the mist to dissipate completely but the wildings will fall off fairly quick. Going back will be much the same as coming.
"When we get to the horses my athame will open the spell around them, and when we are back at the garrison it will cut loose and dispel these." He tugged at the bit of string around his wrist.
"You'll be doing that though, wont you?" Raiolal asked.
"Probably not, this is going to take everything I've got and several of the things I brought with me. I may not be good for much for quite some time. You all need to know what to do."
They did not look happy at hearing that.
"Just make sure you collect up everything, myself included, and get away from here quick. There may be... um... after effects... you don't want to be here if that happens."
"How far do we have to get, and how fast?" Carteher asked.
"I really don't know. Best safe speed." Another pause for mental amendment. "You'll be able to use the athame as a guide through the mist to the horses, from there you'll be out of the mist."
Raiolal again, "Is that it?"
"I can't think of anything else right now. If I get any more ideas tonight I'll tell you in the morning."
There wasn't much more to say from any other quarter and dinner progressed in silence.
When they'd bedded down for the night and everybody else was asleep, Morgan nudged Seth gently awake.
"Hnmm?" he grunted deep and soft, still drowsing, having already listened for threat and found none.
"I have a few more things for you."
A pause to waken more fully, "go ahead..."
"I'm going to be leveraged to the hilt with geasairia
He hated himself for saying it... "Why don't you cut one of the others?"
"I can't. I don't think I could ever face that, even though it wouldn't harm them. Besides, my fine control is all but gone."
"What!?" The exclamation half escaped before Seth could swallow it.
"I think I'll be able to get it back sooner or later, but right now I am flooded with sense and power nearly beyond my ability to focus."
"Then you mustn't do the casting, it's suicide."
"No, it's not that dangerous. I am grinding a mountain against a mountain, not lifting a porcelain cup with a flow of air. Fine control doesn't much enter in to this. Besides, if I don't do this now a whole chunk of the local landscape will fall away to nothing in another week."
"I don't like it."
"It has to be done."
"Uh ha. But I still don't like it."
"The thing is, well, after... I am going to be in sorry shape."
A grunt from Seth.
"The link between us... its inverted now... you'll probably need it. When this is over we need to have a long talk, but till then I need you to promise me that you'll stay close to me."
There was far too much `if' in the sound of that `when' for Seth's liking "Yea, I want to know about that..."
"I don't have time for the long explanation, I don't even know if I even know why, but somehow physical proximity to you helps keep out the worst of the garble from the new pathways. If I'm out of it, you know, after... Uh, just stay close, and do what you have to do."
That was it then, there was little else to say, "All right, of course I promise."

Chapter 22
Exchanges

At first light Morgan was up. In truth he'd slept poorly in anticipation of the chore and was as glad as any that morning finally came so he could get on with it.
When everybody was finally roused they broke camp and saw to packing everything for a quick departure. It took surprisingly little time and, though Morgan's eyes weren't skilled enough in such preparations to notice, the other three had packed in a way that would let them quickly shed differing amounts of their less precious gear as urgency might dictate. It was a nod to prudence not a vote of no-confidence.
When they were all packed up Morgan set them around the outside of the circle. They'd have no active role in the casting but he wanted them close to make the protections simpler. As he began laying out the artifacts he'd brought, he started talking "These are the things I want you to try to preserve. These and the books from my kit. But, while most of the magi back at the school might disagree, nothing here is worth anybody's life. Don't forget you'll probably need this to get straight away from here and recover the horses." He laid the athame directly in front of his knees.
"This will, no doubt, take a while. After it all starts in earnest, the first time it all stops, it's time to get away from here."
"How will we know its stopped?"
"You'll know, trust me. If you think it's time, it's time."
With that Morgan closed his eyes and started concentrating. From the outside nothing seemed to happen for the longest time. Morgan was busily chaining spells together. Starting with the last one, that would let them cut the bowstring bindings and working his way forward, he linked the initiation of each spell to the termination of its predecessor so that the series would run like a row of Feng tiles set on edge.
The main spell was huge, though not the first in the series. He'd chosen two opposing spots outside the mist wall and charged them with a crushing-huge load of kinetic energy drawn from, or coerced into, the house of earth. Both pools of energy aimed and timed to shear past each other at the offending well. That would grind the hole closed through its entire depth. Every other solution he'd come up with involved replacing the stone cap or making a plug. The problem was anything like that would eventually fail the way the original cap had. Worse, some other mage might come by and try to tap all that `free power' by loosening or removing the plug and that would be a disaster.
Just before that the damage to the under-layer would be smoothed closed. Before that the elemental holding the under-layer open would be dismissed. Before that a shallow disk of the uppermost rock would be cut free to act like a boat they could ride through the onslaught. Before that a ritual sealing of the upper juncture. And finally, before that the protective bubble around them all.
He'd gotten the ideas from remembering the events of Winterdark. The pooling and subsequent draining of the earth-power he'd caused. Because he wasn't sure he could make it pool faster than it might drain away he was going to draw from all of the primary houses and filter all that through the odd little artifact. That would let him dump a huge earth potential into place all at once. The effect should be spectacular.
Holding on to the initiating threads of the protective dome, Morgan opened his eyes and looked at the waiting men. "Ready or not, here goes." He said, and committed the last of himself to the spell. In a way it was pleasantly like riding waves to shore, not that he'd ever actually done that, but he did imagine that was what it was like. The building, rolling force all around that you surrender to and thereby use while you yourself are used by it.
The rush.

* * *

For the others it was a totally different and terrifying experience.
At first nothing at all happened. Then the tiny hole began to glow in a completely different way. The first full day at camp they'd removed the broken stone cap from the well. Ever since, a hair-fine ray of coruscating light had shone straight up and out to the top of the world. Now a reddish welt was forming all around the opening. The red-hot stone slowly sagged into the hole until the ground there started to glow the way the capstone had.
There was a loud `thack' and a tiny shift as the saucer of stone they occupied snapped loose, followed by a ponderous stillness.
After a moment Carteher asked "What do you think?"
Then Raiolal asked "Was that it?"
Seth took one glance at the still glowing spot of rock. "Not even close..." Wheels started turning in his head. He was a smart man and had more knowledge of the arcane than any non-mage in existence. Almost all at once he reproduced the essence of Morgan's reasoning. He had no measurable idea of the kinds of forces involved, that would be like a man born blind fully grasping the relationship between hue and intensity in a particular painting. No, the thing that jumped into his mind was Morgan's words from late last night.
Seth said them aloud to get their feel. "grinding a mountain against a mountain."
Before either of the others had a chance to say "What?", the full realization took hold. The others saw his eyes go huge in understanding but said nothing. Seth yelled "Brace yourselves!" a little louder than necessary and then had time to ask himself how and with what?
He had been kneeling. He shifted so that his ankles were as far apart as possible laid his torso down on the length of his pack, making sure his face was down on the middle of his bedroll for cushioning. He looked up and saw the others hadn't moved. He barked out "do it, now!" using his best commanding voice.
Long trained as soldiers, they both responded instantly to the command. Carteher, who lived on all fours, only had to shift himself over his pack. Raiolal had further to go. He'd just barely got into position when the waves came.
At first it was kind of gentle. An odd lifting as the center of small vale lifted even with the terrain around it and continued to rise. Then a groaning, uneven subsidence.
Then the fabric of the realm gave way as the tiny, three mile deep hole sent cracks running near straight away to the north and south. The noise of that breaking was so unlike anything anybody had ever heard that none of them was ever able to find words adequate to describe it.
From there on out it was all squealing, thundering, and shaking. They were thrown from the ground and slid around like bits of food frying in a pan. Then it just stopped.

* * *

If he hadn't been pressing his face into the padding Seth knew he'd have been knocked unconscious. As it was he suspected concussion. He'd had this sort of dizzy need to retch before. The other two were at least shaken but seemed to have been spared any blows to the head. This, he knew, was the time to get things together and get out, but he was having trouble making himself obey.
He worked his way over to check Morgan and found him physically unhurt. Magic was like that, the mage was generally so wrapped in the energies of their work that nothing so minor as fracturing the realm would make it all the way back to the caster on the puny physical plane. On the other hand Morgan was mentally gone.
Directing two tidal waves of stone to brush past each other so lightly, and geologically that was the lightest of kisses, had used nearly every channel he possessed. The few left were keeping him alive. Maintaining his breathing, heart beat, that sort of thing. There was no conscious direction left in him. Hopefully that was just geasairia running their course, though it might well be burnout...
Seth realized his mind was wandering. He had to focus and get them all moving. All the energy that had just come through here wouldn't just go away. It was packed away in pressed, stretched, or twisted stone somewhere and it might decide to come back. This place might be too weakened from the months of chaotic energy and it might still collapse away into formlessness like a vague pink...
Damn it all! He'd been drifting again.
"Hey, get moving, we have to get out of here. NOW!" He bellowed it at himself as much as the others. He scooped up his gear and shrugged it on as best he could.
The others were doing likewise and then they went on to chasing down the few artifacts. They'd been tossed about but were all still in plain sight.
Seth took up the athame but didn't see how it could lead them anywhere. He passed it off to Raiolal, who pointed it this way and that, and declared that the horses were "that way". Seth concentrated on the link and found himself suddenly lying on his back. It took him a second to realize that he was looking up at himself from Morgan's eyes.
The link worked just fine, but Seth had no idea how he might be able to operate his own body and Morgan's at the same time. He didn't have that many-minds trick. The alternate perspective was, however, letting his concussion get the better of him. The vague feeling and the nausea being harder to fight from a distance. He wondered about the feelings and the duality thing until Raiolal clapped his real body on the arm. He'd been drifting again.
Out of options, Seth hefted Morgan bodily across his shoulders and the top of the his pack. Without the depth of the pack he'd have blown the carry right away and dropped Morgan, but the pack was there, and he began to make his way with the rest of them.
It was a strange trip. Seth was capering around the muddier edge of consciousness, making himself put one foot in front of the other, following Raiolal through the mist. Carteher, the least affected of them all was taking up the rear to make sure they stayed together. For all of that, the strain of carrying near three hundred pounds of man and gear drove Seth further into that gray nothing that hounded his awareness.
There were noises and flashings and rumblings all around them in the mist. The earth shook again at least twice during their flight. One time there was a noise like hundreds of thousands of assorted crystal goblets and fine stoneware had been dropped all at once to break simultaneously on an endless kitchen floor. To Seth the noise sounded kind of pretty.
He was so out of touch that he didn't even know to stop when they breached the mist and reached the horses.
Raiolal stopped him with an outstretched arm.
He sagged to his knees in exhaustion but still managed to carefully lay Morgan down before collapsing himself. Breathing hard, and further from consciousness than when he'd started, he all but missed the brief conversation that Carteher and Raiolal had. He roused himself enough to mumble "touch the blade to the sphere" though he half thought he might have said `spear'.
But then the horses were there and he was getting his wind back a little.
They got the horses packed and Morgan tied into his saddle in another hazy interlude Seth couldn't quite follow.
When he got himself mounted he started to feel a little bit better, but when they started moving the rhythmic motion brought back the nausea.
At one point Raiolal reigned in beside him an asked "Are you okay? I saw you get flipped like a pancake back there"
Seth had been beaten senseless more than once but this was near the worst he could remember feeling after taking a head bashing.
Of course it could be hard to remember a good head bashing...
"I think I'm all right, I just need to lie down for a while, soon."
Not more than a hour later they met up with the rest of the guard coming toward them up the road. In one of those twisting ways magicians had about them, E'tsar had felt the magnitude of what Morgan did, was going to do, whatever, three days ago. The idea was one that Seth, in his current state, could not fit into his head properly. To their credit they had brought the healer with them, and that meant that Seth could finally pass out.
While the two parties were merging into one and just starting to get organized, Seth quietly slipped from his saddle and landed in an unceremonious pile in the middle of the road.

* * *

Seth woke to find himself propped up in a seated position, in the back of a buckboard, headed back to the garrison with some deliberate haste. Ithria was next to him with that all-over distant look some magi get when they are working, and Morgan was laying just beyond her. Seth was feeling much better but still a good way away from well when Ithria came back into the here and now.
"Oh, you're awake."
"Yes ma'am. If I may ask, how is my Master?" Seth was back on formal public manners.
"You two are quite an interesting pair. He seems to be fine, and so do you, for all that I could get close to either of you. What exactly happened out there?"
Seth gave a quick sketch of events from the time they entered the mist until the earth started shaking. Things after that were too fuzzy in his own head to organize quite right. She listened quite intensely and then dove back into the astral again for a short stretch.
"I just don't get it, there doesn't seem to be any kind of organic damage but I just can't seem to find any trace of consciousness in there. He's not sleeping, or in a coma either."
Seth politely, and begging his pardon every so often, explained the concept of geasairia, providing what details he could as she went from questioning him to probing Morgan and back again. After a while she stopped so much trying to heal, as examine and understand, finally coming up with "So I shouldn't try to interfere with the effect at all?"
"Certainly not, mistress, whatever their functioning and intent, the channels will open up and return to normal as soon as they safely can. Disrupting them, even with healing, would trigger backlash at best."
She "hrmmed" at that, then turned from the mystery of Morgan to the Mystery of Seth. "Do you know the reason or nature of the shield he has over you? I can't seem to pin it down, but it is keeping me from scanning you."
"No ma'am, though I know that there is a binding between us four to keep us on this plane." Seth indicated the short length of string around his wrist.
"It can't be that. I was able to scan the others without difficulty. He seems to have put something else about you."
"I know nothing of it if he has ma'am." not the truth, not a lie.
After several more tries at asensing, she gave up and did a manual exam. Not her long suit, but something she was used to doing when her resources were stretched too thin. She pronounced him battered, with a heavy concussion, and gave him a bucket to hold on to in case he needed to vomit.
She didn't much like not being able to do anything useful.

* * *

Seth made use of the bucket several times that afternoon, but the buckboard was better than the horse had been. He also used the link to check on Morgan's body. He couldn't do it very well while they were moving because even short trips away from his own misery, would bring on the dry heaves.
The blissful feeling of relief that washed through Seth when they stopped for the night was epic. Once the horses were unhitched, Seth could lay still and breathe without imminent fear of the bucket. When Ithria came by to check on him Seth had made a decision. He'd need a co-conspirator if he were going to use the link to take care of Morgan. Without the link his condition would be life threatening, there was no other way to keep him properly fed that wouldn't be itself hazardous.
Seth told her about the link without getting into the hows and whys, that would be too dangerous, and they cooked up a simple bunch of ways to cover up what was going on.
Privacy assured a few minutes later, Seth moved into Morgan and saw to his relief and feeding. It was very odd being so small, and Seth had a lot of trouble with the close distances. How much of the staggering was coming from his own body was a more interesting question. He only managed broth for food, his own stomach wouldn't allow more. Repeating the exercise in his own body was almost as difficult for other reasons, and the broth was even harder to keep down when it was his own stomach.
Even with Morgan's body little more than a puppet, Seth experienced some burning from the scars when he'd gone just a few steps from the buckboard. As he returned the feeling subsided. That, he decided, must be the damping effect Morgan had mentioned. Put together with what Ithria had said about shielding and a long laundry list of other incidents in his life, Seth realized there was something there that needed some attention. He lost the thought shortly after returning to his body and would not get around to rethinking it for quite some time.

* * *

The next morning Seth found himself mostly recovered, but malingered on, with Ithria's help, to keep close to Morgan.
By the end of the second day in the wagon Seth was bored. By the third he'd have given money to get on his horse. By the fourth he'd have been willing to carry his horse rather than stay in the wagon. Fortunately they reached the garrison early on the fifth and Seth didn't lose his mind.
Free of the excuse of injury, Seth carried Morgan into a small room near the infirmary. He wasn't sure what exactly to do, his sole prior experience with geasairia was taking dictation for an article Lady Korane wrote against the practice. She'd said it shouldn't be used by field magi because of how vulnerable it left the mage. She'd proposed an expansion of the research into centering to displace the practice. Reviewing the text from memory gave Seth no insights about any kind of practical intervention. He'd have to wait it out.
For three more days Morgan showed no signs of recovery, then all at once he woke up. His language skills were still blocked but he was able to resume feeding and caring for his bodily needs. Speech returned four and a half hours later, which was as much a relief as the first recovery. His talent, literacy, and a goodly number of other skills were sill blocked but it was enough to allow him to dictate a report and be debriefed.
After the debriefing Morgan took Seth outside to the practice field and took a lesson.
When they quit the field for the day Morgan was acting fairly pensive. Seth waited for him to be ready to talk, and shortly after dinner he finally said something that wasn't just small-talk.
Walking down the hall back to their quarters Morgan suddenly blurted "You know, I don't know if I want my talent to come back."
Seth stopped dead in his tracks and watched Morgan take a step, stop, and turn back to him. The look on his face accused Morgan of insanity.
"That didn't come out right... I'm afraid of what it's going to be like when it comes back."
That was more understandable and Seth made one of his articulate grunts.
"After the cutting everything was wrong. Kind of grainy and too loud, and I couldn't block it out. I don't think I can handle that very long, I was fighting not to... I don't know what... let it escape?"
Seth thought about it. "It could be different now, you aren't in the mist or near the well, that could have been a lot of it."
"I don't think so, I'm fairly sure that I had shielded out both of those and I didn't feel different."
"Maybe Ithria can heal the scars out or something, undo the effects of the cutting."
Morgan nodded, "I think we'd better go see her."
In the infirmary Morgan told Ithria what he'd done to himself and then they discussed everything he knew about the procedure and both the honorable and despicable parts of the thing generally called blood magic.
"Let me examine you a little."
Morgan went to take off his shirt but she stopped him. "I only want to look at your arm for now."
The cuttings had involved his entire back, and the parts of the arms and legs exposed when he'd lain down with his palms and insteps flat against the ground. That meant the outside of his upper arms and the tops of his forearms had been cut almost as much as his back. Ithria took his hand across the table and vrec'd down into it. She "oh"d and "hmm"d at it for a while and then was back.
"I don't think that there's anything to be done about it. The scar tissue is technically healthy, if not exactly normal, and I doubt that any kind of healing would effect it."
"How is it `not normal'?"
"Keloid scar cells appear to be spread through the scar bodies in fairly complex patterns, which I expected, but they are engaged in some pretty bizarre internal behaviors. They are interacting with the nerve bodies. It's difficult to isolate the processes. So much so that I think you'd have to remove the cells one at a time."
"Oh." Morgan knew that would take weeks.
"That's not the hard part, I think if you made any real progress doing that to any part of the system, the rest of what's happening in there would overload and destroy the nerves as you cleaned them."
"So I'd become paralyzed bit by bit as the cells were removed."
"Yes."
"Couldn't that be healed?" Seth asked.
"No, healing is about restoring the body to the patterns it knows and remembers. That's why a simple healer can't repair certain things. A regenerist, can re-grow missing limbs and such by being able to impress those patterns externally, but he'd have to re-grow the keloids too or the nerve would simply be destroyed again immediately."
Morgan nodded his head in understanding but Seth wasn't quite ready to admit defeat.
"Why not wait to regenerate the nerves until after the entire scar system was removed?"
"Because he'd be long dead by then. The scarring goes within fractions of the spine and then right up to the base of the brain. If the trauma to the nerves didn't overload his brain stem, and the toxins released didn't poison the spinal fluid, by the time you go two thirds of the way up you'd be killing the nerves that effect critical things like the lungs and heart. From the point where you lost those life systems you'd still have at least four days work to reach the last of the scar. He couldn't survive that even with support spells. You might as well kill him and then try to raise him from the dead."
Of course Seth knew that wasn't actually a suggestion. Necromancy never worked out right, Morgan's soul would be long-since gone from his body and there was no telling what would replace it. Not that it would necessarily be something evil, but it would not be Morgan any more. Ithria had just thrown in that last to make her point. What Morgan had done from necessity simply could not be undone.
Ithria made her apologies and they exchanged some technical small-talk and general pleasantries before Morgan excused them and they left her infirmary.
When they got back to their room Morgan said "At least I know there is nothing to be done about it, so I'll just have to prepare to face it as best I can."
"If there is anything I can do, you know I will."
"Just stay close. It'll come back all at once when the geasairia runs its course. I may need you when it hits."
Seth nodded.
It was getting late and they hit the sack. There was just a small cot for Morgan in the tiny room and Seth stretched out on the floor along the side of it closest to the door. He was long used to far worse, and he was too big for those standard-issue cots anyway.

* * *

In the middle of the next night Seth was roused from where he laid sprawled on the floor by an unfamiliar noise. He opened one eye without moving any other muscle, and strained to take in his surroundings. The noise recurred and he sprang up to Morgan's aid.
The sound was Morgan going rigid with convulsions and then collapsing limp back onto the cot. Seth wasn't sure exactly what to do, but Morgan had told him he'd had a `damping effect' in the mist, so he put his hands on Morgan's chest and head.
That seemed to help a little and after a moment Morgan whispered "Get me up."
It was an odd instruction, but Seth complied, hauling him to a standing position.
Morgan was shaking violently, but he managed to get out the words "naked" and "aotahe".
Seth was only wearing shorts, being nearly naked he presumed neither word applied him. Morgan was wearing a nightshirt and leggings. Grabbing the shirt at the collar, Seth ripped it straight out to both sides with one long pull, and then dropped it to the floor. The drawstring of his leggings popped apart with equal ease. Getting the aotahe without dropping Morgan was a hair trickier. It was really a kind of one-step dash to the hook where it hung. He draped it over Morgan's shoulders, pulled it closed, and lifted up the hood. Morgan could put his arms through the sleeves later if necessary.
Morgan shuddered in a different way and then straightened a little without taking his weight away from Seth at all.
When his breathing started to return to normal Seth began to relax.
The crisis was over.
Morgan waited a moment more and then fished his arms up and out into the sleeves and wrapped them around Seth. He sagged against his chest for a moment more and then eased himself away.
"Was it bad?"
"Worse than I thought it'd be... It's actually worse here than it was in the mist."
Seth grunted, paused, then asked "Why naked? I've never heard that had any effect on the aotahe."
"I could feel them. Farmers, weavers, seamstresses, and launders, everyone who'd ever touched those clothes were all right there in my head. I couldn't block it with the things actually touching me. Touching the scars..."
Seth thought it through. "That explains it then, you said the realm was `softening' around the well, becoming less real. It's worse here because the reality is harder here. You were extraordinarily sensitive before and now it's like everything is screaming while you have a hangover."
"Fine, so what do I do to make it stop?"
"I don't know yet, but I bet we can come up with something before too long."
"We'd better, or I'm going to lose my mind." That last coming out as half laugh and half sob.

Chapter 23
Adjustments

"Come on, you can do it, only ten more..."
Seth was standing at one end of the small shed holding Morgan's aotahe while Morgan stood shivering and naked at the other end. The exercise was simple, Morgan was trying to spend sixty seconds unshielded and outside the range of Seth's strange protective influence. Either could take one step forward and they would be close enough for Morgan to get a little protection. For three days they'd been trying to get his resistance up and they'd made little progress. Their current goal had been cut all the way down to one minute.
Morgan was sobbing under the raging bombardment of his asenses, over-amplified by his new pathways. His total duty in the exercise was to try not to vrec and prev at all while trying to ignore the way he could feel every slight movement of air as if the blade were back at him. All at once he couldn't stand it an instant longer. He sagged down onto his knees and forward just enough to feel some of the protection. Seth rushed forward and threw the aotahe over him.
"One minute six seconds. A full twelve seconds longer than last time. You're improving faster with each try." Seth also noted he was recovering faster, but kept it to himself. It would be a good biscuit later if Morgan hit a wall in his recovery.
Morgan panted a bit, clutching at Seth's arm, then swallowed hard and managed to get out "At this rate I'll never make it."
"At least the aotahe works."
"But I can't go around wearing only my aotahe for the rest of my life."
"Why not?"
"Because I can't. I have to ride and such, the thing is useful but limiting."
Morgan had completely recovered; Seth didn't say a word about his other observations on Morgan's health, but the signs were more encouraging than he'd hoped.
"You could wear it under your normal clothes."
"It won't fit under pants without exposing my legs."
An idea started blooming in Seth's mind.
"Morgan, why does it have to be a cloak?"
"What?"
"The garment you charge to protect yourself, does it have to be cut like a cloak?"
Morgan though about it a moment. "I supposed not, but that's the way its always been done."
"Does it have to be silk?"
Thinking some more Morgan said "Yes, definitely."
"Why?"
"Because of what silk is. Silk is a secretion of the silk worm. They make it into thread by unraveling the long fiber of four or five the cocoons and pressing them together into a singe thread. The same sort of thing happens when the cloth is made, it all becomes one single thing. That's why silk is basically the only fabric used in sorcery. It's the only material that can be cleared and enchanted as a single item."
Seth hurmphed, "okay, so it has to be silk... Does it have to be the outermost thing you wear?"
Morgan looked at him sideways "No."
Seth grinned. "I have our temporary solution. silk underwear. We make you a set of full length small clothes that you can keep charged like your aotahe. Then we can go back and work on this in a proper workroom."
Morgan stood and slapped Seth heartily on the back when he rose. "Yes! That'll work!" Morgan looked hopeful for the first time in days, then paused "now all we need is to find a good length of silk and the money to buy it with."

* * *

Finding the silk was a little tricky but the money turned out to be no problem. They'd forgotten the Writ of Acquisition the school had sent with Morgan. Since his predicament was directly related, it was a legitimate expense. Of course it would never be approved if the school found out that it was bought after the actual curative action. More, if they found out they'd want to know what it'd been bought for and why. It wouldn't do to have anybody find out how debilitated Morgan was. It was that whole knowledge is power thing again.
Morgan had appropriated the small shed as his workroom away from home. He'd been unable to properly protect it since he couldn't bring himself to do more than charge his aotahe, but they were assured mundane privacy by the guards.
Morgan was staying on site under false auspices, claiming to still be there to insure the wildings were going away. E'tsar had assured them they were diminishing daily, and there'd only been one disturbance large enough to require intervention since the sealing.
Seth possessed the necessary skills and tools to do the sewing. A good thing since Morgan had never been able to manage a decent stitch. His own aotahe showed signs of a seriously uneven hand even after fifteen years of charging and use. It wasn't a truly enchanted item so the perfecting effect had little hand on it. That wasn't the real point. The idea of anything, even silk, pressing against the scars unevenly was not one Morgan wanted much to entertain.
The whole procedure would depend on the already observed phenomena that Seth could touch something and still leave it suitable for enchantment. Morgan was to clear thread and the full length of silk before it was cut, so that he'd only have to cast the clearing twice. If he had to re-clear the constructed garment the plan might fail. Clearing was hard work. In his current condition it would be a question of stamina.
Morgan requisitioned the silk through Raiolal. Both he and Carteher had come to appreciate how harshly Morgan had used himself, and his near-certain lack of recognition or reward. The soldier in them both understood that better than anything. Both had come to him individually and pledged a kind of support. They'd both also said that they'd have taken the cutting first if they'd understood what it cost Morgan to cut himself.
It took Raiolal two weeks to make the round trip to the nearest trading post important enough to have a large enough single piece of raw silk.
In that two weeks Morgan got acclimated to the point that he could spend five minutes exposed before he'd cry out, and nearly another ten before collapse. It was nothing near normal function, but it held the promise that he'd eventually recover. In all that time he didn't use his talent once on anything besides his aotahe. It wasn't worth the risk.

* * *

With the silk on the table and the two of them locked safely in the shed, Morgan got ready to cast the clearing. Happily that kind of casting could be done with his aotahe fully charged.
Standing at one end of a small table, he reviewed the spell. It was a fairly simple brick-through-the-window type of thing. It was like rinsing something out. You poured a huge quantity of undifferentiated energy through the target until the waste energy ran clear. The only two difficult parts were keeping the energy unbiased and keeping it from burning the target away to nothing.
Seth sat calmly at the far end of the table waiting for Morgan's signal that he was done. If everything went well there'd be no outward indication that the spell was being cast.
Morgan prepared the stricture in his head. It was called `hanging a spell', a phrase he always found curious. When he realized that he was thinking about that instead of proceeding, he chided himself for ducking the immediate. With the spell hung, he reached into himself to spoon out the first dollop of energy.
It was a tiny opening into the astral. A simple channel to direct a trickle. What came down that channel was a torrent. The opening lasted just a fraction of a second but he was hugely overloaded with energy. It was like being surprised in your sleep by the taste of rising bile. A moment was all the time he had to figure out what to do.
Years of training kicked in and he did what's supposed to be done. The rule, mostly useful during combat, was if you have to dispose of an overload just keep on with what you were doing, but do it stronger. He activated the spell.
He extended both hands down toward the bolt of cloth and spoke the stricture once, but he directed the flow at more than just the silk. Struggling to keep the ratios correct for each phase, he blustered through the casting. Each time he opened himself to get the next piece he nearly drowned, but he just kept on in even measures moment by moment. In record time the clearing was over. He had no idea how long it took but the whole thing seemed to flash by in a blinding moment. In one pass he managed to clear the fabric, the thread, the table, and about half the shed including its contents.
For several heartbeats Morgan stood ready to try to fend off a fatal backlash, or perhaps burn away to nothing in an instant, but nothing like that happened. When he returned his senses to his body fully he cried out and dropped to the floor. The scars were alive with crawling, burning pain. The unused channels were flash-burned. Like running a race when you hadn't ever done more than walk a hallway in the past, the his body was complaining about the sudden strain. It often happened to new mages who spent too long between castings.
Morgan was going to have to use these channels, and pain be damned, or they would get so bound up that they'd kill him anyway. A classic case of having no good options.
The thoughts were still fighting with the sensations when Morgan realized Seth was over him and staring down in concern. He started laughing, perhaps a bit hysterically, then said "They're ready!" and kept right on laughing.
Seth was unsure what to do, but eventually set on just plowing ahead with the job of making the suit. "You'll have to stand up."
The abrupt laugh was over and Morgan got Seth to help him stand.
Seth used a bit of cord to measure Morgan. He stretched it over Morgan's aotahe this way and that, and made several notes on a piece of velum. During that time Seth didn't say a word.
Morgan broke the silence, "I overdrew, bad."
Seth grunted.
"And I need to do a lot more casting."
Another grunt.
"I'm scared."
"I know."
Morgan grunted back.
"How did you feel when you first started out?"
"With magic?"
"Yes, not during awakening, you had other things in your head, I mean the first time you were told to open a pathway and channel your talent."
"Afraid, I guess."
"Of course you were afraid, everybody is afraid when something big happens to them, for good or ill. I suspect you're going to be more afraid than this, a lot more. I don't know when, but you will. Fear is like that."
"Hua?" Morgan didn't quite understand his point. "Fear is like what?"
Seth stepped back from him, then moved around so the table was between them. He wasn't sure why he wanted it there, but he moved anyway.
"I told you, I think, that when I was nine I killed a combat mage ..." Seth looked down at his hands as if he expected to find them bloody. "It wasn't a whim; it wasn't even a choice. I knew that if I were going to survive the day that mage had to lose his fight. To lose, he had to die."
Seth got that far away look that comes with strong memories. In his head he was reliving that day. "I was standing there, in a pen, with the pigs. I'd been sent out to slaughter one for the evening meal. That's when the village was attacked.
"Riders, hundreds of them, came galloping into the village, and began killing. They were there to take everything they could, and kill or burn what they couldn't take. The free, and even some of the slaves, began to meet them in force. I just hunkered down with the pigs. I was nearly nothing to the slavers and I was nothing to the people of the village so I didn't care who lived or died.
"The raiders were winning, even a nine year old could tell that. While the fighting was still at its peak, some of the raiders were beginning to pillage. When one of them killed an old slave woman because she would be a burden on the trail, I knew that I did have a side to take after all. I knew that was his reason because he said it to her outright. There was no reason a barred boy of nine could give to mark himself anywhere above that old woman.
"I was frozen in fear, and watched the whole thing unfold, knowing I was going to die.
"Then the fighting turned. I didn't yet know why but whatever advantage the riders had seemed to slip away from them.
"The slave pens were near the center of the action, and the animal pens where I was hiding were kind of behind that, in terms of the raid anyway. There was raider there that was different. He wasn't armed like the rest and he didn't seem to be fighting, instead he was ahorse and just staring off into nothing. He was just a few feet outside the pen and I was afraid to breathe.
"All at once he started cursing and dismounted. I thought he'd seen me and was coming for me. Instead he drew a quick circle in the dust with his boot and then let loose a with a lot of chanting. A woman rode up, clearly not with the raiders, and all but leaped from her horse. She stood without moving and just stared at the man.
"All at once the pigs started screaming and climbing over one another to get to the back of the pen. I didn't have any idea why, nothing seemed to be happening between the two. Then everything came apart. The pen was flattened and I was thrown to the ground. There was heat and wind and stones everywhere, just roaring around, but the two were untouched by any of it.
"Then that stopped and I could see that they were both red in the face but again nothing seemed to happen.
"Slowly the woman began to falter. I knew she was loosing.
"I made my decision.
"Crawling through the mud on my belly, scared so bad I wanted to wretch but didn't dare, I made my way to the man. I knew that if he won so would the raiders, and I knew that I would die. I thought I knew a lot about death then, I'd slaughtered animals, and I knew I had a death sentence on my face, but I didn't want to die that day.
"Without making a sound I crawled up to him even as she sagged to the ground. With the big knife I'd been given to slaughter the pig clutched in my hand I rose up. I was big for my age, but I'd have been no match for him in a fight, but he was so intent on the woman. I almost faltered, but I saw the woman looking right at me and was afraid he'd notice.
"I reached around him with the knife and drew it across the inside of his leg with all my strength, looking for the blood there. He bent down and grabbed at the unexpected wound. That brought him down close enough. I grabbed his head like he was a pig, and opened his throat."
Seth was quiet for a long time, lost in the thought, then he looked up at Morgan. His eyes were bright with unshed tears.
"For the longest time, years, I thought that was the most afraid anybody could be. I was wrong. By fifteen I'd faced men in open combat. Been hunted by creatures from beyond the margins. And fallen into the hands of people who were lower than animals.
"No matter how afraid you get, there is always something waiting to frighten you worse. That is what fear is like."
Something in the way Seth said that last convinced Morgan that a little pain, and perhaps some insanity, might just be a bargain compared to, say, Seth's worst nightmare, or even his least. Morgan walked around the table and set his hands on Seth's shoulders and said "Thank You." There was more to it but he couldn't seem to find the words. He knew that this was probably the first time he'd really shared the story with anybody, and that was important, but what do you say to something like that.
Morgan gently kneaded Seth's shoulders while Seth spent some time finding his way back out of his memories. All at once Morgan realized that this was one of the first peaceful moments they'd had in recent days and found himself relaxing in the paradox of it all.

* * *

Seth kept busy cutting and sewing while Morgan vaporized sample after sample of silk. Imprinting the fabric was turning out to be annoyingly like cutting a one carat diamond with a rusty chisel and a forty pound sledge hammer. No matter how carefully he hung the spell it would be blasted apart when he opened himself to the forces of magic. To top it all off, something was nagging at him. It wasn't the insistent pressure of the power that had out-stepped him, nor the way his slightest movement would cause pain or itching seemingly at random. Some other thing was in the back of his mind nagging him. Whenever he'd try to chase down that other thing it would skitter away and keep taunting him from just outside his mental reach.
Staring down at a swatch, he'd stopped counting at fourteen but it was probably somewhere in the forties, a completely new approach occurred to him. Instead of opening himself to the powers he decided to draw directly from his organic reserves. His shielding was so marginal that what he took from his personal essence would, or at least should, be automatically replaced. Power should ooze back into him like water seeping into a leaky basement. Ignoring a goodly part of his training, Morgan hung a spell, set aside the outer world and drew from his life essences. It was dizzying, like being poured out of a bucket onto pavement, but it worked. The simple glamour took and he felt himself replenished almost against his will.
"Yes!" He slapped the slightly shimmering square of fabric down to the table in his open hand.
Seth looked up, raised an eyebrow, and looked back to his work.
Morgan sprung up, went around behind him, grabbed the tops of his shoulders, and shook him playfully "Y-Y-y-y-e-e-e-e-e-s-s-s-s-s!"
Seth took it as intended and kind of snickered.
Before Morgan got to say more the odd thing nagging him reared up and made itself known. They'd been in the shed for a good three hours and Morgan hadn't come around the table in all that time. This side of the room was outside the area he'd cleared and still shone with years-worth of comings and goings as it should. From there Morgan vrec'd the clear half of the shed. Then he prev'd it, and felt a tiny wrongness.
There was no stigma, no taint to the place, just a chilling emptiness that tugged at his mind a little. He knew that feeling. Frozen to the spot, fishing through his memories he quickly came to his recent torment. That was clearly the prime element of what he felt, an echo of his own agony. The casting had been faintly colored by the source of power that fueled it. But knowing that didn't make the nagging feeling stop. There was something further, a more distant truth trying to find it's way out of his mind.
He went to the edge of the clearing and swayed back and forth across the near palpable boundary, digging through his memories for the missing piece. When random memories didn't bring it to focus he started working his way backward from the present. And there it was.
The woodcot in the woods just outside the school. When he'd went back to check on the scene of the killings. That was the time he'd felt that same cold, cavernous, empty feeling, but much stronger then than now. That deep part of him that held on to things his conscious mind overlooked had noticed that just-noticeable difference and now it was trying to make it connect up in his head. Working hard to complete the connection Morgan began to feel it slipping from his grasp. It was something obvious, but he couldn't seem to bring himself to name it.
A scary tingle slithered up the scars on his back as he realized that the emptiness was like a protracted scream of terror and agony soaking into everything... and he had the answer.
There was a blood mage at the school.
It took a tremendous amount of energy to wipe that woodcot of the atrocities that had been done there. That energy had come from someone else's misery and its echoes had lasted. The shed hadn't been cleared for enchantment but it'd been wiped of all memory, of all feeling. Still that subliminal cold scream had remained.
That in turn meant that the person who knew about the books either had connections to, or was himself, a blood sorcerer. And unlike other such monsters, this person also had the formal training that a wild blood mage usually lacked. A well trained mage or two was a good match for an untrained blood sorcerer no matter how much power the blood mage had access to. But what would it take to deal with a fully trained talent wielding the energy drawn up from blood and torture?
Morgan quailed and seriously considered running away from the school, and perhaps the continent, and calling it quits completely. The thought guttered out as soon as he though about Liane, Mieka, and Shiea being that close to someone who might snatch them up and cut them. Right behind their faces were the faces of students and teachers, merchants and laborers, and all manner of people he'd known or seen around the school for years.
Still, flight was an appealing fantasy, it made him feel better about the possibility of free will. Too bad he wasn't the kind of person who could run away.

* * *

Morgan lumped himself down on his bench and looked down the table at Seth.
"There's a blood mage at the college." He said, all flat and lifeless.
Seth's hands stilled and he put his work on the table carefully as if he were suddenly afraid he'd ruin it. "Who?"
The quiet intensity of his response reminded Morgan of something he'd all but forgotten; just how dangerous a person Seth could be. That `who?' was clearly the first word of a much longer question; `who am I supposed to kill?' and perhaps `and how nasty would you like it done?' was in there somewhere too. Morgan would be glad to answer the short, and long question if he'd had the slightest clue. Instead he was stuck with his least favorite three words.
"I don't know."
Seth's movement, the twitch of one finger, clearly said `when you do know, get back to me and I'll take care of them.'
Calm in the knowledge that his intent was plain, Seth finally said "How do you know?"
Morgan sketched out his insights and reasoning while Seth returned his hand to the immediate job of making the garment.
When Morgan finished Seth asked "Do you think that you will be able to track this person's power now that you know what to look for?"
"Um, yes, kind of. I doubt that he is using the blood wrought power much at the school. It's too risky for just that reason. I would bet that the shed was a special occasion. If he is dumb enough to do it often, I think I'll know right away, but I don't think that the signature would touch his `normal' castings."
"So we'll have to get him riled up enough to draw on the blood power."
"That doesn't sound too healthy, but if we can't find some other way to draw him out, you're right. If it comes to that, hopefully we can do it away from anywhere populated. It's bound to get ugly real fast."
Seth nodded agreement, his affect suffused with an odd mixture Morgan would have labeled eager fatalism.

Chapter 24
Allowances

Seth proved himself a master with needle and thread and laying the glamor had proved blessedly simple. For several days Morgan had been able to move about without much in the way of pain or distraction. That, in turn, let him work on his power. He'd managed to throttle it back a little where it counted most, and had made several simple castings without overdrawing much. In short he was nearly in control of his talent. That control would last so long as he'd plenty of time to prepare before he cast anything he intended to control. His ability to work was greatly diminished by the overabundance of his strength. It would have to do. They had to get back.
Exactly how to get back was a pressing issue. It was a good two months ride back to the school. Morgan had the recaller but that would only take one person, not two and the horses.
Morgan's idea was simple. He'd trigger the recaller against something inanimate and when the gate was aligned to pick it up, he'd slip himself, Seth and the horses into the gate from outside. Then they could ride it back to the school as if they were the intended cargo. A simple cheat, for him anyway, but one that would work out nicely, if he could keep the power levels down.
In all probability they'd likely end up waiting all day for the gateway to show. The recaller wouldn't bring it until it was empty and unmanned. Still, it was a nice day and fairly warm for midwinter. The northern part of the continent was far milder than the south.
Seth and Morgan had staked out the horses in the middle of the parade ground where they'd first arrived and then hauled the table out of their work shed to use as the recaller target. They'd made their good-byes earlier in the day and now it was time to trigger the recaller and wait.
Morgan set the recaller, a brass tube about seven inches long and just a hair too thick to be held comfortably in a closed fist, in the middle of the table and pressed the recessed trigger. Nothing happened to outward appearances, but Morgan felt it warm under his hand. He vrec'd it as gently as he could to get in sync with it. Once he'd adjusted to the flow, he pulled back, leaving a single thread of power connected to the device so he'd know when the gate arrived.
Seth watched Morgan fidget for a while and then said "Nervous?"
Morgan jumped like he'd been kicked. "Uh...`concerned'."
"Not to worry, we'll find this guy, take him out someplace private, and solve our problems."
"I'm more worried about folding us into the Gate."
Grunt.
"I'm not going to have very long to hang the spell and I've never done anything like this."
"How many times have you sealed a fissure in the realm?"
"Once."
"Teleported?"
"Once."
"Suspended horses in time."
"Once, but..."
"And how much did you prepare for doing those things?"
"Not much at all but..."
"Don't you get it, that's your thing."
"What's my thing?"
Seth stopped to find just the right words, "Your special skill is to face things down unprepared and find the right way to deal with them. Even your awakening was like that. You didn't roast the family pet in a fit of pique, or burp up a maelstrom to save your life, you cast and maintained a complex binding in stone. You...'manage'. It's what you do."
"But I didn't have this unnatural roaring hell in my head during any of that."
Seth shrugged, "As I said, you'll manage."
"And if I don't?"
"Then you, me, and/or somebody else will probably take that fireball."
"That doesn't worry you?"
Seth looked him straight in the eye and said. "No." Then after a pause. "There is nothing to be done about the possibility that isn't already being done, I appreciate it, and I respect it as a danger, but I don't worry about it."
Morgan was flat footed for a second then muttered "Fatalist." And turned away to forcibly occupy his attention elsewhere.
For two hours and change they didn't say a word to one another. Seth drew on a lifetime of slavery and soldiery to fuel a patience that dumbfounded Morgan at every level. Morgan went back and forth between looking askance at Seth and hanging test works based on his observations of the recaller.
The thread between Morgan and the recaller started to tug and ripple, telling him that the gate was arriving. Even with his protective suit on and fully charged the arriving gate made Morgan feel like he was standing down-hill of an avalanche. All of local space seemed to rumble with the movement of that ponderous ancient construct.
"It's here! Get ready!" Morgan yelled as if the rumbling he heard were a real noise that would block out his words. He actually wasn't sure whether it was real sound or not.
The volume of the gate room seemed to be huge around his asense, it was shrinking to its actual size as the gate focused more tightly on the table. The gate had flung them here, dropping them off without fully focusing on the spot, but it couldn't do the reverse. It would have to fully form in adjacent space to pick up the recaller and its target. In that instant when the gate was translating the table across the boundary into its private space, Morgan would amplify those ripples and extend them around himself, Seth and the horses.
Practicing his newly, and only partly learned ability to ignore pain, Morgan stood with his spell hung and shrugged it into action at just the right moment.

* * *

At the exact instant that the recaller translated the table into the center of the gate room two things happened. Morgan translated his party in, and the table vanished in a bright flare born of the house of fire. An instant later they were in the utter darkness of the sealed, translating gate room, and there was someone in there with them.
Morgan knew instantly that that someone was not there by choice. He'd felt the cold scream within the surge of blood magic for what it was. The thing in there with them had been a man once but now it was something much less, and far more dangerous. What this creature saw, it saw for its controller and what it did, it did without volition. And no survival instinct would keep it from using itself up generating ponderous amounts of energy and directing them for its master.
Morgan didn't even take a second to think, he didn't have the time, he could feel it summoning a second blast. First, he opened himself fully to his new capacity. Second, he sent a blast of his own signature back at the creature, and hopefully back through to its master; if that hit its mark he'd have branded the mage at the other end in a way that would let him know that person at the slightest contact. And third, he grabbed the structure of the gate spell and snapped it like a wet towel, flinging the poor tortured soul somewhere out into the realm, as likely as not that would spell the end of its suffering. There were more oceans and ice-fields and volcanoes and populated places out there than there were places it would be safe for such a creature to be. Finally he snapped shut the channels he'd opened so cavalierly to wait for the backlash.
Morgan was on his knees screaming in agony. He hadn't even noticed it happening. Seth had just finished drawing his steel. The entire thing had taken less than two seconds, and Morgan suspected, rightly, that there was as much blood as there was sweat on his back as a result of his efforts. For all that, there was no backlash rushing in to consume him in the fire he'd just avoided.
"Mount up." He barked. This was no time to indulge himself. He'd surprised his opponent just now, he was sure of that, but if he let things alone the gate wouldn't arrive back at the school for another couple of hours. That'd be plenty of time for whomever was involved to recover and prepare another surprise. He'd have to rush the gate along.
Seth was ahorse almost instantly. The gate room was tall enough for that and far more. Morgan was slower. Seth didn't bother him with any questions like `what happened', this was a time for action. If they lived there'd be time for questions later.
Once ahorse himself, Morgan summoned a small light so that they could orient themselves to the doors. In the brief moment he'd seized the gate spell he'd learned a surprising amount. The main reason the gate was so slow was the way it was powered. That would be "nicely", "evenly", and "safely". In his current condition that was something Morgan could remedy with great ease.
He channeled.
There was a yawning, dropping, tingling sensation under his pain and then the room docked with its real location and the spell went quiet. Translation time? Seven and a half seconds. A school record. No danger of backlash here, the spell had been set and used for centuries, but the pain was roaring in at him from every side. With a last thought he nudged the doors which swung open out onto the staging area.
Praise be, there was nobody there waiting for them.
Gasping, Morgan got out, "Home. Now." and then focused on riding and sensing for attack.
They thundered out into the courtyard staging area, and then through the sally port at the far side, without challenge or hesitation. The trip across the grounds of the School of Disciplines was equally easy and they didn't slow at all until they'd crossed the better part of the college commons. After nearly riding down several small groups of people they slowed from a charge to a gallop in the name of prudence. Morgan had been expecting direct resistance. The move in the gate had been fairly bold. Perhaps his shot had gotten through to the blood mage and they had some time.
The questions laying hard on him were whether his family was safe and whether they should stay at the school or go away for a while. Firsts first, he'd have to find them safe before he could hide them away

* * *

They hit the front gate of the house at a run, having jumped off the horses without stopping them. Seth drew his steel while charging silently down the tunnel. Morgan was on his heels, barely able to track the real world with his asense covering everything for a mile round. Seth slammed the front door open and jumped in, ready to face down anything. Morgan tumbled in immediately behind him.
They'd thought they were prepared for anything. They were wrong. What they faced was one Liane, torn between shock, surprise, and anger at the way they'd come in. They were so intense and she was so herself that for a moment nobody moved. Then she burst out laughing and both Morgan and Seth started blushing for all they were worth. Still Morgan wasn't completely ready to relax.
Shiea charged Seth the way she always did, but Morgan couldn't find Mieka and he was not prepared to relax until he accounted for all of them. He stepped around Seth. "Where's Mieka?"
"What? He's back out at the canal project." One edge of Morgan's mood had cut it's way through the moment into Liane.
"How long?"
"They called him back out day before yesterday. He should get there tonight. Why? What's wrong?"
"Ten minutes ago we were ambushed by blood magic in the school's gate..." Morgan pushed his way past her and went for the secret door in the den. In the hall just before stepping into the den he stopped himself by stiff-arming the door-frame. "Liane, bring Shiea. Seth, ride back to the school, get the books and bring them back here. Then see to the horses." He started to move again, the paused again. "And Seth, make it official. Wear reds. Your best judgment... Watch your back."
Morgan got the door open while Liane got Shiea separated from Seth. He didn't wait to see if they were doing what he said. He just continued his charge, damning the spiral staircase for slowing him down. He was largely ignoring his own problems via adrenaline and he knew it.
By the time Liane got Shiea down the stairs, Morgan had his next spell half hung, and was rummaging through his meager supplies for a bell or something that would produce a nice even tone when struck. Morgan waved Liane on into the workroom while he continued the his search. He finally came up with a metal bar chime that would fit his need.
"Please, sit there, and hold Shiea on your lap. That's a good girl Shiea, we're going to play magic now." Morgan said the instructions and the soothing words in two completely different voices without much in the way of conscious intent.
"Liane, you said he left, what, yesterday morning, for the canal project.?"
She nodded. "Why is that so important?"
"It could just be a coincidence, but since the kind of power we tossed about in the gate could be noticeable back about two days ago, I suspect Mieka is in trouble."
"What are you going to do?"
"WE are going to check on him from here, and if necessary bring him back."
"I didn't know you could do that."
"I don't know that I can, but It's important enough that I have to try."
Morgan paced out a few measurements, trying to guess the general direction to Mieka. Geography, especially the local geography, wasn't one of his areas of study and there was a good chance that Mieka never got to go anywhere in the direction of the project. The intervening terrain and the paths the road took to go around the worst of it complicated the issue nicely. He intended to put out a very broad call, and hope that no portals were involved. Strong as he was, he didn't have the mind-work skills to search the entire realm.
"How's this going to work?"
"Shiea has half of Mieka's genes and half of yours. I'll use you to cancel out your half. From what's left I can make a wave that will react to Mieka's, and perhaps other members of his family. Add to that the emotional connections we all feel for him, and the fact that none of Mieka's family live anywhere within my likely range, and if he's anywhere around we'll be able to find him."
"And if we don't?"
Morgan gave her a strong look, he didn't want to get into that in front of Shiea unless it was the case, maybe not even then. The image of Mieka laid out for cutting kept trying to impinge itself on Morgan's mental landscape.
Liane muttered "oh" and shifted a little. "What do we have to do."
"Just concentrate on him and I'll do the rest."

* * *

The tiny voice of sanity in the back of Morgan's head mentioned in passing that he was already in trouble and this might well do him more harm than he could take. Morgan ignored it furiously and finished hanging the spell. Right behind it he hung the barest framework of a gate. That was more dangerous territory, but he'd been inside the gate spell twice in the last few minutes, and he'd done that blind teleport, so he had some chance. If it came up, he wanted to be ready.
He struck the tiny chime, and began reinforcing its vibrations using his personal essence. Then, when it had a timbre he liked he opened himself to the flows of energy all around and released his spell. The energy rushed in towards the zobaelest surrounding Liane and Shiea. Morgan knew they were safe; he'd swallow the whole charge and burp charcoal before he'd let it harm them.
The energy coiled and flowed through them, learning their most intimate structure and then danced with itself, learning what was like and different about the two. Conditions that Morgan had set were fulfilled and another burst of energy traveled through his body. This one was like a stone dropping into water, it produced an expanding wave, tuned to the structure and intent built by the first energies.
It was agonizingly slow, that expanding wave. It seemed to wash through every living thing, one at a time, as it washed away from him. Morgan thought he could actually smell his flesh searing under the heat of his open channels. The only reason he wasn't screaming his head off was that he didn't want to frighten Shiea. Part of him appreciated that, and marveled that such a small concern could hold back so much pain. Out and out he continued to ripple, in search of Mieka.

* * *

The spell worked. Morgan found Mieka a day's ride out from the school. He had suffered some injury, and was apparently unconscious, but there was no trace of the telltale tragic agony that would indicate he'd been cut. He'd been attacked all right, but he was still his own man, not the mindless creature of a blood mage. Morgan could only feel Mieka, his state, his condition. There was no way to tell if he was alone, or surrounded, on a bed or in a cage. Morgan could only feel him, like he was an idea floating in a void.
Even before he'd thought the spell through, Morgan was converting the energy of the search spell wave into something to fetch Mieka home. It wasn't a gate, or a teleport exactly, it was more like a summoning. He had a connection to Mieka's essence and that was like the first phase of bringing an elemental into the realm. He let his seeming instinct for magical construction take over and do the rest. In truth that was simply how he justified it to himself. In point of fact he didn't know what he was doing. Like cooking from an unlabeled spice rack, he was just putting in a pinch of this and a daub of that and when it tasted kind of right, he baked it with power.
The air in the middle of the pentariad began shimmering and then there was Mieka, bound hand and foot, and out cold, but lying safely in the center of the circle.
Morgan immediately faced a bigger problem. There was still no backlash in the classic sense, but he could definitely smell his flesh cooking, around the edges at least. He spent the last of his conscious will shutting down the flows of energy through his body, and shunted the overdraw into the protections he'd set around the house. With that charge nothing would get in at them for a while.
With everything seen to, Morgan lapsed into a miserable red tinged hallucination. It was a nightmare, he was crawling across hot coals under a blood red sky and there was no place to escape to, but whenever he stopped crawling the burning got worse, so he kept going on and on...

* * *

Seth returned with a knapsack full of books, unfortunately the most important one had already been taken from the library. He'd encountered no resistance along the way, and that was starting to make him itchy. With so bold a move taken on the grounds of the school, he'd expected more mundane action on the part of the other mages. Nobody ever relied totally on magic when a good thug or two was cheap and often more effective.
On the way back into the house he carefully locked the outer gate and then made his way silently to the front door. The place was silent, not always a bad sign, especially since they'd been going down to the workroom when he'd left, but he'd have to check the whole place out. It was a beautiful home, but totally indefensible with all that glass along one whole side. A quick circuit revealed no intruders or signs of entry or struggle, so he headed down into the workroom. He was annoyed to find the bookcase standing open, that was no way to keep a secret, and when he entered the stairwell he was sure to pull it shut behind him.
The castings were still going on when Seth arrived. Weighing the need to keep them close, Seth decided pile the books in the corner of the supply area. They were too heavy to carry for a long time and still be able to fight well. He was going to go back up into the house and stand guard, but his second look into the workroom told him not to. Morgan was trembling more than he'd ever seen short of his convulsions at the well, and would be in great need as soon as the castings were complete. He was glad to see that both Shiea and Liane were calmly rapt in the spell and not suffering any kind of contact trauma.
Seth sat down at the entrance and waited.

* * *

Seth had never been particularly fascinated with magic. There were a lot of reasons for that. When he was young he resented it for giving him his bar. Later it made for a lot of hard, dangerous, or worst of all boring work for him to do. Most people seemed to be so in awe of it. But it seemed to do as much harm as good. And lastly he never seemed to see what others did when it was going on. On occasion, were it not for physical evidence it left behind, it almost seemed like a hoax. The one thing about it that did fascinate him was the trials that a mage would go through to touch that power. He was sure that there must be something wonderful about it that nobody had ever bothered to explain, and that made him sometimes long for just a moment where he wasn't totally head-blind.
It was with a mixture of that fascination, and mortal concern for Morgan's health, that Seth watched Morgan expend himself. It didn't take any special ability to see that he was down to his last gasp, but somehow he kept going long after Seth figured he'd pass out. Mieka's sudden appearance in the middle of the chamber surprised him for a moment. An instant later Liane and Shiea started moving and Morgan collapsed from sitting to prone. Seth leapt up and at him.
When he started to see to Morgan, Morgan croaked out "Mieka first."
Seth didn't like it, but Morgan was right. Since the casting didn't kill him, he was unlikely to die now, but they knew nothing about Mieka's condition.
Seth pivoted around to Mieka and gently ran his hands over him looking for injury and telling Liane what he found as he went. He'd been beaten thoroughly but professionally to `soften him up'. There were plenty of bruises and blood but nothing more. It'd have hurt like hell but done no serious damage. A healthy knot was swollen behind the right ear telling where he'd finally been knocked unconscious, also a fine example of using just enough force. Satisfied that nothing was broken and it would be safe, Seth cut away the ropes binding Mieka hand and foot, and carried him up the stairs to the tub room.
Liane got a chair and Seth set him down next to the sink where Liane could clean his wounds. Once he saw her safely started on Mieka, Seth kicked the drain on the big tub closed and started it filling with warm water for Morgan.
Back in the basement Seth found Morgan unmoved and whimpering like a wounded puppy. He wasn't coherent, and he smelled a little like fresh barbecue. When Seth lifted him he felt a knot form in his own gut. Morgan was easily down thirty or forty pounds. Seth wasn't sure whether it'd happened slowly over the last few weeks, or all at once during the last hour, but either way he'd been drawing from his essence far too heavily for his body to take.
Morgan felt fragile to Seth, and getting him up the spiral staircase was frighteningly easy because of the lost weight. In the tub room Seth walked himself into the tub fully dressed and eased Morgan down into the water slowly. He immediately set about stripping away all the outer layers of Morgan's clothes. Of course he knew to leave the protective body suit in place.
Seth stifled a yelp when he saw the first swirls of blood in the water and continued methodically stripping away the mundane fabric.
It was almost obscene the way the white silk fabric was so white while the water he coaxed into it would come back out so darkly red.
Morgan's eyes were open but unfocused, and Seth got no response when he tried to rouse him. There was no way he'd be able to heal himself until they got some food into him and that would have to wait until Seth could check and clean his wounds.
Seth removed his fur-lined coat and shirt only when he realized that they were totally soaked and their sluggish weight was hindering him.
Holding Morgan afloat in the crook of his left arm he used his right hand to sort through the cakes of soap on the shelf next to the bath. He could smell the scent of thorn-wood so he knew some of the soap was made from the astringent plant. It was a matter of fishing the right one out, which he finally did on his forth try.
Seth began washing Morgan's entire body. It was tricky work. He had unlaced the front of the jumpsuit, which gave him access to Morgan's torso, but the area needing to be cleaned was mostly his back, arms, and legs. He couldn't just remove the suit, and he didn't dare open it any more than strictly necessary. On top of that he couldn't actually see what he was doing he had to judge by feel and the color of the water he managed to flush through the suit.
When he was nearly done Morgan started to rouse.
"Morgan, can you heal yourself?" Seth asked gently.
Morgan rolled his head in against Seth's neck and slurred out "barely move." And started to fall asleep.
Seth decided it was a good sign, and finished as fast as he could.
Realizing it would be easier to dry Morgan before trying to get him out of the tub, Seth hit the drain lever. That was when he finally noticed that Shiea, Liane, and Mieka were no longer in the room with them. His memory supplied the picture of Mieka being helped up and out by Liane after the cold water had roused him. Liane had all but carried him into the living room. She was stronger than she looked.
As the water drained away the heavy coldness of his pants and the still warm sloshing of water in his boots finally got him to strip the rest of the way down. The wet slap of the cloth against the floor, there was no place within reach to hang any of it, was an accusation against the well-trained core of his being. But what couldn't be helped had to be left alone. Besides everything he'd ever worn had eventually been through worse, some of those very items included.
Getting Morgan dry turned out to be no problem at all. He'd considered things like sweating, getting caught in the rain, and bathing when he'd laid the glamor. By the time Seth had drained the tub and gotten a towel the suit had drawn the water away from Morgan's skin and shed the excess. Seth dried his hair and wrapped the towel around Morgan to keep him warm and then dried himself with another.
Seth looped his wet sword belt over one shoulder and then picked Morgan up out of the tub and carried him into the living room. He'd have put him to bed, but Seth couldn't guard them all if they were in their rooms. All those glass doors in the adult rooms meant too many grossly-separated ways in and he could only cover one at a time. Liane had taken Mieka into the living room earlier so that he could rest but couldn't lie flat, a dangerous position for anybody with a concussion. Having the whole family together in one large room simplified Seth's duty.
Seth got Morgan onto the couch, but every time he started to move away Morgan would start mewling. It took several tries before Seth realized it must have something to do with that `damping effect' and he wasn't going to be able to break physical contact for a while without causing Morgan serious distress. He ended up shucking his towel so he could dry his swords and tack with it, and sitting on the floor next to the couch so that his back was against Morgan's arm. That seemed to be enough contact to keep him quiet.
Seth finished drying his valuable steel and leather, and then sagged his head back onto Morgan's arm and closed his eyes. The knot of worry in his gut was finally coming untied. He knew things weren't over, but the immediate crisis was over and now it would be a matter of keeping watch and waiting for orders, or for others to act. Both things he was far more comfortable dealing with.
Seth contented himself to watch the house with his ears. Shiea was in the overstuffed chair with her father and Liane was in the kitchen preparing some food, his nose named it soup, but he couldn't bring himself to care what kind. The stone house didn't shake or settle like a freestanding structure so the only other noises were the sound of the cook-stove fire, the ever-present drip of distant water, and a gentle wind gusting against the windows or under the doors.
Seth popped his head up as Liane entered, "I thought I recognized you." She had one of her amused inscrutable expressions on her face.
Seth thought, blushed, and pulled the towel into his lap for cover.
"We'll get you fit for company sooner or later." She grinned as she set a tray on the low table next to the couch. There were two mugs of soup on the tray, one of which she handed to Seth, and a bowl of heavy broth for Morgan, which needed to cool before Seth could try to get it into him.
Liane sat on the love seat and curled her legs up under her. "All right, talk to me. What happened?" She said it gently, and had to work on Seth to get him to eat and talk instead of `report' what had happened to them. Seth skipped the embellishments and the good storytelling and covered the critical and informative parts, along with some of their speculations.
After he finished his soup, Seth went about forcing Morgan to eat. Hunger and exhaustion were warring inside Morgan and so Seth had to fight to keep him awake enough to keep eating. It made his conversation with Liane a little less smooth but she was a parent and had a lot of experience with trying to talk and feed a small child, so they got through it.
Liane was shocked and concerned over what Morgan had done to himself, but she was a practical person and she understood the need. She also agreed that they'd all stay out in the living room together until Morgan and Mieka had recovered. She took him at his word about not being able to move away from Morgan, and saw to everything else including bringing bowl after bowl of the broth for Seth to feed to Morgan. She even hung up Seth's wet things even though her cleaning-up-after-the-men was strictly against house policy. She even stopped trying to make Seth keep himself covered. For now she was content that everybody was home and largely safe.
Mieka didn't wake for hours. Then there was a lot of throwing up and vague commentary. And much, much later, in the tiny hours of the night, Mieka nudged Liane. He was subtle, and careful, but Seth was on a knife edge and he woke silently at the tiny motion. Mieka had to nudge Liane several times to rouse her.
Mieka whispered, a tiny, half broken sound "whats happening?"
Liane whispered back "It's okay. You're okay. You were attacked, but you are okay."
"No Liane, what's happening? The men who grabbed me were strange, mean... but scary-calm. I think they were talking about..."
"Shush... What do you mean?"
"They were paid. They were going trade me for him. Someone paid them to get hold of him."
Seth had no doubt who `him' was. He shifted a little, and took one deeper breath to cover his momentarily shocked reaction. He'd watched people sleep, and he'd faked sleep often enough. They only paused in their conversation for about eighteen breaths.
"They said that?"
"Not to me, not on purpose, but I remember it all. They were all business... I don't think its safe for him to be here."
"You're right. But I don't think its safe for him to be anywhere. Haven't you been paying attention?"
"I know... I do... but those people weren't... rational. What are we going to do about those people?"
Laine was a long time answering. "These aren't our choices. It's too late to back out now. It was too late ten years ago."
The conversation just died.

Chapter 25
Investigations

"Eat!" Seth was bent down, fists planted on the table, and as menacing as he could manage under the circumstances.
"I'm not hungry, and when I eat I feel sick." Morgan said firmly, as if that would matter. The latter was true but the former was an outright lie. Everyone in the house was suffering from sympathetic hunger, especially Seth, who had nearly eaten himself sick before he realized what was happening. Morgan had called it `broadcasting'. Seth called it damn annoying.
"If you don't start eating, I'll hold you down and cram it down your throat." Seth's temper was nearly gone. It'd only been two days, but between having to stay within two feet of Morgan every moment of that time, not being able to exercise, and the continuous, unearthly, gnawing hunger he felt, he was on the edge of the edge.
"And we'll all swear before the throne it was brigands in the night that did it." Liane quipped in from the kitchen.
Morgan weighed the threat and then lifted a spoon full of heavy stew into his mouth. The instant he swallowed his stomach started in. His body was beyond desperate for food, so much so that it attacked anything he ate so aggressively that he could barely eat at all. The flows leaking into him sustained him in his unnaturally depleted condition, but did nothing to replenish what was missing. He'd have needed a stronger affinity for creativity or summoning before his talent could automatically create or acquire the molecules it needed.
Seth leaned in.
Morgan went for the second spoonful.
The overcharged shield on the house was functioning superbly. The mages hunting them were completely blocked and had no idea why. The ancient imperative that Morgan had discovered which forced people `not to notice' was working so well that several people who knew exactly how to get to the house had gotten lost trying to get there. Literally arriving at the gate and being unable to find it right in front of themselves. None of those inside knew this since Morgan's body had shut down his ability to use his talent at will the same way it had on Razor Pass. They'd all been staying in the house in a act of blind faith.
Both the nausea and hunger faded some with each mouthful, and Seth resumed his seat. When he finished the bowl there would be a brief respite from the emanations while Morgan's biology reveled in the nutrition, then the cycle would repeat.
Seth marveled at the audacity of his own words and Morgan's taking them as if they came from an equal. Not even Lady Korane at her best would have accepted that from him. That credit did much to ease the inexplicable enmity Seth had been feeling toward Morgan all afternoon.
It didn't occur to either of them that a large portion of the prickly tension between them, and Seth's extreme reaction to Morgan's hunger, was a side effect of the linked collars. Seth just enjoyed the moment of not being hungry.
"Stop scratching. Eat." Seth, his elbow on the table and his head resting face down in his open hand, wasn't even looking at Morgan.
Morgan, of course, hadn't been able to heal the tiny cracks and burns which suffused his scars. When the hunger and nausea subsided, the itching commenced. Seth had gotten quite good at applying salve by blindly reaching under Morgan's protective clothing, but his supplies of herbs and such was nearly gone, and he was completely out of things to keep away the itching. If there'd been any way to make him eat while unconscious, Seth would have liked to use the last of his supplies, or the butt a sword for that matter, to knock him out while he healed.
Liane, Mieka and even Shiea were keeping their distance as much as possible. Venturing close to the pair only to give Morgan food. It kept their more mild but still substantial contact-hunger controllable and minimized the emotional spill-over of poorly chosen words coming from the pair. The last time Morgan had snapped at Liane she'd muttered something smug about `ugly spots' and `new relationships' that even Seth couldn't quite make out, smiled graciously, if a bit coldly, and glided out of the room with something Seth would have called satisfaction, if he didn't know better than to bring it up.

* * *

Nobody, including Morgan, was happier than Seth when the cycle finally broke that evening. Morgan ate and didn't get immediately ill. From that moment on he shoveled in the food with gusto. Never before had Seth been so content to stay awake all night following someone in and out of a pantry.
He felt even better when he woke up alone in Morgan's bed. It wasn't like him to sleep through anything, but somehow Morgan had managed to get out of bed and leave the room without waking him. The two foot limit was broken. Seth wasn't going to have to brain Morgan with a blunt object after all.

* * *

Seth rolled out of bed and picked out a few things to use in his belated "morning" workout. He was just about to open the patio door when something caught his eye and he froze. There was someone just beyond the edge of the patio. He looked at the haggard figure, and he could have sworn the man looked back, but there was no kind of recognition, for all that he seemed to be searching for something in an only-half interested, but nonetheless intense way. After a minute he moved on taking as much confusion with him as he left behind.
Seth backed away from the door as if it might bite him and then went to find Morgan.
Morgan was in the tub with his suit opened and his chest and back exposed, trying to get a look at the scars and burns. Seth walked in on him.
Morgan started and then said "I have to find out how you do that."
"Do what?"
"Never mind, I'll explain later..."
"You must be doing a lot better."
"I think I am. Letting it heal naturally seems to have made things way more manageable. Of course I've got this room shielded nine ways from Market Day." He turned his back on Seth. "How does it look?"
The scars had changed, most turning ghost white or stained jet black by mechanisms Seth couldn't even guess about. The whole thing was actually kind of striking. What had been puckered pink lines now formed a kind of organic design that reminded him of a tree, or maybe wings, or a landscape. He could see hints of each but nothing complete or clearly any one of the above. Maybe he was just getting used to the idea of them but they didn't seem to have the ugliness they had exuded before.
"If I didn't know how you got them I'd say they were primitive but beautiful."
"Hmm, I wish there was a mirror in here."
"Go out and look at one."
"I can't this is the only room small enough for me to shield myself in right now."
"Your talent is back."
"Some of it, I'm still mostly blocked, but I had enough in me to manage a tiny little shield."
Seth advanced on him, not really angry but annoyed like he was a child that wouldn't learn. "You used your essence again. You don't have it to spare, you're nearly a skeleton now."
"It's all right, I have enough."
"No! You don't!" Seth thumped him on the chest just hard enough to make him aware how weak he was without doing him any harm.
Morgan coughed with the sudden stress, "Yes mother." He wheezed out jokingly.
Seth glowered, "It's not funny. I just saw someone come up to the porch looking for something. There was something wrong with the man. You can't go wasting your strength or slowing your recovery. You are going to need your body, and your talent, at full strength all too soon, unless I miss my guess."
Morgan started to pull himself back into his suit but Seth stopped him. "Wait, I want to check those since you have them exposed."
He got very close to Morgan's back and looked carefully at how things were healing. "Can I touch?"
"Yea, if you're really careful."
Seth pressed the on either side of one of the thicker lines and gently stretched it like he was trying to open the wound. The tissue held, but flexed nicely for such a thick scar. When he traced one finger gently along the line Morgan shivered.
"Pain?"
"Yes... Well, ah, not really, It just felt like you were touching my entire arm. It was weird... intense."
"Hmm, the scar goes right to the nerve. When something touches it, the nerve thinks that it's feeling a lot of things the old way."
"Will it learn?"
"Certainly, but it could take months or years for your brain to learn how to make sense of that."
Morgan made a Seth-grunt and then asked "All done?"
"For now, I'll want to check them again in a day or so."
Morgan fed his arms back into the silk sleeves and shrugged the top of the suit back into place with a more intense version of the same shudder.
The cloth was magically dry as soon as Morgan stepped from the tub. Seth wished his own clothes had fared as well. He checked them where they hung. He'd be oiling and working the leathers for weeks to get them back into shape.
"So what about this man you saw..."
Seth herded Morgan into the kitchen while he scoured his mind and presented every detail he could find there.
After listening to everything Seth had to say about the brief encounter Morgan said "It was probably a drone."
"Like from a bee hive?"
"That's where I got the word. I don't know if there is a name for those poor folk, I've never seen one. But `zombie' seems a little too far off the mark, `captive' isn't right, and while they are `victims' the word makes them sound too harmless. So I'm gonna call them `drones' until I know better."
"So what is a `drone'?"
"It's like the guy in the gate. The mage tortures and cuts someone and they become a source of power for him. To use them he has to hold them and their power in some kind of keth, like 'yetal only worse. Somehow this mage has learned a way to control them at a distance, or charge them to certain tasks. They are like a bunch of pawns, but the mage can channel the power they generate when he's actively linked with them."
"So they're not a army of wizards or something?"
"No, the mage is the only one who is using the power, so most likely he can only cast through one or two of them at a time; from a distance anyway. When we end up face to face with this mage I suspect he can draw from as many of them as are around."
"Do you know how we should deal with them?"
Morgan looked down at his plate. "We don't do anything until the last possible moment, but before we take on the mage, we kill as many of them as we can... All at once, and then go in before he can make more."
Seth looked sideways at Morgan. "Isn't there any other way? do we have to kill them?"
Morgan looked him in the eye. "They are already worse than dead. I got a glimpse into the mind of the one in the gate. All there was left of the man was a continuous loop of fear and agony. There was no sense of self left. He'd been wiped away by the pain, and something worse that I couldn't even name. There's nothing there left to heal."
Seth remembered facing those eventualities before, but he still didn't have to like it.
Morgan didn't like it either, but even he couldn't see any clever way around the need to slaughter them, again.

* * *

"... so now nobody can even find the house?" Mieka only half believed what he was hearing.
"And it will stay that way until most of the energy I dumped into the household protections is depleted. That casting has no way to dump energy, it can only add power as needed. There was no point in putting in a sink, it wasn't worth the effort."
"We're invisible?" Liane added in.
"Not quite, just nobody can pay attention to us, or to the fact that they can't pay attention to us for that matter. They're blind, they don't know it, and they don't know why."
Mieka grinned, "But we can come and go as we please?"
"Go certainly, but I don't know about coming back. This is an inside/outside thing, I didn't think about tuning it to except us. I can feel my own castings, so I could get back in for sure. But all that the rest of you have is the knowledge it's happening, and your familiarity with the way home."
"How would that help?"
"You could walk back in as long as you don't think too hard about it. If you just do it the way you usually would, without noticing, the block against noticing this place wouldn't make a difference cause you didn't notice, you just came. The harder they search the less likely they are to find us, but every time they are turned away a little power is expended that won't be replenished."
"So do we just sit here and wait to be discovered?" Liane didn't think so for a moment, but sometimes, she knew, you had to push Morgan to hear his mind.
"No." he said, as indignant as expected. "Later tonight Seth and I sneak out and grab one of them, take him a little ways away, and I try to use him to trace my way back to the mage controlling him."
"That sounds dangerous, can you do it?"
"I'm fairly sure I can. I nearly did it from the gate. If I hadn't been caught off guard I'd have completed the trace instead of just blasting away. This time I'll be ready."

* * *

Morgan was still a little weak, physically, but he had established a nice equilibrium in his talent. His newer scars, personal shields, and the pseudo-aotahe were letting him draw a reasonably small flow fairly evenly. His attentions would be split three ways, shields, garment, and casting so he couldn't yet get to better than eighty percent of his pre-cutting strength without dropping the protections and losing most of his control. It'd do for now. He didn't have any other options.
Self check complete, he nodded to Seth to proceed.
Seth opened the outer gate of the tunnel and Morgan followed him out.
From inside the gate they'd watched one of the searchers pass by and Morgan had known instantly that it was a drone. He had felt the echo of a scream in his mind without even trying. Seth would track the creature a ways and then Morgan would try to lay a keth of some sort on him.
If that didn't work Seth would brain him.
Then it would just be a matter of dragging him off and learning what could be learned.
On his first try Morgan learned that there was nothing recognizable to keth. Touching that mind was like wading in to a turgid swamp. Oh, something had a hold on things in there but he couldn't find any spark inside it to match something inside himself. If he couldn't overlay himself, he couldn't hold any kind of keth on the thing. That meant that not only could he not seize its mind, whoever had seized it already had something inside of them that Morgan couldn't even fathom.
He was about to signal Seth to take it out, when an idea occurred. The thing wasn't very bright when it was this loosely controlled. He stayed with its mind as best he could and simply nudged its senses a bit. Soon it was walking in the direction Morgan wanted even while it thought it was searching its assigned area.
`If they are all this slow,' Morgan thought, `and there are no normal people looking, the charge on the shields could last well into summer.'
Seth and Morgan followed it quietly and from a distance so that nothing would alert it to their presence. The place Morgan led it was ideal for his purposes, the shed where Seth's previous misfortune had taken place. Already washed of most influences and someplace that was impregnated with the signature of the enemy instead of Morgan's own. It should take quite a while for that other mage to notice anything unexpected coming from this drone.
Once Morgan had it there, he blocked its senses with the memory of its search. Blind to its outer world, Morgan and Seth could safely approach and take it inside.
Seth recognized the wretch. On his second night in this shed there'd been a pair of innocents there for the debauch. This was the young man. Seth felt a pang of something like guilt. Not for his participation, but for the confused feeling that he should have found a way to rescue the young man. Or maybe kill him, if he'd known about the blood mage then. Things might have been different for this poor sod. If only he'd known.
Morgan's fascination was different. He was stripping off the thing's clothes. His new instincts for the practices of blood magic told him that the more he knew about the cuts made, the better he'd be able to fold himself into the flows. The cutting was amazing, if grotesque. Where Morgan had curving organic cuts on his back and one surface of each limb, this... thing... had been covered with straighter cuts on every surface from neck to ankles. Many of the cuts didn't even follow nerve pathways.
It was much the way Morgan had pictured it, but still those extra cuts were compelling. He could feel purpose in them. They hadn't been laid just to increase the suffering of the victim, though they'd certainly done that, they served a purpose that Morgan's mind simply refused to register completely. Morgan was loath to know more and still necessity required it.
The drone stood stock still while Morgan ran his hands along the major lines. He didn't actually touch them, that would surely alert the mage and he wasn't quite ready.
Morgan was following a particularly odd zigzag patterned series down its chest when the purpose of the extra cuts became clear to him and he reared back in revulsion.
"I don't think I can do this Seth." Morgan hissed.
"Why not?"
"What been done... it's not right... If I touch that I don't know... I'm not sure it wont change me."
"Everything changes everyone, what's your second option?"
"I don't want to hear cheap philosophy, I'm not talking about learning something unpleasant, or doing something unpleasant that keeps you awake at night for years to come. That I could face... Do you know Bariolhan's tenants?"
Seth began reciting from memory without thinking "What is within, without. From mind, to body, to world. To affect a thing you must touch..."
Morgan cut him off. "Mind, body, world. Those cuts here, here, and there," Morgan carefully pointed to some of the more pointless seeming of the scars, "they connect reflexes, senses, and primary motive pathways in `wrong' ways. They create a short pathway around the reasoning influence of the brain. Do that enough and soon any deliberate actions burn out of, or drain away from, the mind. This is how they cut the humanity out of this... beast. They turn thought into sensation strong enough to scald the brain. If I align my self with that I think I'll burn away at least some of my mind."
Seth looked at the creature. What was there to say. Now that he knew the risk there was no way he'd support Morgan attempting it. He'd knock Morgan out and drag him back to the house before he'd let him try anything that stupid. He was in no mood to lose anybody else in his life. "Then we hunt them all down and see who comes calling after. That's how we'd settle this on the margins."
Morgan thought about it, it wasn't all that bad an idea, except for one thing. "It would be hard to explain a bunch of bodies stacked outside the front gate like cordwood. Our enemy wouldn't even have to even set me up to make me look guilty of something. We need help, and witnesses to our innocence. Something that can't be turned against us."
Seth `hmmm'ed to himself. "There's nothing like a nice angry mob to keep a person safe from questions... Let's knock it out and take it to the garrison, get the garrison to take it to the school council, and then we have our help."
Morgan turned to him, thumped him on the back and said "Seth, I love you." He meant it as a joke, but felt an awkward twinge in himself at the words. To cover the gaffe, he turned and sent a pulse which snuffed out the last vestiges of consciousness in the drone all at once. There was little chance of the mage having noticed that unless he'd been watching for it.
Morgan set Seth to rolling the limp but living thing in a tarp. Morgan couldn't touch it, even unconscious, without sending warning to the Mage. He figured that if he couldn't feel a burst of essence when Seth touched his own Scars, their enemy wouldn't feel it when Seth touched the drone. He was right. Seth tossed the bundled body over his shoulders and followed Morgan all the way into town without incident.
Even though it was late at night the guard roused to their "discovery" quickly and thoroughly. Morgan kept it shielded and unconscious while he explained its significance, in suitably vague and impersonal terms. The garrison commander ordered up a wagon to transport the drone to the school, while runners were sent off to the school to similarly rouse the council.
Ready or not, things at the school this evening were about to get more complex.

Chapter 26
Interactions

Masters Roarahbaugh, Utialai, Calhwin, Verrais, and Kelph were summoned from their beds and stood waiting when the wagon arrived. Between the five of them they held a stranglehold over virtually everything that happened within the School of Disciplines. These were men and women accustomed to the ways of power and prestige, or at least the self-important artificial kind present in the academic universe, and they didn't take well to being woken up in the small hours of the early morning. They presented themselves as the common front they wished the world to believe they were, but that front crumbled as soon as they understood what the guard brought them.
The gross, petty dissension that the academic council usually suffered began to rise as each of the Magi scanned the unconscious figure. Their usually-veiled contempt for one another and the political maneuvering it engendered was kept from full flower by the seriousness of the threat. Morgan held the drone under shield and just beyond the edge of consciousness for nearly two hours while the masters and their assistants probed and conferred and postulated and the guard shuffled uneasily between their immediate duty to the kingdom and their need for magical advice and assistance.
In that frustratingly long time all of the combat capable Masters at the school were roused, divided into teams, and given the chance to scan the drone. Morgan in turn tried to listen for his own signature or the taint of blood magic on any of them. He didn't find a trace of either, and he was sweating profusely with the effort of holding the drone. The harsh perturbations of the local fabric caused by the sloppy castings around him were rasping across him unceasingly and threatening his hold. He hoped that nobody could tell. The shield he was using could have been held indefinitely by any second year apprentice, if anybody found out what it was taking out of him he'd be in deep trouble.
Seth was ghosting around the periphery watching and listening for whatever might come his way, and occasionally straying near Morgan, for which Morgan was grateful. With the flow of people Morgan could not keep Seth near him, but the brief rests provided by the infrequent moments of contact were keeping him sane. Seth didn't dare speak aloud amidst all this concentrated ego but Morgan could tell he hadn't found out anything useful. Seth had a certain way of unclenching his face when he had news. Right now a slight furrowing of his brow said he had nothing.
Groups of magi and soldiers were finally dispatched to begin searching the area for more of the drones and Morgan was relieved of his charge. He wasn't quite trembling but he really wanted to just go home and curl up in bed. Instead he was called before the five masters and put, mildly, to the question.
Utialai and Calhwin drew the duty of questioning Morgan and neither seemed pleased at having to do it that early in the morning. After going over his pre-prepared, watered down version of the events surrounding the wilding a good five times, the miniature interrogation moved on to his return home and subsequent failure to report.
Utialai, her hair in her face and on the edge of boredom asked "So why did you suddenly decide to return home?"
"I received a message that my room mate had been injured and might be in trouble." A total lie but one that would hold up.
Calhwin then asked "A message from whom?"
"A woman from the nearby town, I never asked her name or the name of the town, came to me with a note apparently from the local mentalist. It named Mieka and seemed legitimate so I rushed home. The message was unsigned. You know how expensive it is to send a message long distance, I just figured that whoever it was didn't want to spend the extra money."
"I see." Utialai seemed unimpressed. "So why exactly did you ride down several students and staff."
"I didn't `ride down' anybody. I was in a hurry to get home and find out what was going on."
Calhwin asked "And what was going on?"
"I'm still not sure. When I got home Mieka had been dumped at the door," an outright lie, "and I took him inside. According to him he'd been waylaid on the road to the Ephar Canal Project more than a day's ride away. Next thing he knew he was waking up inside our house." The lie held enough truth that Mieka could not cross it up. Liane knew better of course, but even so the added mystery, if it found its way to Morgan's enemies, would serve him well.
Calhwin broke the take-turns nature of the interview. "So you figure he was gated in?"
"I have no idea how he might have gotten from the scene of the attack to our front door." If he were put under a truth spell he could make that statement, he'd needed the workroom to do the casting and he had no idea where Mieka had been during the actual beating, so `getting from the scene to the front door' was clearly out of the question.
Utialai came back in "And then what happened?"
"I recharged my normal household protections. I didn't know if the attack was personal or might recur. I'm not much of a healer so I just waited with him while Liane, his wife, my other roommate, saw to Mieka." Another near lie.
Calhwin looked him square in the eye. "That's all you did in that time?"
"Yes sir."
Utialai then asked "How do you feel about your actions?"
"I think they were justified. Particularly since I discovered that... person... outside my home."
Calhwin looked down at his notes, "And you think that this person was sent specifically after your housemate?"
"I really couldn't say what the purpose or motive might lie behind that person's presence. I am just glad I was there to catch it."
Morgan's two inquisitors conferred for a short while and then dismissed him.

* * *

Exhausted, Morgan went home to `protect his family' and ran into three search parties along the way. As they neared the gate Morgan could feel his own spell working against him. He was a very different person now than the one that had set the wards. The spell saw him at once as both friend and stranger. One moment the gate was a clearly visible destination and the next he seemed fuzzy about why he was walking up the gently sloping but featureless hillside. Too tired to really try to tangle his way through the casting, Morgan simply decided to follow Seth.
Seth went straight up to the gate and walked in.
There was nothing about the spell that was set to except anyone from its effects. The anti-notice part wasn't even part of the protections on the household proper, having been set around the workroom in the deep stone. The effect was simply bleeding into the greater spell, and Seth walked right through the entire thing like he didn't know it was there. At the thought Morgan realized that Seth in fact, did not know for himself, where the spell was. He took news of the spell from Morgan on good faith, but it didn't register on his awareness at all.
The clues fermented themselves into a whole in Morgan's mind. Morgan launched a tiny burning dart of energy at Seth, the kind of thing that would make someone flinch as if stung by a bee. The release was clean and his aim flawless, but Seth didn't react to it at all. The energy flow seemed to disappear down a dark well. Seth wasn't outright immune to magic, that was clear from the experiences with the collar, link, gates and so on but somehow the forces of magic were in some odd way normally blind to his presence. What they could not "see" they could not effect. Only when some intimate mode was used could magic even start to breach his passive defense.
Seth's strange immunity was a kind of mutual ignorance, what he didn't know about in detail, or perhaps even willfully accept, passed by or through, or around, or maybe even into him without a trace.
It was too much to think about all at once. A few tests occurred to Morgan, but he was too far gone to care about them. It was nearly dawn and Morgan wanted to curl up in bed and die.

* * *

Morgan woke up in the early afternoon and headed for the kitchen.
Seth was `on duty' in the living room, lying on the couch. Morgan thought he was asleep at first. When he entered, Seth opened his eyes instantly to `recognize' him, then went back to listening calmly, in a half drowse, to the tiny noises of the house. Alert for any change and ready to respond, with one sword on his lap and the other in its scabbard, hooked at his waist and hanging over the edge of the couch.
A moment of envy bloomed in Morgan for just a second. He envied Seth's self possession, and nearly everything else about him. Whenever he thinks about the last few months he finds them littered with his own mistakes. And next to every mistake there was Seth bailing him out or saving his hide one way or another. Every now and again Seth seemed more like a big brother, wild animal, or like he was now, a strange guardian spirit that had wandered into his life and decided to stay. Sometimes, when they were alone, it was like the whole master and slave thing had somehow fallen by the wayside. Seth had even managed to obey that order. But when they were out in the world it was palpably there, an odd weight on Morgan's psyche that was frighteningly familiar and comfortable, maybe even welcome.
That `wild animal' was his creature, absolutely, and without limit.
That thought sent a shiver up his spine even as his mind held it in mild shock, like he'd found daisies growing wild in the depths of his father's mine.
Morgan's reverie was broken when Liane brought Shiea into the kitchen.
"Morgan, we need to go out. We aren't stocked for a siege and we're nearly out of food."
"Send Seth out to get what we need." The tacit order was out of his mouth before he realized that was what it was. He flinched at the implications of his words. Something inside him had come to a final accommodation with Seth's status.
"Will he be able to get back?" Liane hadn't seemed to notice anything in his phrasing, but then again she was always ordering everybody around the house.
"Sure, he had no problem this morning, he'll be fine."
"Here." Liane handed Shiea to him and began looking into their stores to make sure she knew what they needed, while Morgan took a few moments to reacquaint himself with his near-daughter.
When she was satisfied she knew what was what, Liane repossessed Shiea and went out to Seth.
Seth was already waiting for orders. He must have heard them talking in the kitchen because he had put on a vest and was standing ready near the kitchen, a folded knapsack tucked under one arm.
Morgan caught a glimpse of crimson when Seth moved. The vest was the same one he'd worn before. It was reversible. Turned this way out it looked like plain livery, and not the warning colors of a bodyguard. Tricky that, probably one of Seth's ideas, it had that peculiar smell of competent economy that always hung so strongly about him.
Liane listed what she wanted generally and in particular, and then produced a handful of silver and copper from the household fund. The sight of money brought Morgan around to the practical. The fund had to be getting kind of thin by now. He was entitled to a healthy piece of gold for his recent adventure, but then he'd lost his classes for the semester when he'd had to leave, and his position at the library was long gone. He'd need to find a way to pay his, and also Seth's, share of the expenses.
Mieka and Liane wouldn't be able to carry them both very long, even though they'd never say anything about it even if they had too.
"... you'll be safe while I'm gone?" Seth was ostensibly talking to Liane, but he'd pitched the question to carry to Morgan.
Even as Liane started in on some sort of `of course' or another Morgan gave Seth a quick thumb's up to say he was healthy enough, and generally ready, to take on whatever trouble might arise while Seth was gone.
Morgan went back into the kitchen when Seth left. He'd followed Liane out without getting his breakfast and his stomach still needed attention. Liane was right, they were running out of food. He grabbed some bread and cheese for filler, some dried fruit, and a large mug for tea. The water from the sluice was filtered, reasonably heated, and aerated by magic. That was the only way to get rid of its stony metallic taste. It made a gentle fizzing sound coming out of the sluice. Morgan used little more than a memory of a spell and a tiny crack in his shields to heat the water to a good tea-making near-boil.
Whenever he used his power now it felt like the corded scars were writhing inside his flesh, seeking and probing for something, like roots in stony soil. There was pain of course, and star-bursts of sensation that defied succinct description, but the net effect was almost pleasurable. Something inside him was being adjusted, or crushed into a new shape, proving the adage that a person could get used to anything eventually.
Morgan was pulled back into the now by a splash of scalding hot water from his cup. In the moment he'd been distracted the tiny warming had erupted into a furious boil and half the water was gone from the cup. Morgan refilled the cup from the sluice and practiced great diligence in bringing it to the desired temperature.
After crushing some leaves into a tea-sieve, Morgan gathered his food onto a tray and carried it out into the living room.

* * *

Munching contentedly on his breakfast Morgan let that crack in his defenses happen again. Behind the tingling and the writhing and the pain was all his old abilities. Blocking the former to reach the latter, Morgan let his awareness bloom until he could passively vrec the house and its surroundings. He kept eating while he did the scan. It was a trick he couldn't have even attempted three months ago but somehow the new sensations accompanying his talent let him stay more aware of his body than before.
A sudden feeling wrenched him back completely into his body. He snapped too, ready to fight, but is was just Liane. She was gently shaking his shoulder and he had to swallow his own responsive power.
"Morgan? Are you all right?"
"Uh... yes. Of course. What made you think I wasn't?"
"I thought something was wrong, you weren't doing sorcery but I couldn't get your attention."
Morgan was puzzled. "I was scanning the area outside."
"Oh..." She looked at him again, "but you were eating and... It was strange. You were staring off into space, but not like you usually do, and you were still chewing. I thought you were having a seizure or something."
"I see."
She looked like she thought he didn't see at all.
"I really do. I have been doing all sorts of weird or scary things lately. It seems like I haven't been doing much of anything else. Sometimes I just have to stop and stare at myself. I'm kind of losing control of my life some how. You have to have noticed."
"I have, and I've been meaning to ask you about it. How are things with you? And between you and Seth?"
Morgan got a very tired and slightly vague look on his face for a while, and sipped his tea while he composed an answer.
"I've been way too close to the edge for a while, and now I am in deep trouble."
Liane lifted one eyebrow, "Is that a `just you' or a `between you and Seth' answer?"
"... both, I think ..."
Liane took a deep breath. "Are you lovers?"
Morgan flatly said "No." But there was an echo in it.
"That's too bad, I think he's a good match for you."
Morgan turned his head to look her straight in the eye. "I may be losing my mind a little bit at a time, but I am not stupid..."
She wasn't sure how he meant that, so she waited. When she knew he had no intention of going on, she prodded a little more. "So you do find him attractive."
"Of course, who wouldn't? But..."
"But what?"
"It would be emotional suicide."
That was not what she'd expected to hear. She'd been ready for something like `what would people say', to which she had the planned answer `people are already saying it'. `Emotional suicide' wasn't even near the pool she'd been planning to wade into here.
Morgan went on, "He's attractive, strong, self confidant, and loyal. He's also dutiful and driven to please. It would be an absolute disaster to get emotionally involved with him."
"That's the stupidest thing I have ever heard! You are emotionally involved with him. What could you possibly have to fear?"
Morgan was silent again and this time she didn't break in and push.
Eventually Morgan muttered, "A competent performance."
Liane heard the words but a "what?" came out anyway. It didn't make sense to her at all. her mind groped for something, but finding nowhere mentally to go she bounced back in with, "what do you mean by `a competent performance'?"
"If I said... If I even hinted that I wanted to bed him I am sure he would do it. Knowing him he'd be too near perfect at it too. The thing is, he'd do it no matter how he felt about me or what we were doing. He'd make sure I enjoyed it and he'd make sure I felt he'd enjoyed it. Even if he was repulsed to the very fiber of his being I would bet that he'd never let that out in any way. He'd `do the job' probably over-well and with annoying competence the way he does everything else, and I would never be able to be sure how he felt."
"And you do care about how he feels, don't you."
"Yes, a lot. More than I want too, but that's not the point I'm making. Everything between us would be... tainted... because I could never be sure it wasn't just an act. Don't you see, I own him, and he's used to being owned. What can I do? I am... stuck."
"You could free him."
"I've thought of that, but you haven't seen nearly enough of him to understand, I don't think he could take that. I don't understand it myself, but he has spent thirty years of his life consciously acting enough like an imprinted slave to convince strangers that he is imprinted. At any time he was free to walk away. It's something that has become part of his identity, so much so that when we ordered him, just once, not to act like a slave in private it took like a gease.
"I can't give him or sell him to someone else because then, even if he cared deeply for me his sense of duty and honor would bind him and keep him away from me so as not to shirk his duty to his new master. No matter how you work it, if I let myself feel for him I am doomed."
Out loud Liane just said "I see", and she did understand. Morgan was absolutely right about the `competent performance' but he was way off in his assessment of how he was dealing with it. Inside her head the little voice said `you are already in love with him and now you are going to pound against that inside yourself until your frustrate us all beyond endurance.' With a firm understanding of the situation inside her own head, she decided to move the conversation into other areas, namely the real state of his physical and mental health.
Relieved to be talking about something physical and potentially solvable. Morgan talked Liane through the details and ramifications of his recent past. Since they were being frank about things he let some of the mental strain show through and shared his concerns about the changes he felt happening in himself. He was somewhat detailed about his overdrawing, and occasional near-inability to control his powers. It was cathartic to be able to unburden himself and it was important that Liane understand some of the risks nearer to home.
Having achieved some relief by talking things out, Morgan headed back into some of the less-sure ground. "So how are the rumors and such?"
She knew immediately that they were back on the subject of him and Seth. "Oh about what you'd expect from some quarters. You are lovers, or you are forcing him to be your lover, depending on who you talk to. There's also the occasional `he's a dangerous animal and should be put back in the cage' that shows up when things are less focused on your love life. Apparently, in those circles, you are `barely able' to contain his animal nature. And finally there's a small `that slave is really in charge' faction that I don't quite understand.
Morgan understood perfectly.
"About what I expected from the first day, but it could have been far worse." Morgan's leanings were well known around the school, but until Seth had come into his life he'd otherwise had the reputation of a monk. Tor wouldn't have told anybody about why he'd bought Seth, leaving a vacuum around Morgan's motives that was all too easily filled with speculative innuendo. "At least it's nothing really crippling" he sighed.

* * *

Seth was being the dutiful slave re-provisioning the household, in terms of status it was several notches below bodyguard but it had its advantages too. He'd be expected to haggle in the name of protecting his masters finances, which was almost always enjoyable, and with town and country being torn apart in the search for drones it was likely to be a pleasant outing. Despite the searches and whatnot there was still a reasonable bustle to the market square. Basically a classic tableau of people getting on with their lives.
As usual the crowd parted somewhat for Seth, though it seemed to do so without actually paying him any sort of attention. The free had a universal aversion to feeling intimidated by a slave, so their movements had that semi-conscious air of happenstance. Seth's excellent eye for finding the best goods mixed in amongst the common held true, and he managed a good price on what he chose. It was really a matter of being able to see past appearances and in to the quality. The difference between good and pretty was usually lost to most of the free.
Having finished acquiring the necessary with plenty of marks to spare Seth decided to get of few special things to improve the meals they were eating at the house. While haggling over a particularly pungent blue-black fash of Mung spines Seth spotted a familiar livery. It was the same house mark that had been worn by the men at arms from the shed and the Winterdark ambush. This time it was embroidered on the sleeve of a free woman maid servant out provisioning her own lord's house.
Despite the fact that Seth stood out in a crowd, and certainly someone from that house knew he'd killed one of their lordlings and a couple of men at arms, Seth managed to go unnoticed as his various tasks `coincidentally' kept him within sight of the maid servant. She was spending money wantonly, barely haggling or caring about real value of her acquisitions. Moving through the more expensive part of the bazaar was itself expensive, since Seth had to make the occasional purchase to hide his intent. He accumulated a few fine items at good prices and was actually thinking menus while he went. If he didn't manage to find out anything helpful the money he spent would at least make credible meals. Not necessarily a good trade given what he knew of the household budget, but worth the risk.
Her purchases told him a lot. While she wasn't haggling much, the few times he'd been able to get close enough to hear she'd gotten good prices and often the merchandise came from the merchant's private reserve, or was set aside specifically for her. That meant that her house had a good bit of clout in the merchant's guild, and the marks to back up that clout. Not good. Worse yet, she walked freely without escort and all of the cut-purse and pickpocket types Seth spotted steered well clear of her despite her being an otherwise choice target for those pursuits. That house was also well connected to the less savory part of this small city at the least.
Seth followed her to a large walled compound on the western end of town. He didn't dare get too close because the approaches were likely being watched by the house guard. Not being seen was part of their job, but he could feel them in the air. More accurately their presence could be inferred from the way the quiet street was too quiet and felt like it was always that way.
Comparing what he'd seen at the compound to the other buildings in the merchant's quarter was repressing. Aside from its suspicious placement, it was one of the largest and most secure of the buildings in the area. That meant importance and power. That little spot in the middle of Seth's back where he could most easily imagine a knife being stuck, started to itch as he made his way purposefully back to the market. Morgan was certain that someone powerful at the school was involved, when Seth told him how powerful an enemy they probably had in the town, he would not be happy.
Seth couldn't quite decide whether he was more comfortable in the meager crowd. The only real difference between taking a knife here and back in the streets would be the possibility that a good witness might allow Morgan to recover his purchase price. Not much personal comfort there. Seth had made an accommodation with his paranoia a long time ago. You develop a practical paranoia if you survive the margins very long, or in combat very often, but knowing its origins didn't make the tight feeling in his stomach any more pleasant. It did, however, let him move through the crowd without any outward show of anxiety.
Seth could generally see across the heads of people around him, except when some loaded cart or other obstruction passed. Across that sparse landscape of hats and bare heads Seth saw the hooded head of a mage change direction towards him. There was no way to be sure it had anything to do with him, until he changed direction slightly and the head changed direction too. Seth took a couple more steps, choosing the place where he would meet the stranger and still have room to maneuver.
He relaxed a little with two realizations. First, the mage was half-hurrying in a way that didn't say danger, and second, his knapsack was covering his knife spot. Sometimes it's the strangest things you notice that make you feel safe.
The young man who finally drew close was clearly an apprentice, just old enough to have only a touch of boy still evident in his features. A vague thought along the `I could snap him like a twig' vein flashed comfortably through Seth's head as the habit of meekness welled up in him. It was always difficult not to intimidate people when you stood so much taller than them. Years of practice made it second nature. It wouldn't do to scare this little pup.
"You! Is your master Magus Morgan?" His inquiry wavered somewhere between direct and dreamy, he was still learning the discipline of his aotahe.
"Yes lord, that is he." With his head bent Seth still watched the crowd. The boy probably couldn't notice that in his divided state of mind.
"Good, they'd said you'd come this way."
News of Seth's passage was worth someone's remark, not good, but the statement wasn't addressed to him so Seth waited.
The boy's manner varied a moment while he searched his thoughts for the message. "Masters Roarahbaugh and Utialai wish to speak to Magus Morgan in the lesser hall this afternoon at the third bell."
It was well past the second. "Yes lord."
"Nobody has been able to reach him, do you know where he might be found?"
"I left my Master at his home, it is my understanding that he intended to remain there."
"Nobody has been able to reach that either..."
Another comment probably not intended to be thought aloud. The odd nature of what was supposedly blocking the house was become a matter of common knowledge. More bad news.
The pause began to stretch out and Seth resisted the urge to shuffle his feet a little while he waited for the absent minded youth to continue or send him on his way. Eventually he spoke up "Shall I carry this summons to my master lord?"
The boy started a little. "Um... yes, immediately."
"Yes lord." Seth bowed and then stepped around the young mage and started home at a loping run.

* * *

"You there! Slave! Halt!"
Damn.
Seth stopped dead in his tracks, along with seven other slaves by his quick count. They each looked about themselves and the lucky other seven proceeded along their way as soon as they knew that they were not the slave in question. Seth got to stand his ground and wait while two armsmen, dressed in the last livery he wanted to see just then, came strolling up.
There were precious few options open to Seth. While he could take either or both of them with probable ease, there was a good crowd pointedly not watching events unfold. If he drew first he'd certainly end up on a gallows, possibly with Morgan soon to follow. If he drew last, the `certainly' dropped to just a `probably', though Morgan would be far less likely to take a rope for Seth's actions. That left running away, which would re-raise the whole imprinting issue and send him back to a cage in the kennels, and that other kind of standing around waiting to be run through. Seth stood and waited.
The two armsmen stopped a healthy distance from him. Healthy being just out of range should Seth draw his steel. They eyed him warily but pointedly made no move toward any kind of weapon. The knife-spot in Seth's back began itching again even under the weight of food he carried.
"Lead us to your master, slave."
That was not anything he'd expected, and he had to think it through. Once in Morgan's presence Seth would recover the role of bodyguard freeing his steel if they should act against him, that was bad for them. They could just be trying to get him away from public scrutiny, but they were all but free to kill him where he stood, again bad for them. The only advantage that might be got is if he led them to the house they would get inside the shield. No, not the only one, they'd be inside the shield and have the element of surprise over Morgan. If there was more magical nonsense involved, their presence inside the shield might give others a way to find their way through it too. The only safe assumption was that they wanted to get someone or something inside the house. No matter what Seth must not lead them there.
"My lords..." Seth faltered for a moment, looking for the right way to deflect this. "I carry an urgent message for my master which I must run to him immediately, a summons which will brook no delay." Damn, that wouldn't be enough, he could tell by their expressions. If they chose to run with him he could try to outrun them, which he figured he could do, but a foot race was not like combat, you never really knew who you could beat until you ran the course. "I also have orders that my master is not currently receiving visitors in his home."
That latter did give them pause. Morgan's orders, as his true master, took precedence over the orders of any free man not of royal blood. If a true lord, governor, or some such ordered him it would be a toss-up, so barring a royal writ he was on high ground here.
The two armsmen looked at one another and then back at Seth, clearly vexed, but apparently believing him imprinted they couldn't figure a way around his trump.
The older one finally stepped exceptionally close and spoke so that no `disinterested' party might hear. "My Lady Jaesiaria, Matron of House Annaoral offers honorable truce for such time as she can, that being one week as of dawn this day, to your master, Magus Morgan, with the express intent that they meet in person, within that time, to discuss the matter which lies between them." With that he pressed a sealed envelope into Seth's vest and stood back. "Will you deliver this message to you master?"
"Yes my lord, he will hear your words exactly."
"Then go."
Seth took off for home at a run. He'd heard a lot from Morgan about the machinations surrounding the school but this was the first time he'd heard those wheels-within-wheels squeaking first hand. The phrase `for such time as she can' nestled into the front of his mind. The way it'd been spoken... Something heavy hung on that particular pin. Or maybe he was only meant to think so. It was a matter for Morgan, he only had to worry about catching all the pieces and cleaning up the mess if things fell apart.

Chapter 27
Details

They hustled themselves across campus to make it to the lesser hall by the third bell. The Masters had very little to hold over Morgan at this point, but the forms had to be obeyed. Roarahbaugh and Utialai were a strange combination. They were generally found on opposing sides of virtually any issue. Some people said it was an abiding personal dislike of one another, Morgan would have laid his money on a more generic problem. They were both annoying in exactly the same ways.
The third afternoon bell found them waiting in the lesser hall for some indication where exactly they were to go. The `lesser hall' is actually a series of offices and such and being summoned there could mean virtually anything. Morgan was not having one of his clearer moments so a collateral scan of the complex was not a option. After checking a few of the more obvious possible destinations to no avail, Morgan and Seth settled in and waited.
A good twenty minutes after the third bell an apprentice finally showed up to lead them into a small meeting room. The setting was informal, there was only enough room for one common table, so the masters were trying to `out casual' one another. Morgan didn't let any disgust or annoyance show through as he took a seat he judged neutral. Seth took up his typical post by the door and Morgan enjoyed the uncomfortable moment it took the masters to mentally assess him and then try to dismiss him as furniture.
Master Roarahbaugh began leafing through his papers as if he couldn't quite remember why he was there, then spoke. "The search parties have found several more of these, what did you call them," flipping papers, "'drones', along the southern wood, all fairly far east of where you found yours. They've all been dispatched. Nobody was able to determine what they were doing there nor who was controlling them."
Utialai picked up where he left off. "We wanted to ask you again if you knew anything about why they might be here."
The dynamic in the room seemed all wrong but something inside Morgan smelled an opportunity, "It's hard not to sound paranoid saying this... I think someone is after me."
They were not ready for any part of the truth and it took them several seconds to really understand what Morgan had said.
Utialai looked at him like a new species of fungus, "Why would someone be after you?"
There was no way Morgan would ever tell anybody about the book, but a near-truth would do here. If one of them were his enemy they'd already know the truth and if they were not enemies then an outright lie would limit their usefulness. "I don't know. Maybe something I found in the library, or something someone thinks I know or heard. What I do know is that every now and again of late something really suspicious happens to, or near, me." It really did sound paranoid, but that might be for the best.
Roarahbaugh peered over his glasses, "Like what?"
"Well, these drones. Before that the message that summoned me home." Nobody could know that there had been no message. "When I entered the gate there was some kind of mage fire," he looked at Utialai, "You didn't ask me about the pile of ash in the gate when you asked about my odd arrival. I think that if I'd come into the gate the normal way that ash would have been me. This goes as far back as Winterdark, someone attempted a Long Night privilege on me and my family."
That last didn't sit well with the masters. Long Night was not something observed by civilized folk, and that happening near the school seemed to shock them far worse than the discovery of the drones. Perhaps it was because they themselves had been tempted to take a Long Night privilege or two sometime in their respective pasts. It made the transgression of propriety far more accessible to their minds. In the measure of all things base, it hit them where they lived. The meeting didn't last long after that.
Leaving the dumb-struck masters Morgan was touched on an intimate telepathic level but then received no message. He didn't have the mind-to-mind skills to trace the sending. It hadn't been a probe, he knew enough to be sure of that. Someone had started to send him a message and then stopped. It was almost certainly one of the two he'd just left, but there was no way to tell which.
"That was... odd," Morgan said as he started down the hallway, "tell me again about the run in with the armsmen."
Seth reran the dialog while they walked. There hadn't been time to cover it in detail before the meeting. Seth handed over the sealed parchment when he got to that part of the story. A quick vrec didn't reveal any kid of magical afterimages. The thought of more mundane detriments, like contact poison, passed through his head briefly, but he couldn't just surrender to living in fear. He popped the seal.
The hand was even but slightly trembling.
To Magus Morgan al'Whaelin,
Greetings,
It has come to me that there exists between our houses a matter of blood. I can make no promise of resolution in this matter but I feel that we may each benefit from a personal discussion of the matter. To that end I invite you to call upon me at your convenience and extend to you my word of assurance that our houses are at peace until sunset seven days hence.
By My Hand and Seal,
Jaesiaria al'Annaoral,
of House Annaoral.
Not much new there. Morgan handed the parchment back to Seth. "What do you think?"
"Not much more there than what I got from her men."
"What `more' do you get?"
"The armsmen titled lady Jaesiaria `matron' but she does not title herself within her house. Combine that with the phrase `while she can' and `of House' instead of just `House' and I'd have to say that she is disadvantaged within her own house."
"The truce is still valid though, right?"
"I would think so, it was offered under a proper seal of the house, whatever the circumstances the house is bound by honor to observe it."
Morgan didn't grumble his thoughts about whether the house was honorable loud enough to be heard.
A few paces later Morgan said "We'd better dress for it." Then a few more paces on "No, we'd better wait till tomorrow afternoon to call on her."
The greater and lesser halls each have a small room where apprentices wait on duty for whatever small work the staff might have. Morgan stopped, wrote out and sealed a note, and ordered it delivered to House Annaoral.
Lady Jaesiaria al'Annaoral,
I am glad to hear that this matter concerns you as much as I, and welcome the opportunity to speak with you about it. If it suits your schedule, I shall endeavor to call upon your proffered hospitality at two tomorrow. Frankly I have been at a loss at how to address this situation and await your thoughts eagerly.
By My Hand,
Magus Morgan al'Whaelin
Morgan decided to stop by Tor's office to see if he was still in the habit of taking a late supper. They hadn't had a chance to speak in quite some time and the number and variety of tidbits of information passing through his hands was far greater than most people at the school imagined. Then he'd have to head home and find a way to let Liane and Mieka come and go from the house. They couldn't stay trapped in there much longer, and they still dare not leave for fear of not being able to return. If worse came to worse he would take the charge on the protections down to normal, but if he could find a way to keep the charge up, then well and good, continuing the near impenetrable safety the current situation would suit him just fine.
While studiously looking after the footpath in front of him Morgan said "Seth, do you think you can look into the gossip among the slaves tonight without anything happening?"
Seth knew Morgan was really asking him if he were superstitious. If there had been any pattern to their lives since meeting it was that disaster seemed to come calling whenever they were apart. "I think that'd work out okay."
"Ugh... good."
Grunt.
They didn't speak again for the rest of the walk across campus.

* * *

Tor was in his office working too hard, as usual. The burly ex-carpenter was occasionally known to break something in frustration, and he looked about ready to do that now. Morgan knew about his piles, and all of them were pretty high at the moment. He'd once told Morgan that he'd never have taken his job if he'd known what it'd do to his temper. He smiled as he looked up from his paperwork, a smile that wavered for a moment when he saw Seth, but which firmed back up almost immediately.
Morgan snatched a small ball off of Tor's desk and then flopped down in a char. "A-there Tor, what's got you today?" he asked as he began tossing the ball in the air.
"Same as always, these bloody students do nothing but screw up and blame the staff." Tor stayed engrossed in the report he was reading, it was his way.
"Is that it?"
"No, the food budget is short almost four days worth of food this month."
"and...?"
"And that little all-night all-day hunting trip has all the shift work messed up."
"...one more?"
"I have a room with three possible witnesses to a theft, who I can't get to say one unbiased word."
Morgan looked over his shoulder at Seth, who raised an eyebrow and kind of shrugged. A tiny movement that said a lot.
"Where are they?"
"Downstairs waiting for me just off central livery."
Morgan exchanged another set of signals with Seth, who subsequently slipped out the door.
Tor's head started shaking in disgust as he read, moving further and faster as he finished the page. Finally he put it down on his "let it age a while" pile and looked Morgan dead in the eye.
"Morgan, please kill me."
"I'm not letting you off the hook that easily."
"Nobody ever does."
Their eyes locked, Morgan caught the ball out of the air, and then they both grinned.
"Seriously, how have you been? I've been hearing a few odd things lately."
Morgan shrugged, "things are far more odd than you could have possibly heard."
Tor `ugh, hua'ed him, and Morgan snickered inwardly at how much Tor resembled Seth when he did that.
"I haven't been able to contact you since you came riding out of the gate, what happened?"
Morgan screened the room and then told Tor everything significant that'd happened since his departure. He also shared his suspicions about a full master at the school being involved with blood magic. He also revisited the events surrounding the death of the young merchant lord and his bodyguards and the subsequent attack and note. He deliberately left out the part about the destruction and replacement of the collar.
"Well that last bit is interesting. I suspect that the lady is going to ask you to surrender Seth to her. You didn't take part in the slaying so the quarrel most likely only involves you while you are protecting him."
"Well I'm not going to surrender him to anybody. Besides Seth was more a victim than that twisted little kayffe ever was."
Several emotions chased each other across Tor's face while he thought. "I, um, notice you aren't wearing the control ring any more, I take it that you've got it better protected than before."
Morgan actually hadn't even thought about the ring since he'd used it as one of the anchors of his casting outside the mist wall. He'd never reclaimed it from Commander Briene. He'd have to put a trace on it later and then fetch it back when he had the chance.
"I think it's covered."
"So the collar wasn't necessary?" It was as much a statement as a question, and Tor seemed to age with his words.
"No, it wasn't, but you had no way of knowing. It was pretty harsh going there for a while, but I think we've got the whole issue behind us."
"okay... I was thinking... I think that we can be sure that whatever is happening with blood magic around here, well, I don't think it can be happening on school grounds."
"Why not?"
"It has to do with provisioning. I mean, there are the supplies, and then the space considerations. It just can't be happening on school grounds. If it were I'd know about it."
"I don't see how."
"Well, see, I asked myself what I would need to do the nastier parts of the business, and I just don't see it happening here. Let's say there were only the four of those people, the victims, and the mage. Well, he'd have to keep them somewhere, and then feed them, which he'd have to do himself or have a fifth, a trusted servant to do it. Even feeding them the worst, they'd eat a lot over time. Then there is the issue of supply. I mean, I understand that they don't live very long, so this mage would need to replace them regularly. That takes time and space, and it's pretty unpleasant, meaning noise and a mess. All that must take a good bit of room. Virtually everything happening in this place comes across my desk, one way or another, and there just aren't enough unaccounted for things and large abandoned spaces around here to support a secret that big."
Morgan hadn't thought about the purely mundane needs of Blood Magic before, but Tor's argument was persuasive. "You're sure?"
"Positive, I have been through it every way I can think of. It can't be happening on the grounds."
"How do you know that it's not something the slaves know about but wouldn't tell?"
Tor blushed a little bit and then said "I spy on them."
"You what?"
"I spy on the slaves. I've told you how frustrated I get trying to learn things from my stock sometimes... Well, I helped remodel this place some years back, and it's got some fairly odd little spaces in it. When I need to put my ear to a wall to find something out, I do exactly that."
"and that works?"
"Better than you might think."
The picture of Tor, squeezing into some nook planted itself into Morgan's mind and made him chuckle a little. They talked a little while longer about the lest consequential parts of their lives and then Seth slipped back into the room.
Morgan looked to the door and asked "What'd you get?"
Seth immediately answered, "The whole story. It was only a `theft' in the loosest sense of the word."
Tor jumped in "What... what do you mean?"
Seth, unsure how casual or formal to be, went for an even split. "Well sir, it seems that the floor matron Kemma happened to witness the `theft' of a large disk of precious metals inset with gems and whatnot on purpose because she had been warned of it by the grounds' man Jerral. Jerral had overheard the would-be victim planning the crime with a good friend. The supposed victim, Journeyman Raisial Kappairaiov, arranged to have his friend Journeyman I'sairia Celeph find and send some thief unknown to Journeyman Raisial, to him. If the plan was followed completely, Journeyman Raisial then cleared the thief, apparently a girl from the village streets, and set his own aura about her so magical inquiry would not show anybody unusual entering the workroom. After the `theft' the thief would then deliver the object to Journeyman I'sairia for safe keeping, with the intent that it be eventually returned. This delivery apparently has been verified by other members of the livery, as the object was `encountered' by one of the staff amongst Journeyman I'sairia's belongings."
Tor was somewhat taken aback, being unused to such an easy and complete report. Not one to let an opportunity slip, he quickly asked. "Any news as to why?"
Seth was again not sure about which part of the scheme Tor was questioning so he just started in. "It seems that the conspirators chose this complex means so that, if he were questioned under truth spell, Journeyman Raisial could answer questions about the identity of the thief, or more precisely `the person who took the object' with truthful negatives. The absence of an true and actual theft would allow any question with the word `theft' to be sidestepped with a little care. The trick with the aura was to pave the way for implicating the staff or possibly a student if it came to that. The grounds' man warned floor matron Kemma about what he overheard and she contrived to witness the theft so that when she was called to account for her crew she could, under writ and compulsion, completely clear her people. The motive was even simpler, Journeyman Raisial botched up whatever he was doing with the thing and `totally ruined it beyond any recovery' and didn't want a failing mark."
Seth had extracted other tidbits, times places and whatnot, and Tor quickly scribbled out a set of notes. `For the first time in years', he mused to himself as he wrote, `I'll be able to turn one of these back quickly and still see justice done'. When he'd finished sketching out the report he said as much aloud.
"If you don't mind, sir," Seth spoke up at the opening, "I think the three downstairs would appreciate being dismissed."
"Oh, right, now that I don't have to try and pry this out of them... Andrew!" Tor bellowed the name and a few moments later a slave, no more than fourteen years old, entered. "Tell the three downstairs that I'm satisfied and they can go about their business... No, give them the day tomorrow."
"Yes sir."
"Oh and, that's all for tonight, see you tomorrow." Tor was feeling pretty good and considered giving Andrew the day too, but he knew that running for him was generally considered easy duty and giving the boy the day would earn the boy grief from the others that he did not deserve.
In the pause that followed the boy's rapid departure the second evening bell rang. It was getting late and Morgan had some heavy casting to do. As used as he was to his new condition, the work was going to take all he had if he could even get what he wanted done. Morgan had no trouble getting out of the office, but getting away from Tor himself was a little trickier. Tor was in a very good mood and did his best to entice Morgan to the dining hall for dinner and several rounds of ale. It was tempting, Morgan always enjoyed a good carouse with Tor, but he really had work to do. He finally begged off and made it stick, and they parted company halfway across campus.

* * *

About halfway through the remaining halfway, Morgan stopped dead in his tracks while Seth snapped to his most dangerous alert, drawing one blade, and listening intently. Morgan knew there was nothing for him to find, it was something internal. It had come and gone all at once. It was something instinctive and peculiar. He'd never felt the like before. It'd been all cold and bristly for the barest of a moment but it wasn't really `like' anything he could bring to mind. All around him everything was absolutely normal. Even the aether around the school was the `typical' abnormal that one grew used to at a school full of young and stupid talents.
"It's okay, never mind. Whatever it was, it's gone now." Morgan said.
Seth did not look convinced but he put up his blade and they kept walking.
They each thought the other was just responding to their own sudden alert, and so they totally missed the fact that, whatever it was, they'd both felt it simultaneously.

Chapter 28
Exposures

The evenings casting went better than Morgan had had any reason to hope. It hurt of course, but not as much as he'd come to expect. Whatever adaptations his talent were undergoing, there seemed to be some end in sight. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Morgan finished a major work without coming back to the smell of burnt flesh. Even his sleep was extraordinarily restful compared to any he'd had in a while.

* * *

In the morning Morgan woke to find himself feeling particularly well. Seth had made breakfast and the rest of the family was already up and eating. He joined them at table in just his robe, eager to be part of what felt like an unnaturally perfect morning. Even when things in your life are a shambles there can be moments of serene normality that refresh the soul. The whole morning went that way for all of them. It was as if nothing had ever disrupted their life.
Over breakfast he broke the news that they could leave the house and find their way back. He got a quick round of applause from Liane and Mieka, with Shiea joining in even though she really didn't understand exactly what she was applauding for. After all that time stuck in the house even work would seem like a vacation.
Liane and Mieka both had early sessions to teach. Liane decided to take Shiea with her to class, which would be outdoors and near enough like a picnic to keep Shiea content. Free to languish away the morning, Morgan spent a long time under the deluge of hot water falling into the tub and got ready to face a day in the real world. Seth waited on him dutifully, drying and dressing Morgan while he just enjoyed the pampering the way a drowsing cat takes to being scratched about the ears.
The silent question of how to spend the day between then and their afternoon meeting was easily answered when Seth suggested they exercise the horses. The grooms at the stable would see to that if they didn't, but the suggestion struck a chord in Morgan and the decision was made. If nothing else, a man needs to spend some time with his horse to keep a good bond with it, and he hadn't seen his own horse since they'd gotten back.
They spent some time at the stables going over their tack and speaking to the grooms about the horses. They each took some time with their respective beasts, talking to them and brushing them to renew the tenuous connection between man and horse. Then they saddled up and were out in the late morning air moving south at a comfortable trot.
The stirrings of spring were clearly taking earily hold all over the area. They stopped by silent consensus as they topped a small rise. In the near distance Morgan saw the mark of Razor Pass and the last several months intruded themselves on his mood, turning reverie into retrospect. All in all he was far happier than any sane person would find reasonable. He knew it didn't make any sense, he'd been dragged face-down through an outer ring of hell since he'd ridden up that steep defile last fall, but he'd been up to the task so far. Perhaps his condition was preying on his mind but somehow it all seemed to be worth it.
Those thoughts lead inexorably to the upcoming meeting, and behind that the steadily increasing uncertainty that was sure to follow. So far it was nothing but questions and there were undoubtedly more questions between himself and the first of the answers. Being under Seth's protection sometimes made everything feel like he was in a story in which he had no chance of failure. He wondered how many of the classic heroes had had that feeling. He suspected that none of them had. It was the kind of feeling that made you sloppy. The kind of feeling that the ignoble and vanquished probably feel right before they blunder straight into their deaths.

* * *

Morgan looked up at Seth who seemed even further away in thought. As if his glance had called him back, Seth suddenly looked down at him and spoke.
"It has to be one of the Masters on the council."
"What?"
"I've been thinking about it and at least one of the masters on the council has to be involved."
Morgan caught up with the subject, "A little obvious don't you think. Besides everybody is always talking about every little thing the masters do. There is no way a council seat could be involved in anything as twisted as what happened at the shed. Somebody would know. People would talk."
"Not if nobody else at the school is involved."
"I don't get it."
"Politics are a world to their own. Everybody at the school is interested in what is happening at the school, but when you go outside the school and do things apparently unrelated to the school itself, nobody bats an eye."
"Okay."
"So if someone at the school is doing something major with literally the last person anyone would expect them to be involved with, nobody would be able to see it."
Morgan reigned his horse around and headed vaguely southeast. By the time Seth fell in beside him he had an answer. "I see, but why does that lead you to a Council Seat?"
"Access. Acting alone, only a Council Seat would have access to the things, places and influence it would have taken to arrange the things we already know about."
"Already know about?"
"There has to be more than we've seen. Stuff that didn't work out. Plans for the future. Things that have happened away from our sight that will end up making a difference later."
"Thanks for the lift." Morgan turned Seth's ideas over in his head a few times. If he presumed nothing in his life since Seth's arrival had been innocent, which might be just a little too much to credit but not by far, then it would take either a Council Seat, or a very clever immediate underling to arrange everything. Especially monitoring the gate so that a drone could be slipped into it when the recaller had been triggered. To do that one thing the recaller he'd taken would have had to be gotten to the blood mage and back and then to Morgan with absolute certainty and secrecy. Then something jogged.
"You said `acting alone', do we really know that?"
"I think we do."
"Okay, this I have to hear reasoned out."
"Start with the people in the shed. They knew each other. They were established together long before I set foot on this continent. Add to that our unnamed adversary who needs must have had contact with this group for some time in order for him to trust them with the information that could have been uncovered."
"Or maybe they were ready to silence them all."
"Or maybe that, but probably not. The intrinsic value of the group that brought him to them in the first place probably still held value. Besides that group was held together by specialized... tastes... not common talent. It's not likely they'd have known the value of anything they could have seen or heard. They were pleasure seekers and little more.
"The talent here had to be involved with them for some time. And one or two of the other people there were well-connected or powerful. That infers that they are local and that the person from the school is singular. Adding just one more person from the school would create, over time, the kind of coincidences that would get noticed. If they were at the same level of importance it would become known in that circle as a powerful lever since two people out of twelve is a substantial clique. If they were at different levels it would show up as fraternization. Neither would go without notice."
The horses had taken them to the river and Morgan looked at the turning water wheel and pumping pistons of the school's hydraulic ram, which nudged and creaked in his thoughts as he tried to validate Seth's thinking. It made sense, but it didn't have strict logical closure, the people could have kept whatever secret however long, but was that likely? How much prying would it take to unseat a secret association of that sort? What signs would hint at it? Morgan, shaking his head at his own total lack of instinct for this intrigue, just couldn't bring himself to any surety on any of it.
"It's an awful thing to say, but I wish I knew a blood mage."
Seth just stared at him.
"Ten minutes with one who would do what I said, without any kind of coercion, could give me what I need to track this one no matter where he went."
An open admission of need can stall a conversation, and this one did just that. They forded the river, really just a large and reliable creek, and began cutting their way back toward the track to razor pass, starting a circuit to follow it back to the crossroads and down into town.
Some of his earlier mood returned to Morgan as they rode and his mind moved on to more distant, and in some ways more important matters. In the way that such things do, an amused snort found its way out of him.
"What?"
I took him a second for Morgan to find himself.
"I was just picturing the way you grimace... Shiea on your back, clinging to you by a big hank of your hair in her fist... Doesn't that hurt?"
"Yea, sure," he shrugged, "I guess... but not so it matters."
They spent the rest of the ride talking about `antics' of one sort or another that happened to, or around them, at different times in their lives.

* * *

By unspoken accord they shifted from their private friendship to their public personae at some precise but spontaneous distance from the edge of town. Where one moment there had been a pair of friends there was now a master and his slave. The rest of the ride to the compound of house Annaoral was spent in this public mode.
Just before coming within line-of-sight of the merchant's compound Morgan drew his aotahe out of a saddle bag and put it on. He didn't close or charge it. Beyond a simple breach of etiquette, doing so was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. His silk under-suit was fully charged and what little tampering he'd been able to tolerate suggested that the two garments could not be used well in tandem. They seemed create blotchy holes in each other's protections. He had no idea what he'd do at the next high function at the school. Thankfully that was a problem for another day.
Morgan presented himself at the compound gate and was immediately let through. When the pages approached to take the horses Morgan made a vague gesture at Seth that clearly meant "accompany me". He had no idea where he'd picked up the thing, but it was a near-universal signal. It wasn't that Seth had any intention of letting Morgan run off by himself in what was actually an enemy camp, nor that Morgan thought Seth may willingly leave him. It was a socially acceptable signal to everybody else that Seth was on duty and his presence in the house proper was not to be challenged unless the would-be challenger intended to challenge the master's presence as well.
At the main hall Morgan presented himself to the Majordomo.
"Magus Morgan for the Lady Jaesiaria. I am unforgivably early and I await the Lady's pleasure."
"I am sure that the Lady will be able to see you right away."
Morgan was almost perfectly on time and would no doubt only be kept waiting a few moments. The exchange was an ancient formula that served well to show mutual respect. The Majordomo led him to small but graciously appointed parlor just off the entry hall and invited him to sit. Seth was, of course, ignored totally as he took a position against one wall at a discrete distance from any doorway. It would not do to seem to be laying in wait when people entered.
The Lady Jaesiaria was old. While not decrepit with age, her once regal glide had become the stately gate of elder nobility. This was all the more pronounced by the fact that there was no actual entitlements of nobility in her past. What stature she held was hard won by her family in the mercantile exchanges of several continents, and few cling to things as strongly as those who only have pretense to them. The merchant nobility was, in its circle, as real as any kingship. All that not withstanding, as Lady Jaesiaria Annaoral entered the parlor there was nothing at all of pretense to her.
Morgan stood as she entered, bowed with a small flourish of his aotahe, and took her proffered hand in greeting. Pleasantries were exchanged and the lady, unattended by any servitors, pored them each a cup of tea. The social graces seen to, Morgan almost missed the subtle transition from form to substance.
In response to no particular prompting or context the lady said "I assure you that we enjoy what privacy it is in my power to ensure." It was said with no particular inflection and was blended into her pattern of greeting and social custom.
Morgan took it as an warning, or invitation, and quickly vrec'd his surroundings. There was some kind of shield around the house. It was intricate and subtle and would clearly serve to block clairvoyant or clairaudiant snooping, but it didn't follow the forms of a standard block of such things. As clearly as there is a difference between a wall and a locked door, this shield was different from a simple block. Somewhere there was a key that would let the mathematically complex manifold of the shield be passed without difficulty. Morgan unleashed the tiniest edge of the chaotic energies from his augmentation which in turn started the manifolds tumbling like the cylinders of a lock.
For the next several hours the key, whatever it was and however it worked, would not fit the lock.
Even as he released that trickle of chaotic force Morgan said "I appreciate your gracious shelter from prying eyes, but I am afraid that my presence may have confused the normal workings of your protections. I deeply regret that this may prevent the normal functioning of any communicant you may have in your service."
She smiled, "Oh, I do understand, there is likely no way it could be helped, however odd it may feel to be completely unobserved for a change."
"Moments of complete privacy such as this," Morgan replied, "are so rare these days, they must be treasured when they happen."
"I do agree, but there are the more mundane intrusions in ones life that make it so difficult to concentrate on the matters at hand."
Another warning. The lady feared spies in her own house. Another vrec revealed no one close enough observe their activities. No doubt the agency behind the shields felt that there would be no need for mundane observance. Still, a careful proximity ward; something that would tell him when people or creatures were near, without him having to actually lay metaphysical claim to this part of the house; would assure they knew when they might be observed.
"I'm sure that the mundane will not break in on us unawares."
Unabashed shrewdness suddenly shone out from the core of the lady before him. "So, you are as clever as I have been led to believe."
Morgan was not at all sure how to respond to that kind of statement, so he chose silence.
"It has been a long time since I have had any real sense of privacy." This she said to herself as much as to him. "Whatever the protections about this house, I have been sure for years that that woman has had a way through them."
Morgan paused for a moment then asked "`that woman' who?"
"Oh, of course, you probably don't know much about me. `That woman' is my son's wife Rienaegh." Clearly the idea of daughter-in-law didn't even begin to enter in to it. "It was her son, my grandson, whom your man apparently slaughtered."
"You'll forgive me for saying it, but you don't seem terribly distressed."
She looked at Morgan with a startling amount of hard-to-read emotion in her face, "there are many things about my grandson that I regret, but his death is not one of them. He was lost to me many years ago. Despite my best efforts that woman raised him to be a uncaring monster. I have no doubt that his demise has saved this realm a great deal of suffering. I only weep for the long-dead child he once was."
"What about your son?" Morgan didn't know exactly what he was asking, but if felt right to ask.
"That witch be-spelled my son years ago and I am long since past thinking anything I say or do can reach him."
"Do you mean that literally? About the spell I mean..."
"I think so. She has never proven herself talented but in all the years I have known her I can find no other explanation for the circumstances that continuously surround her.
"Twenty seven years ago my three sons set sail on a trading mission to the new lands near the margins. Only one returns, with his new bride, and a tale of his brothers' deaths. The woman is lovely and charming, and we welcome her into our homes and lives. The tale between then and now is long and fraught with coincidence and suspicion, but suffice it to say that I find myself all these years later, widowed, land-locked, and satisfied only by the knowledge that the subtle poison of this woman is here, far removed from my birth clan."
Interesting things, if true, but with no standard to measure this woman by there was no way of telling how much she said could be believed. More to the point little of what she had said so far had much direct bearing on his overall circumstance.
"So why am I here?"
"Would you surrender this man," she said, pointing at Seth, "to the none-to-tender mercies of my son's wife?"
"No."
"Excellent, now I can truthfully say that I asked... I summoned you here to ask you that question. I also hoped that you would answer in the negative. At this point I can only hope for small victories against that woman, so I thought I would warn you about what you face.
"She is a cold, soulless harpy. She met the news of her son's death with little show of feeling one way or another. It was like she was hearing of a failed investment she had been dabbling in, not the taking of her son's life. I have no idea whether she harbors any real feelings of revenge toward your man, or you, but her interests now clearly lie in your quarter. She has been making some few inquiries about you, and him. If she means to avenge herself on you... As I have said, I can not tell, but you must be wary of her as you are wary of few others."
"But you have no idea what she intends?"
"None. My information comes to me through the few household servants loyal to me. All I know is that she is showing a most unhealthy interest in your affairs."
"Do you know... does she have frequent contact with the school?"
"Yes, she spends a goodly amount of time at official school functions and such, I think that is why she keeps our house here. I don't think that she would settle for making your life at the school difficult, that is a too-indirect method for her, though I might not put it beyond something of a first step."
"It's not that really," Morgan didn't want to really give anything away to this woman just yet, "but I am tracing a few oddities about the school that might lead to things just beyond the school grounds..."
"Do you mean that dreadful business that had everybody up and about the other day?"
"That my be part of it, yes, but there are other, less direct happenings that seem, well, odd. Nothing generally dangerous, more political I think."
The lady was far to astute, and had dealt with far too many mages, to just blurt out "like what?" In fact a lifetime in trading had taught her all to well that there are plenty of things that a person really doesn't want to know, or more precisely, it is bad sense to have others know how much of their business you have made your own. She replaced the half formed query on her tongue with an polite and articulate sound, which invited Morgan to continue without actually questioning.
Morgan did continue, after a fashion, feeling boyish but having no better place to steer the conversation, "I am not really very good at the political side of things, but they have a way of drawing you in without a care for that. I've just been seeing things that make me a little antsy and so have been playing my own game of connect the spots."
The lady actually laughed. "My dear boy, there is nothing so disturbing to a politician, no matter what their profession, as a curious amateur playing connect the spots. As long as you don't start thinking like a politician you will make out marvelously."
From there the conversation loosened up a little and Morgan found he liked this woman. They didn't touch on weighty topics again but some few of her anecdotes were clearly meant to tell him something of the world of intrigue. In trade Morgan talked about his upbringing, which she seemed to enjoy immensely, and his few brushes with the political. In general it became more like a visit with an favorite aunt than anything else. The new-born suspicious side of his mind remarked that making all sorts feel at ease was probably part and parcel of being a successful trader. Still, by the end of the meeting Morgan felt the beginnings of a genuine connection to her.
One of her only recurring themes in the conversation was her relative lack of true privacy. She didn't exactly dwell on it, but there were moments when it was an unspoken undertone. This was punctuated by the fact that Morgan had verified her lack, and temporarily provided some shelter from the presumed intrusion. A thought formed in his head that it might be nice to gift her with some means of doing, from time to time, what he himself had done for this visit. The suspicious side also volunteered that she must have been a outstanding trader indeed if she had him even considering making a near-perfect stranger a custom enchantment.
As the hour drew on, Morgan finally had to make his apologies and take his leave.

* * *

Repossessed of their horses but still on foot, Morgan and Seth left the grounds of House Annaoral. Less than two paces from the gate they crossed the boundary of that odd household shield. As soon as they did, Morgan was nearly overcome by the silent polyphonic scream of blood magic.
He staggered a step even as the formula of various kinds of shields ran through his mind. He'd selected one and began the composition, but stopped himself just before he opened the necessary channels. He stopped because he realized that the power signature was coming at him through the link. The blood mage, or one of the drones, had the control ring. If he used his power that way the blood mage would learn too many things about them and the nature of the supposed control ring, and that would be very bad.
A single word of invective slipped out of Morgan before he turned to Seth and simply ordered "Mount." Then he was on his horse and charging down the last of the village streets heading for the wilder lands beyond, Seth at his heels, him not daring to look back at Seth or even think about him too hard. About two miles out of the village he came to a small clearing and stopped. He tied the reins of his horse to a low hanging branch and headed for the center of the meadow, confidant that Seth would do likewise. By the time he found a spot he liked, he was deep into a mundane trance.
Seth faced him, awash in a puzzled acceptance, and Morgan felt like he was looking at a total stranger. He had to. The intensity of the blood magic signature had faded, but they were being monitored very closely. When he'd made the link, it was a perfect trap for any man or mage he knew of, but he knew more now. Blood magic was about twisting and debasing flesh and life energy, and the link was made of their two life energies intertwined. What was a trap for their mundane enemies would be a key to their individual essences in the hands of a blood mage. The link had to be severed before the mage figured out what he was holding.
First Morgan tried to put a trace on the ring, but there was no four-dimensional pathway to it. It was extra-spatial, being held outside the strict laws of normal space in a charged ritual casting circle somewhere. There was no way he could draw it to him from there since he wasn't part of the circle. He could never synchronize to the unknown circle from outside, as that is what such circles are for. Since he was not going to be able to break their connection to the link by simply summoning the ring, that left rupturing the link outright, pretty much what he'd expected he'd have to do.
"Remember when we made the link," Morgan was speaking as if he were writing in a journal, as if he were talking to himself, "I asked you to let me in. Now you must throw me out, resist me, repudiate me, with every essence of your being. You must be alone. Sacrosanct and untouchable. A monolith. Nothing outside your own existence meaning anything to you. Just you alone." Morgan didn't dare let any sense of involvement with Seth into his awareness, if he did then the seamless integration of their essence that was the link would reflect that increased sense of two beings intertwined. And that kind of a shift might be enough to let the mage know what he had before it was too late for him. "Do whatever it takes."
Seth nodded his understanding and Morgan noted, in a supremely detached way, that he seemed to know what Morgan meant for him to do. He could feel Seth pushing away the world more firmly with every passing moment. What he hoped Seth could do was not a thing he would have expected any other person capable of. He'd seen the original collar, burnt, fractured, ignoble iron clinging to Seth's neck. If he could summon within himself what it took to break that enchantment, he would be dropped out of this one safely. The moment that happened Morgan had to be ready.
He opened all his channels, new and old alike.
He had no formula ready. No inward or outward direction. Structured intent was his enemy. He simply filled himself to bursting and let the flow continue, building a chaos node in seven dimensions. In the smallest corner of his mind he held before himself two things. The first was the denaturing curve of sorcerer's steel, it would do no good to rupture the link if, when it happened, the collars they both wore denatured and blew their heads from their bodies. The second was tesahegrami, a delivery system of sorts, the art of folding multidimensional constructs into fewer dimensions, and thereby suspending them until they are allowed to unfold again.
As the chaos node in him built to breaking he kept folding it. Delaying it. And placing that delayed package at the heart of the next wave. All the time he was doing that he could feel his own blood thundering in his head as if he were ready to explode. The tiny corner of him that would not stay completely silent was seeing Seth, veins bulging, face awash with the blush of effort. He'd started doing those peculiar dance-like exercise moves he did every morning, using them to draw into himself. And still another part of Morgan noted that his own clothes were smoldering.
Seth came to the end of one graceful move by bringing his arms down to his sides. His eyes were closed, and he was completely inner-directed. All at once a small stream of blood dropped down from his left nostril and, a heartbeat later, Seth's part of the link simply vanished.
That was the moment Morgan had been praying for. With Seth's flow gone, the structure of the link would collapse almost instantly. Morgan crammed the last folded outer frame of the node into the link and severed his own end. What had been a triangle became like a broken bow. There were three physical things in the link, the two collars and the ring. With both lines from the two collars cut at their source, the length of connecting energy would snap back at the remaining point. At the end of one of those snapping cords was a package of pure chaos and destruction.
But that was a simplistic view, there were physical, sympathetic links between the three pieces of iron. They'd been a single thing once, separated by sorcerous intent rather than physical force, and that was a core component of the enchantment. Even as the unraveling was started, Morgan reached out and snatched the band from around Seth's neck. Only after that one was free did he see to the one hidden around his own. The metal was already heating in his hands as he wadded the two hunks of iron into a ball. The physical destruction of the media was essential, lest it remember them too well, and it was assured by the chaos that would unfold in the last of the link.
Another formula came forward from his memory, relating velocity to energy, then energy to the decay of state. The unstable shimmering sphere of sorcerers steel bolted skyward. It would be ideal if it could make the seven miles to the upper limit of the realm, and past that point, before the critical moment. The edges of the realm kept a vast sea of chaos at bay, so the explosion would be meaningless on the far side of the barrier. He knew that beyond doubt, he'd had to touch that barrier to seal the fissure.
The sphere made it beyond the realm in time, but the entire realm shook metaphysically when the control ring blew. Morgan's little gift had been delivered to that extra-spatial location inside the enemy circle and then torn it apart in the single largest chaos event the interior of the realm had ever known. There was no wide-spread physical damage from the explosion, again, that is what ritual circles are for, but the operant, talented, and sensitive beings all over the realm felt a warm wave of disruption sweep across everything and everyone. Here and there some weaker bindings broke, but the single most significant outcome was the complete obliteration of one particular blood mage and all his drones.

* * *

Morgan made one other discovery.
The damping effect he'd had from Seth was, it turned out, substantially a byproduct of the link and not really a result solely of Seth's proximity. With the link severed he was finally exposed to the full reality of his new channels. Had he gotten this exposure right off, he would not have survived. From the vantage point of several month's experience, he managed to save mind and body only by way of his instinct for high energy physics.
One at a time, five crystals dropped from his hand. They weren't real things by any normal reckoning, they were expressions of Morgan's own life essence, each trapping the headwaters of his new channels where they anchored in each of the five major houses. They were like geasairia transformed into material objects. They wouldn't last very long, perhaps a few days, but it would give Morgan a chance to find a more permanent way of coping.
The new damage to his system caused by making the chaos node, the renewed agony of his cuttings, and the trauma of having five distinct chunks of life essence ripped from his body left Morgan empty and unfocused. He managed to get out orders to Seth. Orders to get him home and safe in the basement circle, orders to find and retrieve the five luminescent crystals, and most importantly the need to keep those five stones as far away from him as possible until they reached the basement. If he touched them now they'd open like seed pods and kill him with in-rushing energy.

Chapter 29
Reactions

The Lady Rienaegh al'Annaoral, had been furious when she lost contact with her esteemed Mother-in-law just as she began talking with that young Magus. She was sure that it was that boy's doing, but she had gone to the considerable trouble of fetching the great oaf's control ring again, and she had no intention of letting this conversation go by unmonitored.
Of course she'd seen what happened to the last group who dared toy with the oaf, and she had no intention of ending up as they had. She was a good three hundred miles away from them at the moment, but there was no point in risking what need not be risked. That was, after all, why she'd gone to the trouble of bringing Niyla to this continent and setting him up with all his toys.
The fool had been besotted with her since their childhood, and was happy to be her concubine as long as she kept him wealthy and stocked with people on which to ply his trade. She'd never been tempted to get into the business of harvesting power herself, too messy and personal. She was content with her own, limited but unique talents. Besides, there was no point as long as she had access to Niyla. It was, after all, not important how much power one had, what was important was how much power one controlled. And Niyla was hers as surely as his small army of conquests were his.
"Take this," she said, "and monitor the conversation this man's master is having with my Husband's mother."
Rienaegh would not even sit circle with Niyla, finding his lust for his power unpalatable that close up. She preferred to wait in the comforts of the house salon over the `comforts' of the dungeon any day. Niyla always had someone new down there, and the yelling and weeping were just too annoying.
He took the ring eagerly. He'd heard all about the previous attempt to use the man on the other end of this leash, and he was eager to get a taste of his flesh through this novel means. He lacked any kind of formal education in the disciplines beyond what their tribal keth'esatra'sgung had been able to offer. He knew how to harvest the vanquished and how to use them to work many sorceries, but the ideas behind this collar were fascinating to him.
The old 'sgung had been adamant about using the circles, though Niyla had found that many things didn't actually call for all that effort. Still with each new thing, Niyla had found a better-safe-than-sorry attitude paid well. He was already as old as his 'sgung had been when he'd died in his own hut during a casting, and Niyla didn't yet have any power-related injuries or disruptions to his scars.
Rienaegh would be angry if he didn't hurry, but he carefully laid the circle, creating a special zobaelest just for the collar that supposedly was at the far end of this binding. He tapped his own tiny talent and wrought a direct link to several of his newest toys. He shivered with near orgasm as potent young lusts and terrors bound themselves up with his own, making his own scars burn in blessed sympathy. Long practice let him avoid losing time in reverie, remembering the joyous pleasure-pain of his training as the old 'sgung cut him and a warrior from a competing tribe, forever joining Niyla to the harvest. That pleasure was best saved for the harvest itself anyway.

* * *

It took almost forever to get anything through the ring. He knew that wasn't the way it was supposed to be, but there was no helping it. Not only was there something oddly alien to him in the binding itself, but Rienaegh was far to adept at shielding and her own wards around her house were getting in the way.
"What's wrong?" Rienaegh was calling him on the intimate mode.
"I'm not totally sure, your shields are scrambling everything, I lost my four best far-sensors looking for these two so I don't have all that I need to get through."
"Isn't the key I gave you helping at all?"
"No, there is some kind of randomizing force at work, unless you can take the shield down I don't think I can get to them in there."
"Well I can't get them down from here, I'd have to be there to do that."
Shame, he thought to himself, if she'd ever learned the harvest she could easily be here and there at the same time.
"What do you want me to do?"
"Wait for them to come out, or the shields to stabilize, and then probe that oaf to see what he knows."
Niyla waited patently for several hours, even taking the time to enjoy the pleasure that his conquests brought him. Finally, the man on the other end of the binding was out from under the shields and he could begin to probe.
It was oddly difficult to focus through the thing. Not at all the way he'd thought such a device should work, but the sheer vitality of the emanations was exciting. That inconsistency was the last straw. There was something fishy about this thing and Niyla decided that now was the time to figure out exactly what.
After a minute or two of trying to figure out how the thing was bonded to its target Niyla decided to take a step back. He'd been presuming that this device was exactly what Rienaegh claimed it was. Perhaps, he thought, it was time to give up that particular presumption and start from scratch...
When he discovered that the caster had mixed some of his own life energy with that of the target, he was repulsed. The vanquished were to be harvested. This was an abomination. This unclean blending of essence was beneath even an animal. It would be good to harvest this mage, it would be a purification. He surely deserved far worse for his debasement of the laws of essence.
Distastefully Niyla began trying to separate the two enmeshed life signatures. He'd been at if for a good ten minutes when he suddenly felt part of the binding go slack. He bent closer to figure out what he'd done to cause that. He saw the dangling threads of the binding unraveling and probed a little closer. It was then he saw the flower-like shape unfolding and his last thought was `how beautiful, this shape, I'd better try to contain it'.
When the tesahegram completed its first unfolding Niyla's mind was wiped clean of complex thought. Only the instinctual terror brought by the certain knowledge of his own obliteration survived that first blast. That held open all his bindings, which made all his drones perish with him. The secondary energies released by the sudden vaporization of the bodies caused the collapse of the dungeon and west wing of the house.

* * *

When Rienaegh regained consciousness, she found herself trapped under a fallen ceiling beam. It was little more than a matter of thought to send her talent out to lift the beam. Surveying the damage took a little longer. When she had determined that she alone had survived the holocaust under and in the main house, she quit the premises in disgust and headed back to the nearby inn where her escort waited.
She was angry now. The death of her son had been an annoyance, preventing her husband from having an heir of proper age to present to the Merasomma this spring, in turn denying him, and her, the right of cargo on the high seas; Annoying, and worth the Long Night attempt as a simple matter of form. This, however, cost her a substantial amount of personal power. She would have to find herself another 'sgung from the tribe lands and then bind him to her as she had bound Niyla, and then bring him across the distance. Expensive, and wasteful, and time consuming.
It was amazing. She had escaped the squalor of her her tribe. She had parlayed a small talent and a rare gift into money, a comfortable life, power and position. She had a plan to bring her people out of the dark oppression of tribal tradition. She had touched enough power to give her the longevity for her goals. Things had been progressing, machinery in motion, and then ruin. A simple proposition. Get a slave to open a book. How hard should that be? But this boy and his beast had somehow walked through her plans, trampling everything she had done back into the mud of her origins.
It was all... unacceptable...
Covering the distance to the inn on foot, she consoled herself with thoughts of her tribe's customary forms of retribution, embellishing them to suit her personal tastes. If they want to see her back in the old ways, they would get what they want.
First she was going to have a talk with Calhwin, then the mage would pay, and so would his slave, after he'd disgorged his secrets.

Chapter 30
Withdrawals

Morgan got to miss all the excitement he caused. For days every sentient talent in the realm was talking and thinking about little else than the mysterious rush of energy they'd each felt. The school, much like every other similar gathering of human talent in the realm, was more like an ant hill stirred by a stick than an institution of higher education. The result of all the excitement was the full knowledge that nobody had any real idea what had happened. Morgan missed all this because he was stuck in his basement trying to reintegrate his powers.
He was successful, after a fashion, in that he emerged from the ritual after ten days of concerted effort with his mind and body intact. His talent was another story altogether. When he'd pulled out of the restorative ritual Morgan found himself without any active, conscious abilities what so ever. He could vrec and prev, but he couldn't act on anything. He figured the condition was temporary, like flash-blindness or hysterical amnesia, because he could still use his athame.
All over his body there were new puckered and tender scars where the cuttings had extended themselves through his flesh. This time there would be no `next time.' When these finally healed that would be it, the final configuration of keloid was in place within his body. That had hurt bad, and then it had hurt good, the pleasurable pain of final healing was finally his. He hadn't intended to expand the scars, they seemed to have a final pattern in mind and every time he used his outer strength they'd grown. That was what all the previous burning had been about. The reintegration had been of such intensity that the scars had to find their final shape for him to complete himself in all the other ways. Sitting in the middle of his circle, Morgan contemplated the pattern that now lived within his skin.
Despite the generally positive outcome Morgan was profoundly depressed, the largest single component of that depression was an all-penetrating nearly insurmountable feeling of loneliness. He felt like something had hollowed away most of his being. He just wanted to lie back against the cold stone floor and weep. The thing that was missing was Seth.
Of course Seth hadn't actually gone anywhere. Morgan knew he need only lift his eyes to find Seth waiting on him. It was the link, or in this case its absence... again. From the moment Tor had handed him the original control ring to the moment Seth had severed himself from the trap-link Morgan had been constantly in touch with at least a tiny bit of him. Even when Seth had been ground up by the collar Morgan had felt Seth's presence, he'd been monitoring his health constantly. Now all that was gone.
In a way, even that breach had saved Morgan. When he'd been reintegrating his powers he'd taken huge risks. Risks that he took half hoping he'd destroy himself and not caring which way it'd come out. If he'd not taken those risks he'd likely have failed and done himself grievous harm by being over careful. Small consolation it seemed.
Morgan wanted to remake the link. Even with no better reason than to banish that empty feeling. Even though that would mean that it would be worse when the new link failed. Even, perhaps, if he had to force it or sneak it into place. Almost no matter what, the feeling of loss compelled him, but he had no power to do it. His talents were stuck while this last personal healing ran its course. No matter what the impetus, he would have to learn to do without.

* * *

Seth was in some ways worse off. He too had become accustomed to Morgan's constant subliminal presence deep inside himself, but Seth had no understanding of what he'd had and so what he was now missing. He had no words for the loss. No way wrap his feelings in a blanket of soft remorse or implacable reason.
Every night of Morgan's re-assimilation, Seth had nightmares more bizarre, intense and enigmatic than he'd ever had before. By the time Morgan returned to the outside world Seth was on the ragged edge of exhaustion. When Morgan did finally step from the circle Seth, who'd never really had a personal friend before Morgan, was totally unprepared. When he touched Morgan in causal friendship the man had pulled back like he'd been burned, and that wounded Seth to the quick. But he was no fool, and wounded or not he soon understood that whatever was happening inside Morgan was profound.
But it still hurt.
The day was awkward, and painful, and miserable to them both and everyone who came within reach of the two. In the course of less than ten hours they managed to do more emotional harm to one another than either of them understood. By bedtime Seth was looking forward to something as understandable as an simple nightmare. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Seth, who had lately been sharing Morgan's bed in platonic friendship, curled up in the corner of the room on a pile of dirty clothes instead.

* * *

In the middle of the night Morgan found himself awake. His eyes heavy and stinging with partly shed tears. He could hear Seth quietly moaning and grunting in his sleep, and he was drowning in his own misery. Then he heard Seth start to move, twitching and thrashing in company to the tiny noises he made. Morgan knew that was bad. He'd learned that was not Seth's way. When he slept he was motionless as a stone beyond the odd deliberate turn every hour or so. It was just too much.
Morgan vrec'd out toward Seth to check if he were all right but found nothing. He could see the room and the house and the spell-works that hung all about it, but there was no hint of Seth anywhere. Concern warred with despair and won. Morgan crawled to the edge of the bed and looked down at him. He was there, twitching and grunting in the throws of night terror. The failure of his insights frightened Morgan, but his empathy for Seth's pain was stronger. Morgan eased himself from the bed and onto the pile of clothes.
Acutely aware that the huge man could unwittingly do him grievous harm if he lashed out in his sleep, Morgan gently laid a hand on his shoulder and began talking to him in a whisper.
"Seth... Seth, wake up... It's all right... you're having a nightmare... wake up..."
Seth did wake, part-way, to that half drowse that defies logic.
"Everything's all right now, I'm here..."
Seth rolled over and seized his arms around Morgan's waist, crushing him an a brutal bear-hug, which gradually loosened as he feel back into deeper sleep.
`Oh gods' Morgan thought to himself, stroking Seth's head. He didn't notice the pain in the hug... his heart ached far worse. This was stupid. Completely doomed for being so one-sided, but it felt so good not to be alone. To have one person, even if it was just a fever dream, something of his own making. Just then reality or illusion meant nothing. It felt like everything, not to be alone.

* * *

Morgan woke first, still pinioned in Seth's arms, Seth's head on his chest. His right leg was numb from Seth's weight and his back and neck were sore from the awkward position, but he didn't care. Contentment warred with shame and a distant foolishness but this time there was no clear winner. He wanted to crawl away somewhere before Seth woke, though he wasn't sure why and he knew that he was going nowhere until Seth woke up and let him go. A slight movement of his right hand, now caught up in Seth's long hair, set Seth to stirring.
"Seth...?"
A slightly renewed pressure in the hug and a deep grunt that Morgan felt more than heard was his sleep-shrouded reply.
"Seth..." he said again, a little louder, and Seth lifted his head and looked him in the face, "I'm sorry..."
Seth didn't understand, a slave grows accustomed to not understanding so a habitual blank look strayed across his face; then he began untangling himself from Morgan and the clothes.
Morgan found himself still at a loss, with no idea what that blank look could mean. Seth headed off on his morning routine. Morgan wanted to follow but couldn't because his leg was asleep. He aggressively chafed at his leg, ignoring the pins and needles, which were nothing to his recent experience, and finally managed to stand.
By the time he reached the hall Seth was already outside doing his exercises, whatever it was Morgan meant to say, the moment had escaped him.

* * *

Morgan tried bathing the way Seth did, by standing under the hot sluice and letting the continuous solid rush of water drag down across his body. The tugging at his scars was pleasurable in an odd way, and he ended up enjoying it to a wasteful degree. When he finished he put on a robe and headed for the kitchen and breakfast.
Morgan ate sparingly, acutely aware that he'd no money and his two mouths to feed could quickly drag Mieka and Liane down into poverty. He ended up sitting at the table, munching some bread and cheese, and watching Seth finish up his exercises. It struck him that he'd never really just looked at Seth when he did this, and somehow he'd missed the total serenity that suffused him when he was absorbed in those strange martial dances.
When Seth came in Morgan nodded his chin back at the porch and said "teach me" in an entreating tone.
Seth glanced back where he'd been and then looked back at Morgan, "I don't know if I can."
"Not just that... the staff, whatever... I need to learn."
Seth nodded, and kept nodding to himself as he headed back to dress.

* * *

Starting that first practice on that first day, they went at each other with a vengeance. By the end of the first week they were drawing a small crowd at the practice yard. Seth could have taken Morgan at any time, but he hit as hard and moved as fast as he could while still staying in within the bounds of useful teaching. Morgan was no slouch and he was swinging at near full strength. By the end of each day they'd both have a good crop of bruises.
When two weeks had passed and Morgan felt no kind of return in his talents, a kind of unspoken desperation came which fueled his intensity during practice. They didn't talk about anything much except combat and exercise, and they did little else but eat. As far as eating, they found a way to eat on the dole at least nine times out of ten. Sometimes it was at the garrison but usually it was at one or the other of the school's kitchens. The bureaucracy, with a tiny nudge from Tor here and there, never managed to notice the freeloading.
At the end of the first month of summer there was still no sign of Morgan's talent, but the two of them had managed to work through the bulk of the issues between them in that unspoken way men have. The fury was gone. Morgan's body had remembered its roots in hard work, and he was no longer the flabby student. He'd become lean and wiry. He was fast and wicked with his staff, partly out of natural instinct for the weapon and partly because his unhampered ability to vrec gave him eyes in the back of his head.
Their gallery of onlookers, which had been mostly guards and soldiers to start with, had evolved into regular pool of sparring partners and mock opponents. They fought side-by-side as often as with each other and began to get a reputation. For Morgan the training not only deepened the mundane bond between himself and Seth. It was also particularly effective at keeping him from dwelling on his still missing talent.

* * *

It was the collection season. The School of Disciplines was barely functioning. That was the way it was every year during the summer. Every ranking mage was off in search of material components and what classes there were, were taught by graduate students at best. The registry showed that Master Calhwin was on the grounds, but nobody had seen him for days.
He sat alone in his workroom surrounded by precious metals and rare earths. He was weaving tiny plaques of minerals and organics together. The plan he followed was ancient, he'd found it dozens of years ago it in a sheaf of papers in a chest on sale in a bazaar two continents away. He'd kept this most valuable knowledge to himself despite his oaths as a teacher. Some things are just too valuable to share. Everybody else on the council had this sort of secret, he was sure, otherwise they wouldn't have found the leverage, the raw power, to get ahead. He'd done this several times before, woven a way-gate, but his local one had been ruined months ago. He'd determined that it would be easier to remake the gate locally then it would be to make the long trek to his reserves.
It would take the rest of the summer to complete the gate, but when he was done he'd finally be ready to deal with that upstart.
His pride still stung from the tongue-lashing he taken from Rienaegh, but despite all her invective she'd done no better in their venture. Master Calhwin wasn't sure why she'd been so all-fired hot to get to those gods-forsaken wastes but he'd been more than happy to bump her to the front of the waiting list on the gate. Hells, he'd flung her himself just to be rid of her. Sometimes he had no idea why he put up with her at all.
That wasn't precisely true, he knew exactly why he put up with her. She knew the ways of mundane power and advantage. She was useful to him just as he was useful to her. Just sometimes, her attitude was hard to bear.

* * *

Rienaegh was as happy to be back in the tribe-lands of her youth as she was repelled by the totally uncouth way her people lived. It hadn't seemed so bad when she'd left but twenty clean, respectable years in the inner lands had washed away her taste for this earthy way of life.
She wouldn't be among `her people' very long. As luck would have it there were several young men apprenticed to the 'sgung and ready to take their scars. One of them was a virile young lad, and all she had to do was plant her compulsions on him before he was cut.
The boy would love her. That was the way of her deepest talent. She could control any man she could take to her bed. In the moment of his deepest pleasure a man was especially vulnerable and she'd seen that in her youth. It'd won her complete control of Niyla first, and later the weak soft man who was now her husband, and finally Calhwin. And it was no small control. Her husband had slain his brothers at her whim and then forgotten the deed he could not live with at her touch.
She'd been afraid that there would bee no suitable candidates and she'd have to try to take a full 'sgung. The cutting forever twisted them and she'd been afraid to think what it would have taken to pleasure such a one, but here, like a gift of the fates, was a pleasing young buck ripe for the taking. She would charm the young lad, take him to her bed, and ensorcell him. Then she need only wait for him to take his scars at the end of the month and she could be gone from this squalid place with a new and powerful little toy.
Once home it would only take him a month or two to harvest the needed power. She'd provide the bodies just has she had for Niyla, so it wouldn't take him the several years it usually took a new 'sgung, out hunting victims alone, to establish his founding strength. Then, perhaps by early fall, she could get back to, and finish off, that kayffe of an upstart mage and his beast.
To that end she also set out to collect a particular tidbit of local flora. A surprise. Something fun for putting a mage in his place.

* * *

Morgan hadn't told anybody about his missing talent, but in the middle of the second month of its absence Seth literally beat it out of him. It'd started harmlessly enough, Seth wanted to teach Morgan how to use his athame in combat. The techniques were obscure. Since an athame can cut through an opponents weapon at will, it needs special handling. If you cut an opponents blade during a defensive move he's likely to kill you with the stub without even trying, while he completes the swing. An athame is a weapon that a mage must either know exactly how to use or leave out of the fight entirely.
Morgan had not been eager to even touch his blade but refused to say why. Seth had pressed him and Morgan had balked. They'd finally gotten onto the field to work with the blade but Morgan didn't follow directions and had ended up cutting Seth's wooden practice sword at exactly the wrong time. Morgan went down like a sack of bricks when the stubby wooden remnant struck him on the temple. Seth kicked the athame from Morgan's stunned hand, not wanting to face it for real if Morgan came-to fighting, and then bent down and seized Morgan's jerkin at the laces.
Seth half dragged half walked the stunned man into the sally and then into a private exercise room. Almost immediately the shouting began, followed by a near fist-fight. Morgan being more the physical aggressor and Seth more the verbal. Morgan was tougher than he looked and he would not stop. Seth wouldn't let it go because he knew that people could die in practice combat. If he couldn't find out what was really wrong with Morgan he'd have to stop the practices and it was nearly all he had with Morgan these days. When totally defensive tactics clearly stopped making any progress Seth started putting a light hurt into his replies to Morgan's fists. That threw Morgan into an seemingly inexplicable rage which Seth could only stop with a punishing physical response.
Morgan, looking like he'd been set-upon by a small gang, finally collapsed and, in sobs, the fear and pain worked its way out of him. The missing talents. The fear that they might never really come back. The aching emptiness he felt of late, though not why he felt that. Nearly everything that had been driving Morgan for weeks came out of him in one long emotionally draining harangue. He'd even almost revealed the core of his pain, his deepest feelings for Seth that he wouldn't even face himself, but the same old fear held that back. Still it was enough to explain the distance he'd been keeping from Seth, and everybody else in his life, and it was enough to let some more, deeper healing begin between them.
The two of them had been a walking storm cloud for weeks but after that day the cloud lifted. Slowly they began to laugh again and the more peaceable sides of their relationship began to resurface from time to time. In contrast to that, Morgan developed a controlled ferocity in his fighting style that soon had him near as good as any of the career armsmen around the school and village. They became well liked and even lost some of their negative association with the school.
Morgan had all but turned his back on the school and his talents. It was simple denial. At the three month mark there was still no sign of his talent reawakening. It was frustrating and confusing when he let himself dwell on it. There was no reason he could think of that his talents should still be in abeyance. He was whole and healthy in every respect. He could asense anything he cared to at close range, but he couldn't do the simplest distance sensing nor effect any material conjuration of any kind. He'd even stopped hiding his scars.
People had commented on what a pair Morgan and Seth made. Working in the sun had brought Morgan's dusky olive color out, making the black and white pattern stand out on his skin. The original cuts were relatively straight and even, but the grown extensions curled and branched every which way like wild vines tangled in a tree. His forearms and legs were completely entwined with a pattern too complex to follow. When compared to the colorful and stylized Phoenix and fire-borne creatures decorating Seth's back, arms, and legs there seemed to be an almost complementary discontinuity. Of course nobody actually said anything about it to their faces but the armsmen treated them each as if they were actually marked for one another as bonded shield-mates.

* * *

Nearly a week into the fourth month of Morgan's loss there was an accident. Two men sparring gravely injured a third. It was the stupid kind of accident that happens when bravado oversteps diligence. The first man got his opponent well off balance and then gave him a good hard shove. The second man, attempting not to fall flat on his backside, stumbled back four or five paces and right into the third, who was straining under a heavy arm-load of armor pieces. Man and armor were thereby shoved bodily into a portable weapons stand, whereupon man, load, and rack all toppled over in a crash.
The man landed on the swords and daggers held in the rack with the full force of his weight and the weight of his load. He was cut deeply along the entirety of his right side and the edge of one blade found its way between his ribs and punctured his lung while another slipped trough a disk between his shoulders and rested just shy of severing his spinal chord. Even before the first of the debris had been cleared away someone had been sent running for a healer.
The moment the man was injured Morgan was struck down by a wave of dark empathy.
The blow was so strong that the staff spun from his hands mid-stroke. His opponent's attack struck him harshly in the ribs. He didn't even notice. Compelled, or perhaps even possessed by the stranger's agony Morgan found himself moving to the commotion as if in a dream. His every awareness was filled by the twitching, tortured figure.
The compulsion was all-consuming and unspeakably vile. It had nothing to do with compassion, concern, or even morbid curiosity. Morgan was spellbound by the waves of torment emanating from the fallen man. He wanted what he felt there. Needed it. Lusted for it with every part of a man's soul that can lust. There, crystallized before him, was a forbidden ambrosia that could be taken and savored, or even shaped and used like any of the houses of power. He'd dealt with the elemental force of life before, and had felt the temptations that that can carry, but those were insignificant compared to this focused explosion of vital fear and mortal pain. He was consumed and scoured to the core by what lay before him.
Perhaps equally large within him was that morbid curiosity, buoyed up and riding on a bubble of revulsion so huge that there was no room left in Morgan's mind for the faculty of reason. Powers, strictures, and weavings of intent formed around Morgan by instinct, the way a silken cocoon forms about a caterpillar, innocent of intent or cogent will, an act of organic autonomy that was beyond Morgan's faculty to comprehend. That it would do an unrelenting evil to himself and the stranger was certain.
He was walking calmly to his undoing, and he knew it would change him so deeply that when it was done he would revel in that difference, embrace it as a true destiny of his own choosing, defend it with his every fiber. There was no chance that those around him would save him, they'd be sure to think that he came to help. There would be an audience for his damnation.
When Morgan reached the chaotic center of activity the bloody figure was still beneath a few heavy items that the surrounding men were puzzling over, unsure how to proceed without exacerbating the injuries already sustained. Those things lifted and flung themselves away as the first layers of Morgan's cocoon began to ravel into place. Tiny flashes of sentience came over Morgan as he knelt down and touched the man and more layers of binding flowed into place. Just enough self awareness for him to appreciate the means and nature of his doom. As the flows descended and entwined, Morgan recognized them as a pervasive healing web, but that web carried a dark fiber that warped it into a vile binding the way a drawstring distorts a flat piece of canvas into a deeply pleated bag.
Layer after layer stripped, ground, and twisted away Morgan's sense of self until there was nothing left but the tiniest grain of awareness amidst the massive instinctual work of sorcery. That was enough. Sometimes even the weakest person has within them something that simply will not give way, even if the cost is death. That last tattered morsel of Morgan's essential being was just such a thing.
If the walk to the accident had been half a heartbeat shorter, perhaps things would have worked out differently. Or perhaps there was something intrinsic in Morgan's makeup that was fundamentally incompatible with the way things were heading. Morgan himself would have liked dearly to say that some higher power, or some noble nature, or something fine and unassailable in his makup had helped him win out. The unpleasant truth though, was that Morgan had an undying resentment of any one, or any thing, that wanted to push him around. That resentment sunk its stubborn teeth into that one last repugnant thread and simply refused to let it settle into place.
Then, like bile eating through a table, that resentment began to eat that thread out of the binding one tiny nibble at a time.
The binding was a living thing, possessed of most of Morgan's essence and force of will, and it fought back, struggling to set itself into place, but that unthinking stubborn wisp of Morgan's original self would not be swayed. The new Morgan thought of endless waves of power, free for the taking and a pure orgiastic pleasure to consume, and the stubborn old thing heard nothing. The re-bound self tried reasoning, claiming to understand the danger of talking its fill in front of witnesses and the stubbornness would not be moved.
As each strand of the web was freed from the distorting fiber it became a pitched battle between the re-growing natural will and the dying new self. There was never any real possibility for compromise, either this would be a despicable act of brutality on a stranger that would warp Morgan forever, or a whole and clean healing, but the new self fought the old for its very survival. It changed its goals and tactics again and again in desperate attempts to exist, but by then the thing in Morgan's essence that simply could not be pushed knew that anything less than total victory would mean a lifetime of madness as two complete and totally opposite selves fought endlessly inside his head for momentary control. Once the unraveling was begun it needs must be seen through to the bitter end.
Bit by bit Morgan recovered himself and turned the river of power that was trying to wash him utterly away, into the channel of his own choosing.
"How about a little binding to feed from, to keep this pleasure real."
"No."
"This knowledge, secret, known only here, which will mean victory if things ever come to desparation in combat."
"No."
"A taste of vitality, a tiny binding, he's young and healthy and would never know about so tiny a drain. A fair price for his life."
"No."
"At least remember this shape here, an easy twist to bring hidden feelings to fruit in another."
"No, Not even that."

* * *

Then the cocoon was clean. A healing web for the injured armsman, though something which still wrapped and penetrated every fiber of Morgan's original being. There was nothing left to do. Nothing left to fight. So he let it all settle in and do its business on them both.

* * *

When Morgan came back to consciousness he found his talents fully functional and himself possessed of a new instinct. An instinct for flesh. A healing instinct he'd never thought he could possess. He knew that he would never be free of the physical pain around him. He ached in sympathy for every sore muscle and tiny bruise or scratch suffered by the people nearest him. And the temptation was still there, the temptation to twist the tiniest physical harm into a font of power and pleasure. The temptation was proportional to the hurt, but it would never again be the torrent of uncontainable lust it had been this first time.
From now on, being around the wounded would cost him in emotional pain and temptation denied, and delving in to help and heal would cost him far more, but the demon urge had been defeated soundly and permanently. Morgan could remember having a vast and terrible knowledge of the twisting and debasing of flesh, but that had died utterly with his short-lived other self. That knowledge, or at least the absolute certainty that that knowledge could be his again if he dove willfully into the temptation he'd always feel was, in itself, a vast temptation, and an only slightly larger force driving him away from ever again even touching those vanquished instincts.
In less than two hundred heartbeats Morgan had become the most powerful blood mage the realm would ever know, and then fought his way back to become again a sane and potently talented man of honor.

Chapter 31
Resumptions

Tap tap tap. Tap. Tap tap...
"Damn it!"
The inlay work was eye-straining, delicate, and frustrating. Morgan lifted the end of the staff off the table to get a better look at the thing. With tiny hammer and bladed punch, he'd been forcing strands of circuitry into the ironwood pole for days. This particularly tricky bit involved taking one strand each of copper, gold, and rarest aluminum, twisting them into a tiny rope, and laying that in a groove that wandered down the whole length of the weapon. Careful inspection revealed that he'd not broken the strand as he'd thought, so he went back to his hammering.
A wizened old mage leaning on his staff. It was an image so cliché that sometimes he had to laugh at making this thing. And people would likely laugh at him for having it when he was done. You just didn't see them in these modern times. Still, he would be able to take a little laughter, he needed the damn thing. Not as a crutch, he was in the best condition of his life, and not as a warehouse for spells he was too old to remember how to cast on his own. He needed it to help him focus.
His talent was back in full fury. Since the near disaster in the sally, he'd had no difficulty accessing any part of his talents at full measure. It was the fine work that was getting him. The whole two-layer effect was still there. He'd direct the tiniest flow of power at something and his outer channels would back that up with a raging torrent. When the circuits were complete and the enchantments set he'd be able to use the staff to help block off his outer channels, or more precisely, get them to turn back on themselves safely, and that would get him his fine control back.
Besides, if anybody took to laughing at him he could always take their heads off with the thing. No magery involved. Just a spin and a thunk, and any soldier would respect him, mage or no.
Getting some of the materials had been tricky, but it seemed he had a patron or two at the school. Kliystreia Oestereen, the woman who he'd helped during her drawing out, had been most generous to him. He'd never thought of asking her for anything but either Tor or Seth, the only two people he'd ever shared those events with, must have leaked word to her that he needed a good quarter-pound of aluminum. A full half pound arrived with a note of thanks "just between them", whatever that meant, and things were going nicely since.
Seth was out in the smithy somewhere pounding out two sheets of copper that would eventually be the heels for the thing. In all the books he'd ever read on the subject, preparation of a staff like this should have taken months. Morgan expected this one to be done by the end of the day, a perfect week from start to finish. That was more Seth's doing than his own. The man was tireless. Morgan would barely finish a sketch or plan when Seth would jump on it and have it done. It would have taken Morgan weeks just to carve out the beds for the inlay. Seth had done the entire job perfectly overnight and without leaving a trace of essence behind for the clearing.
Not that he expected to have the slightest trouble clearing anything. That is the one thing that a barely controllable torrent of energy seemed to be perfect for. He'd done the test at the beginning of the project. He'd wanted to be sure he could use the tainted materials easily found available around the school. He'd flash-cleared an entire pile of tailings and waste metal from the School of Smiths in seventeen and a half seconds with nothing worse than a mild headache to the negative.
For the first time in nearly forever things were going absolutely and completely his way. He just didn't want to think that thought too hard, lest it call down some new twisted little joke of fate.

* * *

Seth came in with the heel plates shortly after Morgan finished laying in the last of the circuits. Despite his best efforts at remaining oblivious to such things, Morgan took a moment out to simply enjoy the sight of him. He hoped it was discrete and he did his best to cover it with his appreciation of the work. The sheets were flawlessly flat on one side and had an intricate waving pattern on the other. When closed over the wood, patterned side in, the waves would form an inward spiral that was part and parcel of what the staff was about. Man, talent, and product together were an extremely difficult package to ignore. These were the times, he chided himself, that a person who'd studied so many obscure mental disciplines should be able to avoid thinking about one simple topic.
"They look beautiful, any problems?"
"Nope."
"Always the conversationalist, go ahead and position them under the two ends, I think I'm just about ready to do this."
Seth carefully aligned the sheets under each end of the staff.
"Am I forgetting anything?"
"You mix the coal dust with the emerald?"
"Eh... yes."
"You have the gold, iron, lead and magnesium in the crucible?"
"Premeasured and ready to melt."
"You have all the formula?" Seth tapped Morgan's temple.
"Best as I can."
"Then you're ready."
"Wait... sand!"
"What sand?" Seth eyed the pile of plans suspiciously, "there was no mention of sand."
"You're right, but I just had a thought. strands of glass through the attenuator. It would make a good place to park static charges."
"You sure?"
Morgan thought it out a bit. "Positive."
"All right, sand. How much?"
"Ah... two pounds, fine grain, no tincture."
Seth raised an eyebrow.
"Get it from the glass-works, they've got a big bin of the stuff."
"Anything else while I'm out?" This was near the hundredth time Morgan had sent Seth for something in the last week. Morgan was glad to hear a little bit of friendly banter edging the question. He thought of tossing in something frivolous and bizarre as a joke, but Seth was likely to bring whatever he asked for back and it'd be impossible to know whether that would be a joke in response or not.
Better safe than awkward. "No, that'll just about do it." Then again, "Besides I can always send you out again later..."
Seth gave him that `you're lucky I don't have anything to throw' look, snorted, and went off to fetch the sand.
By the time he returned the casting was well under way. The staff was floating in mid air surrounded by a hearty glow that even Seth could see. Morgan gestured at the crucible and Seth pored the sand in on top of the metal chunks. Immediately thereafter the contents began to flow together without apparent heat. The intent was an imperfect alloy of the metals formed around a tree-like structure of fine glass threads. Finally that would be positioned inside the shaft.
Unlike the classical form of mage staff, there was no spell-node thickening `the top'. This staff had no `business end', it was all attenuator. The excess alloy would form the butt ends and merge with the copper plates formed around the shaft at each end. The final result would be a straight stick with metal caps at each end and lots of glittering lines running along its surface. It would be a little heavy compared to a normal fighting grade staff but he would be strong enough to make up for that in combat, should the need arise.
Seth squatted down onto his haunches in one corner and watched Morgan work. Good sorcery, like most things, is accomplished with a minimum of flash and noise. For him sorcery was about nothing more than waiting. In a surprisingly short time the completed staff settled to the floor and Seth was up and toweling away the heavy layer of sweat from Morgan's body before he had a chance to take a chill. He knew Morgan would be weak and thirsty and all too eager to play with his new toy, so he took the time to mother him a bit, something nobody can resist if done right, forcing him to eat, drink, and relax for a bit so he'd be properly recovered.

* * *

A child with a new toy is exactly what Morgan was acting like on the way home. He'd conjured a teardrop of fire no bigger than a candle flame and attached it to one end of the staff. He was swinging it around and poking it at everything, including Seth, until Seth wanted to slap him down like an over-active puppy. Still, it was such a happy moment that Seth was on edge waiting for disaster to strike.
The closest thing to disaster was a small brush fire, perhaps ten inches square, set when a certain mage poked his stick where it didn't belong. Three good stomps took care of that handily enough. Morgan just had a good laugh about it. So did Seth. The mood was infectious.

* * *

Homecoming week, the traditional celebration of survival marking the return of the mages who'd gone out for the summer to collect the rare and volatile, always features a festive display of the odd and wonderful in the exposition hall. Items returned from all over the realm are featured and everybody from a hundred miles around comes to visit if they can. Morgan's family was no exception. The five of them in causally formal dress attended the opening ceremonies as a group. The ceremonies were particularly festive this year because of the extremely low mortality rate in the summer registry.
Outside the school proper there was a fair and bazaar. Merchants are, as a breed, far too savvy to let such an attraction go by without trying to sell everything they have at premium prices. Still the bazaar was not to be missed. The exposition features the rare and obscure and so the merchants do the same. It makes sense to cater to your audience, so sometimes the really amazing things to be seen grace some corner of a musty tent on the edge of the fairgrounds.
While in the exposition hall they were an inseparable clutch of five, systematically trying to see everything. One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was the way Seth kept Shiea happy no matter what was happening around them. At the two prior years expositions the demands of her youth cut short their visits. This time she was as happy with `her horsey' as anything else, so everything else there was was just gravy.
Things were different at the fairgrounds. There was plenty for a three year old to touch and eat there, and soon three went one way while two went the other. Besides that, this was a prime gift-buying opportunity and there would likely be a lot of different combinations of who's-with-whom over the course of the day. It was likely that there would be more than one day's worth of browsing and recombining in this event, even if Morgan was flat broke.

* * *

The afternoon was going great. Morgan and Seth were just enjoying the whole event. Morgan considered entering the tournament for staff fighting. He was good enough but he eventually decided not to. He wasn't sure it would be fair since he had his asenses to help him win. They settled for watching some of the competitions, talking with guardsmen they knew, and discussing the technique and style of the various combatants. They eventually quit the competition and moved into the impromptu common square in the center of the bazaar for some food.
Morgan was busily slipping Seth chunks of a giant sweet-roll when he caught sight of Mieka looking distressed and coming straight toward him from the far side of the crowd. When Mieka spotted him he barked out something back the way he came and then started pushing his way through the crowd urgently. Morgan dropped the confection and waded into the casual throng to meet Mieka, Seth on his heels as always. By the time they reached each other Morgan had caught at least one glimpse of Liane coming up from the same direction as Mieka and just as urgently.
"Shiea's gone." Mieka yelled as soon as they were within clear earshot.
"What?" Morgan barked, as the distance closed.
"Shiea vanished while we were walking near the amusements..."
"Vanish vanished? As in magically? or did she..."
Liane arrived about then and cut them both off. "We were walking along and I thought Mieka had her hand so I let go..."
"But I didn't have her. A couple of seconds later we both realized that neither one of us still had her so we called out."
"We've been looking for her, or you, for nearly fifteen minutes."
Morgan adjusted his mind and sent out a probe for the little girl. He'd practiced this sort of thing several times since Mieka's abduction, just to satisfy his paranoia. A scan of the nearest several acres of humanity showed no sign of her. Using the staff to hold back the torrent of his own augmentation, the raw force of which tended to blind the finer senses, he stretched out further toward the edge of his natural limitations. Still no sign of Shiea, but a whiff of something familiar set a chill down his spine and riled his paranoia. The faintest echo of blood magic wafted across his awareness.
One expletive slipped out of him as he drew himself back from the astral. "This is serious." He said, lifting his head to really consider this surroundings. The oddest thing that met his eyes was Seth, he'd taken off his vest and was quickly but deftly unbuttoning his shirt. That didn't make any sense to Morgan but since it was Seth he let it pass, Seth always had his reasons. A plan formed and Morgan said "Come here" to Mieka and Liane.
Near the middle of the square Morgan stopped short when he heard the sound of tearing fabric. He turned to see Seth change his grip on his vest and pull at it again. As the fabric of the lining tore away Morgan caught a glimpse of blood crimson. Seth's face was that peculiar, intense, deadly calm sometimes seen in the insane. The crimson under-fabric was the color of legal warning that a slave is ready to kill for his master and Morgan suspected that there was nothing that would dissuade him. Morgan approved, and would have liked to club someone himself just then, but too much of his own work would call on different skills. Years of discipline allowed him suppress his own fears, paranoia, and anger just enough.
"I'm going to find her but I need you two..." Morgan looked to Mieka first, "Do you submit?"
"Yes." He replied.
Morgan wanted to rush, but he couldn't afford to hurry at all. "Stand comfortably." He said, and then slightly adjusted Mieka's position by gripping him on both shoulders. Finally satisfied he touched Mieka's forehead and Mieka's face went slack.
Liane was already trying to adjust her stance. Morgan guided her a little further away from Mieka so that there was a gap of about an arms length between them.
"Do you submit?"
"Yes." She said urgently, cutting off the last of his question.
Morgan touched her on the forehead and the same thing happened to her.
Crowds are usually psychic and the people milling about had "coincidentally" left them a generous margin of space. Morgan positioned himself in front of Liane and Mieka, but several arm-lengths away, forming a triangle, and then turned his right side to them. He wanted to keep the staff between himself and them to make sure it would help keep them protected from the raw power he was going to have to use.
Already the top of his staff was shimmering, controlling the strength of the bindings that held his family. Morgan lifted his arms up in a "V", pointing the staff into the sky, and it flared brightly. This caught the attention of the oblivious crowd, which began to form a ring, expecting some short of entertainment. Morgan released the staff and took a step away. It hung in the air as if mounted there. There was no time to draw a proper casting circle but the staff hanging there would not only serve as moderator, it would become the hub of a wheel of spells that would make the absence of a circle irrelevant.
Finding a parent of a child is easy but finding a child using the parents is a pain. Basically you have to look for every possible child they could have had to find the ones they actually did. The core spell wasn't that complex, but it was difficult in exactly the same way that trying to sort a deck of cards into the greatest number of highest scoring hands could be considered difficult. Morgan didn't even blink before diving into the spell. Within moments spell fibers were flowing from him to wind around an imaginary point just above the tip of the staff like candy floss being spun out onto a stick. And for every spider-silk fine strand of intent from his inner channels, a huge electric snake of congruent energy struck out from his scar-wrought outer channels and into the building spell-node.
The staff did its job. Where the fine fibers coalesced into a well formed spell, the huge pulses of power were deflected into an orbit about the node. Morgan didn't let that power dissipate through the staff this time because when he let it fly the spell would need that energy to touch and test every living thing it encountered. Within heartbeats an eerie writhing blue light was fighting with the overcast sky to be the brightest thing around.
The nearest edge of the crowd began to try to draw away even as the outer crowd tried to push them closer. As the rime of mage-light and arcing electricity was steadily overcome by the multicolored tendrils of unsettled and restless power the first bystanders began to consider fear as an option. When the swirling mass of plasma at the tip of the staff began to kick up a fierce whirlwind about them, the nearest people began to try to run, pushing in vain, trying to get through the wall of people that were still too interested in gathering close to see any potential danger.
Finally, shouting strictures into the mounting wind just to keep his place in the casting, Morgan completed the set. Mieka and Liane safely inside their spell nodes, completely protected from the wind that pulled Morgan's aotahe nearly straight back, radiated their genetic signatures into the complete web and the web made those rhythms its own. Some corner of Morgan's mind glanced about to see if everything was ready, caught sight of Seth standing before the wind unmoved, and thought to itself the single word "now". His hands raced into the air and came together in a slap who's sound was lost in the tumult.
In answer the outer node of raw power collapsed in onto the well formed node at its core with the deafening clap of thunder. In that very instant, as that sound was finding its genesis, the wind stopped and the chaos around them vanished. Moving out in lockstep with the sound, actually riding the sound wave, was a corona of spectral energy that swept visibly outward across the alternately stunned and near panicked, crowd. The motion wasn't exactly smooth, the expansion seemed to halt for an unmeasurably short time each time the wave front touched a new person. A stuttering wave that sampled people by the fist-full-of-hundreds per second. The moment seemed interminable to Morgan.
One heartbeat...
A second...
A third...
And more...
The return-pulse, weakened from its round-trip journey, finally came back from the south east. Even as it was coming the rest of the spell was responding, rolling in from every other direction like a slurry of muddy water learning to flow through a gutter. From staff-tip here to Shiea, wherever she was, the remaining spell power condensed onto a shimmering, furiously twisting, sinuous conduit of connectedness suspended high in the air.
Through that conduit Morgan caught the scent of a peculiar shield, one he'd known before, and worse, strong and fresh blood magic. Morgan couldn't leave his spot without tearing down the spell, and he discovered that he couldn't move astrally while using the staff. It occurred to him that Seth, being totally head-blind, probably couldn't see the spellway. He concentrated on his physical being and made eye contact with Seth. It was hard to speak aloud when holding a spell this complex, but he forced himself to whisper two words.
"House Annaoral."
As if in slow motion Seth's head turned to orient onto the straight-line path to House Annaoral. When neck could turn no further his shoulders began to follow. Then torso and hips started. By the time his face was pointed in the correct direction his near leg was bent and his far was flexing mightily. In that single step he went from dead stop to dead run. When he reached the near-edge of the crowd he vanished into it like it was a fog. Almost behind him the crowd seemed to tumble away like the wake from a boat as he finessed, bumped, shoved, or plain straight-armed people out of his way with no more concern than a arrow shows for the things it passes on the way to its mark.
Morgan didn't have time to follow any part of Seth's progress. Tied to his current spot he needed to find a way to use his talents and senses without moving. The only idea he could come up with was frighteningly close to those dangerous fleshy instincts that tugged at his mind. Morgan decided to augment Liane and Mieka. Anybody not totally head-blind like Seth would have some latent ability, sense, and function at the aetheral levels locked within them. One tier at a time he began to boost his best friends into the aether, whispering some few secrets of his talents into their souls as he went. They would be led to their daughter through the spellway and they would know her by way of their parental instincts, there they would become his eyes and hands. The spell-way would carry his intent. It was the only way, and as he began this undertaking a more focused and controlled whirlwind engulfed them.

* * *

Running through a crowd was like dancing. After Seth had passed the first dozen ranks by brute force there was enough room to maneuver. Of course he'd have stiff-armed his way thorough an endless sea of people if he had to, but that would be a waste of time and energy. He was directed as much into himself as he was looking outward. He leapt and dodged and rounded obstacles without much conscious thought, and yes, when it suited his purpose the odd bystander was bowled over or sent sprawling. Within him the coals of a lifelong rage were being fanned again to flame. Within that old flame there was a new twisting tongue, raging because Shiea was his, in his heart anyway, and he would have-out the heart of anybody who harmed her. This rage would make him direct, remorseless and unstoppable, at least until he was finished, when he would pay the cost in guilt and grief.
Hard and dangerous, his mind tuned to every nuance of sound and motion, a machine ready to kill at any breath, Seth came to a stop before the gates of house Annaoral. There were forms to be obeyed in this, and he would not fault a single one. From the limited cover offered by a crease in the construction of the building across the street, Seth bellowed out a challenge and warning as required.
"House Annaoral, I am the just hand of my master, Morgan al'Whaelin, here on a matter of blood. I will not be stayed, assist me or stand aside." There was no need for an "or else".
The guard on the gate knew that they were standing in the wrong, and that what was happening inside most likely varied from the wholesome by more than a hand's breadth, but they were bound by oath to their house. Worse they half-knew, by rumor and portend, that to fail Lady Rienaegh Annaoral was to suffer a wrath more fearsome than any death. The sergeant at the gate responded "Your forces will not enter here." But when only one man stepped from the shadow of the building, the blood ran from his face.
Seth strode to the gate, stepping around or ducking the few arrows loosed at him as if they were bits of fluff carried by a breeze. At the sight of his approach, so calm and direct, one of the guard broke and ran unhindered into town, bent, no doubt, on losing himself in some distant corner of the realm. The rest of the guard waited confidently to see how this interloper intended to deal with the shields about the compound.
As Seth crossed that space where each man had mentally marked the shield to be, without hint of notice or hindrance, their confidence began to shift to dogged resignation.
Two of the guard came forward, swords raised in the classic response to a lone challenger, wary that Seth had not yet drawn his own weapons. The one on the right lost his hand at the wrist to the lightening quick move that brought out Seth's steel. With a snarling yell too much like a Tarkierian Hunting Cat for the liking of those remaining, Seth's second swing muscled straight through the second man's guard and struck his head nine-tenths from his shoulders. Of the original five guards only two remained.
Seth had yet to break his stride.
Seth had to stop his advance for a moment to dispatch the remaining two men. The first lesson of war is an appreciation for the unexpected. If you are not trying to do what your enemy thinks you are, you will always have the advantage. The guards were fighting for their lives, but the lives of these men meant nothing to Seth. He drove the next guard into the gate-wall with nearly all his strength, his shoulder to the man's sternum, robbing him of his wind. When the final man came at him, thinking him entangled with the stunned man, Seth undercut him, taking his hamstring with one blade and then breaking his arm with a stomp of one boot.
Seth now held the gate.
There was no in-rush of new guards. Most likely feeling that feigned ignorance was the better part of valor, a large number of off-duty would-be defenders chose not to find themselves facing this particular foe. Seth looked at the house for a moment. The strategist looking for his next action. Whispering the old adage "sorcerers up, fighters down," Seth decided that he would most likely find Lady Annaoral, and thereby Shiea, somewhere on the top floor of the main house. Hopefully she would have set enough of a rear-guard to lead him directly to her.
Seth walked across the courtyard to the main house. The arrow spot on his back itching for the shaft, his ears searching for the sound. When it came he deftly stepped aside. If he'd had a proper complement of throwing knives he'd have taken care of the two archers and been free to run. Spotting a nice rock, he bent, spun, and threw. Stone met skull and the archer, who had just fired, fell, not yet dead but in desperate need of a healer that would most likely never come. The soft distant thack of boot-falls announced the second archer quitting his post on the rampart above the gate.
The front door wasn't even locked.
Seth gripped the handle and jiggled the latch and then dropped to the ground in one fluid motion. The door splintered outward and evaporated in flame. Seth felt tiny motes of searing wood touch his skin just before winking out. His clothes were smoldering slightly and his steel was tolerably hot to the touch. With no real appreciation for what hadn't gotten through to roast his flesh from his bones, Seth sprang up and through the gap where the door had been.
A drone was standing at the far end of the entrance hall. Next to him was an unexpected surprise. Some guy in a definitely primitive costume, some sort of hide kilt and vest, had a drawn a sword and was starting to charge. His movements were a little odd, he kind of pranced across the floor with wide set feet taking short slapping steps. Seth readied for him. At the end of his charge he made a sudden step sideways and swung. Seth hadn't been quite ready for that but he managed a good block with his left blade.
Several more exchanges and Seth got the hang of this stranger. He was from one of the more primitive parts of the realm. The stranger was used to fighting on soft ground, hence the prancing movements made to step over irregularities, and he was a damn sight better than anybody Seth had faced since coming in from the margins.
It was a changeable battle that was taking way too long. One moment metal would be striking metal at a furious pace, the next moment there were only feints and assessment. With each movement Seth learned the man's style until he could nearly duplicate it if he so chose. All throughout Seth was being pressed, but he eventually got an opportunity. Right in the middle of everything he turned from his opponent and struck down the drone. He'd been maneuvering constantly to get that chance and had taken a couple of tiny wounds to finally take it. It didn't have any bearing on the direct fight, but it did serve to break the rhythm of the encounter.
It also put down a sizable pool of blood on the marble floor.
His opponent was weak on the hard polished surface already, with the blood in play Seth needed only to bring him into the slippery mess. A feat that was surprisingly easy. When the strangers feet hit the blood Seth flipped back his blades to the defensive position along his forearms. When the foeman next charged, Seth just parried. He drew too close and Seth punched him overbalance. Even as he fell Seth took his life, thrusting point down the way he might bury a knife in a wheel of cheese.
Seth was on the third stair when he heard the word "No" whispered urgently from below. Peering over the balustrade Seth met eyes with Lady Jaesiaria al'Annaoral.
"My Lady?"
"She is in the east wing." Lady Jaesiaria gestured at a ground-floor hallway. "Top of the east stair and to the right."
Seth measured her words against their previous meeting and decided to trust her. If she were lying then he'd know soon enough. He bowed his head and charged back down the stairs and into the hallway. It was a fairly long run. The house was apparently larger than it looked. If the lady was telling true, and he'd taken the central stair, it could have well taken him forever to find this part of the house at all.
At the foot of the east stair Lady Annaoral's direction was proved true, at least if the noise were to be believed. Just to the right, at the top of the stairs, was a set of double doors standing open just a crack. The sounds coming out of that room were hard to separate and, several times, punctuated by brilliant flashes. Seth mounted the stair and kicked the doors. They crashed against the inside walls with considerable noise of their own.
For just a moment everyone inside was frozen en-tableau. Scanning from left to right there were a couple of guards, a servant cowering against a wall, and another guard; next was a small raised platform with an angry woman, then Shiea, flanked by a pair of drones, an empty space, and then four or five drones surrounding a young man of about 16 years; just off the platform to the right was a corpse of the smoking-and-smoldering variety, and then finally several more guards.
Everything and everyone was awash in flickering and flowing shades of furnace fire reds and oranges or arcing electrical blue punctuated by the odd flash of white and yellow. Seth knew the effect. He couldn't see the spell castings, but when that energy hit the mundane objects in the room it was reflected back as normal light which he could see. More than half the people in the room were transfixed in fear of what they could see and Seth could not.
Where these energies clashed the air was torn asunder and remade. Whatever was in the air was violently changed, filling the air and covering the ground with voose. A nasty, unnatural amalgam of carbon, oxygen, and whatever else might be floating around, forced into huge, perverse and unhealthy molecules. Voose was a dry powder that burned the eyes and lungs, and made whatever it touched incredibly slippery. Wishing he had a scrap of cloth to cover his face, and the time to spare to tie it on, Seth stepped gingerly onto the polished and powder-glazed floor.
The whole thing was clearly not a preplanned trap. Seth knew that the moment the first of the guards slipped on the voose. Lady Rienaegh, whom Seth assumed was the singular angry woman on the platform, must have been expecting to make off with Shiea before any kind of resistance could be mounted. These men must have been called up from nearby rooms without any foreknowledge, else they would have surely been men who knew how to fight the mundane fight alongside the magical one. These men kept shading their eyes or ducking away from effects Seth could not begin to appreciate.
Seth took another step, and almost a fell. There were mirror smooth gouges in the marble floor. Clearly the contentions here had been fierce. A second, quick look at the room itself showed scars in virtually every surface. It was no wonder that the voose was so heavy, virtually anything one might expect in to find in a sizable dining room had been chewed up and turned. With the variety of things involved the dust was likely toxic so Seth had very little time.
The young man was likely a blood mage, that was clear from the drones flanking him. The woman was Rienaegh. Which to kill first was a toss up. The Lady had replaced her first blood mage easily so if she lived, killing him was only a stop-gap. On the other hand the fight between this mage and Morgan seemed to be at something of a standstill.
Getting Shiea free of this place was only an immediate concern but it outranked any kind of long term solution. The only real choice was to go for the blood mage.
The first of the guards arrived even as he made his decision.
They weren't particularly difficult foes. Their skill was fair to good, but nothing like the strange foreigner from the front hall. The real opponent was the conditions. Time and again Seth had to forgo openings and opportunities because the slick, irregular footing would likely see him on his backside if he took them.
Seth got a sense of where the magical contests were taking place from watching where the guards feared to go. Using that as his guide he tried to keep himself in close to the phantom disturbances, using their assumed presence to watch his back. He was otherwise in the open in the center of the room. The technique proved successful and understandably so. At one point Seth played one of the guards into charging, but instead of blocking the charge Seth let him pass and then shoved him on. Two and a half paces on into the center of the room and the man simply vanished from mid-torso up. What remained seemed to stagger on for a step or so before landing in a heap.
For a moment Seth wondered just how dangerous a game he was playing. He knew enough now to wonder just how immune to sorcery he really might be. The cost of that moments amazement was a long shallow slash across his chest from the next challenger. That got his attention, and his ire, and from that moment on nothing distracted him from the task at hand.
With no real memory of each opponent as a distinct challenge, Seth slew the remaining guards as if he himself were magic. One instant he was facing steel and the next he was at the edge of the platform inches away from a drone. He drew back to strike and a movement on his left caught his eye.
"You Bastard!" Rienaegh spat the epithet at him even as she seemed to begin a most unladylike charge. She wasn't coming straight at him, but seemed to be heading for someplace vaguely behind the blood mage and his drones. It was hard for Seth to see exactly what happened next, his eyes were blurry and running freely from the irritation, but she seemed take a sort of leaping side-step and then she was gone.
In a heartbeat the mage and drones were moving too. They each, in turn, got to about the same point and vanished also. It all happened so fast that his opportunity to take lady, mage, or even a single drone out of the game was gone before it had even had a chance to happen.
The only saving grace was that Shiea still stood, apparently unmolested and unaware, right where she'd been ever since Seth had entered the room.
Ignoring the bright yellow light that seemed to reflect off her skin from nowhere, Seth moved to her and snatched her off the platform. There were still too many potential dangers here. There was no way for him to know whether the portal was still open and if so what might come back out of it at any moment. Worse, mages were notoriously bad losers and a collapsing roof or floor could finish the two of them quite thoroughly and, from what he'd seen, burning the whole compound down around them would be in keeping with this lady's style.

* * *

Just outside the house Shiea regained her senses. Morgan had, as a part of protecting her, pushed her mind far away. As well as physical and psychic trauma there'd been the chance of plain old emotional injury. Keeping her vacant made sure that she wouldn't be frightened. She woke up as happily as she'd been following the nice strange lady seemingly moments before.
Seth transferred her to his back, where she hung on the way she always did. She liked riding him and was completely oblivious to the fact that this new running thing was a matter of life and death. She simply held on to her horsey real tight and giggled with glee every time he vaulted over or brushed frighteningly close to some obstacle or another.
By the time Seth reached Morgan and the others he was unnaturally, for him anyway, light headed. Morgan had finished taking down his spell-works and so Liane and Mieka were free of their ensorcellment. Seth handed Shiea to her mother and then turned aside. His mission finished, he let the demands of his body resurface.
Bending over and bracing his hands on his thighs Seth began to cough. Deep, huge racking coughs that started in his groin and forced the blood into his head as much as they forced the air out of his lungs. His eyes were still running, along with his nose, and once begun, the coughing spasms would not let go. The fact that what he was coughing up was as much blood as anything else was as frightening as his inability to stop the actual hacking cough.
Morgan thumped his hand against Seth's back a few times, more to get his attention than to help him clear his lungs.
"Let me help you."
Seth swallowed a few times to try to stop coughing, but when that was only partly successful he nodded his head in big exaggerated nods of consent.
Tugging at one arm, Morgan managed to get Seth moving toward the fountain.
With water at hand Morgan helped the still-coughing Seth to rinse the worst of the voose out of his eyes and off of his face. Morgan couldn't do anything about the coughing, or more importantly what was causing the coughing, until he could get Seth to calm down a little bit and help him make the necessary connection between them. Morgan got him seated against the fountain with his knees up and his head resting on his crossed arms. He was beginning to kind of whimper along with cough just from the pure strain of exhaustion that nothing but prolonged coughing jag can bring on.
Morgan spun a healing web but realized he had no chance of getting through to Seth as things were now.
"Seth, do you remember when we made the collars?" The link. Morgan was not looking forward to the link because he knew how much he wanted it.
Seth nodded his head without lifting it from his arms.
"I need you to do the same thing now. In your mind reach out to me and draw me in."
Morgan didn't feel anything at first. It was probably hard for Seth to concentrate. While still holding the healing web out to Seth in his mind, Morgan laid his right hand on Seth's neck and tried to be soothing and supportive. Then suddenly something snapped up Morgan's gentle probe.
Morgan actually winced.
It was pleasurable to the point of pain, having that connection recreate itself in his head. The first time it had been so subtle, now it was anything but. It wasn't some strange sending from Seth, he didn't put out the tiniest erg of mental power, he could however hold shut or selectively fling open some sort of inner door. At a primal level, far below anyplace Morgan knew himself to function, he'd jumped onto that open conduit like a predator.
But it wasn't a bad thing. Far from it. As soon as the spasm of first contact passed that tiny mutual leak of life energy they'd shared before resumed in full.
With the link restored Morgan was able to place the healing web. Things inside Seth's body were a mess. Morgan had only encountered voose as part of his schooling. He'd no idea that it could get this nasty. Destroying the stuff outside the body was very easy but once it was in the lungs and blood it had to be dealt with very carefully. Only a tiny fraction of the stuff had to be cleaned out the hard way, the body would do most of the work naturally as long as those natural processes were supported.
With the healing web in place Seth was no longer in actual danger. There'd be no uncontrollable swelling or bleeding and Morgan would know the instant any kind of toxic reaction started. It would just be a matter of spending a couple of days linked, and then facing up to breaking the link again.

Chapter 32
Remands

"The following rulings are those of the crown." The royal proxy, a man of middle years, spoke with the full authority of the king.
"First, for crimes against the King's Justice and the people of the realm, the person known as Lady Rienaegh Annaoral is declared outlaw and enemy of the crown. She is summoned to the King's Justice by any means and in whatever condition as can be accomplished. By the Tenets of Rule, any oath, debit, or allegiance here-to-fore held or owed her are abrogated and her rights of liberty and property are revoked.
"Kidrian Annaoral, hereditary holder of titles to house Annaoral and husband to Rienaegh is found to be incompetent by reason of sorcerous compulsion or effect, and shall be held in the King's custody until such time as those influences can be diagnosed and remedied, after which point his individual culpability in these and various matters shall be determined with specificity.
"Next, house Annaoral is disband, all entitlements and favors held by the house are revoked and repossessed. The holdings of said house to be first-used to recompense such real expenses as have been set out and approved during these proceedings with the remainder to be dispatched as follows. The culpability of those bound to that house will be determined at individual proceedings, held with the understanding that conditions of extreme duress existed within that house. Lady Jaesiaria al'Annaoral, the sole entitled survivor of House Annaoral is found to have acted without blame, having done what was within her power and knowledge, to protect and aid those persons who held allegiance to her and what ever others she could. The Lady is returned, her possessions and estate largely intact and her person exonerated, to the aegis of the house of her birth.
"Next, Mieka Korvin Escalia and Liane Idral Gilerwain, free persons and subjects of the King, are found to be without fault and within their rights with respect to the recovery of their daughter and all currently known actions and outcomes related there-to.
"Finally, Magus Morgan al'Whaelin, duly recognized Talent and sworn liege-man of this kingdom, and hereby recognized as guardian and parent of the abducted child, is found to have acted without fault and within his rights in this matter. Further the crown recognizes his actions as right and honorable, and demanded by his obligations as set forth by the King's Justice and the Tenets of Rule.
"Such are the rulings of the crown.
"This matter is closed."

* * *

Morgan gave a great sigh of relief, inside anyway. There was a great chance that some kind of influence could have become his undoing in this trial and he was amazed that it hadn't happened. Careful analysis of the attempt to kidnap Shiea had convinced him that someone of Master rank at the school was involved. He'd taken the power signatures of both Rienaegh and the new blood-mage. Neither of them had energized the portal. He'd only been able to get a partial signature from that, but it had told him a lot. And hopefully it would be enough. With those signatures he would lay an enchantment that should finally leave his family safe, and then he would go on the offensive.
He'd been frightened, misused, and played out, but if he could match that partial signature to one of the Masters there would be a reckoning.
Those thoughts had been running around his head in pieces for the last several days. They were so familiar that this time they were fused into a single mental state. Even as it came to him it was interrupted by hugs from Liane and Mieka. He returned them and thought that it was going to be a good day. The verdicts were in and it was still early morning. He'd have the chance to take a tour of the school with certain intent. The thought was so compelling that not only was he not paying attention to the miniature celebration around him, he almost completely missed the insistent tugging at his sleeve.
He looked to his right and found an young apprentice trying to hand him a sealed note.
He took it, feeling his chance to search out his enemy slipping from his grip.
The seal was royal, from the king's proxy no doubt. There were no signs of enchantment or trap about it so he broke the seal.
It was a request, just shy of absolute royal compulsion, to meet immediately and privately with the proxy. There would be no hunting today. Whoever was doing the maneuvering, there had to be some kind of machination at work here, had saved their pull to produce whatever Morgan was about to step into. This whole thing stank of paranoia, and of exactly the kind of coincidence that had taken him away before.
Morgan made his excuses and headed away from his family.
Seth shadowed him like a faithful hound. At the moment that bothered Morgan as much as it pleased him. The tiny clink of the chain connecting Seth's manacles to the belt about his waist was a constant annoyance as they walked. That wasn't what was really bothering him about Seth's presence, it was the link. The healing web had finished its work several days past, but this time Seth had wanted answers. When he'd learned that without the link Morgan's power couldn't reach him he had refused to help take it down. He'd argued, quite compellingly, that it was unwise and eventually, potentially dangerous for Morgan, if he had no way to reach Seth should the need arise.
Morgan had already realized that. Seth could have died if they hadn't been able to remake the link. If Morgan had found him unconscious, or he hadn't made it back... But the hunger he felt for the link before; and the pleasure he felt whenever he let himself feel its presence now... It felt like he was taking advantage. It was a constant reminder of what their relationship simply could never be.

* * *

Morgan was shown into a large meeting room just off the great hall.
Seth took up a spot near the door as always and Morgan slipped his staff into the circle of Seth's bound arms.
When the royal proxy came in he smiled and extended his hand. "Greetings, I am Aanthar Muall," he said as they shook hands, "Please have a seat." He indicated spot on a comfortable looking settee.
"Thank you My Lord." Morgan stalled discretely to give the other man the opportunity to be seated first.
After a moments silence, "This is a screen to keep our conversation private, do you mind?" The proxy gestured at a small cube sitting next to a tea service on the low coffee table between them.
"Not at all." Morgan smiled.
Muall touched the cube and Morgan immediately felt the ambiance of the room change. A quick vrec, no longer than the blink of an eye, revealed a screen, but it was nowhere as tight or effective as he expected.
"If I may..." Morgan didn't wait for permission, he immediately fed a modulated flow of mixed aspect into the cube. Only a sensitive would have noticed the faint blue corona that played momentarily across the staff from that distance, but the proxy did respond to the more intense isolation. What had been like standing behind a waterfall, was now like like the deepest cave. No emendations of any kind, out or in, could pass the walls of the room now. It was a silence that even the least sensitive of people could have felt.
The proxy looked at Morgan again, as if seeing him for the first time. "We are lead to believe that the warder is sufficient to ensure privacy." His speech had shifted to the formal.
"Seek better council." Morgan replied, "the device provides some protection, and its ability to alert to intrusion is even better, but there are probably as many as twenty talents at this school that could breach it with the operator none the wiser...
"Of course I can withdraw my additions if that is what you desire."
He looked at the box as if it had become a snake. "No, of course not..." There was a long and hugely uncomfortable pause, "that information alone makes me glad I decided to call you to me." He was still considering the box. "Could you improve this device?"
He looked into the thing for a while. What he'd done before had been quite effective, but reflexive. The task of making, or remaking, such a casting as a permanent enchantment would be something of a chore.
"I believe so, but it would take several days at the least." He finally answered.
"Of course." Was the reply.
"Eh, just a moment..." Morgan looked about for a second, seeking a suitable item, and finally picked up a small crystal salt shaker. He pressed several certain aspects of knowledge into the cut glass crystal, then wrapped it in a cloth napkin and set it prominently between them. "Give this, and that cube, to a mage that you trust and he should be able to divine the necessary modifications to make you a new, more effective screen... Nobody should touch the shaker directly until then."
The royal proxy was a man of experience and second to a king, the matter of the privacy shield and Morgan's assessment, having been settled for the moment, instantly nestled itself into its proper place in his mind and he was ready to move on.
"I summoned you here to see if you might tell me what else you know of these recent events."
Morgan tried to look innocent of any such knowledge for a moment and then dropped the pretense. The man across the table from him was a politician of the highest caliber. During the open proceedings he had stayed far away from the deeper questions of why each party had been involved. Morgan was completely unsure of how to answer.
The proxy nodded, "That serious a?" and then proceeded to pour the tea, by no coincidence giving Morgan a chance to consider his answers.
"I believe things are as serious as they can be."
"How so?" he prompted as he handed Morgan a cup.
"There is this spell book, and what it contains could mess up the entire realm."
The proxy relaxed considerably. In his experience people who thought the entire realm was at stake in some way were usually hysterical at the least, and totally cracked at worst. "More detail would be nice."
Morgan launched into a detailed retelling of the key events of the last year, and the proxy replaced his politely interested disinterest with the more sincere sort of attention. The proxy asked the occasional concise question, and the story took surprisingly less time to tell than Morgan expected.
Muall did not look happy. "I have to agree with most of your assessments, except perhaps your belief that only one person at the school may be involved. It seems to me that the one key thing we do not know is what exactly is in the book."
"Somehow I suspect I'd rather not know. Of late every major thing I've learned has cost more than I really wanted to pay. Besides the book has been stolen and it's too dangerous to even try to open again. I don't see how we can find out what's in it."
Muall sighed and shook his head and muttered "Academics..." then louder, "just ask him." he said gesturing towards Seth. "You told me he penned significant portions of the text for his previous owner."
Morgan turned to look at Seth and then had to resist the urge to hide his face in his hands, chalking up one more stupid mistake.
"Come over here young man." The proxy said to Seth.
Seth started to take a step forward, but with his wrists fixed parallel and held to his waist by the manacles, and with the staff through the crook of his arm, there was no good way to proceed.
"Hold on." Morgan said, getting to his feet.
"And you may remove those." Muall said.
Morgan made quick work of opening the manacles. In truth they were open before he got there. Opening and closing the screw bolt with his talent was no great feat, once he'd thought of it. The key was just for show.
Morgan carried his Staff back to his seat and laid it on the floor. Seth followed and stood at the end of the table.
"No, sit."
His public manners were in force and Seth sat, but at attention. Morgan had not gone into any of the things that would reveal his unimprinted status.
The proxy invoked the Tenets by formula and rote. His phrasing would have freed any slave to speak his mind while leaving him compelled to the truth. Then Muall asked him to describe the nature of the information in the book.
Morgan could feel Seth hesitating. He raised an eyebrow at Seth and Seth began to speak.
"Well, it is mostly a scholarly work about the structure of the spell which creates and maintains the Realm. Lady Korane's founding principle is based around the idea that there are not 167 layers of gloss to the spell as most scholars believe, instead there is at least one more. The outermost layer of gloss is actually the entirety of the inorganic structure of the realm."
"A moment," Muall interjected, "what is `gloss'?"
Morgan, ever the teacher, stepped in there. "You're familiar with the concept of a glossary? Sorry, of course you are. The original form of amplifying a text was called `glossing'. A small section of base text, usually rather complex, is placed in the center of the page, then the author would surround that text on the page with a halo of supporting text. That text may, in turn, need support or definition, in which case another set of text surrounds the previous. Each layer of surrounding text is called a gloss. The technique is very old and no longer used for plain text, but it is an essential technique in spell-work because a complete spell formula may be quite short, but the nuances of one key word may literally take volumes to refine, or a complete casting might require spells wrapped one around another like layers of an onion."
Muall made an appreciative noise and, unlike most of Morgan's teaching experiences, Muall seemed to have understood exactly.
"And there are thought to be 167 glosses...? Gloss...? layers set in the spell of the realm?"
"Arguably, yes, that is the current thought. It is argued though. The core spell, the Coda Prima Creataria, is inscribed on a pedestal about six feet across. That pedestal is really a protrusion of organic rock from the surface of the top of The Seed. There are seven clear and distinct layers of gloss in concentric rings on the floor around the pedestal. Those first certain seven are the last that everyone can agree on. They cover the top of the Seed edge to edge, say forty paces across. The Seed floats, suspended by means nobody has yet been able to identify, in the center of the octagonal Inner Chamber, which is some two thousand yards across.
"That's where things get dicey. All of the inner surfaces of The Chamber, from a distance, appear to be covered with charcoal murals of elementals in conflict, with four great doors depicted on the main walls. Close up the images are actually text. The visual effect is done entirely with changes in spacing and stroke weight. Where The Chamber has eight faces that curve in gently to meet at a point at both the apex and nadir of the space, there are seven more outer rooms, each encompassing the previous, perfectly cylindrical on the inner and outer walls with regular, level ceilings and floors. The depictions continue, mostly of barren landscapes, growing less demonic and elemental, and more mundane in each successive outer chamber.
"Of course it's all in Malhablamorung, which by it's nature must be written in the shape of a disk, ring, torus, or similar closed manifold, so you often have to make several circuits of a room to understand a single phrasing. Worse still the text follows the imagery more and more as you move outward. So for instance, a rocky outline in an inner chamber is formed by successive horizontal ranks of text. In the outer chambers it would more likely be a single series of ideograms following the contour, or even a single line that is part of one sub-symbol.
"People will be arguing about it forever.
"I hear it's quite... breathtaking..."
Muall was nodding his head, he knew all that in broad terms, but hadn't ever really thought about it technically.
"And this Lady Korane supposedly translated all this and put it down in one book?"
Morgan kind of winced but Seth stepped back in. "No sir. Lady Korane only translates the central portion, the Coda Prima, the first codex. That full translation goes on for more than half the text. It is quite interesting, even for all its references to other books."
"This does not sound all that dangerous..." Muall observed.
Morgan replied "Knowledge is power and quite a few mages would fight over the mere possibility that exclusive access to that kind of knowledge would bring them greater power. The book doesn't have to even be right about anything. The rumor of the possibility, combined with the mystery of one damnedably difficult to open book, could well be enough to start a mage war."
"I see your point completely of course. Perhaps if we made the exact nature of the contents completely public. It's an important, and interesting, but seemingly harmless text."
"That wouldn't work. Just the paranoid chance that we were holding something important back would be enough to start the fighting."
"Yes, that is very sticky."
Seth cleared his throat to get their attention.
When they both looked at him he nearly blushed, but having started he had to finish.
"I did not intend to mislead you sirs. The text is anything but harmless. It's not just a technical text, it is something of a... practical guide... I think. Where in some places it is about things like proving that Orhin's Paradox is not even an actual concern, in other parts it's... active. There are forty two illustriatia done entirely in antaliased genufashea."
"What!" Morgan barked, "Forty two? Damn it all to... are you sure?"
Seth nodded.
Morgan was trembling as, in a kind of mental shock, he reached for his cup.
"I don't understand, what is aunt... ant..."
"Antaliased Genufashea." Morgan finished for him. "Where to start..." His mind was sifting through years worth of curricula for a meaningful way to express what that phrase meant. "Its like a... verb tense..." he winced at the imprecision, "in Malhablamorung used to express... exactly express... a piece of information too dangerous to just come right out and say. No... it's more than that. It's a spell-work made entirely of information. A meta-spell. Um... I'm not sure how to explain it in less than a couple of days..."
Seth cut in, to Morgan he said "If I may" then to the proxy "this is how it was explained to me. Malhablamorung isn't really a language like common speech, it is a thing of degrees and relativity. The simple idea `to cut' is drawn as a line that becomes the center of a spiral for one turn around then breaks at a point to bisect the single loop, like writing a cursive lower case letter `e' but drawing the line straight back and up through the loop in a harsh change of direction. Okay, so that is the symbol for `to cut' right? Not so much. It's the symbol for `to cut' if it occurs in the midst of the symbol of something that can be severed and it has to be accompanied by an actual or inferred means of doing the severing. The sharpness of the angles, the thickness of the lines, the style of the curve, all of that goes to describe the cutting. It's so complex that it seems impractical, but the seeds of it can be found in the agitated scratchings of an angry child.
"So here we have a language which is as much about how you feel and who you are when you write a thing as what you want to say. And it is, in its way, completely compelling. That is why the language can be used to instruct and control spirit creatures. There is no such thing as an unfinished idea or imprecise statement in the whole language, there is only the poorly stated. And it's even worse when you are speaking aloud. What gets people killed is that, when they mess up, there is no do-over. No `I take it back' and so a misspoken directive is still a directive and the thing is complete and must be executed.
"So when a person with Talent learns enough to begin dealing with Malhablamorung they are actually manipulating themselves and their talent as they write, speak, and even when they are just reading silently to themselves. When you deal with Malhablamorung you are participating in the information."
Seth cleared his throat and paused for a moment. "It gets uglier... In common speech I can say, or write, or read the phrase `destroy myself' with impunity. It's just a distant and vague fragment of a concept. In Malhablamorung however, if it were properly expressed it would be complete, with an actual or inferred time and means and everything. The act of expressing it in any form would be fatal, presuming of course I had both talent and understanding. The act of seeing or hearing it expressed, if it were only `mostly appreciated' for what it was, would be fatal too. But, say I expressed it fully and you appreciated it fully, only I would be so destroyed but you would be fine because you would fully understand that it was me being destroyed and also the manifold ways that I am not you, and you would know what I experienced in my destruction completely and exactly without you yourself directly experiencing any part of it.
"So that is Malhablamorung in a nutshell.
"Antaliased genufashea is a way of disassembling and expressing a concept far too volatile to be clearly stated. See, I could dissemble a little and falsely state something so close to `destroy myself' that the idea goes along, but no harm is wrought. I can do that because the concept of destroy is nicely vague when you put concepts like `of or pertaining to the possibility of' near it. You'd get the idea and all, but not well enough for spell casting. So if I wanted to teach you how to destroy yourself in the first person, I would invent `destroy myself - the spell' and then decompose it into a bunch of things and concepts related to the idea, and the creation of the idea, so that when you participate in those things fully you will be inescapably led to the `destroy myself' structure I originally envisioned. I, as author, compell the reader to know exactly what I know, with perfect fedelity."
The proxy looked at Morgan. "And this can be done?"
"Sure, its like doing a mathematical proof and leaving off the last line and then talking about what the last line isn't and what the complete proof could be used for, and what wasn't being proved. Things like that, to a degree and intensity that makes what the actual last line must be unavoidably communicated to the reader."
"It all sounds untenably complex."
"It is that. The language and its techniques are almost all acquired by the application practical talent. Antaliased genufashea itself is usually learned from a singular text written entirely in that self-same style."
"And you have this skill?"
"To write a piece of a.g.? No, I am not that advanced in the language, but every graduate of the School of Disciplines needs must learn the twelve lesser and greater nullifications which are also gleaned from such a text. The concept of `annihilate' is too volatile to practice. It took me two weeks of exclusive study to comprehend the script, which is about typical. I assure you the technique is completely workable within the context of sorcery, even though it is impossibly impractical outside that scope."
"Okay, so what would happen if someone participated in these, what was it, forty two, things?" He asked.
"Well, they would know exactly how... no, be absolutely forced to become able to do whatever was being presented. It would be complete and immediately functional knowledge." Morgan said.
Muall looked back to Seth, "what was she sharing?"
"Not having any actual talent myself sir, I can really only guess, but some of it was big. Move a mountain or drain an ocean big. Lady Korane was an intellect to be reckoned with and she'd set her mind to, and conquered, the actual nature and structure of the reality we live in."
Muall muttered "No small thing" to himself and sat back to digest what he'd learned.
Morgan and Muall sipped tea for a time.
"It sounds like this manuscript needs to be found and destroyed."
Seth said, "I doubt the latter is possible, sir. My lady's intent was to share this knowledge with those who'd earned the privilege. The protections on the text are likely formidable."
Morgan was right behind him. "Finding it will involve finding whoever else is involved with Rienaegh Annaoral and then expunging them and what they know about the text before it becomes common knowledge. What to do after that is anybody's guess. Fortunately it is a secret that the power-hungry would never even whisper of, so it wont be spread on purpose."
Muall nodded, then began speaking almost as firmly as when he'd pronounced sentence. "There doesn't seem to be any way to bring any royal power to bear on this issue that would not make everything worse. We appreciate the discretion you have shown to date, and give you our officially, unofficial blessing. I am tempted to give you some writ to use in dire circumstances, but I think that I must not. You have been equal to your wolves thus far, and I fear I must throw you back to them."
The conversation felt over and Morgan began to rise.
"I will keep you in mind. If I find any way to send you help without being too conspicuous I will do so."
"I appreciate the thought sir." Morgan bowed at the waist and simultaneously withdrew his augmentation to the privacy spell.

* * *

There were no leaking power signatures detectable across the entire school, so there was no point in doing a probe. The golden moments just after court were gone, and there was no lament about it in Morgan. He'd just have to make sure he was up and scanning early the next morning, so he started back for home.
About halfway there Seth suddenly spoke "So how does it work anyway?"
"How does what work?"
"Magic. The Talent. The lord proxy got me thinking... How do you deal with the complexity?"
"Truth?"
An affirmative grunt.
"Nobody really knows. That's probably why it's called magic. We know a lot of the reasons things work, but most of those reasons have other, trickier, reasons of their own. We know about the outer nerves, and so things like my scars. We know that the more a person knows about the physical universe the better they can work with their talents. But as to why, when I reach for a flow of air, I see things just the way I do, is a mystery. Air is everywhere and yet if I look in one spot to do a certain thing I find the air rich with power and if I immediately look in the same spot to do a different thing the air is barren of the necessary forces, it just works that way. Even the five houses are just an idea, an arbitrary set of divisions that exist for mental convenience. I know chemestry, and I know there is no real difference between carbon in the air and carbon in the dirt, but somehow it matters when I need to work with air or earth. The best guess anyone has is that something in the under-mind is sorting everything out instinctively so that the upper mind can work with it."
He paused for a few steps.
"Once you have the talent it's really just a matter of will and desire. All the formula and ceremony are... assistants... helpers that let you hold onto what is, and what you will, and the pushing of one into the other. You helped me really know and accept that when you helped me make my first book."
"But if it's a matter of wills, how can some plants and animals do magic?"
Morgan shrugged, "That's just the next puzzle from here, and there are an endless set of questions after that. Philosophy and religion, they are as sure as magic, its all somehow wrapped into one package..."
"Oh," this time Seth held the silence for a few steps, "the last place you look..."
"What?"
"You know, the old saying, `why do you always find something in the last place you look?' The simple answer is, `because when you find the thing you stop looking."'
"Oh, yea..." Morgan understood that simple truth, but he didn't understand it as an analogy, he tried to fit it into the rest of the conversation but it just didn't seem to go.
Seth was so strange to him sometimes.
He let it drop.

Chapter 33
Reversals

The sun had yet to coalesce in the east and the predawn light shimmering vaguely in the sky made the woods seem mystically peaceful, but Morgan missed it. He was busy in the secret workroom buried deep beneath his house. He was alone, not even Seth had woken up yet. Someone somewhere in the school was about to make a fatal mistake, or so he hoped. Morgan had a partial power signature and sometime this morning the someone it matched would likely use their talent. If he was watching when that happened he'd have his man, or woman as the case may be. Even if the first thing done was to raise a shield they'd radiate their signature for those precious instants it took to build the thing, and if he were looking in the right place in the the right way just then...
He wasn't really thinking what he'd do. All he wanted first was a name. A firm target for whatever would have to be done next.
He sent his senses out over the school. At first it was just like it had always been. He was born with a goodly range and strength. Then he began to let his outer channels leak through the staff and into his senses. It was hard to manage at first but whatever it was that he'd become of late seemed to force him to succeed.
He wanted to start looking, sifting through the school grounds room by room, but if he did that he'd almost certainly be looking in the wrong place when the moment happened. He forced himself to surrender to his under-mind. If there was any truth to his recent revelations, then that great filter in his subconscious would do the work. He filled his over-mind with the remembered signature and the true intent of finding the person until even the sense of waiting was blotted out.
With his over-mind dedicated to its task and his under-mind completely unfettered and active, a myriad of interesting or odd things began to bubble up into his consciousness. At first it was simple things. He spent some time sharing the first-person experience of Seth beginning his morning workout, carried to him through the link. Then along less direct channels he was part of Shiea's tiny sleeping essence and then her parents act of gentle morning love. Then there was a blur of the school's livery of slaves, for a moment he was a young man tending to the grounds, he'd left home because he hated farming and now here he was pulling weeds which he hated even more, and even as Morgan recognized the man as the would-be thief from Razor Pass, he moved on. For a while he was an exposed slab of stone feeling the first warming of the newly coherent sun, dozing lazily while the completed formula for an instant, but very dirty teleport danced just beyond his awareness. From there on things devolved into a free-form flow of images and impressions that felt like juvenile poetry, when it felt like anything at all.
Then, all at once he was the walls of a room, and that room was filling with the energy he sought. Jumping two directions at once, he strove to get the full pattern that matched the tattered fragment he'd been holding even as he pulled himself to wider focus so that he could put a location to that room.
He was successful on both counts. He still didn't have a name, but he had what he needed to find that name. More importantly he had what he needed to finish the protections on his family. At the very least, by the end of the day Mieka, Liane and Shiea would be safe from all but the most mundane of attacks, and at the most, someone's head just might end up on a pike if Seth got to him first. If Morgan got through first, there wouldn't be much more than a little voose left over.
Morgan decided to fix up his household defenses while he was still in this odd but optimal state. He made a tight little lozenge out of the new power signature and slipped it into the protective spells. He'd already done the prep work when he'd put in the specific wards against Rienaegh and her new blood mage. The living spells would line up the complete signature with the partial he already had and then sew the rest of the new into place. Once positioned Morgan only had to let the thing work itself out for a few minutes.
He pulled himself back together and floated gently to the floor.

* * *

The first wheezing shudder came while Morgan was just mounting the stair. He knew the source instantly. His household protections were trying to reject an already established spell. The still partial integration of the signature wasn't yet strong enough to really keep out an earnest casting. The work that Morgan had sensed starting was apparently an assault on the premises. The choice between going up to see what was happening and going back down to work from within the circle raged in him for a moment and going up one out.
Struggling to maneuver his staff in the tight twisting quarters Morgan took the stairs as fast as he could.
There was a portal in his living room.
It wasn't a very good portal and it was getting worse by the moment. The local reality was not fairing much better. The portal needed to be closed very soon. But before he let the portal close Morgan would need a few answers. The immediate need to keep the portal open was easy to address, he crammed his staff into it. That jammed the thing open and the staff began to spark.
The first question was "how?" Someone must have brought something into the house that let the portal be targeted there despite the protections. A quick scan and he spotted a small floral basket. Half a thought and it was vapor. In a few more moments any such object coming into the house would be cleared by the protections. Problem solved.
Next was a question of who was where. When he found that Liane and Shiea were not in the house he stepped halfway into the portal to scan the other side. They were there, already translated to the remote location. The portal had probably been opened around them and he'd have no way to get them back if he let the portal close without finding out where the other side of it was. Fast but slow, Morgan started to probe his way, looking for the far surface of the portal.
Morgan barely felt the nudge as Seth blew by him.
Seth was only wearing his small clothes and holding his blades when he passed the portal. Morgan knew that because the portal hadn't taken him anywhere. Seth turned, looking back at Morgan in wonder and Morgan saw him outlined in a fiery halo. The laws of the realm said he should be far away and his inherent resistance to sorcery was keeping him where he was. That was a very bad paradox, and Morgan could feel the fabric of the realm start to denature all around him. Within heartbeats Morgan's talents were the only reason their quarters hadn't blown themselves clean out of the side of the hill.
It didn't make sense at all. Seth had used the Gateway at the school, twice, and the second time Morgan had flung him into it using a fine bit of trickery. Then he knew. They'd been linked both times, and both times Morgan had had at least a passing connection to the gateway formation. Therefore if he didn't channel the portal energy through the link for Seth, Seth would remain where he was, and likely blow a hole in the realm big enough to take the school, and possibly the mountain, with him.
As quickly as possible Morgan integrated himself a bit with the portal. It wasn't a power issue, it was all complexity. He had to finagle his way around his own protections without disturbing them and fight against his concern for Liane and Shiea so he didn't blow anything out. Weaving thus and so, Morgan did what he could and then blew the link wide open with portal energy.
Seth's eyes went open for a moment in wonder, then he wavered like a mirage, and was gone. The portal itself was a mess and it was going to get worse before Morgan would be able to eject it safely. He moved forward a hair's breadth and found himself in the distant-end corona where he could see.
Morgan didn't dare step from the portal for fear of the whole thing going sour. Seth was in a ready crouch facing several people and Morgan, in one of those intense, distracting moments that happen to a person under stress, noticed smoke rising from Seth's hands. From inside the portal it was hard to tell exactly who was whom amongst the strangers, but he quickly found Liane and Shiea. Each was in the grip of an armsman, Liane with a dagger to her throat, and both being dragged up the trail to another portal.
That was something Morgan knew he must stop. He reached out to the armsman holding Shiea and snatched himself back in revulsion. The man had been taken by the blood mage. Well, kind of taken. He was nothing like the drones Morgan had encountered before. The original man was not gone. Not wiped away by madness. This man was half eaten away and half himself, desperate to escape his fate and likely to do anything. Morgan's repressed instincts for the flesh whispered in his ear that such a man could be made to do anything simply for the proffered promise of escape. There was no way that Morgan would be able to directly influence these men unless he were to first wrest their minds from the blood mage and make them his own drones, and that was something he simply would not do.
That only left the more difficult means. Morgan would have to protect and then bind Shiea and Liane. If he made it so the knives could not cut them and then he bound them in place, he and Seth would have the time needed to put down their captors.
Suspended between the near and far surfaces of the portal, Morgan was deprived of all sound. The silence struck him as odd, since he could feel the thing ripping apart around him. As his under-mind translated the impending disaster into something he could cope with, he found himself longing to hear the slow fibrous separation of its weave with his own ears. He let it keep tearing while he enveloped Shiea and then Liane. There were barely tatters left when he finally could snap the protections closed around his family.
Next came the gateway. He buried himself in the structure of the portal until there was little distinction between the fabric of his being and the mechanism and craft of the collapsing threshold. There were going to be geasairia to pay, he wasn't sure exactly what they would be, but he had no choice. Power he had, enough raw energy was at his disposal, moment to moment, to level a small city. This was about finesse and the over-mind can only divide itself so many ways before it has to call on the pathways that a only lifetime of learning create. It was like trying to reweave a rug, without a loom, while holding your breath at the bottom of a huge vat of congealing beef gravy.
There was a moment of epiphany, maybe more than one, but one in particular interrupted Morgan's recasting. It happened sometime after he'd recalled the teleport spell that had taunted his imagination several endless minutes ago in the basement, and after he'd folded it into the repairs twice, once each for the two women in his life. It was sometime after he'd rigged significant parts of the gateway to explode along several of the axis that would leave the material world untouched. It was sometime still further along than all of the things he had to do to make his home reality safe. It happened at the moment he turned his attention back to his own small self.
He realized he could hear.
And see.
Both surfaces of the portal were flooding him with sensory information, and both sides were unnaturally silent.
Back at his home it was the silence of the unoccupied morning punctuated by the ever-present distant drip of water from one source or another.
On the stranger side of the gate it was the magic silence of a moment of decision.
Morgan wasn't sure if he'd actually heard the half-mad, strident screaming of the leader of the armsmen. But he could tell he'd been screaming at the top of his harried lungs by the foaming spittle at the corners of his mouth and the freshly receding angry red throb of every blood vessel the man had from his shoulders to the top of his scalp.
The man who'd been screaming was far up the trail, clutching at Shiea, and something told Morgan it was desperately important he know what had been said, even though there was likely no power in the realm that could reach the girl right then without his consent.
Closer by far, Morgan could see his own body. He was barely outside the gate and one of those... things... was ready to cut him down. His mind wasn't in his body right then and he wasn't shielded per se, but he was holding far too much power to be in any danger from a sword. With every last channel in his body carrying a flow, his assailant would be voose the instant he cut the first cell of his flesh. The most mundane harm Morgan could suffer just then would be a nasty scratch.
Seth was halfway up the trail, facing the drone leader. He had no way to know that everybody on his side of the conflict was safe.
But that wasn't the issue. Morgan knew it, but his overburdened mind simply wouldn't produce the next thought.
Morgan forced himself into his body.
Seth was starting to slump... in resignation. Whatever he was thinking, it was bad. The remainder of the armsmen-drones were giving him his space. There was a wide wake of bodies leading from the portal to where Seth stood. Even the driven wouldn't risk that carnage when something else might do.
Head hanging down, his chin against his chest, Seth turned a quarter to his right. He turned his head up and lifted it a little, and made eye contact with Morgan through the tangled fall of his long black hair.
And Morgan suddenly knew, even before the deep wave of resignation, regret, and resolve thundered down the link... it was a goodbye.
With a twist of his wrist, like he'd practiced it every day of his life, he moved the point of his left sword from its place along his arm to a point just under his ribs, closest to his heart.
These people wanted Seth. Wanted what he knew. Wanted what he could do. And they'd never stop coming. They would do whatever it would take to get inside his head. They'd happily grind Morgan and his family away in excruciating cruelty to get it. No mater the effort. No matter the cost However long it took.
That's what the man had screamed. The words had been hugely less articulate, if there had even been words, but he'd made himself, or his master, quite clear.
Seth, being the solid thinker he was knew there was a caveat, They'd persue `as long as he lived.'
In an instant Morgan understood everything, and bellowed "NO!" at the top of his lungs, even as Seth began to relax his knees.
Morgan was literally powerless, every channel he had was dedicated to the portal.
But he had his staff.
He let go of the gate, ready to let it play havoc with this remote place wherever it was, plucked his staff out of mid-air, and swung at the drone nearest him.
He never got the chance to complete the swing. The far end of the gate closed first, and cleanly, as the staff cleared that surface. The chained spells did their work and Liane and Shiea were whisked back to home and safety. When the staff cleared the local surface the gateway the remaining mess of spell-work exploded outward.

* * *

Morgan regained consciousness some time later, and staggered over to Seth. His mind was hollowed near clean away by geasairia but grief and suffering drew him onward.
Seth's body was cold and lifeless and Morgan felt piercing agony as he turned the body face up. It was as if the sword were through his own heart. He found himself clutching a fist full of Seth's hair, weeping, and part of him wanted to pound his head against the ground in rage. He didn't have words for his grief and anger, and probably wouldn't have if he'd been in his whole mind.
Morgan found himself screaming himself hoarse, up at the sky.
Then he fixated on the sword. He wanted it out of his friend... as if that would make it all better.
His first tug showed it well set, caught in his spine behind his heart. In his animal mind it was some last thing he could do for his friend. He had to stand and use all his strength, even bracing one knee on his fallen friend's chest.
With the last of his strength and will, and yelling again, he pulled until his bones were creaking, ready to break.
It came free and out all at once, and Morgan fell back and away, clutching the sword to his chest in parody of sweet relief, and blacked out again.
He didn't even see the body start to burn.

Chapter 34
Revisions

Morgan opened his eyes to near total darkness and then "Illiaeia's sweet mercies" slipped out of his mouth.
Then he was scrabbling away from the figure leaning over him.
"What are you? You're dead! I saw you die! I...", he what? he couldn't quite remember what exactly, but the pain and the grief were there, promising him he would know again later. Instinctively he wanted to reach out a questing thought, but too much of his mind was still gone.
"I'm not dead." Seth mumbled, still kneeling over the place where Morgan had lain.
Morgan had backed up till his shoulder brushed against a tree. "Seth was dead, cold DEAD!" he yelled, bending forward like his words were an attack. "Whatever you are, you're NOT Seth! You can't be. His soul fled, you're not him!"
Seth slumped down even more, spreading his hands, palms up, on his knees. "I'm not dead." This time it was a whisper.
"Necromancy? Did someone reanimate your body? To what end?" Morgan's intellectual curiosity was warring with the soup of other emotions. A mental defense against his confused emotional pain. "They can't think I'm stupid enough to think you are Seth when I saw him take his own life..."
There wasn't, it turns out, that much space between them. Seth was up and shoving in a blink. "I'm not dead. I'm supposed to be dead. I tried to be dead. But I am NOT DEAD." And every time he said the word "dead" he shoved Morgan back emphatically. Not hard enough to knock him down but hard enough to express himself and keep Morgan stumbling backwards. At least not until the last, which sent Morgan back and down hard.
Morgan just looked up at him. That wasn't like Seth at all and he was instantly afraid what a new soul might make of everything Seth's body knew and was. And Morgan was afraid some dangerous transition had already begun. If it was some animal spirit he might become a were-creature, if it were something nastier...
Seth's head was bent down and his face was completely hidden behind his hair. Morgan just looked and waited as dawn began to gather itself in the east. As the first ripples of daylight began to roll through the sky Morgan began to be able to see Seth's body, and it was greatly changed.
Seth was awash with color and pattern. Morgan couldn't really see it clearly but as each wandering polychromatic wave passed across the sky, it pulled a different tone from his skin. By the time the sun caught fire in the eastern sky a suspicion had sunken its claws into his mind. That first clear light revealed a pattern too complex for the eye to follow, but which had a definite center. The circular glyph on Seth's chest was the center of the whole design, and it covered absolutely everything.
A snatch of memory floated up out of Morgan's beleaguered mind. He was standing at Tor's desk, pointing at a drawing, and he said "these are the ones that interest me", or something very like that. And then an outlandish thought struck, but he didn't even want to touch it, lest it reawaken his grief.
"Turn around" Morgan whispered.
Seth did, and there it was, woven into the patterns that should obscure it, but which somehow accentuated it instead. A phoenix. It was so obvious it hurt. A painfully trite message he'd never even thought to consider left behind by a dead sorceress that he'd never met. There were questions left unanswered about the nature of the magic and perhaps even Seth's very nature, but whatever those were, one thing was nearly certain. Whatever this magic was, it had been part of Seth since before Morgan had ever met him, let alone before his death, so it likely preserved the whole, real Seth. Morgan wasn't sure how that was possible but he just knew it was true.
It clicked into place all at once and Morgan leapt up and grappled Seth in a hug so fierce that Seth almost took it for an attack and began to fight. Morgan happily bellowed "you aren't dead!" and managed to lift the huge man off the ground an inch or so for a moment or two. Seth hugged him back, but with some darker feelings about his own survival.
Then Morgan froze.
Then he took a step back.
Then he looked up at Seth and said "You knew..."
Then everything he'd felt became outrage and he punched Seth so strong and sudden that it laid Seth down hard.
A little stunned Seth said "What...?" holding his jaw and sitting up a little.
"You knew you wouldn't die when you fell on your sword!" Morgan barked accusingly. "You put me through that and you knew!"
Seth didn't answer immediately... "No." and when he looked up tears were heavy in his eyes. "I didn't know. I should be dead... I don't know why I'm not..."
"Look at yourself! That," Morgan said, pointing, "is why you're still alive."
Seth stopped and looked at himself, and as shocked recognition gave way to something like resignation he clapped one hand up as if to smother his face, in a gesture that could only be described as comic.
One of those spontaneous moments of quiet that usually leads to introspection suddenly descended. While Seth considered his options, Morgan finally took note of his surroundings. The tree he'd brushed up against was barren of foliage, and for the most part branches, and was also the only one standing for fifteen yards around. Beyond that radius the forest resumed unscathed. There was very little left of the marauding drones, at least the ones that had been upright at the time of the blast. And Most important it was morning, again, so they'd been in this spot for a whole day. If the other portal hadn't been destroyed then they could have visitors at any time, presuming that there were any drones or fighters left in the enemy camp.
"We better get out of here." Morgan said to the still-stunned Seth.
"Why? They have to think I'm dead..." he looked up and around "you too from the look of this place."
Morgan picked up one of Seth's swords and offered it down to Seth hilt first. "They are bound to check sooner or later. Sooner if they realize that my spell-works back home are not beginning to fade."
Seth just sat there until Morgan half-nudged, half-kicked him in the thigh with the side of his foot. He looked up and visibly regained some of his composure. Then he shrugged his `this is just typical' shrug and took the proffered sword.
The exchange was careful but the blade, which Morgan was unwisely holding closed-handed, opened a shallow slit in his palm. He looked at his hand as if it had bit him. He even prodded the cut a little. There was no pain at all. That was when he finally paid himself a little attention.
Morgan found that he was cut, and burned, and generally pummeled and bruised all over. He touched a kind of loose fold of skin on his forearm in wonder. He could feel the touch but there was no pain at all. Then the abnormally slow wheels of his mind reached the core of the matter. His pain channels were held in geasairia.
"Um, Seth...?"
Grunt.
Morgan turned his back "Do I have any, um, life-threatening wounds?" It was a strange question.
He looked over. "Gods... I don't know... I..." Seth, finally having something to focus on, got himself up off the ground. "Gods! Doesn't that hurt?"
"Don't feel a thing, how bad is it?"
Seth got a closer look, peeling the scorched bits of dressing gown carefully away from Morgan's back. "No, nothing life threatening I guess, but you look like a tournament field after a rainy day. Cuts... bruises... some burns but nothing that bad. Ought to be cleaned as soon as possible though."
"Good. Then we need to get moving."
Seth retrieved his other blade and then looked it over as if puzzled. "Damn. ruined."
"What?"
"Oh, nothing, the flashing is shot." Seth handed the blade to Morgan. The leather wrapping on the hilt had been burned near through in the shape of Seth's hand. Morgan picked at it and found that beneath the flashing the haft was the same metal as the blade. He picked at it a little more and discovered that the blade, guard, and haft were all of a piece. It was a crafted item, made by magic.
"Well at least you don't have to sharpen it." Morgan said sarcastically, and handed it back, carefully this time. "Now let's get out of here."
"You seen my scabbards and belt?"
Morgan was getting exasperated, "I don't think you brought them," or maybe giddy. A near total emotional eclipse, and maybe a few geasairia, held shock, panic, and any number of other more appropriate responses to recent events much too far away. Surprisingly clear headed, Morgan was thinking maybe Seth really had changed, then something inside him told him what to do to get through to the man. Burying his worries that maybe this really wasn't the same Seth, He stopped being Seth's friend and started being his master.

* * *

Seth was not sure of anything. Since Shiea had been taken from the market he'd been thinking dark thoughts. No matter how he thought through it, he kept coming back to one inescapable conclusion. If Lady Korane's books were in any way involved then everything that was happening was really aimed at him. Shiea had about as much connection to the books as Liane had to a piece of produce she saw at market but didn't buy.
The drone had been raving but he'd said aloud what Seth had been thinking. As long as Seth lived nobody who touched him would be safe. When he'd said that they'd cut Shiea `nice and special' he'd known what needed to be done.
Falling on his sword had been the hardest thing he'd ever thought to do, and the pain was more than he could have ever imagined, and it had been seemingly endless. He wasn't sure he could ever kill anything again. He was still here, and if he couldn't die and he couldn't kill he was nothing but a danger. Morgan and his family didn't rate that. It was only a matter of time before they'd have to sell him to the enemy to save themselves. He'd have fallen on his sword again right then if he'd thought it would work.
He'd been lying on his back for half the night wallowing in despair. He'd only been stirred to life by Morgan's distant moaning. Then Morgan's questioning of his very existence hadn't gone down well. Now Morgan was ready to act like everything was just as it always had been. Didn't he understand that he needed to get rid of Seth as soon as he could?
Morgan began barking orders and Seth found himself following them. It was abnormal for his time with Morgan, but it put him in the familiar territory of the rest of his life, and it was just easier to go along with the present than to think about any future.
Under orders he picked the best direction to go to find some sort of town without being too easy to track from their starting place. There was a little preparation to do before they could actually leave. He'd used the tattered remnants of Morgan's dressing gown to tie his blades together and strap them onto his back. There wasn't enough left over to replace his missing clothes but that wouldn't be a problem until they actually got to a habitable place. Nobody would care about another naked slave, but with his tattoos he'd draw way too much attention. Morgan was only barely dressed and they were both barefoot, but there was no helping that. Morgan would be able to carry his staff and he was wearing his athame in its sheathe, which would provide them with some credibility.
There was nothing that could be reasonably done with the bodies that wouldn't take all day so they were left where they lay.
Seth took point as they left the new-made clearing. The small track that'd been there before the blast trailed into the forest to the north and south but Seth took them east a bit into the woods instead. East was also down hill. A deliberate choice made in hopes of finding some sort of water.
Seth set a hard pace through the woods. It wasn't deliberate. His thoughts were in an ever-tightening spiral. Part of him was keeping track of Morgan but he was largely gone for a long time. Trying not to let himself think about the eventualities Seth started going over their situation again and again in his head, like a mantra. Even as the words were passing through his fore brain again, Seth's consciousness suddenly seized on a tiny fact. Morgan couldn't feel pain. Seth stopped up short.
"What is it?" Morgan asked
Seth turned around. "Let me see your feet."
"What?" Morgan lifted his left foot.
Seth drew in a gasp. "Gods I'm a fool..." Morgan's feet were a real mess. Without any ability to feel pain he'd been grinding his feet up without knowing it. "I better carry you."
It took some rearranging but soon Morgan had his staff and Seth's blades strapped to his back and he was on Seth's back like he was Shiea playing horsey. This close Seth felt even less like talking and Morgan obliged with silence.
A long silence.
And then they arrived at a small creek. More a well established trickle, but it would do. Seth gently set Morgan down on a stump and then looked about the area.
"I don't suppose you're hungry?" Seth asked.
"No... not really."
"Not good... By my guess you haven't eaten in almost two days. I'd say you're blocked there too."
Morgan gulped, suddenly afraid of what else might be missing without him able to actually miss it.
"Don't move." Seth said it altogether the way he might tell a puppy "stay" when he was fairly sure the puppy wouldn't.
Seth was most concerned with their resources. Between the two of them they were well armed but terribly short of everything else. Cloth was damn useful stuff and the only piece they had still serving its original purpose was Morgan's dressing shorts. Naked slaves were one thing but if they had any hope of credibility there was no way to touch that last piece of dignity. Seth would have too look elsewhere.
Scrounging around the immediate area, Seth finally found some tender moss that would serve as a sponge. He also came up with some edible tubers, fungi and even a few berries. Without hunger to motivate him, Seth didn't think Morgan would be ready to eat any bugs. Seth was far more practical, and had already munched down a few by the time he returned to Morgan, who had, surprisingly, stayed where he'd been put.
Seth rinsed off the fungi and tubers and then measured out a safe but small portion for Morgan. "Eat this. We'll have to watch exactly how much you eat until your sense of hunger, or at least pain, returns. You have to eat, but if you can't tell what you've eaten, you could rupture your stomach or something."
Morgan took what Seth gave him and eyed it suspiciously.
Seth glowered at him. "Eat."
Morgan took a tentative bite of a fungus. "Ugh, it doesn't taste like anything."
"Count yourself lucky. It really tastes like moldy sawdust. And be careful of your tongue, you don't want to bite it."
Morgan stopped chewing instantly and really thought about his mouth, then resumed chewing, very, very carefully.
Seth took the moss and gently rinsed it out, being careful to remove any of the rough or prickly parts. Then he soaked up as much clean water as he could and began to clean Morgan's feet.
"You probably shouldn't watch." Seth said as he began to appreciate the damage. This immediately brought Morgan's attention to his feet. Seth just stared up at him until he went back to carefully eating.
It was a good thing he wasn't watching. Morgan had picked up several significant pieces of twig and whatnot in his short time on his feet. Seth had to coax and pull them from the tough flesh. He made sure to hunch over and block Morgan's view while he did it.
Once he'd finished with Morgan's feet he started to work his way up his legs. Trying to clean their scortched backsides without toppling Morgan off the stump. The feet had been really bad, but he was glad to see that the rest of Morgan's condition was more dirt than harm. There'd be risk of infection everywhere but if the last year had taught Seth anything it was that Morgan had a knack for bouncing back. The acids in the peat would help a little. He'd just have to find the makings of some sort of protective salve as soon as he could.
The protection only had to last long enough for Morgan to regain his powers.
Seth was part way up Morgan's second leg when Morgan said "Tell me about all that." and touched him on the new markings.
"Not much to tell. It took a long time. It hurt."
"No, really tell me, I need to know."
"Let's see. It was the summer of my eighteenth year and Lady Korane summoned an artist to the keep where we were staying. I'd been preparing the inks for weeks when he'd arrived but I didn't know what they were. They spoke in private for a while and then I was summoned in and told to strip.
"You wouldn't know it to look at me today but I was growing up into one furry beast. The artist looked at me and the first thing he said was `all that hair will have to go."' Seth looked up and shrugged. "I still didn't have any idea what was in store, but who was I to ask? He made some sketches and they talked while I stood there."
"Anyhow Lady Korane saw to the hair several days later. The spell took exceedingly long, she burned out the hairs and the ability for them to grow back, leaving only the hair on top of my head and my eyebrows. Then the next day they started drawing on me and arguing. Then all sorts of other things started happening, real word distractions, and for several weeks I didn't see the artist.
"Finally, one day I was summoned, he shaved my head and got started.
"He went everywhere. They had to dose me and tie me down for some of it despite how hard I tried to sit still." Seth lifted one arm. "Do you know how much it hurts to have your armpits, or the back of your knees tattooed. Don't even think about your fingertips and eyelids let alone..." Morgan looked at Seth's genitals and his eyes bugged out a bit. "I was dosed unconscious for the worst of it but it hurt for days."
"He used the inks I'd made to make the drawings and designs in several layers. For weeks I'd go in for several hours a day. The rest of the day it seemed all I did was field questions and odd looks from everyone in the keep, none of which I could answer. I got no explanation. Not ever. But when he was done I was absolutely covered in ink, but most of it, like on my stomach and upper arms was just deep swirling clashes of color. Lady Korane called it all into these glyphs and script several days after the last of it had healed.
"I felt like...
"Anyway, about a year later I am in the Kett tribe-lands when most of it just fades away to how you've seen them. Nearly got me killed." Then he grunted at the irony of his own statement.
Morgan carefully swallowed. "So you've had the same skill markings since you were eighteen?"
"No. Lady Korane brought some of them out later with spell work. The flames and animals are all original."
When he finished working on Morgan's back Seth sat down and ate his share of what he'd collected. He wasn't hungry at all but he made himself eat anyway on the grounds that his lack of hunger was likely a lingering effect of the spell. When Morgan finished what he'd been given Seth felt and listened carefully to his stomach then made Morgan eat a small remainder portion he'd set aside.
Between the last few bites Morgan asked "Where do you think we are?"
Seth looked around, not that he really needed to at that point. "A mid-continental plane in some subtropical or arid region is all I've got. Sentient folk could be anything from human to dragon. Probably not actually reptile, or avian, and unless this is elfin land we are probably a good distance from anyone. The forest looks untouched."
"So, essentially, we could be anywhere... remote anyway."
"That's how I'd call it."
Morgan thought, a feat that seemed to be getting easier, "What about the dirt tract?"
"Good point, not elves then, but not often used either. Probably a patrol road of some sort."
Morgan was finished eating. "Best we get going again."
Seth nodded his head in agreement and then helped Morgan re-sling their meager gear and climb onto his back.
This time he headed off down stream, walking in the tiny rill as often as beside it. This time Morgan did feel like talking and after considering his opening for a while he finally asked Seth why he'd tried to take his own life.
Seth didn't want to talk about it, but he did anyway. He needed to. This close, but unable to look Morgan in the eye, it was easier to do than he thought. He went through all the reasoning and a good bit of the feelings. All the while plodding along carefully and steadily.
When he finished Morgan said "Promise me you won't try that again."
"What would be the point if I'm immortal."
"Promise."
"All right, I promise."
Morgan hesitated.
"You're not immortal."
Seth stopped short as a wash of feelings came over him. Then he asked "how do you know?" and started walking again.
"Nothing is immortal. It's impossible. And in your case you aren't really even close. The spell you wear clearly kept body and spirit together, and even healed your wounds, but if it can ever do so again it won't until the marking fade. At the least it's recharging, or it could be spent all together. A one-shot.
"Even if it does recharge it's probably not close to certain. It must have some sort of spirit web to hold the soul in the body, like you're wrapped in a net. The spell is written in your skin and is complete only so long as you are. You were stuck like a pig, which really didn't damage the spell that much. Take off your head, or a limb, or cut you open, or burn you, or well, any number of other things and the spell will likely be too broken apart to work.
"It clearly gives, um gave, you an edge. Toughened and protected you, but it probably isn't doing anything right now but turning you colors."
He grunted.
Then a while later he said "you tricked me."
"When?"
"To get my promise."
"No, I didn't trick you, I... value... you." A different word had almost snuck out. "As for your other thoughts. I will never deliver you to those people. Whatever else you are, you're my friend, and I'm not through with you." And Morgan butted his head lightly against Seth's.

* * *

Much later Morgan could feel Seth starting to strain under his weight. He was ready to call a halt when Seth suddenly stopped. Morgan started to say something but Seth shushed him, his head swiveling alertly.
Seth started to shift Morgan down when there was a whooshing sound punctuated by a thunk, and Seth toppled. A whoosh took away Morgan's mind even before he had a chance to become pinned under Seth's bulk.

Chapter 35
Entanglements

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.

Chapter 36
Internments

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.
Impasse.

* * *

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.

Chapter 37
Executions

They'd kept Seth and Morgan together. Seth was tethered to a tree like a naughty dog and Morgan was just standing next to him where he'd been left. It was more of an insult than anything. Seth could have snapped the flimsy twine with one tug, but he swallowed the insult and stayed on his lead.
Seth examined the growth on Morgan's back. It was a plant all right, and it seemed to be ever so lightly rooted into Morgan's skin. Whenever he touched it Morgan would quake and whimper but beyond that there was nothing much to be learned. It looked vaguely like clover but there was a desiccated central structure laying along his spine that looked like a flattened sweet potato. Seth had seen some exotic flora and tricky spell-work in his time, and the only real lesson that definitely applied in this situation was "if you don't know what it is, don't mess with it." This was especially true since that woman had left Morgan in easy reach. She was clearly certain that anything Seth might do would only make things worse, and she'd bet he knew it.
She was mostly right, but Seth knew more herb lore than she and he would keep his eyes open. There were plenty of ways to kill a plant, it would mostly be a matter of finding a way to kill this plant gently. Seth got Morgan to sit right in front of him. Then, when the others were particularly distracted he urinated all over the growth. A couple good doses of piss will kill almost anything small and leafy-green. He mentally apologized to Morgan for the indignity but "the sooner the better" was also an adage that applied and they were in sorry shape.
Their captors were hardly doing any better. They'd been forced into moving without much warning, and the latest blood-mage was nicely dead and gone. Rienaegh was riding Calhwin more than Seth would have thought prudent. Master sorcerers are incredibly volatile, but this one was pliant as a lap-dog for some reason. Still, kick a dog and eventually it'll bite, and Calhwin surely must have quite a bite to have become a Master. Seth figured if Rienaegh had a talent it must surely have something to do with bringing mages to heel.
The two principals were in heated conference while the serving woman was doing her best to both stay out of the way and prepare a meager meal. Seth could have fed them all quite well on the food available in and near their clearing. Not that he was going to volunteer. Neither Rienaegh nor Calhwin had probably had to face real hardship, or even much in the way of discomfort, in recent memory. Seth was well used to lean times.
With nothing better to do for a while Seth turned his ear to what Calhwin and Rienaegh were saying.
It was kind of fascinating in a distant way. Rienaegh clearly had some kind of hold over Calhwin, but it was a delicate thing. She was working him like a big fish on a weak line. She wanted them to go to Calhwin's family estate and he most definitely didn't want her anywhere near the place. It only took a few minutes for Seth to realize that however long it took, Calhwin would eventually cave in and they would go there.
The most amazing part of the whole exchange was that Calhwin couldn't see how thoroughly lost he was to her will. That unpleasant thought brought Seth back to the crux of his own problems. He was going to have to find a way to `make nice' with that woman or find a way out of his situation fast.
They were paying him no mind at all and ideas were beginning to crop up. The nearest question that begged attention was why had Calhwin and Rienaegh been trying to make off with Morgan? If the odd foliage on Morgan's back was such a great control why hadn't they tried to use it against Seth earlier? She claimed to have a strong hold on the plant that had its roots into Morgan and she'd been quite brazen in leaving Morgan so close. Somehow it just didn't make sense. She was fully occupied bringing Calhwin to heel, the likelihood that she was actively doing anything about Morgan was vanishingly small.
With time to think on it, things didn't seem all that set. All in all they were just about one disadvantage too far in the hole right now. If he could turn one significant thing to his advantage he would take Morgan and make a break for it. No ideas immediately came to mind, but he'd watch for a chance.

* * *

Seth and Morgan didn't get any dinner, no surprise there, and they settled in for the night.
Somewhere in the darkest hours of the night Seth woke with a start. A blue and gold ripple was rolling slowly across the sky like night had been torn open and a sliver of daytime sky was peeking through. As it passed directly overhead there was a ruffling gust of wind that felt like dead winter. The experience sent a chill through Seth that had nothing to do with being cold. All around him he could hear the absence of natural sound. Every creature shared his foreboding.
Calhwin, Rienaegh, and the serving woman didn't even stir in their sleep and Morgan was as oblivious as ever.
Seth considered stealing away with Morgan right then, but a deeper animal instinct told him it was no time to be off in the woods. At the same time things that were nagging at his insides would not let Seth turn over and go back to sleep. As he watched the rolling ribbon of freakish daytime ripple and surge unevenly across the sky Seth realized a pattern.
Waves.
Waves and Cycles.
Since he'd arrived at Queens College, and possibly farther back than that, he'd been enduring a series of injuries, collars, indignities and imprisonments. Morgan had been through much the same. Each successive insult was worse than the last, and each recovery was faster or more strange than the one that came before. There was some sort of cycle building around him and Morgan and it was actively and steadily getting worse. He may have no particular destiny but simple fate says that when a wave hits a beach the wave loses.
He'd been stone dead and walked away from it, he had no interest in seeing what his next cycle could do to top that.
He needed to do something to break the pattern. Something random but decisive. Rienaegh seemed to be at the center of everything. She was the only real person of note right now, supposedly keeping Morgan from his doom. She was the one person he dare not move against as things were. She was the crux of this moment. The decision was made. Seth snapped the flimsy tether.
He hoped he wasn't wrong.

* * *

Morgan still had his athame and his staff was somewhere in the small pile of goods they had taken through the gate. Not surprising really since they supposedly had a plan for him. If they somehow managed to control Morgan his tools would be valuable.
Seth quickly found a large section of branch and then crammed it into Morgan's mouth. He flipped Morgan over onto his stomach, and with one brutal stroke of the athame he half-shaved, half-tore away the odd plant. Morgan kind of wailed but it was almost completely muffled by the branch and the dirt. Such a cut would have been impossible with any other tool, he'd have flayed Morgan's back, but the very nature of an athame includes a stricture that makes it unable to harm its creator without consent.
Seth dropped the blade but kept the plant.
Any mage would feel the athame coming, even in a deep sleep.
A warm and substantial rock from the fire ring was the blade's replacement.

* * *

Rienaegh looked so content, just lying there asleep. Seth knelt astride her torso and crammed the plant into her mouth. With his other hand he raised the rock to crush her skull but hesitated. As soon as it touched her flesh the plant began to writhe. She was writhing too of course. Neither observation was what staid his hand. Killing her had suddenly become obvious thing to do. It wasn't very random. It suddenly didn't seem like the way to break the pattern.
Then again letting her die by her own viscous tool was too classic.
Amidst her struggles she looked him in the eye, and he found himself hissing "Sometimes you just have to do what feels best."
The rock split her skull open, face first, like a ripe melon.
For the second time in one day Seth relished taking someone's life. He'd never liked killing anybody before. Within a few feet was another mage. One just as bad as or worse than the corpse between his legs, and probably the last conspirator against him and Morgan. The book was there too.
...And he still had the rock.
Seth got up to kill Calhwin. Calhwin was just lying there, clutching the book to his chest and staring into space. Mages always did that before Seth killed them. He knelt down and raised the rock but before he could bring it down Calhwin was gone.
Unsatisfying. Very unsatisfying. There was still work to do.
Seth turned on the serving woman. She was awake but paralyzed in fear. Seth was ready, no eager, to crush in her skull. Then all at once he realized what he was about to do. She was innocent, or probably innocent anyway, possibly even a victim of Rienaegh's power.
Seth dropped the rock, keeled over, and began retching bile from his empty stomach like he was trying to force some darkness from his soul. At the same time hot tears burned at his face, not for what he'd been about to do but because of how much he still lusted for it. Seth was paralyzed with killing rage and he didn't know why. He stayed very still for a very long time, doing nothing but trying to regain any sort of self control.
If she had still lived, and were told of the link Seth shared with Morgan, Rienaegh could have explained Seth's new lust. Of course if she'd known of the link she'd never have used the plant to begin with.
The first drops of rain from a great storm spattered the three prone forms as the serving woman crept into the woods for safety.

* * *

Calhwin lay on a stone slab. Panting and straining for full consciousness, blood leaking from his ears, he fought for a sense of where he was, and why. The recall had worked. He'd set the spell decades ago. It'd taken his prime efforts for nearly a year to build the spell and it could only be used once, but since it'd just saved his life he couldn't fault the effort or the cost. Still it was spent now and triggering it had injured him deeply.
Beneath his outer difficulties other thoughts stirred. Finally unfettered of Rienaegh's controls, though he never would fully realize that they had ever been there, Calhwin began to think fully of himself for the first time in years.
He had the book and he began to appreciate what that really meant. He was shocked to realize how small their previous plans had been. There were inequities, great burdens on the talented imposed by the very nature of this reality. Flaws that he would have the power to correct once he breached the book's protections.
And he had an insight on how to do that now too.
A crystal thought "Things will be different, better, when I'm through" chased him into a healing sleep.

* * *

Lightning pulled Seth to his senses. The deluge was starting to sting his back constantly and the largest drops felt like small rocks hitting his head. As soon as he looked into the sky Seth realized that all nine hells were breaking lose. The killing rage was still in him somewhere but in the time it took to assess his situation lightning had struck close by three more times. The concussion from the fifth strike threw him to the ground and put his survival sense in command.
The idea of seeking cover was appealing but impractical, the trees were already taking a pounding from the lightning and being under the canopy meant being too near getting struck. Seth dragged Morgan to the center of the clearing and tried to find anything to cover them with.
In the meager supplies that had come with them through the portal Seth found Morgan's staff and the portal tapestry itself. The staff wasn't very useful in terms of shelter but it had to be kept track of. The tapestry was rolled up neatly and looked tightly woven enough to be useful. Seth wasn't sure how the bits of metal and whatnot might effect their chances of being struck but there was literally nothing else usable.
He dragged the tapestry to where Morgan lie and unrolled it tiled-side up. He rolled the staff up in one corner so that it would stay with them but also remain far enough away to be prudent. It was, after all, made to be one giant conductor. Then he dragged himself and Morgan under the rest of the tarp.
It took him a while to struggle himself and Morgan into proper position. If they laid down a nearby strike would be more likely to go through them. He got himself sitting up with Morgan sitting up against his chest so that he could kind of hunch over and around him. The edge of the tapestry hung almost to the ground in front of him and was tucked under his knees. The tiny gap at that edge was to make sure they didn't smother under the wet canvas.
Then the only thing for Seth left to do was wait... and try not to kill Morgan.
The impulses pounding into Seth kept him on edge through the storm. He wanted to kill, no he needed to kill, and Morgan was right there. If it had been anybody else he would have done it, but every time the tugging in his soul started his arms moving to squeeze the life out of him other feelings that he didn't really understand would rise up and stop him. All the while his intellect was struggling to get a handle on what he was experiencing.
None of what he was feeling made sense to Seth. Most of the time the war in Seth's head was clearly divided. At other times an intense possessiveness would sweep through him that was so consuming that he wanted to hug the life out of Morgan as an ultimate expression of ownership. Other moments he just wanted to eat him up, in the literal sense. Seth was smart enough to realize that those odd impulses were some dark fusion of the normal things he was feeling. Odd psychotic fantasies would ripple through his head only to make him shiver with revulsion a moment later. All the while the storm outside pounded, muted but merciless, against the canvas and through it to his back and head.
Struggle became trance and then trance became nightmare. It was an ill-formed and unclear stream of images and activities that had no linear sense. Things like drowning in live caterpillars while trying to eat iced red-fruit, or running through a forest trying to remember what he did with the mattress. The images wouldn't last long enough for Seth outwit them. He'd had horrific nightmares all his life but this one was in many subtle ways the worst. More-so because it made no sense. What finally roused him was a sharp elbow to the gut.
From one nightmare to another.
Morgan was suddenly awake and fighting like a trapped badger.
Seth let him go and Morgan struggled out from under the soaked tapestry. The rain was still streaming down heavily, but nothing like the continuous waterfall that it had been. When Seth got free of the canvas he could see the edges of the clearing. He expected to have to track Morgan through the woods but instead he saw him coming back toward him.
Seth recognized the killing rage on Morgan's face even through the rain. He was about to bellow out some kind of reasonable overture but mid-thought Morgan summoned his athame into his hand. Seth felt his own rage resurface but there was a good bit of caution in it. That blade would section him like fruit at the slightest contact. The fact that Morgan had summoned it was also not lost on Seth. Morgan had his powers in full effect.
Seth suddenly had a familiar feeling as all around him raindrops popped from water to steam and behind him something caught fire.
Immediately after that Morgan charged.
Seth didn't want to kill Morgan, at least not with the thinking part of his brain. Then again he'd never really tried to just overpower a mage before. Seth took the rush head on and then as Morgan thrust with his blade Seth stepped wide and turned. Morgan had no experience in a knife fight and Seth cracked his wrist with a hard heel-kick as Morgan passed. It wasn't an optimal solution but this wasn't an optimal situation.
Moments later Seth had Morgan down flat on his back. Seth was astride him, pinning his legs and arms to the ground with his own exactly the way a bullying big brother might hold down the family runt.
Face to face Seth bellowed Morgan's name and whatever else came to mind, trying to get him to snap to. Morgan was raving and squirming and Seth began to feel a unique sensation. Morgan was doing some magic and this time it would strike home.
There was only one thing left to do.
Seth smacked his forehead into Morgan's, hoping to knock him out without doing the same to himself.
It wasn't the smartest move, but it worked. It also hurt. Seth rolled off Morgan and pressed the heel of one hand to his head in pain while stars danced in his field of view. He didn't have very long and he knew it. Hedging his own recovery Seth staggered as he flipped the canvas over, plated side down. Then he hefted Morgan onto one corner and proceeded to roll him up in it.
Moments later Seth was in the edge of the woods looking for something useful. The seconds were running in his head and he was sure he was taking too long. Finally he found something he could use. "Night's Passion." There were no flowers or seed-pods on it but the distinctive gnarled stalk twining amongst the branches of an innocuous bush were clear. Seth scrabbled at the base of the bush to get to the root of the plant.
As soon as he uncovered part of the tuberous root mass he snapped off and yanked out the biggest piece he could manage, and began chewing it as he ran back to where Morgan was bound.
The leaves and soft overgrowth of Night's Passion make a nice sedative with some interesting but mild overtones. The sap could be a bit intoxicating. This late in the year the fibrous roots were foul-tasting, acrid with mind altering alkaloids, and pseudo toxic from their load of anesthetic. Seth's mouth was already starting to go numb by the time he reached Morgan.
Seth straddled the rolled tapestry, forced open Morgan's jaw and dribbled his now-copious saliva into Morgan's mouth. Only semi-conscious, Morgan swallowed the nasty liquid reflexively. Despite his attempts not to swallow much of the syrup himself, Seth was beginning to feel lightly disassociated from everything by the time Morgan began to react.
When Seth figured that they both had had enough he spit the chewed stub of root away over one shoulder and began slapping Morgan lightly to rouse him. Seth hopped the disassociation and euphoria of the drug would let him get through to Morgan's mind without the murderous rage overpowering everything. He felt sure it would work, but he also knew that most of that feeling was coming from the good bit of Passion in his own bloodstream.
Morgan came around yelling "what are you doing to me!?!" and "get off of me!" and some other, more colorful things.
"Morgan! Morgan look at me!" Seth shook Morgan gently, trying to walk the line between effective and angering.
Finally Morgan seemed to settle down a little and, more importantly, focus on Seth "What?"
"Listen, there is something wrong with us!"
"What?" perhaps he wasn't that focused.
"Listen!" Seth barked stridently, getting agitated again himself.
"What!" Morgan's eyes were still wandering.
Seth paused for a heartbeat to recompose himself a little. "listen..."
"Alright... what?"
that was better.
"Something has got us raging at each other."
"What?" This time it was an intelligent question.
"I don't know, something they did to you, a spell or the plant that they put on you I think."
"There's nothing wrong with me!" Morgan was getting his back up again.
"No, yes there is, can't you feel it? Not three minutes ago we almost killed each other."
Morgan growled his denial and squirmed
Seth grabbed Morgan's hair with both hands and shook him some "See that, Right there," and forcibly stopped himself from pounding Morgan's head against the earth. Instead he lowered his forehead to Morgan's again, gently this time, and then whispered. "There is something wrong and I can't fix it. You have to do something..." and let the rest of the sentence trail off as he let own his head slide off Morgan's and down to the ground beside him.
Morgan's own fury was coming and going in waves, barely held back by the drug, but it was an empty fury. When he looked at it he felt that it wasn't right, but it dragged at him anyway. A huge mass of Seth's wet hair was laying across his face and he could feel Seth's cheek resting against his own, trembling. As the sudden irrational urge to clear away the annoying wet hair with a blast of fire strained up unbidden within him, Morgan twisted it into a more-or-less self-purgative blast of spiritual flows. It was guttural and instinctive, like a sneeze, and he had no idea where it came from. It was just that some untouched corner of himself knew what Seth really meant to him and wouldn't let the rest of him kill the man.
The unbalanced backlash flipped open the roll of tapestry and sent Seth flying. It wasn't quite enough to completely break the organic spell holding Morgan but it did stretch it out enough for him to see it with reasonable clarity. In that tiny frame of non-time when he had perspective against the spell he launched a lesser unbinding against it. That was kind of drastic, and Morgan felt a sparkling of pain all over his back as the tiny root fragments still embedded in his skin erupted away in minute explosions.
Morgan let himself surrender to the backlash injury and the drug because it was better than facing the sudden emptiness he felt.
Seth took the throw like a champ and rolled over just in time to see the upper half of Rienaegh's body, with crushed skull and entwining plant, boil into the sky. The remainder of her remains flared brightly for a moment and then burned on like it was atop a funeral pyre. Seth watched for a bit only to realize later that his rage was gone and he was sitting in the rain drugged half out of his wits.
The lightning was over so Seth gathered up Morgan and retreated under the cover of a nearby tree to wait.

* * *

Dawn came with a clearing sky and an unseasonably warm breeze. Seth got up heavily and began poking through the remains of the camp. Back to start, needing clothing and weapons again, the feeling that tightening circles were closing in around him came back to mind. There was nothing left of Rienaegh's body, even the last traces of ash were washed into the soil by the rain. Morgan's staff was there and so were Seth's blades. Calhwin had known they were enchanted and that made them valuable. With the possible exception of the way Morgan seemed to drop spells and enchantments like hayseed now that he had the knack, endowed items were plenty rare. The blades were essentially indestructible so it was very unlikely a Master of Calhwin's rank would have left them behind with the centaurs or at the keep. The only surprising part was that Calhwin hadn't managed to make them part of his sudden disappearance.
Beyond the fortunate presence of the swords and staff, the leavings of the camp were quite poor. The collapsible framework for the gate tapestry had no parts of obvious use and the rest of the stuff that the two mages had brought was genuinely pointless. Obviously neither of them had ever thought about what to pack for a quick getaway.
The most useful thing in the lot was the sturdy chunk of cloth the two short swords had been wrapped in. Seth considered what to do with it for a bit, re-wrap the blades in it or wear it. In the end he was tired of being naked so he pulled it around his waist, towel fashion, and moved on.
The only other thing of likely use was the gate tapestry itself. It was a classic example of a material component carrying a partial enchantment. Something halfway between a rough handicraft and a fully enchanted object. Seth put the point of one of his swords down on a corner of the thing, and started hammering the pommel with a heavy rock, all the while trying not to guess if that rock were the one he'd used the night before.
Seth couldn't see the flashes of magelight that burst from the point where steel met cloth every time he struck. If he could have he likely would not have cared. That tapestry was linked to Calhwin and that was dangerous. There was no way to know if Calhwin could open the gate remotely, but even if he couldn't as long as it was whole he would still be able to use it to find them.
They did not need visitors just then.
Finally the point pierced the cloth, and with it, the enchantment. The thing immediately changed back into a totally mundane bunch of objects. Some few of the little plates were gold and silver, which would do nicely for starting capital. Seth stripped each of those off with a yank and set them aside. Then he stripped the rest of the bits off like he was scaling a fish. What was left would be excellent as a passable, if stiff, blanket.
Seth draped the blanket over a large bush to dry and went back to check on Morgan.
Morgan was still asleep, which Seth realized was a pretty good idea. He needed to get some rest too. Seth settled down and curled up next to him as tried to sleep as best he could.
It takes a hearty man to fall asleep uncovered on muddy, lumpy ground in a light rain next to a possibly insane mage that tried to kill him no more than three hours earlier. Seth was asleep in moments.

* * *

Morgan woke up first. He knew something was wrong inside. How could he not. He knew he was lightly wounded, he had clear memories of the last several days, he was lying in Seth's arms, and he felt nothing. Well not exactly nothing. He was thinking, and to think you have to feel at least a little, but there was no sensation of feeling. There wasn't even a sense of yawning emptiness. Morgan decided to scan himself to see if he could find out what was wrong. As soon as he touched his talent his mind began tumbling like bones at a seers convention, but from inside he really couldn't tell.

* * *

Seth woke up to find Morgan making a kind of `snorking' noise. It took him a surprisingly long time, several seconds, to realize that Morgan was laughing. It wasn't a good, happy laugh. It was a crazy-happy laugh that sent a knife of worry down his spine.
On the plus side Morgan wasn't attacking him, or totally raving... yet.
Seth unwrapped himself carefully from around Morgan and sat up, trying not to do anything sudden, just in case.
Morgan sat up too, and then reached out and put his hand in Seth's hair, then pulled back suddenly.
Seth flinched despite himself.
"Gods' Seth! You're covered in gunk. When did you stop washing?"
It wasn't quite what Seth was expecting. He ran his hand through his hair and it came out covered with little bits. Quick review of the last day or so possibly named those bits `human remains' when he flashed on the gruesome end to the unnamed blood-mage for a moment.
Morgan just kept on talking. "Well, we better get going, we have some people to kill." He said lightly. It sounded so wrong.
"Rienaegh is dead... so is her blood mage." Seth said, shaking the moist tidbits from his hand pointedly. That was wrong too, and Seth knew it. "But you are right about the bath. I need to clean up."
It was mostly a stall. Seth knew that things were still not right between them but he also knew that he was not the person to get it fixed. They, that is Morgan, needed a mind healer. Seth considered trying to break the link but rejected the idea. He figured that he could do it easily enough, but if he was getting some of Morgan's insanity, Morgan may well be getting some of his stability from Seth. There was no telling what Morgan would be like without the link.
Maybe that was just hubris on his part, Morgan could just as easily be getting nothing from Seth at all, but Seth didn't think this was the time to take that chance.
Seth got their meager belongings together and schlepped it all down-hill looking for a creek or something to wash in.
He found a beaver pond and things went well for a while. He got himself clean; the little gruesome bits floating away in the chilly water. Morgan was oddly docile and Seth had to wash him. It was almost idyllic for a moment or two but Seth was wound tight waiting for the wrongness he knew was there to bubble up to the fore.
Near the end Seth was just relaxing in the slightly too cold water, just beginning to hope that maybe things were not totally beyond hope, when Morgan barked "Squirrel!" and pointed.
Seth looked and sure enough, a mundane squirrel was bounding from limb to limb. Before he had a chance to say "so what?" there was a zzzitit noise and the rodent was popped off the branch and evaporated into voose.
Seth turned to look a Morgan in shock.
Morgan was standing waist deep in the water, laughing, almost hysterical, like that was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.
Seth was speechless.
The shocked, puzzled, worried, and angry look on Seth's face finally penetrated Morgan's awareness. Morgan stopped laughing and a puzzled look of concentration stole over his face as he bowed his head. After a while Morgan looked up at Seth almost uncomprehendingly. "That was wrong, wasn't it..."
Somewhat wide-eyed, Seth nodded emphatically.
"It didn't feel wrong..."
"What happened?"
"I was just wondering what was around so I started to vrec. The squirrel was the first thing I noticed. Next thing I just felt the impulse to, well, you know, pop it. So I did."
There was no way to intelligently respond to that. Obviously Morgan wasn't himself but without a mind healer... Seth just did his best to enjoy the last of his bath.

* * *

That first interlude was a harbinger. The next several days were a surreal journey through both the woods and Morgan's lagging sanity. At times Seth was all but drown in the unreasoning impulses being dragged up from his innermost self by way of the link. At other times they were both as normal they had ever been. At least Seth hopped that they were, it was getting increasingly difficult to tell, moment to moment, how they each were.
Several more innocent things and creatures suffered sudden, pointless ends.
They were also moving more or less at random. Morgan was intent enough on `getting' Calhwin, but intent was where the mental process ended. Morgan almost seemed to feel that Calhwin would eventually be found behind some next tree, or under a rock, though he didn't quite go as far as turning one over. If his resolve was firm, his method was non-existent.
Seth was oddly content, and not in the least because if they never got anywhere it was unlikely that Morgan would suffer the impulse to "pop" someone instead of something.

* * *

By the fourth day Seth had all the evidence he needed. Clearly every time Morgan touched his talent he suffered a mental lapse. The greater the feat attempted the longer and deeper the lapse. If he could get Morgan to understand, and forgo his talent for a while, they might be able to go find him some help.
Morgan also seemed to finally understand, or at least be ready to admit, that something was actually wrong.
At the end of a particularly long lucid interval Seth finally intervened. The conversation wasn't entirely sane but Morgan finally agreed to set aside and forswear using his gifts. It was something not unlike asking a musician to not even think about music, because unlike music, thinking about magic is almost doing it.
With the promise made, Seth began to lead them out of the wild, which was easier said than done. Calhwin had targeted the portal to that area because of its remoteness. Add days of wandering to that and they were well and truly lost. The only course was the time-honored one. Find flowing water and follow it downstream.

* * *

Days earlier the serving woman had run away in a blind panic. She'd run up-hill to the north-east where she crossed a inflection in the terrain. Shortly thereafter she'd come to a path that led, in turn, to a cabin. She was treated hospitably, given food and shelter, and then escorted to a local village despite the obvious holes in her story. In short she'd done everything wrong and been rewarded.
Seth's careful thought led them south to a rocky precipice where the small stream tumbled freely down an impassable rock face. The landscape below was generally untamed, but in the distance a road wended its way across the forested plain below.
Finding a way down was going to be `technical.'
Seth turned to Morgan. "Right or left?"
Morgan shrugged, "right".
It was the longest conversation they'd had in hours.
Over the course of several more days they said very little else to one another. It was a companionable silence punctuated by the occasional outburst of contagious insanity. Their progress was slowed by the need to eat off the land as much as by anything else, and the ever-present precipice gave no sign of ending any time soon. Periodic checks found the road below keeping a even distance from the cliff. Seth was beginning to feel like they were stuck in some private universe where they would be doomed to trace along an endless cliff for all eternity.
Once that idea, ridiculous as he knew it to be, edged into his mind Seth couldn't seem to shake it. It was probably a thought born of the leakage between himself and Morgan and he knew that too. Still a paranoid sense of being the only people in existence was coloring Seth's every thought and perception.
A kind of pressure in his head built and built and then Seth had a huge lapse of awareness.
One moment it was early afternoon and they were traipsing along, then next it was nighttime and Seth absolutely knew he was being stalked and neither Morgan nor the precipice was anywhere nearby.
Seth was crouched down. He knew the pose well. He just wasn't ready for the sudden change of, well, everything. He'd obviously been allowing himself to be hunted. This wasn't his normal role and he had no intention of letting it continue a moment longer. He found passable cover and unslung the makeshift scabbard from his back, taking out just one of the blades. The other he left in its wrap, retying it to his back more snugly.
The tiny, precisely wrought pyramids that textured the bare metal grip of the sword were ideal for holding a proper wrap of leather. Against his bare hands it was far less than ideal. If he had to handle the bare haft for more than a few minutes the eternally sharp nubs would strip away callus and then skin.
Seth held himself still, trying not to shift his grip while keeping a supple hold of the blade.
Behind him, or more precisely from back in the direction he must have just come from, Seth heard the tiny movement of a large predator. He waited silently, suddenly aware that the wind didn't favor him.
Searching the woods with his eyes Seth finally spotted a heavy, vaguely reptilian snout. Then the rest of the figure came clear to him in a flash of shocking recognition.
Seth spoke softly but clearly, mistrusting the coincidence. "I see you Carteher." It was clearly a threat.
Carteher froze, recognizing the threat immediately. "Ah, friend Seth... are you back to yourself?"
Answering that question would give away more than Seth was comfortable with. "It is a strange coincidence to meet you here like this, friend Carteher."
"Mistress Fate has made much sport of me of late, but this meeting is no coincidence. Your king, by way of lord Muall, sent us to aid your master. Maull named us `inconspicuous and utilitarian' though he wouldn't name the exact cause in which we are to aid."
"How did you get here?"
"You two have been missed by your clan. Morgan's disappearance, and some artifice of craft he left behind at that school, has set things on edge. That woman Liane is something to be reckoned with. When Magus Morgan's works did not fade, she and citizen Tor had Morgan traced to wherever `here' is, and then had us transported by way of a most remarkable room."
The gate. It made some sense. There was precious little Seth would put beyond Liane's determination and Tor's resources. Still, it was just a little too much to take Carteher's presence on faith. More immediately, Carteher was moving somewhat closer as they spoke, which Seth allowed.
Carteher continued on. "I enjoy speaking with you again, but I fear there is little time for it. Raiolal is tracking Morgan from a safe distance but our retrieval time is several hours gone. The gifted ones who hold the bridge open said that Morgan's talent opposed them and they could only hold the line for a day or so. That time is gone again by half. If the bridge is lost they may not be able to retrace the way for days or even weeks. You must help us reach Morgan now."
Raiolal's presence was even grater cause for suspicion, but the rest of the short tale made some kind of sense. If some mages had been using Morgan's spell works to track him then he reflexively would fight back, even if he didn't know it consciously. The side effects of that channeling would explain Seth's lost time. As for whether the line was from some friendly adept working with Liane and Tor, there was no way to tell.
Maybe it was mental fatigue, or maybe Seth's mind was still polluted, but he wasn't sure whether the paranoia or his willingness to accept Carteher's story was more incorrect. He decided to take Carteher at his word for now.

* * *

At first Seth was quite wary about every move and change of landscape. He constantly searched for signs of betrayal or ambush. He felt decidedly unarmed with both his swords once again tied to his back. Seth just didn't dare grind away his hand on the bare haft.
Carteher led him generally back the way they both had come, Seth could read the signs of their previous passage. They were on a straight course now, but they crossed and re-crossed the previous trail repeatedly. Clearly they had been playing cat-and-mouse in the woods for nearly two days.
After a ways Carteher veered left two points or so and then a while later they were in the midst of a large body of much clearer signs. There was no sense of coyness to the trail, which was punctuated by several scorch marks. Morgan was nearly rampaging through the woods. Another set of tracks, presumably Raiolal's, were only slightly in evidence.
Much later still Carteher stopped and made a surprisingly soft-but-penetrating chirp-and-twill noise that sounded like a combination of bird song, cricket chirp, and tearing canvas. Seth reflexively stepped back, his first instinct was that he was being betrayed, but several heartbeats went by uneventfully.
Finally a call answered them faintly from the north. It was some kind of bird cry, but Seth knew it was an answer because it just somehow didn't quite sound like it belonged.
"Raiolal?" Seth asked.
"Ziathia preserve me, yes."
Seth cocked an eyebrow at him.
Six months ago the expression would have had no significance to Carteher. "Ever since we returned from the mist... we just... that infuriating biped is the only one who understands when I need to talk about the dreams." The tone of resignation struck a chord with Seth.
"What dreams?"
"Time for that later... he comes." Carteher did a surprisingly effective directional shrug to the north.
Raiolal looked... different. When they'd first met he'd seemed the brash fighter, and then he'd been somewhat cowed by the mists. The man who emerged from the undergrowth was lean and animal. He moved like he could feel the pulse of the realm coming up through the soles of his feet. The earlier man would have sat like an armored bolder to face any challenge. This one was evasive, supple, and dangerous.
Raiolal came to a crouching halt that instinctively brought Seth down into a crouch too. He was wearing gloves harshly worn at the knuckles, and Seth suddenly knew just how much time he and Carteher had spent together.
Raiolal grinned at Seth, "Well met Seth, your master is one tricky bastard." There was a pause, he blinked twice, and then he half-barked "what in Kadrian's hells happened to you?"
Seth wasn't sure what he meant until Raiolal reached out in the near total darkness and ran a hand down his flank in disbelief. The tattoos. "It's been a harsh little while."
"Must have been. Is he as greatly changed as you?"
"In ways that don't show so clear, I suppose he is. Then again you're no little different yourself."
"If the time ever comes, we'll have to trade tales."
Seth grunted ascent, "where is Morgan now?"
"A mile north. He's been laying about himself wildly for near two days, then about two hours ago he just fell asleep in mid-step."
That was just about when Seth came to. It figured. The trace on Morgan likely broke about that time and just as Seth had revived Morgan would likely have collapsed in exhaustion. If he'd been `laying about' the way the scorch marks said, he'd be quite drained. Come to think of it Seth was fairly well drained himself.
Raiolal fished out a pouch and dumped a lump of blackened something onto the ground.
"So the path is gone." Carteher said flatly.
"Any idea where in the realm we are?" Seth asked.
"Not far, somewhere within the first lands." Raiolal said.
Seth thought that was an odd interpretation of `not far'. If he was right they were somewhere on the inner-most five continents, which didn't really narrow things down much. The better part of that news was that they were likely to be near high-end civilization. Seth really only needed to get Morgan to a good mind healer and then they'd be fully mobile again and the distances wouldn't matter much.
That, of course led to the next thing. How much of Morgan's condition was it really safe to reveal. Next beyond that, or perhaps really somewhere before it, how could Seth prepare Morgan for the presence of these two. There was no way to tell how he'd react if he just met up with them. One twitch of spell work and they be back where they started.
"I don't think that we should camp together tonight..."
There was a bit of an exchange after that, but Seth finally got the other two to understand how delicate a condition Morgan was in. It was a difficult conversation and they all knew that they each knew that Seth was holding something back. Everybody agreed not to push things and Seth went to go curl up around Morgan.

Chapter 38
Introductions

The introductions the next morning proved to be no problem. Morgan was limp as wet pasta and bone-skinny from his magical exertions. He'd completely used himself up and while he was carrying no geasairia because there'd been no subtlety to his castings, his power was well out of reach. Morgan was nearly unresponsive when Seth told him they had guests. He was too busy being deathly ill from the metabolic toxins left over from his self-consuming acts of magic.
Carteher proved to be a god-send since his superior senses let them know to go north and west to find people. Seth ended up having to carry Morgan piggy-back and make frequent stops to let him vomit. All the while Raiolal came and went in a consistently ghostly way.
Morgan was down trying to empty his empty stomach for the hundredth time when Raiolal reappeared and said "riders and woodsmen from the north."
Seth considered his blades but he still hadn't been able to flash their hafts "trouble?"
"I doubt it, they look like militia, nothing of the road or the stocks to any of them."
It made sense, Morgan's light show attracted some attention and said attention took just as long to organize as the light show took to run its course. Any prudent local would want to find out what happened without the expense of becoming part of the happenings themselves.
Raiolal didn't wait for the silence "I'd say we just want to meet up and make nice."
They were quite a group. Seth tried to decide how they might be received by strangers but every time he factored in his current appearance and Carteher's probably-exotic strangeness his mind sort of balked. "We might as well just walk headlong into them." Seth said, and that is exactly what they did.
All but walking abreast, they `happened upon' the party of locals. They tried to look innocent, and not fake, but ended up settling for not breaking out laughing. There was nothing particularly funny going on but they knew how odd a group they were and none of them were ready to speak for the whole group. In all, they projected an air of smug complicity that made them seem slightly sinister. If Seth hadn't been so grimy and Morgan so sickly, the meeting would not have gone at all well. No matter how innocent you try to act, it's impossible to accidentally intimidate anybody when one of your group is carrying another piggy-back.

* * *

The leader of the locals was a regional marshal. He pulled his horse out in front and then balked for a moment. He looked first at Carteher who was far to lizardish for his taste. Then Seth, particolored skin wearing a bit of canvas wrapped about his waist, clearly not leadership material. The pathetic stick figure of Morgan, covered with swirling black-and-white scars the way Seth was with ink, and nuzzled semi-conscious into Seth's mane, held little promise of an explanation. That left Raiolal, who'd dropped to a habitual crouch with one gloved fist pressed into the dirt. To his credit in the marshal's mind, he had a very practical, very normal looking bastard sword strapped to his back