Within a mile of the mist wall things had gotten really unstable. It seemed as if small areas were wilding and clearing every other minute. Once or twice they were almost enclosed again but true to his deeds Morgan's spell collapsed those wildings before they had a chance to fully form. Passing anywhere near the things made their collective hackles rise. They thought they were just being jumpy until the first one tried to envelop them and tiny blue sparks leapt everywhere while strands of their hair stood away from their heads. Morgan's spell, it seemed, would have one annoying side effect.

The second time it happened Morgan mumbled “Sorry guys” while he tried to pat his hair back against his head. They finally got within a stone's throw of the wall when the horses simply refused to proceed. Whatever they saw in the mist was simply beyond their horsey sense of propriety and nothing would move them forward.

Morgan considered binding them with a compulsion but a strong enough compulsion would make them unable to act naturally. That would make them more of a burden than they would be worth. It wasn't acceptable to set them loose, they were all but certain to wild away, or fall victim to something that came in through a wilding. Morgan picked out a suitable effect and prepared to cast.

Seth came up behind him, set his hands on his shoulders, bent down, and whispered “don't mess up” into his ear. It was a joke, but it was also a serious reminder.

They staked down a picket line, tied up their horses, and took what they thought they'd need most from the saddlebags.

Morgan picked up a pebble and stared at it, squinting with his entire face the way he sometimes did when working with the peculiar. Then he grinned and turned to Seth. “Handy things, rocks.” He said, and tossed the pebble in amongst the horses.

There was an odd flickering between and around the horses. Then a dimming of sorts. Then there was a smooth reflective dome over the place where the horses had been.

“Wont the beasts starve, trapped in there?” Carteher hissed gently.

“Nope. There is no time in there.”

Raiolal walked up and touched the dome, really part of a complete sphere that extended into the ground, and exclaimed. “I can't feel it!”

Seth touched it too. “No time, no energy transfer, no friction... no texture.”

Raiolal asked, “How long will it last?”

“Until I open it, or a month passes without it encountering more than the normally light touch of chaos. That way they will be safe indefinitely for as long as the wildings last even if they are swallowed by the mist.”

A picture of the three horses spending a millennia inside a silver sphere floating in the mist came unbidden into Seth's mind. Oddly the image was banished just as fast by the certain belief that Morgan would be able to fix the mist. If he couldn't they probably wouldn't make it back out of the mist anyway.

As they walked to that inner edge of the real world Morgan led the way.

“How big is it?” he asked to the group at large.

Seth brought the map up in his head. “Something like sixteen miles across, a near perfect circle... call it two hundred square miles.”

Raiolal whistled.

They got quite close to it before the mist yielded at all. The land it revealed as it receded looked no different than the surrounding countryside. They kept walking, abet slowly, and when they reached the point where the mist had been there was a half circle of cleared area in front of them.

“A thirty foot radius, tight quarters, not much warning if anything comes out of there.” Raiolal was not pleased but what had to be done had to be done.

As the mist closed in behind their progress, completely obscuring any kind of landmarks, Carteher spoke his first concern about the mission. “Do you think distances are consistent in here?”

They were completely enclosed in a haze of lower chaos, the apparent dust and moisture of the mist was supposedly a result of the elemental forces leaking into the realm, which itself was being constantly torn apart and rebuilt in tiny quanta by the effect. All this went through Morgan's mind as he turned back toward Carteher and, consequently the way they'd come. He found he had no answer and wished Carteher hadn't asked that just then. He shrugged, a gesture that was foreign to Carteher's anatomy, and turned back to the task.

“That's what I figured.” Carteher said to himself and to the group in general.

* * *

The mist was odd. Creepy odd. The only noise they could hear was what they made themselves and while there was plenty of available light, a normal daylights worth, the sky above them was speck of continuously changing hues which produced the occasional flash of intense colored light. They were at the bottom of a well seven miles deep and sixty feet wide which opened up on the raw media of whatever lay outside the boundaries of the realm. Seth was just glad there was air, and gravity, while Morgan wondered if anything out there might be able to come down that passage and `encounter' them. The two soldiers studiously ignored as much as they could while waiting on edge for something unspeakable to appear out of the mist.

A while later a noise came to them. It had clearly been the last remnant of a very loud noise, a very organic noise. Something inhuman screaming away the last of it's life. They heard it only faintly, a mouse scratching, with all of the detail gone from the sound. They'd all been keeping close and before the noise finished they were all touching, pushed together by the very emptiness of the sound.

Carteher asked “How far?”

“Aye, and which direction?” Raiolal asked back.

Seth unslung his pack and fished out a length of rope and proceeded to tie it around his waist. “We have to know...” he said and handed the free end to Morgan.

With no more apparent concern than he might show walking across the common room back at the house, Seth headed straight ahead into the mist. The clear space around them stretched into an ellipse, then something kind of egg shaped. Finally the strained plastic border surrounding them collapsed and mist pored between Seth and the others. The clear area around the core group shrunk in notably, emphasizing the feelings of being trapped and isolated in the mist.

“Can you hear me?” Seth's voice wafted toward them. Direction was still clearly discernible. He hadn't yelled exactly, just spoken in the kind of voice someone might use to bespeak someone fifty feet away in a quiet room. It was oddly louder but somehow more diffused than they expected.

“Surprisingly well, how do we sound?”

“I can hear you fine. I'm at the end of the rope, how big is the clear space?”

“It's about twenty feet from here to the edge of the clearing.”

“Let go of the rope and I'll try going fifteen more feet.”

Morgan didn't like the idea much but the need was clear. He dropped the rope and said “Go ahead.” He was disturbed, watching the rope snake away from him across the sparse grass and scree. True to his words and estimates the rope stopped with about five feet still showing.

“How do I sound now?” Seth's voice was greatly diminished and the sense of its direction was all but gone.

“Not too good at all, come on back.” Morgan tried to use the same voice he'd used before and not to sound as concerned as he felt.

The rope, of course, didn't move and then all at once the mist parted and Seth returned, bringing with him his concomitant increase of clear area. “I was talking this loud” he said as he returned, “how loud were you?”

“This loud” Morgan said in his best imitation of his prior self.

A considering look crossed Seth's face as he continued toward them, coiling up the rope as he came.

When he reached them he didn't say anything, just kept coiling the rope with a consistent, rhythmic motion. When he finished he looked up at them and grimaced. “No less than sixty yards, no more than one hundred.”

“What?” Raiolal asked, puzzled.

“That scream, presuming a few things of course, like an average creature normally capable of screaming at a reasonable maximum volume, like a horse or monkey, but nothing larger or louder like a dracoform or itheriaid, and assuming that the mist is consistent, that scream came from no less than sixty, and no more than one hundred yards away. No way to tell the direction...”

That was far too close for comfort. Morgan could tell that Seth was sure of his estimate even if the evidence seemed skimpy. Nine seconds as a man ran, four as a horse galloped, generally not a good comfortable time distance to have between yourself and anything that could illicit that kind of scream from anything. The whole group was doing the figures at the same time, and soon a renewed urgency came over them all.

“We should get moving” Carteher suggested, but Morgan overrode him.

“We have to get a lot closer to the center of this thing before I'll have any chance of figuring it out. Any ideas how to find the center without any landmarks?”

Seth had a tracing of the map which he fetched out of his pack and spread on the ground. They gathered around the map. “We're no more than eight miles from the center if we are anywhere inside the mist. The center is in a small vale here.” He pointed to the markings.

“If I remember right,” Raiolal said, “the entire area was marked out as a steady rise from here, where we came in, to the ridge along there.”

“So if we keep going in on as straight a line as we can, being sure to go up hill, we should pass within two miles of the center.” Carteher added.

“Eh, but the slope will invert as we approach the vale.” Morgan traced a rough line around the map. “You're right about the two miles, that's about the size of the vale. If only we could be sure when to stop going uphill and start going down, we'd be set. We'll just have to hope I can sense the core from that two miles...”

It would have to do.

They resumed their march. Seth led the way. Morgan, all but in his shadow, spent his time jumping in and out of the astral trying to get any kind of bearing. Raiolal and Carteher were behind and to either side watching to the flank and rear. At times other noises would filter in to them. Sometimes a distant squeak and sometimes something closer and more sinister. Once the mist to their right began to churn and thin as something very large passed altogether too close.

Every time he went astral Morgan felt something like the tiny footsteps of a swarm of ants crawling all over his psyche. Even more creepy, the sensation started following him back into the mundane. The feeling of ants. Walking. Going about their business in his mind. It was getting distracting.

They continued to go uphill, and had made what they figured was five miles, when the light began to dim.

There was no way to build a fire. They hadn't passed anything more substantial than a bush in the hours they'd been in the mist and nobody wanted the job of trying to gather firewood. There was no way Morgan would be able to sustain even a mage-light all night without completely loosing his mind to the ants.

The evening faded into near complete darkness except for the tiny pinpoint of light at the top of their private world. Its changing colors and occasional bright flashes didn't alter one bit. As darkness overtook them completely, Morgan abandoned decorum and all but crawled under Seth. He didn't exactly set out to do it. He'd meant to simply lay down near his comforting bulk. Then he'd shifted this way and that, and before he knew it he was on his side, his back pressed to Seth's chest. Seth threw an arm and a leg over him and he was happy for the weight.

Morgan was the last to fall asleep. Part of what kept him awake was the realization that as each of them fell asleep the area around them shrunk noticeably. The rest was the ants. What finally lulled him asleep was the rhythmic stroke of Seth's breath against the back of his head.

* * *

Morgan's dreams were a taxing hash of chaotic imagery. Several times during the night Morgan was driven from his dreams in a silent near-panic. The only thing that kept him from bolting was Seth's weight, actually it also kept him from sitting up. Seth himself was sound asleep, but a couple of times Morgan heard him grunting or kind of simpering in his sleep. Something that he wouldn't have been able to hear from one inch further away. In all, the night seemed to go on forever.

He woke fully when he felt Seth's protective weight lift away. Clearing his eyes as light slowly crept into the world, he looked around. Raiolal and Carteher were gone, their gear and bedding was right where they had left it but the men themselves were absent. Morgan dared the ants and sent out a probe along the bowstring bindings. The two felt physically healthy but their minds were blurred and they were wandering somewhere out there suspended in a half sleep. Morgan didn't wake them, instead he added a small compulsion to the bindings that would bring them to him.

Drawing back from the casting Morgan found the feathery touch of the ants would not subside. Clearly the local aether was too saturated with chaotic flux and it was going to get trapped in his castings the way wine soils linen. In for a copper, in for a crown, the deed might as well be worth the price, he retouched the compulsions and set mage barriers and a touch of aversion around the two absent men. They were already useless to themselves, overcome by the influence of the mist, so he made them safe. They would only be able to see a few feet around themselves but hopefully no harm would be able to reach in to them as they came. If he could have, Morgan would have shielded himself and Seth, but that would block all of their senses and they'd never find the center.

Morgan shivered as he pulled away from the casting.

“How is it?” Seth asked.

“Pretty bad, we'd better get their things together and get moving or I might not be able to stand this.”

“They're alright then.”

“I think so, they're confused under the glamour from this place, but healthy and I have them shielded.”

Seth had very little confidence in magic shielding, seeing how it had never stopped him for more that a heartbeat or so, but the options were limited. In short order they had split the extra burden and gotten moving. Despite the weight and strain Morgan pushed their pace, it helped to keep him from focusing on the growing sensations feeding back to him from his asenses. After a while, two hours can seem like an eternity, he came to realize that the sensations were growing because they were reaching their goal. Soon thereafter a sense of direction and distance accompanied the feeling.

Even though it was like running into a burning building Morgan did run the last quarter mile or so downhill to the center.

At the center was a stone about two feet high and three across. Normally unremarkable, this stone had weathered and cracked down through its core and a bright hazy light was just barely visible, shining out from the crevice. Certain that they'd found the center Morgan could finally do something he'd been dying to do for days. He charged his aotahe and sheltered his mind inside its relative protection. A good bit of the chaos got in to him anyway but it was like cutting a stabbing pain down to a dull ache. Settling in unceremoniously on the ground at an intimate but respectful distance, he dove right into the task at hand.

* * *

At least twenty thousand years had passed since the realm had been cut out of the core of the elemental planes. Some scholars suggested it was ten or a hundred time that. The older continents near the center of the realm were littered with oddities, ruins, and who knew what else. A single stone this size clearly and conspicuously placed in the middle of a small vale was the kind of thing that people wouldn't think twice about. Locals, if there were any that lived close by, might have taken up picnicking at such a conveniently sized stone. This stone had undoubtedly seen its full measure of mundane uses since it was placed. What none of those users had known was that it was not some long disused object but instead it was the focus of an old, powerful, and still active casting.

Even things made `permanent' wear out over time. Entropy and time demand their due. What does not live and grow must pass and fade. Three maxims that can not be escaped. In the case of the stone it was weather that did it in. In the centuries it had sat doing its job water had seeped in, and froze, and melted, and froze again. Stone does as it must and finally, two winters past, the core gave way and cracked open. Ruined foci can not last long. The spell focused there finally failed.

Morgan's first postmortem told him the story of the stone in broad strokes. It was a cap, like someone might place on a well, and it was sitting directly on an uprising piece of basalt; on the very foundation of the realm. His second postmortem was very nearly his last sane act. He reached out gently to touch the glow and was scalded by the substance of raw chaos. Not any one of the forms he'd ever seen before, not a simple node conjured for some purpose, this was the fundamental substance of disorder. This was the prime essence of what lay outside the protective bubble of the realm. The true unordered aether. If he'd been any less tentative in his reach he'd have been filled instantly, and then popped like an old bladder.

Morgan skimmed in along the edge of the aethric flow the way a boat might skim across an ocean, reaching in and down for the source of the flow. There was a tiny channel bored into the basalt that went down and down. It was wider than a hair but no wider than the finest stalk of grass and it was cut perfectly smooth and straight down through the floor of the realm. Following the trace was like skimming his fingers along the edge of water blasting out of a high pressure hose, all smooth and sensual, and none to smart a thing to do. There was at first no clear evidence of how the hole had been cut. Morgan simply forced himself deeper until he reached the very limits of the realm. The flowing aether actually ended up helping him reach down those long three-plus miles. There at the bottom of that narrow well was a elemental bound into a shape like a small grommet, holding open a small breach in the last layers of the realm.

That last layer was unlike anything he could imagine. His first touch was mesmerizing and revolting at the same time. The essence of some incredible conflict had been extruded and rolled flat. He didn't follow anywhere it led. He wasn't ready to know what that knowledge might do to him, instead he concentrated on how the elemental had been drawn through the fibers of the barrier and then made to hold them open.

When he'd learned all he could stomach in one sitting, he drew himself back up that great distance and back into his body. Once there he discovered that more time had passed that he thought. Standing about three paces from him was Carteher and Raiolal, both still be-spelled and under the hazy weave of Morgan's protections.

“How long have they been here?”

“About five hours.”

“Damn... Well, I better wake these guys up.”

Morgan got up to see to the men, stretching his painfully stiff knees. Dispelling his protections was simplicity itself, more like opening a closed mental fist than an act of high sorcery. The tiny leak of ant-feet lifted from Morgan's mind, causing him to sigh aloud. The direct effect of the mist was a little trickier. It took a while to find the key to their symptoms. Morgan finally traced the disturbance back to obscure pieces of lore he didn't even know he'd been exposed to.

Whatever energy was leaking into the realm through the well, it was causing the mass of the broken stone cap to flicker in and out of the local reality. This in turn was causing vibrations in the local space which, in turn, carried stray energy right into their brains. The men were shorting out internally and having what amounted to a long magical seizure. When they'd gone to sleep their natural resistance to low power magical disturbances was reduced and they'd been overcome. Thinking it through Morgan realized that he'd nearly suffered the same fate. Since Seth had basically had him pinned, whenever he'd started to move he'd woken up. Seth had consistently shown signs of a higher than usual resistance to magic and that was the only thing that could explain why Seth hadn't wandered off himself.

As far back as anybody could remember the first truly significant thing each new student of the disciplines was taught was The Silence. It was a way to kind of fold a tiny ring of space about the size of a grain of sugar. It had the pleasant side effect of damping out stray and unfocused influences reasonably near it. The tiny manifold couldn't be made any bigger without becoming unmanageable but certain things can be done in seven dimensions that make absolutely no sense in four. Using something like a chain-stitch Morgan described a circle of the tiny effects just above and around Raiolal's head. When he closed the circle a vague halo of fluorescence flickered into the visible, and a few seconds later Raiolal regained his senses.

Morgan had made him a muffler. It took only a moment to repeat the effect, drawing his finger in a quick circle over Carteher's head. The rings would follow the two around and keep them safe, though neither would have liked to know why that was so, since some of the space he'd folded was, in fact, occupied by their brains.

Morgan's more stolid personal defense, provided through the aotahe, would keep him well enough from there on and there seemed to be no point to even trying to shield Seth. Exactly why would have to wait for a safer, more experimental setting.

After the two men regained their senses Morgan brought them up to date on what had happened. Neither was pleased about their own performance but there was little that could be said one way or the other.

“So what next” Raiolal asked Morgan.

“Well, we get some sleep and then in the morning we move that rock. After that there is no telling how long it will take me to figure this thing through.”

“What does that leave us to do?”

“Well, there's guarding my back, and I suspect that our provisions may not last as long as this is going to take.”

Carteher had no discernible expression but Raiolal's puzzled look turned sour in a few beats. “Searching for food? Hunting? Out in that?” The words were flat and resigned.

Carteher looked up at him and softly hissed “Worry about it tomorrow.”

Raiolal paused for a moment and then grinned.

They all pitched a more permanent camp and saw to their evening's business.