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 magical conflict. 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 pulled gently on his own 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 different, more visceral explanation than he'd used while they'd been planning this. “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 taking up 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. We're the fence posts, not the cattle.”

“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 essence. 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 in the presence of their peers. Any dagger of the proper general shape could fill the cutting, measuring, and mixing roles necessary to the craft but a self-made blade was infinitely superior. 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 mysterious figures 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 too 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 with traces of silver.

In his mind he already saw the completed athame. The blade would be smooth and midnight black, veined and traced with hair-thin silver threads just below its surface, 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. The five gram silver ingot rose , caught up in the flows. He spoke the strictures and the set spells formed around the pieces almost effortlessly. He pushed the silver medallion into the handle with the tang of the blade. The stone and glass formed in and against one another and silver tendrils grew through the two binding them 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 surroundings.

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, could never be convinced of that, and he had no way try telling 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 anything near this place 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.