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.

“We're leaving.”

Seth looked around the courtyard and said “Uh, we already left.” His attempt at levity failing utterly.

“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 down 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 and be accepted at court or leave the school.” his tone changed to a proper mockery of a person Seth didn't recognise “until the formalities can be resolved it is inappropriate for you act in representation of the school in any fashion. Of course your position will be held open during your sabbatical. These details may be pro-forma and can be dealt with normally as a part of the spring graduation.”

“Well I'll be thrice damned if I'm going to wait nearly too full terms to get my job back. Nobody wants it after the whole arm-thing but they'll definitely find some pretext to force someone into my position.”

“But I know that” Morgan stopped and pointed due south “Just over those mountains the entire royal court is going to be celebrating the centennial of the liberation of Queens Landing from the e'Yelm occupation. There'll be several days of open court. If I can get there and get a slot I can fix this.”

“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?”


“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.

“Dammit.” He threw up his hands in disgust. “There is no way I can afford to buy anything to present at court.”

“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.”

“If anybody thought about you going to court yourself, they probably figure you'll screw it up. With no assistance in the formalities court can be treacherous, but it'd be hard to mess up a fealty oath too badly. If you can get in we can probably figure it out.”

“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 trip. 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 plans 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 might be able to fix it if I go to Queens Landing to swear fealty to The Crown.”

Mieka said, “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.”

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 apart. Mieka was all about the physical, the practical. Liane had enough aesthetics 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 patterns, 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 believe 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.

“What is this and why are we bringing it?”

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. They'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.”

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 an hour before dawn.

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 his 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. That virtue tended to attract a select group of travelers. People 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?”


“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.

Morgan energised his personal protections before passing the edge of the school's considerable acreage. People surely knew he was leaving by now but there was no reason to let himself be tracked. The best protection would be the discipline of his aotahe, but the silk cloak was packed away so he settled for finding something immediate keep his mind occupied.

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. The spell wasn't intended for normal living creatures, it was intended to bind Triphariad shapeshifters and the semi-sapient creatures from the outer chaos. As a means to bind the un-bindable and commune with the alien it was invaluable. 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. 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 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 ends.

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. Give it a few hours to grow and it's a different story.

Used on the intended species it was easy enough to remove. Just gather the connections together and destroy them all at once. The formless are pliant. Folding such beings hundreds of times is a natural event. For anything of sane topology it 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. It's use on dangerous animals was occasionally warranted. It also found its way around the necks of mad talents and those guilty of the highest crimes. There were also rumors of misuse.

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. That couldn't improve the odds.

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... At a minimum the repetitive intimate task would make him impossible to find, and there was always a chance at success.

* * *

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 sensed more than she knew.

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. “Should I pick a camp for the night or are we just taking a break?”


Seth started a slow pivot to his left, 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. Then shock became seizure.

Seth stripped Morgan of his pack in seconds and got his head into his lap so he wouldn't dash it open on the rocky trail. For twenty six of the longest seconds of Seth's life he was trapped in panicked helplessness. He didn't know what to do. He genuinely liked they guy. He was the fist thing like a friend he'd ever had. Plus, the guilty though came, if he died Seth would be screwed.

And then he was still and Seth was relieved to find he was still breathing.

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.”

“What was that? That wasn't backlash and you didin't...”

“Burst into flames?” Morgan finished the unspoken thought. “Nothing so dramatic.”

“You were...”

“Stupid. Stupid is what I was. Some food and some sleep and I'll only be `nearly too sore to ride'.”

At the mention of food, Seth nearly leaped 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 planed for the first night was a tasty kind of mock-stew, a real stew takes hours. He'd been looking forward to it during the walk, but he decided it was probably too heavy for Morgan to take in his condition. Instead 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 actually taken the first spoonful.

His deference ended there. Seth was going hard at the shared dessert. They practically raced to get the lion's portion.

Right after eating Morgan managed to get to a tree and find some relief, but Seth had to help him back to his bedroll.

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. He left 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 really 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 happen. 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 on his right foot. Bending his knee halfway into a crouch and pushing hard with his left, cocking his leg lie a spring. All that weight and momentum came to a stop. Then it all went back the way it came. Right leg pushing explosively back to his left, his whole body from hips to forehead turning left, and his left sword had swept up and over to join the right as they both struck the boys shield. It was just plain unfair. The boy'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.

Morgan wondered at the skill that let the swords bounce away a little, shoving the shield rather than shattering it. Stunning the boy instead of killing him outright.

“SIT!” Seth pointed to a spot comfortably well to the side of the action.

The young man obeyed, nearly falling when his numb arms failed him..

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 real 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, a terrible thing to do in a straight-up swordfight, 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.

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. Seth had punched the man through a competent physical shield before killing him. 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 fire 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.