Two days later the garrison 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, having been briefed over the last couple days, thought about it. There was one inescapable truth, the answer was not outside the mist wall. “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 suspected 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?”


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 long-limbed alligator. Somewhere in a gra area between mammal and reptile, but definitely not amphibian, 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. Many of the residents here couldn't afford to up and move away, or simply refused to, 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, 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 through the window via the reflection in his sword, 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. He couldn't avoid a few momentary glances but so far so good. Then wedged the shorter blades in place, holding central mass pinned there.

With the great sword in both hands and his eyes fixed on a hanging cast iron pan, he plunged the sword 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.