It'd taken the better part of an hour to finesse Seth free of the creatures mass because all of the obvious techniques would have torn him limb from limb in the process. The thing was resistant to magic, mindless, and just plain hard to deal with. Two more hours went to finding a way to dispose of the creature. Seth hadn't killed it, just destroyed its ability to enchant, and there was no way to know how little of it needed to remain for it to be able to regenerate back into full potency. Even burning the house down wasn't a sure way to dispose of it completely.

Morgan had bound earth, air, fire, and even a node of elemental chaos the size of his two fists together into a structure that would grind expel and burn every molecule of the creature, and probably strip the veneer off the furnishings of that part of the house. That was assuming the creatures essence hadn't soaked into the structure there, in which case those parts of the structure would be scoured away to nothing. A plume of orange and blue flame as wide as a man and several times as tall hung in the air next to the house. Few things had ever been burned so thoroughly, and that process would take all night.

Come sunset the flame had attracted several armed men from the neighboring homesteads. Once the circumstance had been explained the five victims were delivered into the care of their neighbors. The two adults were brother and sister, the children were one of his and two of hers. They would all recover in a few days. At least seven others weren't so lucky. Their parents, spouses, and other children had been consumed. Morgan had found at least that many remains, possibly more, in digestive vacuoles spread throughout the creatures mass. Those bodies would be burned away with the rest of the creature.

Morgan had set and tied off a spell which would roam the countryside for months searching for any more of the things. Morgan hoped never to encounter anything fully sentient from whatever reality had spawned it. The others were thinking much the same thing as they made camp just a little too close to the homestead for comfort. Morgan couldn't leave while the spell rooted out and burned away that terror.

“What?” Morgan realized someone was addressing him.

It was Carteher, “I said `I take it you are no combat mage'.”

“Eh, no, I'm a scholar and practitioner in high-energy magics.”

Raiolal probed the fire with a twig, “Do you know what that thing was?”

“Some kind of parasite. It trapped sentient creatures, consumed their life energies until their ability to generate them broke down, and then it would digest the bodies. Very nasty.”

“Is that what it was doing to your jen'ne'atahe?” The shape of Carteher's mouth made the `U' and `W' sounds nearly impossible, and Morgan had never heard that last word before. He took it that Carteher was referring to Seth.

“No, I think that was a defense, or maybe something like a scab. I don't really know which, but it wasn't like the other... bodies.”

Raiolal looked at Carteher, “So how'd you know he wasn't a combat mage?”

“The way he lost his head, no one raised to combat would have. Especially when only one man was at risk.”

A spontaneous awkward silence descended.

Without looking up from what he was cooking Seth dropped a few words into that silence. “Well I, for one, am glad he got upset over just one man being at risk.”

The silence resumed for a few heartbeats, then Carteher and Raiolal broke out laughing at the same time.

“Well said boy!” Raiolal barked out between laughs.

Morgan and Seth both joined in the laughing and the tension broke all around, but the corner of Morgan's mind that was always watching noted the `boy' anyway. Carteher had called him boy too, back in the house. It had the feel of something that was going to stick. Morgan had no idea how old Carteher was but Raiolal was certainly no more than a handful of years his senior. He was going to have to lay that `boy' nonsense to rest, at least as soon as he could see a way to do it that didn't somehow prove himself the child.

In that nearly annoying, competent way Seth had about him, he finished producing a delicious smelling dinner using their bland field rations and gods only knew what else. He divvied up the portions and passed out the plates. Raiolal looked at his portion as if it might bite him at first, but the aroma won out and he dug in with some gusto.

He hummed in delight at the taste then really spoke directly to Seth for the first time. “You been in the field before boy?”

“Yes Sir.”

“Can you use that steel?”

Morgan butt-in, “Seth, show him your marks.”

Seth nodded. He slipped his thumb under the edge of his wyrsa hide armor and peeled it back. Two layers of hide tore apart with the wet sound of tearing flesh. Morgan had never noticed the way the hides clung together with the tenacity of life. He was fascinated with the armor. He'd seen Seth before.

The two soldiers were, however, quite impressed. While the three of them began talking combat, strategy, and the ways of war, Morgan picked up one of Seth's bucklers and vrec'd the hides.

They were still alive, after a fashion. The armor was made of two layers of hide with the suede sides pressed together. The pieces were cleverly mismatched so that each had a tongue free that would match up with the other and bind them closed around Seth's arm. The inner layer only partly covered the outer's suede, ;eaving most of it to touch skin. Peering closer Morgan could see the residue of saliva. Applying a little of his own, Morgan saw how the suede regained motility. When he touched the two layers together the tiny fibers interlocked and drew the hides into a nearly unbroken whole. It took a surprising amount of force to separate the layers. Letting himself become engrossed in the experience of discovery, he explored the oddity at some length.

When he looked up from the skins he realized that he was being studiously ignored. Seth had re-armored except for the buckler Morgan was studying. He handed over the hide and resumed eating.

“So your man here tells us you are very talented.” Carteher was half asking a question and half making a statement.

Morgan shrugged.

“I think he must be the strongest mage anybody at the school has ever seen.” Morgan was oddly pleased at the hint of pride in Seth's voice.

“Why you think that?” Raiolal asked.

“Oh, the way they all scattered when he did a little showing off. That's how he pulled this duty.” Morgan squinched up his face remembering the blunder that got him into all this. Seth winked at him and the other two guffawed a little. Field soldiers bonding. Go figure.

“So mage, you like to show off... you do any tricks?” It took Morgan a heartbeat to realize Carteher was being friendly.

“One or two.” Morgan reached into the campfire and drew out a large chunk of flame plasma. The fire flared forge-hot for a moment as he forced it to burn faster than was strictly natural. He held the plasma for a moment while the other men's eyes cleared from the brief flash. To hold it without burning himself he'd changed the balance of heat and light, and a few other things. Most people thought the seven prime houses of magical energy were pure, but inside each there were hundreds of flavors and purposes. To make a hand-sized ball of plasma that could be held took a good bit of twisting inside the structures of the house of fire.

Morgan gave the plasma weight, broke it into several fist sized chunks and began to juggle. It was exactly the kind of thing that common knowledge said was too dangerous to do lightly. For Morgan it was almost an idle hobby. Some ten years ago he taken to choosing a house and playing in it. Some five ago he'd begun playing amongst the houses, making sculptures of mixed elements like flame and ice. Over time those idylls had become a kind of meditation for him, even though this kind of play was the exactly the kind of thing that got students expelled. As a full Magus, he no longer had to care.

Keeping five orbs of flame moving in and above his hands; without his power he could barely manage to juggle three mundane objects; he made eye contact with each of the three men in turn. Then, in a way that no mundane juggler could have managed five became six. Normally he could have managed twice that many but with the incineration, the wards around the camp, and such, six brought him to the edge of strain. With enough fire in the air to keep him honest, and occupy the parts of himself that might flinch from the truth, he began a confession of sorts.

“I made a lot of mistakes today. Enough that I find Carteher's assessment... generous.” he began in a halting voice that revealed some of the strain he'd put himself under. “First, I didn't charge my aotahe or shield myself, a mistake I wouldn't accept from a first year student. Second I didn't shield any of you which was just plain stupid. Third, when you see a bunch of people staring in rapt attention... where they look, you shouldn't. Fourth...”

He had a lot to get off his chest and generally think through. While he was roasting himself before them, he also varied his tricks to keep things interesting. He even let each of them play with a little plasma, handing it around like children at show and tell. He also drew them out a little and got them to talk about the way things should have went. What Morgan hoped nobody noticed, except perhaps Seth, who noticed more than he'd ever say to anybody, was that whenever anybody made a particularly good point he'd allowed himself to be burned a little. Not enough to do himself any real harm, but enough to put a sting to the words so that he would not forget.

By the time they had finished Morgan's hands were an angry red, and throbbing.

The “show” ended and all four of them were talking freely. The topic ranged across memory and whimsy as any unforced conversation will. By opening himself to the two strangers Morgan had done something few mages had ever done, not that he'd done it on purpose. He'd become accessible in their minds. Somewhere just above hedge-wizard, mages tended to break free of their dependence on the rest of their communities. As a rule they'd go over all mystical and distant. While that separation had its uses, it didn't make for good company in the woods a continent away from home, or, for that matter, loyal compatriots who would think to watch your back. To both the guardsman Morgan just became `the only human mage they'd ever met'.

When they finally turned in, Seth quietly slipped Morgan a tiny pot of salve without comment.

* * *

Seth was hunted by his dreams all night. The worst was the new one. Helpless and suffocating and waiting forever. Bad as it was, at least he wasn't killing anything. He didn't stir in the night. He never did.

Morgan's dreams were, even by comparison, a thundering mess. The small node of chaos suspended inside the incinerator spell disturbed him continuously. Holding a chaos node had been known to render mages temporarily, or even permanently, insane. Nothing of that night made any sense at all, and he thrashed in his sleep so much that he might have been better off staying awake.

The incineration finished just after daybreak. The kitchen area of the house fared better than Morgan thought it would. It looked like someone had scoured everything with a harsh wire brush, but nothing structural had been claimed. Outriders from the neighbors came and had a final chat with Morgan where nothing new was said. And finally they got back on the road.

* * *

The mist wall, a neutral gray border between solid creation and something much less dependable, rose straight up through the roof of the realm. By way of some mechanism that nobody really understood, the more than seven mile high phenomenon wasn't at all visible until you got as near to it as it was tall. The entire realm was surrounded on all sides by that mist, and on rare occasions something would perturb some place within the realm proper and a regional mist wall would rise up. As that place healed under the bandage of mist, the enshrouding cloud would shrink away. The last time a mist wall of any significance had been seen this far away from the margins was nearly four centuries ago.

This region of mist was growing, not shrinking, and creating even a small mist would take the concerted effort of three or more strong talents hell bent on mutual destruction, laying waste to everything around them. That wildings were happening all through the region, letting nasty and mundane things of every description slip from their home realities into the realm, was just icing. Morgan was ahorse and rapt in study of his books when the group passed inside the Lathrein Limit and the mist became visible.

The huge cylinder of haze was oppressive and the subtle change it caused in his companions was what brought Morgan up from his book. The smooth surface rising straight up and curving away to each side assaulted the mind. It was just small enough to be like swallowing infinity; infinity itself being too big for the human mind to comprehend and so paradoxically only perceived as something small and flat. Morgan vrec'd, barely able to span the seven miles, but the wall of mist didn't register as anything at all. He closed his book and stuffed it into a saddlebag. Things should be getting less stable as they approached the wall, and he wanted to be ready.

It happened as if on order. Morgan saw a slight shimmer surround them and bellowed “Hold!” far louder than he'd intended.

Seth and Raiolal reigned in as one with Morgan's command. Morgan looked around but didn't see Carteher anywhere.

Raiolal rounded his mount and searched for threat. In a few beats he looked to Morgan, “What's happening? Where's Carteher?”

“We're wilding. Stay still and wait for it to finish. Carteher's on the other side of the boundary. Hopefully he will know not to cross the boundary, or if he did cross he'll know to cross back out.”

“So we're in some other realm?”

“Yes... well not really, were still kind of in our own reality, a chunk of it that has temporarily traded places with a chunk from another reality altogether, any way. In a while they'll switch back the way they belong, but anything that crosses the boundary an odd number of times will be in the wrong place when things straighten themselves out... So we stay still and wait.”

“E'tsar said he could collapse the wildings if he caught them happening, why don't you do that?”

“Because we're inside it and there's a good chance that it'd leave us stranded.”

“That doesn't make sense, if collapsing the thing puts everything right like he said, then we'd get put back where we belong.”

“It doesn't work that way.”

Raiolal didn't look at all convinced.

“Look at the mist.”

“Yea so?”

“Well the mist is only in our realm, it can't happen in a naturally occurring reality.” Morgan paused to look around, “now look there.” He pointed just above the horizon to the apparent west.

Raiolal stared for a minute at a moon, still visible in the mid morning sky, “That's not one of ours...” The reality of their situation starting to sink in.

“From inside here we see both realms as equally real possibilities, kind of a `some of each' proposition with a touch of `neither' thrown in for measure. From outside I could know what went where. From inside there is no telling what I might snare if I threw out a line, so if I tried to move us where that line went, it'd be like sailing an ocean with my eyes closed. No telling where we'd dock.”

Raiolal thought it through for a bit and remembered yesterdays encounter with a shiver. “Eh, maybe we should just wait...”

Seth spoke up. “We should probably dismount just in case anything comes along to spook the horses.”

They dismounted and stood there in the middle of their tiny spot of safe ground for several hours.

The wilding finally reverted when a small bird flew into their little chunk of reality. There was no sensation. One instant the slight shimmering was there, the next it was gone. The bird didn't even seem to notice, or change its course, despite having been plucked from its home universe.

Carteher was curled up in the middle of the road, back the way they'd come about a hundred yards. They all walked toward each other.

When they met Raiolal asked him “Did you cross?”

“Yes, right when it happened, so I just got back out and hoped you'd all noticed.”

“How'd you know whether you belonged inside or out?” Morgan asked.

“You folk spend too much time too far away from the ground... I just looked for our tracks.”

Ask a naive question, get a useful answer.

“I think I'm going to have to come up with something better if we are really going to go into the mist...”

They all stopped for a while so that Morgan could do a little thinking and subsequent work. The three of them generally left him alone and were as quiet as possible while he worked. A couple of times Morgan broke out of thought and more or less raked Seth over the coals in search of some esoteric piece of knowledge or experience he might have tucked away in his memory. At one point he demanded a spare bowstring from Carteher, who's bow was quite a bit longer than a human might use, and then went back into his mental retreat.

About an hour after getting the string Morgan pronounced himself prepared, and proceeded to cut a length of the string and tie it twice around each of their wrists. He didn't bother to explain anything about what he was doing. The strangers took it with no more protest than Seth. The casting was messy with plenty of waste energies arcing harmlessly, but spectacularly, from Morgan to ground at seemingly random intervals. Said discharges never failing to startle everyone but Morgan.

Finally he took several quick steps away from the party, said “hold onto the horses”, and then all hell broke loose around him. There was light, and noise, and wind, and all manner of other disturbances for several heartbeats and then there was dead silence. Morgan gave no indication that he was finished however, so they stood their distances and fought the horses. A deep bass rumble rose slowly up from everywhere and then subsided. Then Morgan brushed his hands together like a baker removing flour and walked back to them smiling.

Seth looked at him and asked “How'd it go?”

“A nice piece of work if I do say so myself. We are all now tied to each other and to the realm itself in two different ways. Whatever we cross into I will at least be able to bring us back... provided nobody looses a limb.” He tapped the string tied around his wrist meaningfully.

“Can we get on with it now?” The more Raiolal had time to think about this mission the less he was liking it.

Seth snatched Morgan out of the air when he fell trying to mount his horse. A sudden attack of weakness or dizziness often follows impromptu spell-casting. A fact Seth knew better than Morgan, having spent more time in the field. Field mages, especially combat mages, don't always get a chance to balance their spells completely. Every bit of energy they didn't account for in the casting has to be suppressed by their metabolism, usually a short time after they set aside their power and without their conscious participation.

Far less frequently there was fire, rending, or icy death.

“Whoa, backlash” Morgan muttered while he tried to regain his senses.

“Is he okay?” Raiolal asked from his horse.

“I've caught better.” Seth answered, sure Raiolal would not get the joke.

Seth got Morgan standing and turned to face him, held both his shoulders and watched his face for signs. Backlash could amount to anything from the kind if dizziness you get if you stand up to quickly to a fatal cascade of energy. Seth had seen one sorcerer lay waste to an entire battalion only to freeze solid and shatter from his own waste energies a minute after he'd finished.

Morgan shook his head once or twice and then smiled up at Seth. “Thanks for the assist, it's okay now.”

Seth asked the question Lady Korane told him he should always ask. “What'd you miss?”

Morgan blinked up at him uncomprehendingly for a beat or two then understanding dawned, “um, potential energy, difference in altitude between here and the garrison. I used the control ring as one of the anchors.” He pause again. “Why do I know that...?”

“My lady told me that every Mage would instinctively know what backlashed if they thought to ask themselves while they were still recovering. She told me I should always ask.”

Morgan had never heard even a hint at that backlash could be diagnosed... “Outstanding, keep it up but ah... don't spread it around...” He kind of thumped Seth on the chest to signal his complete recovery.

Seth let him turn and mount, trying not to be too obvious about hanging close just in case he fell again. The cumulative mass of four people raised a thousand feet equaled enough potential energy to do more than knock a man loopy for a half a minute or so, and Seth knew it. Nobody noticed him shake his head in wonder as he mounted his own horse.