At first light Morgan was up. In truth he'd slept poorly in anticipation of the chore and was as glad as any that morning finally came so he could get on with it.

When everybody was finally roused they broke camp and saw to packing everything for a quick departure. It took surprisingly little time and, though Morgan's eyes weren't skilled enough in such preparations to notice, the other three had packed in a way that would let them quickly shed differing amounts of their less precious gear as urgency might dictate. It was a nod to prudence not a vote of no-confidence.

When they were all packed up Morgan set them around the outside of the circle. They'd have no active role in the casting but he wanted them close to make the protections simpler. As he began laying out the artifacts he'd brought, he started talking “These are the things I want you to try to preserve. These and the books from my kit. But, while most of the magi back at the school might disagree, nothing here is worth anybody's life. Don't forget you'll probably need this to get straight away from here and recover the horses.” He laid the athame directly in front of his knees.

“This will, no doubt, take a while. After it all starts in earnest, the first time it all stops, it's time to get away from here.”

“How will we know its stopped?”

“You'll know, trust me. There should be a lot of noise and shaking followed by long stillness. If you think it's time, it's time.”

With that Morgan closed his eyes and started concentrating. From the outside nothing seemed to happen for the longest time. Morgan was busily chaining spells together. Starting with the last one, that would let them cut the bowstring bindings and working his way forward, he linked the initiation of each spell to the termination of its predecessor so that the series would run like a row of flagstones set on edge.

The main spell was huge, though not the first in the series. He'd chosen two opposing spots outside the mist wall and charged them with a crushing-huge load of kinetic energy drawn from, or coerced into, the house of earth. Both pools of energy aimed and timed to shear past each other at the offending well. That would grind the hole closed through its entire depth. Every other solution he'd come up with involved replacing the stone cap or making a plug. The problem was anything like that would eventually fail the way the original cap had. Worse, some other mage might come by and try to tap all that `free power' by loosening or removing the plug and that would be a disaster.

Just before that the damage to the under-layer would be smoothed closed. Before that the elemental holding the under-layer open would be dismissed. Before that a shallow disk of the uppermost rock would be cut free to act like a boat they could ride through the onslaught. Before that a ritual sealing of the upper juncture. And finally, before that the protective bubble around them all.

He'd gotten the ideas from remembering the events of Winterdark. The pooling and subsequent draining of the earth-power he'd caused. Because he wasn't sure he could make it pool faster than it might drain away he was going to draw from all of the primary houses and filter all that through the odd little artifact. That would let him dump a huge earth potential into place all at once. The effect should be spectacular.

Holding on to the initiating threads of the protective dome, Morgan opened his eyes and looked at the waiting men. “Ready or not, here goes.” He said, and committed the last of himself to the spell. In a way it was pleasantly like riding waves to shore, not that he'd ever actually done that, but he did imagine that was what it was like. The building, rolling force all around that you surrender to and thereby use while you yourself are used by it.

The rush.

* * *

For the others it was a totally different and terrifying experience.

At first nothing at all happened. Then they could all hear the contents of the twisted ring start to flow. First sand pouring, then like sand being driven along pavement, then rain striking glass harder and harder. The rain became a tone, the object singing and then screaming in the muffling mist. Sweet, followed by bright, before becoming ear-pierecing. Then...

Silence. Blessed relief. Morgan slumped, fully spent, the lots thrown.

The fountain of light from the tiny hole began to glow in a completely different way. The first full day at camp they'd removed the broken stone cap from the well. Ever since, a hair-fine ray of coruscating light had shone straight up and out to the top of the world. Now a reddish welt was forming all around the opening. The red-hot stone slowly sagged into the hole until the ground there started to glow the way the capstone had.

There was a loud `thack' and a tiny shift as the saucer of stone they occupied snapped loose, followed by a ponderous stillness.

After a moment Carteher asked “What do you think?”

Then Raiolal asked “Was that it?”

Seth took one glance at the still glowing spot of rock. “Not even close...” Wheels started turning in his head. He was a smart man and had more knowledge of the arcane than any non-mage in existence. Almost all at once he reproduced the essence of Morgan's reasoning. He had no measurable idea of the kinds of forces involved, that would be like a man born blind fully grasping the relationship between hue and intensity in a particular painting. No, the thing that jumped into his mind was Morgan's words from late last night.

Seth said them aloud to get their feel. “grinding a mountain against a mountain.”

Before either of the others had a chance to say “What?”, the full realization took hold. The others saw his eyes go huge in understanding but said nothing. Seth yelled “Brace yourselves!” a little louder than necessary and he had time to ask himself how and with what?

He had been kneeling. He shifted so that his ankles were as far apart as possible and laid his torso down on the bulk of his pack, making sure his face was down on the middle of his bedroll for cushioning. He looked up and saw the others hadn't moved. He barked out “do it, now!” using his best commanding voice.

Long trained as soldiers, they both responded instantly to the command. Carteher, who lived on all fours, only had to shift himself over his pack. Raiolal had further to go. He'd just barely got into position when the waves came.

At first it was kind of gentle. An odd lifting as the center of small vale lifted even with the terrain around it and continued to rise. Then a groaning, uneven subsidence.

Then the fabric of the realm gave way as the tiny, three mile deep hole sent cracks running near straight away to the north and south. The noise of that breaking was so unlike anything anybody had ever heard that none of them was ever able to find words adequate to describe it.

From there on out it was all squealing, thundering, and shaking. They were thrown from the ground and slid around like bits of food frying in a pan. Then it just stopped.

* * *

If he hadn't been pressing his face into the padding Seth knew he'd have been knocked unconscious. As it was he suspected concussion. He'd had this sort of dizzy need to retch before. The other two were at least shaken but seemed to have been spared any blows to the head. This, he knew, was the time to get things together and get out, but he was having trouble making himself obey.

He worked his way over to check Morgan and found him physically unhurt. Magic was like that, the mage was generally so wrapped in the energies of their work that nothing so minor as fracturing the realm would make it all the way back to the caster on the puny physical plane. On the other hand Morgan was mentally gone.

Directing two tidal waves of stone to brush past each other so lightly, and geologically that was the lightest of kisses, had used nearly every channel he possessed. The few left were keeping him alive. Maintaining his breathing, heart beat, that sort of thing. There was no conscious direction left in him. Hopefully that was just geasairia running their course, though it might well be burnout...

Seth realized his mind was wandering. He had to focus and get them all moving. All the energy that had just come through here wouldn't just go away. It was packed away in pressed, stretched, or twisted stone somewhere and it might decide to come back. This place might be too weakened from the months of chaotic energy and it might still collapse away into formlessness like a vague pink...

Damn it all! He'd been drifting again.

“Hey, get moving, we have to get out of here. NOW!” He bellowed it at himself as much as the others. He scooped up his gear and shrugged it on as best he could.

The others were doing likewise and then they went on to chasing down the artifacts. They'd been tossed about but were all still in plain sight.

Seth took up the athame but didn't see how it could lead them anywhere. He passed it off to Raiolal, who pointed it this way and that, and declared that the horses were “that way”. Seth concentrated on the link and found himself suddenly lying on his back. It took him a second to realize that he was looking up at himself from Morgan's eyes.

The link worked just fine, but Seth had no idea how he might be able to operate his own body and Morgan's at the same time. He didn't have that many-minds trick. The alternate perspective was, however, letting his concussion get the better of him. The vague feeling and the nausea being harder to fight from a distance. He wondered about the feelings and the duality thing until Raiolal clapped his real body on the arm. He'd been drifting again.

Out of options, Seth hefted Morgan bodily across his shoulders and the top of the his pack. Without the depth of the pack he'd have blown the carry right away and dropped Morgan, but the pack was there, and he began to make his way with the rest of them.

It was a strange trip. Seth was capering around the muddier edge of consciousness, making himself put one foot in front of the other, following Raiolal through the mist. Carteher, the least affected of them all was taking up the rear to make sure they stayed together. For all of that, the strain of carrying near three hundred pounds of man and gear drove Seth further into that gray nothing that hounded his awareness.

There were noises and flashings and rumblings all around them in the mist. The earth shook again at least twice during their flight. One time there was a noise like hundreds of thousands of assorted crystal goblets and fine stoneware had been dropped all at once to break simultaneously on an endless kitchen floor. To Seth the noise sounded kind of pretty.

He was so out of touch that he didn't even know to stop when they breached the mist and reached the horses.

Raiolal stopped him with an outstretched arm.

Seth sagged to his knees in exhaustion but still managed to carefully lay Morgan down before collapsing himself. Breathing hard, and further from consciousness than when he'd started, he all but missed the brief conversation that Carteher and Raiolal had. He roused himself enough to mumble “touch the blade to the sphere” though he half thought he might have said `spear'.

But then the horses were there and he was getting his wind back a little.

They got the horses packed and Morgan tied into his saddle in another hazy interlude Seth couldn't quite follow.

When he got himself mounted he started to feel a little bit better, but when they started moving the rhythmic motion brought back the nausea.

At one point Raiolal reigned in beside him an asked “Are you okay? I saw you get flipped like a pancake back there”

Seth had been beaten nearly senseless more than once, but this was near the worst he could remember feeling after taking a head bashing.

Of course it could be hard to remember a good head bashing...

“I think I'm all right, I just need to lie down for a while, soon.”

Not more than a hour later they met up with the rest of the guard coming toward them up the road. In one of those twisting ways magicians had about them, E'tsar had felt the magnitude of what Morgan did, was going to do, whatever, three days ago. The idea was one that Seth, in his current state, could not fit into his head properly. To their credit they had brought the healer with them, and that meant that Seth could finally pass out.

While the two parties were merging into one and just starting to get organized, Seth quietly slipped from his saddle and landed in an unceremonious pile in the middle of the road.

* * *

Seth woke to find himself propped up in a seated position, in the back of a buckboard, headed back to the garrison with some deliberate haste. Ithria was next to him with that all-over distant look some magi get when they are working, and Morgan was laying just beyond her. Seth was feeling much better but still a good way away from well when Ithria came back into the here and now.

“Oh, you're awake.”

“Yes ma'am. If I may ask, how is my Master?” Seth was back on formal public manners.

“You two are quite an interesting pair. He seems to be fine, and so do you, for all that I could get close to either of you. What exactly happened out there?”

Seth gave a quick sketch of events from the time they entered the mist until the earth started shaking. Things after that were too fuzzy in his own head to organize quite right. She listened quite intensely and then dove back into the astral again for a short stretch.

“I just don't get it, there doesn't seem to be any kind of organic damage but I just can't seem to find any trace of consciousness in there. He's not sleeping, or in a coma either.”

Seth politely, and begging his pardon every so often, explained the concept of geasairia, providing what details he could as she went from questioning him to probing Morgan and back again. After a while she stopped so much trying to heal, as examine and understand, finally coming up with “So I shouldn't try to interfere with the effect at all?”

“Certainly not, mistress, whatever their functioning and intent, the channels will open up and return to normal as soon as they safely can. Disrupting them, even with healing, would trigger backlash at best.”

She “hrmmed” at that, then turned from the mystery of Morgan to the Mystery of Seth. “Do you know the reason or nature of the shield he has over you? I can't seem to pin it down, but it is keeping me from scanning you.”

“No ma'am, though I know that there is a binding between us four to keep us on this plane.” Seth indicated the short length of string around his wrist.

“It can't be that. I was able to scan the others without difficulty. He seems to have put something else about you.”

“I know nothing of it if he has ma'am.” not the truth, not a lie.

After several more tries at asensing, she gave up and did a manual exam. Not her long suit, but something she was used to doing when her resources were stretched too thin. She pronounced him battered, with a heavy concussion, and gave him a bucket to hold on to in case he needed to vomit.

She didn't much like not being able to do anything useful when people were unwell.

* * *

Seth made use of the bucket several times that afternoon, but the buckboard was better than the horse had been. He also used the link to check on Morgan's body. He couldn't do it very well while they were moving because even short trips away from his own misery would bring on the dry heaves.

The blissful feeling of relief that washed through Seth when they stopped for the night was epic. Once the horses were unhitched, Seth could lay still and breathe without imminent fear of the bucket. When Ithria came by to check on him Seth had made a decision. He'd need a co-conspirator if he were going to use the link to take care of Morgan. Without the link his condition would be life threatening, there was no other way to keep him properly fed that wouldn't be itself hazardous.

Seth told her about the link without getting into the hows and whys, that would be too dangerous, and they cooked up a simple bunch of ways to cover up what was going on.

Privacy assured a few minutes later, Seth moved into Morgan and saw to his relief and feeding. It was very odd being so small, and Seth had a lot of trouble with the close distances. How much of the staggering was coming from his own body was a more interesting question. He only managed broth for food, his own stomach wouldn't allow more. Repeating the exercise in his own body was almost as difficult for other reasons, and the broth was even harder to keep down when it was his own stomach.

Even with Morgan's body little more than a puppet, Seth experienced some burning from the scars when he'd gone just a few steps from the buckboard. As he returned the feeling subsided. That, he decided, must be the damping effect Morgan had mentioned. Put together with what Ithria had said about shielding and a long laundry list of other incidents in his life, Seth realized there was something there that needed some attention. He lost the thought shortly after returning to his body and would not get around to rethinking it for quite some time.

* * *

The next morning Seth found himself mostly recovered, but malingered on, with Ithria's help, to keep close to Morgan.

By the end of the second day in the wagon Seth was bored. By the third he'd have given money to get on his horse. By the fourth he'd have been willing to carry his horse rather than stay in the wagon. Fortunately they reached the garrison early on the fifth and Seth didn't lose his mind.

Free of the excuse of injury, Seth carried Morgan into a small room near the infirmary. He wasn't sure what exactly to do, his sole prior experience with geasairia was taking dictation for an article Lady Korane wrote against the practice. She'd said it shouldn't be used by field magi because of how vulnerable it left the mage. She'd proposed an expansion of the research into centering to displace the practice. Reviewing the text from memory gave Seth no insights about any kind of practical intervention. He'd have to wait it out.

For three more days Morgan showed no signs of recovery, then all at once he woke up. His language skills were still blocked but he was able to resume feeding and caring for his bodily needs. Speech returned four and a half hours later, which was as much a relief as the first recovery. His talent, literacy, and a goodly number of other skills were sill blocked but it was enough to allow him to dictate a report and be debriefed.

After the debriefing Morgan took Seth outside to the practice field and took a lesson.

When they quit the field for the day Morgan was acting fairly pensive. Seth waited for him to be ready to talk, and shortly after dinner he finally said something that wasn't just small-talk.

Walking down the hall back to their quarters Morgan suddenly blurted “I don't know if I want my talent to come back.”

Seth stopped dead in his tracks and watched Morgan take a step, stop, and turn back to him. The look on his face accused Morgan of insanity.

“That didn't come out right... I'm afraid of what it's going to be like when it comes back.”

That was more understandable and Seth made one of his articulate grunts.

“After the cutting everything was wrong. Kind of grainy and too loud, and I couldn't block it out. I don't think I can handle that very long, I was fighting not to... I don't know what... let it escape?”

Seth thought about it. “It could be different now, you aren't in the mist or near the well, that could have been a lot of it.”

“I don't think so, I'm fairly sure that I had shielded out both of those and I didn't feel different.”

“Maybe Ithria can heal the scars out or something, undo the effects of the cutting.”

Morgan nodded, “I think we'd better go see her.”

In the infirmary Morgan told Ithria what he'd done to himself and then they discussed everything he knew about the procedure and both the honorable and despicable parts of the thing generally called blood magic.

“Let me examine you a little.”

Morgan went to take off his shirt but she stopped him. “I only want to look at your arm for now.”

The cuttings had involved his entire back, and the parts of the arms and legs exposed when he'd lain down with his palms and insteps flat against the ground. That meant the outside of his upper arms and the tops of his forearms had been cut almost as much as his back. Ithria took his hand across the table and vrec'd down into it. She “oh”d and “hmm”d at it for a while and then was back.

“I don't think that there's anything to be done about it. The scar tissue is technically healthy, if not exactly normal, and I doubt that any kind of healing would effect it.”

“How is it `not normal'?”

“Keloid scar cells appear to be spread through the scar bodies in fairly complex patterns, normally they' be random. They are engaged in some pretty bizarre internal behaviors. They are interacting with the nerve bodies. It's difficult to isolate the processes. So much so that I think you'd have to remove the cells one at a time.”

“Oh.” Morgan knew that would take weeks.

“That's not the hard part, I think if you made any real progress doing that to any part of the system, the rest of what's happening in there would overload and destroy the nerves as you cleaned them.”

“So I'd become paralyzed bit by bit as the cells were removed.”


“Couldn't that be healed?” Seth asked.

“No, healing is about restoring the body to the patterns it knows and remembers. That's why a simple healer can't repair many things. A regenerist, can re-grow missing limbs and such by being able to impress those patterns externally, but he'd have to re-grow the keloids too or the nerve would simply be destroyed again immediately.”

Morgan nodded his head in understanding but Seth wasn't quite ready to admit defeat.

“Why not wait to regenerate the nerves until after the entire scar system was removed?”

“Because he'd be long dead by then. The scarring goes within fractions of the spine and then right up to the base of the brain. If the trauma to the nerves didn't overload his brain stem, and the toxins released didn't poison the spinal fluid, by the time you got two-thirds of the way up you'd be killing the nerves that effect critical things like the lungs and heart. From the point where you lost those life systems you'd still have at least hours or days work to reach the last of the scar. He couldn't survive that even with support spells. You might as well kill him and then try to raise him from the dead.”

Of course Seth knew that wasn't actually a suggestion. Necromancy never worked out right. Morgan's soul would be long-since gone from his body and there was no telling what would replace it. Not that it would necessarily be something evil, but it would not be Morgan any more. Ithria had just thrown in that last to make her point. What Morgan had done from necessity simply could not be undone.

Ithria made her apologies and they exchanged some technical small-talk and general pleasantries before Morgan excused them and they left her infirmary.

When they got back to their room Morgan said “At least I know there is nothing to be done about it, so I'll just have to prepare to face it as best I can.”

“If there is anything I can do, you know I will.”

“Just stay close. It'll come back all at once when the geasairia runs its course. I may need you when it hits.”

Seth nodded.

It was getting late and they hit the sack. There was just a small cot for Morgan in the tiny room and Seth stretched out his bedroll on the floor along the side of it closest to the door. He was long used to far worse, and he was too big for those standard-issue cots anyway.

* * *

In the middle of the next night Seth was roused from where he laid sprawled on the floor by an unfamiliar noise. He opened one eye without moving any other muscle, and strained to take in his surroundings. The noise recurred and he sprang up to Morgan's aid.

The sound was Morgan repeatedly going rigid with convulsions and then collapsing limp back onto the cot. It wasn't a seizure, he could see Morgan was fully conscious. Seth wasn't sure exactly what to do, but Morgan had told him he'd had a `damping effect' in the mist, so he put his hands on Morgan's chest and head.

That seemed to help a little and after a moment Morgan whispered “Get me up.”

It was an odd instruction, but Seth complied, hauling him to a standing position.

Morgan was shaking violently, but he managed to get out the words “naked” and “aotahe”.

Seth was only wearing shorts, being nearly naked he presumed neither word applied him. Morgan was wearing a nightshirt and leggings. Grabbing the shirt at the collar, Seth ripped it straight out to both sides with one long pull, and then dropped it to the floor. The drawstring of his leggings popped apart with equal ease. Getting the aotahe without dropping Morgan was a hair trickier. It was really a kind of one-step dash to the hook where it hung. He draped it over Morgan's shoulders, pulled it closed, and lifted up the hood. Morgan could put his arms through the sleeves later if necessary.

Morgan shuddered in a different way and then straightened a little without taking his weight away from Seth at all.

When his breathing started to return to normal Seth began to relax.

The crisis was over.

Morgan waited a moment more and then fished his arms up and out into the sleeves and wrapped them around Seth. He sagged against his chest for a moment more and then eased himself away.

“Was it bad?”

“Worse than I thought it'd be... It's actually worse here than it was in the mist.”

Seth grunted, paused, then asked “Why naked? I've never heard that had any effect on the aotahe.”

“I could feel them. Farmers, weavers, seamstresses, and launderers, everyone who'd ever touched those clothes were all right there in my head. I couldn't block it with the things actually touching me. Touching the scars...”

Seth thought it through. “That explains it then, you said the realm was `softening' around the well, becoming less real. It's worse here because the reality is harder here. You were extraordinarily sensitive before and now it's like everything is screaming while you have a hangover.”

“Fine, so what do I do to make it stop?”

“I don't know yet, but I bet we can come up with something before too long.”

“We'd better, or I'm going to lose my mind.” That last coming out as half laugh and half sob.