The evenings casting went better than Morgan had had any reason to hope. It hurt of course, but not as much as he'd come to expect. Whatever adaptations his talent were undergoing, there seemed to be some end in sight. For the first time in what seemed like forever, Morgan finished a major work without coming back to the smell of burnt flesh. Even his sleep was extraordinarily restful compared to any he'd had in a while.

* * *

In the morning Morgan woke to find himself feeling particularly well. Seth had made breakfast and the rest of the family was already up and eating. He joined them at table in just his robe, eager to be part of what felt like an unnaturally perfect morning. Even when things in your life are a shambles there can be moments of serene normality that refresh the soul. The whole morning went that way for all of them. It was as if nothing had ever disrupted their life.

Over breakfast he broke the news that they could leave the house and find their way back. He got a quick round of applause from Liane and Mieka, with Shiea joining in even though she really didn't understand exactly what she was applauding for. After all that time stuck in the house even work would seem like a vacation.

Liane and Mieka both had early sessions to teach. Liane decided to take Shiea with her to class, which would be outdoors and near enough like a picnic to keep Shiea content. Free to languish away the morning, Morgan spent a long time under the deluge of hot water falling into the tub and got ready to face a day in the real world. Seth waited on him dutifully, drying and dressing Morgan while he just enjoyed the pampering the way a drowsing cat takes to being scratched about the ears.

The silent question of how to spend the day between then and their afternoon meeting was easily answered when Seth suggested they exercise the horses. The grooms at the stable would see to that if they didn't, but the suggestion struck a chord in Morgan and the decision was made. If nothing else, a man needs to spend some time with his horse to keep a good bond with it, and he hadn't seen his own horse since they'd gotten back.

They spent some time at the stables going over their tack and speaking to the grooms about the horses. They each took some time with their respective beasts, talking to them and brushing them to renew the tenuous connection between man and horse. Then they saddled up and were out in the late morning air moving south at a comfortable trot.

The stirrings of spring were clearly taking earily hold all over the area. They stopped by silent consensus as they topped a small rise. In the near distance Morgan saw the mark of Razor Pass and the last several months intruded themselves on his mood, turning reverie into retrospect. All in all he was far happier than any sane person would find reasonable. He knew it didn't make any sense, he'd been dragged face-down through an outer ring of hell since he'd ridden up that steep defile last fall, but he'd been up to the task so far. Perhaps his condition was preying on his mind but somehow it all seemed to be worth it.

Those thoughts lead inexorably to the upcoming meeting, and behind that the steadily increasing uncertainty that was sure to follow. So far it was nothing but questions and there were undoubtedly more questions between himself and the first of the answers. Being under Seth's protection sometimes made everything feel like he was in a story in which he had no chance of failure. He wondered how many of the classic heroes had had that feeling. He suspected that none of them had. It was the kind of feeling that made you sloppy. The kind of feeling that the ignoble and vanquished probably feel right before they blunder straight into their deaths.

* * *

Morgan looked up at Seth who seemed even further away in thought. As if his glance had called him back, Seth suddenly looked down at him and spoke.

“It has to be one of the Masters on the council.”


“I've been thinking about it and at least one of the masters on the council has to be involved.”

Morgan caught up with the subject, “A little obvious don't you think. Besides everybody is always talking about every little thing the masters do. There is no way a council seat could be involved in anything as twisted as what happened at the shed. Somebody would know. People would talk.”

“Not if nobody else at the school is involved.”

“I don't get it.”

“Politics are a world to their own. Everybody at the school is interested in what is happening at the school, but when you go outside the school and do things apparently unrelated to the school itself, nobody bats an eye.”


“So if someone at the school is doing something major with literally the last person anyone would expect them to be involved with, nobody would be able to see it.”

Morgan reigned his horse around and headed vaguely southeast. By the time Seth fell in beside him he had an answer. “I see, but why does that lead you to a Council Seat?”

“Access. Acting alone, only a Council Seat would have access to the things, places and influence it would have taken to arrange the things we already know about.”

“Already know about?”

“There has to be more than we've seen. Stuff that didn't work out. Plans for the future. Things that have happened away from our sight that will end up making a difference later.”

“Thanks for the lift.” Morgan turned Seth's ideas over in his head a few times. If he presumed nothing in his life since Seth's arrival had been innocent, which might be just a little too much to credit but not by far, then it would take either a Council Seat, or a very clever immediate underling to arrange everything. Especially monitoring the gate so that a drone could be slipped into it when the recaller had been triggered. To do that one thing the recaller he'd taken would have had to be gotten to the blood mage and back and then to Morgan with absolute certainty and secrecy. Then something jogged.

“You said `acting alone', do we really know that?”

“I think we do.”

“Okay, this I have to hear reasoned out.”

“Start with the people in the shed. They knew each other. They were established together long before I set foot on this continent. Add to that our unnamed adversary who needs must have had contact with this group for some time in order for him to trust them with the information that could have been uncovered.”

“Or maybe they were ready to silence them all.”

“Or maybe that, but probably not. The intrinsic value of the group that brought him to them in the first place probably still held value. Besides that group was held together by specialized... tastes... not common talent. It's not likely they'd have known the value of anything they could have seen or heard. They were pleasure seekers and little more.

“The talent here had to be involved with them for some time. And one or two of the other people there were well-connected or powerful. That infers that they are local and that the person from the school is singular. Adding just one more person from the school would create, over time, the kind of coincidences that would get noticed. If they were at the same level of importance it would become known in that circle as a powerful lever since two people out of twelve is a substantial clique. If they were at different levels it would show up as fraternization. Neither would go without notice.”

The horses had taken them to the river and Morgan looked at the turning water wheel and pumping pistons of the school's hydraulic ram, which nudged and creaked in his thoughts as he tried to validate Seth's thinking. It made sense, but it didn't have strict logical closure, the people could have kept whatever secret however long, but was that likely? How much prying would it take to unseat a secret association of that sort? What signs would hint at it? Morgan, shaking his head at his own total lack of instinct for this intrigue, just couldn't bring himself to any surety on any of it.

“It's an awful thing to say, but I wish I knew a blood mage.”

Seth just stared at him.

“Ten minutes with one who would do what I said, without any kind of coercion, could give me what I need to track this one no matter where he went.”

An open admission of need can stall a conversation, and this one did just that. They forded the river, really just a large and reliable creek, and began cutting their way back toward the track to razor pass, starting a circuit to follow it back to the crossroads and down into town.

Some of his earlier mood returned to Morgan as they rode and his mind moved on to more distant, and in some ways more important matters. In the way that such things do, an amused snort found its way out of him.


I took him a second for Morgan to find himself.

“I was just picturing the way you grimace... Shiea on your back, clinging to you by a big hank of your hair in her fist... Doesn't that hurt?”

“Yea, sure,” he shrugged, “I guess... but not so it matters.”

They spent the rest of the ride talking about `antics' of one sort or another that happened to, or around them, at different times in their lives.

* * *

By unspoken accord they shifted from their private friendship to their public personae at some precise but spontaneous distance from the edge of town. Where one moment there had been a pair of friends there was now a master and his slave. The rest of the ride to the compound of house Annaoral was spent in this public mode.

Just before coming within line-of-sight of the merchant's compound Morgan drew his aotahe out of a saddle bag and put it on. He didn't close or charge it. Beyond a simple breach of etiquette, doing so was unnecessary and potentially dangerous. His silk under-suit was fully charged and what little tampering he'd been able to tolerate suggested that the two garments could not be used well in tandem. They seemed create blotchy holes in each other's protections. He had no idea what he'd do at the next high function at the school. Thankfully that was a problem for another day.

Morgan presented himself at the compound gate and was immediately let through. When the pages approached to take the horses Morgan made a vague gesture at Seth that clearly meant “accompany me”. He had no idea where he'd picked up the thing, but it was a near-universal signal. It wasn't that Seth had any intention of letting Morgan run off by himself in what was actually an enemy camp, nor that Morgan thought Seth may willingly leave him. It was a socially acceptable signal to everybody else that Seth was on duty and his presence in the house proper was not to be challenged unless the would-be challenger intended to challenge the master's presence as well.

At the main hall Morgan presented himself to the Majordomo.

“Magus Morgan for the Lady Jaesiaria. I am unforgivably early and I await the Lady's pleasure.”

“I am sure that the Lady will be able to see you right away.”

Morgan was almost perfectly on time and would no doubt only be kept waiting a few moments. The exchange was an ancient formula that served well to show mutual respect. The Majordomo led him to small but graciously appointed parlor just off the entry hall and invited him to sit. Seth was, of course, ignored totally as he took a position against one wall at a discrete distance from any doorway. It would not do to seem to be laying in wait when people entered.

The Lady Jaesiaria was old. While not decrepit with age, her once regal glide had become the stately gate of elder nobility. This was all the more pronounced by the fact that there was no actual entitlements of nobility in her past. What stature she held was hard won by her family in the mercantile exchanges of several continents, and few cling to things as strongly as those who only have pretense to them. The merchant nobility was, in its circle, as real as any kingship. All that not withstanding, as Lady Jaesiaria Annaoral entered the parlor there was nothing at all of pretense to her.

Morgan stood as she entered, bowed with a small flourish of his aotahe, and took her proffered hand in greeting. Pleasantries were exchanged and the lady, unattended by any servitors, pored them each a cup of tea. The social graces seen to, Morgan almost missed the subtle transition from form to substance.

In response to no particular prompting or context the lady said “I assure you that we enjoy what privacy it is in my power to ensure.” It was said with no particular inflection and was blended into her pattern of greeting and social custom.

Morgan took it as an warning, or invitation, and quickly vrec'd his surroundings. There was some kind of shield around the house. It was intricate and subtle and would clearly serve to block clairvoyant or clairaudiant snooping, but it didn't follow the forms of a standard block of such things. As clearly as there is a difference between a wall and a locked door, this shield was different from a simple block. Somewhere there was a key that would let the mathematically complex manifold of the shield be passed without difficulty. Morgan unleashed the tiniest edge of the chaotic energies from his augmentation which in turn started the manifolds tumbling like the cylinders of a lock.

For the next several hours the key, whatever it was and however it worked, would not fit the lock.

Even as he released that trickle of chaotic force Morgan said “I appreciate your gracious shelter from prying eyes, but I am afraid that my presence may have confused the normal workings of your protections. I deeply regret that this may prevent the normal functioning of any communicant you may have in your service.”

She smiled, “Oh, I do understand, there is likely no way it could be helped, however odd it may feel to be completely unobserved for a change.”

“Moments of complete privacy such as this,” Morgan replied, “are so rare these days, they must be treasured when they happen.”

“I do agree, but there are the more mundane intrusions in ones life that make it so difficult to concentrate on the matters at hand.”

Another warning. The lady feared spies in her own house. Another vrec revealed no one close enough observe their activities. No doubt the agency behind the shields felt that there would be no need for mundane observance. Still, a careful proximity ward; something that would tell him when people or creatures were near, without him having to actually lay metaphysical claim to this part of the house; would assure they knew when they might be observed.

“I'm sure that the mundane will not break in on us unawares.”

Unabashed shrewdness suddenly shone out from the core of the lady before him. “So, you are as clever as I have been led to believe.”

Morgan was not at all sure how to respond to that kind of statement, so he chose silence.

“It has been a long time since I have had any real sense of privacy.” This she said to herself as much as to him. “Whatever the protections about this house, I have been sure for years that that woman has had a way through them.”

Morgan paused for a moment then asked “`that woman' who?”

“Oh, of course, you probably don't know much about me. `That woman' is my son's wife Rienaegh.” Clearly the idea of daughter-in-law didn't even begin to enter in to it. “It was her son, my grandson, whom your man apparently slaughtered.”

“You'll forgive me for saying it, but you don't seem terribly distressed.”

She looked at Morgan with a startling amount of hard-to-read emotion in her face, “there are many things about my grandson that I regret, but his death is not one of them. He was lost to me many years ago. Despite my best efforts that woman raised him to be a uncaring monster. I have no doubt that his demise has saved this realm a great deal of suffering. I only weep for the long-dead child he once was.”

“What about your son?” Morgan didn't know exactly what he was asking, but if felt right to ask.

“That witch be-spelled my son years ago and I am long since past thinking anything I say or do can reach him.”

“Do you mean that literally? About the spell I mean...”

“I think so. She has never proven herself talented but in all the years I have known her I can find no other explanation for the circumstances that continuously surround her.

“Twenty seven years ago my three sons set sail on a trading mission to the new lands near the margins. Only one returns, with his new bride, and a tale of his brothers' deaths. The woman is lovely and charming, and we welcome her into our homes and lives. The tale between then and now is long and fraught with coincidence and suspicion, but suffice it to say that I find myself all these years later, widowed, land-locked, and satisfied only by the knowledge that the subtle poison of this woman is here, far removed from my birth clan.”

Interesting things, if true, but with no standard to measure this woman by there was no way of telling how much she said could be believed. More to the point little of what she had said so far had much direct bearing on his overall circumstance.

“So why am I here?”

“Would you surrender this man,” she said, pointing at Seth, “to the none-to-tender mercies of my son's wife?”


“Excellent, now I can truthfully say that I asked... I summoned you here to ask you that question. I also hoped that you would answer in the negative. At this point I can only hope for small victories against that woman, so I thought I would warn you about what you face.

“She is a cold, soulless harpy. She met the news of her son's death with little show of feeling one way or another. It was like she was hearing of a failed investment she had been dabbling in, not the taking of her son's life. I have no idea whether she harbors any real feelings of revenge toward your man, or you, but her interests now clearly lie in your quarter. She has been making some few inquiries about you, and him. If she means to avenge herself on you... As I have said, I can not tell, but you must be wary of her as you are wary of few others.”

“But you have no idea what she intends?”

“None. My information comes to me through the few household servants loyal to me. All I know is that she is showing a most unhealthy interest in your affairs.”

“Do you know... does she have frequent contact with the school?”

“Yes, she spends a goodly amount of time at official school functions and such, I think that is why she keeps our house here. I don't think that she would settle for making your life at the school difficult, that is a too-indirect method for her, though I might not put it beyond something of a first step.”

“It's not that really,” Morgan didn't want to really give anything away to this woman just yet, “but I am tracing a few oddities about the school that might lead to things just beyond the school grounds...”

“Do you mean that dreadful business that had everybody up and about the other day?”

“That my be part of it, yes, but there are other, less direct happenings that seem, well, odd. Nothing generally dangerous, more political I think.”

The lady was far to astute, and had dealt with far too many mages, to just blurt out “like what?” In fact a lifetime in trading had taught her all to well that there are plenty of things that a person really doesn't want to know, or more precisely, it is bad sense to have others know how much of their business you have made your own. She replaced the half formed query on her tongue with an polite and articulate sound, which invited Morgan to continue without actually questioning.

Morgan did continue, after a fashion, feeling boyish but having no better place to steer the conversation, “I am not really very good at the political side of things, but they have a way of drawing you in without a care for that. I've just been seeing things that make me a little antsy and so have been playing my own game of connect the spots.”

The lady actually laughed. “My dear boy, there is nothing so disturbing to a politician, no matter what their profession, as a curious amateur playing connect the spots. As long as you don't start thinking like a politician you will make out marvelously.”

From there the conversation loosened up a little and Morgan found he liked this woman. They didn't touch on weighty topics again but some few of her anecdotes were clearly meant to tell him something of the world of intrigue. In trade Morgan talked about his upbringing, which she seemed to enjoy immensely, and his few brushes with the political. In general it became more like a visit with an favorite aunt than anything else. The new-born suspicious side of his mind remarked that making all sorts feel at ease was probably part and parcel of being a successful trader. Still, by the end of the meeting Morgan felt the beginnings of a genuine connection to her.

One of her only recurring themes in the conversation was her relative lack of true privacy. She didn't exactly dwell on it, but there were moments when it was an unspoken undertone. This was punctuated by the fact that Morgan had verified her lack, and temporarily provided some shelter from the presumed intrusion. A thought formed in his head that it might be nice to gift her with some means of doing, from time to time, what he himself had done for this visit. The suspicious side also volunteered that she must have been a outstanding trader indeed if she had him even considering making a near-perfect stranger a custom enchantment.

As the hour drew on, Morgan finally had to make his apologies and take his leave.

* * *

Repossessed of their horses but still on foot, Morgan and Seth left the grounds of House Annaoral. Less than two paces from the gate they crossed the boundary of that odd household shield. As soon as they did, Morgan was nearly overcome by the silent polyphonic scream of blood magic.

He staggered a step even as the formula of various kinds of shields ran through his mind. He'd selected one and began the composition, but stopped himself just before he opened the necessary channels. He stopped because he realized that the power signature was coming at him through the link. The blood mage, or one of the drones, had the control ring. If he used his power that way the blood mage would learn too many things about them and the nature of the supposed control ring, and that would be very bad.

A single word of invective slipped out of Morgan before he turned to Seth and simply ordered “Mount.” Then he was on his horse and charging down the last of the village streets heading for the wilder lands beyond, Seth at his heels, him not daring to look back at Seth or even think about him too hard. About two miles out of the village he came to a small clearing and stopped. He tied the reins of his horse to a low hanging branch and headed for the center of the meadow, confidant that Seth would do likewise. By the time he found a spot he liked, he was deep into a mundane trance.

Seth faced him, awash in a puzzled acceptance, and Morgan felt like he was looking at a total stranger. He had to. The intensity of the blood magic signature had faded, but they were being monitored very closely. When he'd made the link, it was a perfect trap for any man or mage he knew of, but he knew more now. Blood magic was about twisting and debasing flesh and life energy, and the link was made of their two life energies intertwined. What was a trap for their mundane enemies would be a key to their individual essences in the hands of a blood mage. The link had to be severed before the mage figured out what he was holding.

First Morgan tried to put a trace on the ring, but there was no four-dimensional pathway to it. It was extra-spatial, being held outside the strict laws of normal space in a charged ritual casting circle somewhere. There was no way he could draw it to him from there since he wasn't part of the circle. He could never synchronize to the unknown circle from outside, as that is what such circles are for. Since he was not going to be able to break their connection to the link by simply summoning the ring, that left rupturing the link outright, pretty much what he'd expected he'd have to do.

“Remember when we made the link,” Morgan was speaking as if he were writing in a journal, as if he were talking to himself, “I asked you to let me in. Now you must throw me out, resist me, repudiate me, with every essence of your being. You must be alone. Sacrosanct and untouchable. A monolith. Nothing outside your own existence meaning anything to you. Just you alone.” Morgan didn't dare let any sense of involvement with Seth into his awareness, if he did then the seamless integration of their essence that was the link would reflect that increased sense of two beings intertwined. And that kind of a shift might be enough to let the mage know what he had before it was too late for him. “Do whatever it takes.”

Seth nodded his understanding and Morgan noted, in a supremely detached way, that he seemed to know what Morgan meant for him to do. He could feel Seth pushing away the world more firmly with every passing moment. What he hoped Seth could do was not a thing he would have expected any other person capable of. He'd seen the original collar, burnt, fractured, ignoble iron clinging to Seth's neck. If he could summon within himself what it took to break that enchantment, he would be dropped out of this one safely. The moment that happened Morgan had to be ready.

He opened all his channels, new and old alike.

He had no formula ready. No inward or outward direction. Structured intent was his enemy. He simply filled himself to bursting and let the flow continue, building a chaos node in seven dimensions. In the smallest corner of his mind he held before himself two things. The first was the denaturing curve of sorcerer's steel, it would do no good to rupture the link if, when it happened, the collars they both wore denatured and blew their heads from their bodies. The second was tesahegrami, a delivery system of sorts, the art of folding multidimensional constructs into fewer dimensions, and thereby suspending them until they are allowed to unfold again.

As the chaos node in him built to breaking he kept folding it. Delaying it. And placing that delayed package at the heart of the next wave. All the time he was doing that he could feel his own blood thundering in his head as if he were ready to explode. The tiny corner of him that would not stay completely silent was seeing Seth, veins bulging, face awash with the blush of effort. He'd started doing those peculiar dance-like exercise moves he did every morning, using them to draw into himself. And still another part of Morgan noted that his own clothes were smoldering.

Seth came to the end of one graceful move by bringing his arms down to his sides. His eyes were closed, and he was completely inner-directed. All at once a small stream of blood dropped down from his left nostril and, a heartbeat later, Seth's part of the link simply vanished.

That was the moment Morgan had been praying for. With Seth's flow gone, the structure of the link would collapse almost instantly. Morgan crammed the last folded outer frame of the node into the link and severed his own end. What had been a triangle became like a broken bow. There were three physical things in the link, the two collars and the ring. With both lines from the two collars cut at their source, the length of connecting energy would snap back at the remaining point. At the end of one of those snapping cords was a package of pure chaos and destruction.

But that was a simplistic view, there were physical, sympathetic links between the three pieces of iron. They'd been a single thing once, separated by sorcerous intent rather than physical force, and that was a core component of the enchantment. Even as the unraveling was started, Morgan reached out and snatched the band from around Seth's neck. Only after that one was free did he see to the one hidden around his own. The metal was already heating in his hands as he wadded the two hunks of iron into a ball. The physical destruction of the media was essential, lest it remember them too well, and it was assured by the chaos that would unfold in the last of the link.

Another formula came forward from his memory, relating velocity to energy, then energy to the decay of state. The unstable shimmering sphere of sorcerers steel bolted skyward. It would be ideal if it could make the seven miles to the upper limit of the realm, and past that point, before the critical moment. The edges of the realm kept a vast sea of chaos at bay, so the explosion would be meaningless on the far side of the barrier. He knew that beyond doubt, he'd had to touch that barrier to seal the fissure.

The sphere made it beyond the realm in time, but the entire realm shook metaphysically when the control ring blew. Morgan's little gift had been delivered to that extra-spatial location inside the enemy circle and then torn it apart in the single largest chaos event the interior of the realm had ever known. There was no wide-spread physical damage from the explosion, again, that is what ritual circles are for, but the operant, talented, and sensitive beings all over the realm felt a warm wave of disruption sweep across everything and everyone. Here and there some weaker bindings broke, but the single most significant outcome was the complete obliteration of one particular blood mage and all his drones.

* * *

Morgan made one other discovery.

The damping effect he'd had from Seth was, it turned out, substantially a byproduct of the link and not really a result solely of Seth's proximity. With the link severed he was finally exposed to the full reality of his new channels. Had he gotten this exposure right off, he would not have survived. From the vantage point of several month's experience, he managed to save mind and body only by way of his instinct for high energy physics.

One at a time, five crystals dropped from his hand. They weren't real things by any normal reckoning, they were expressions of Morgan's own life essence, each trapping the headwaters of his new channels where they anchored in each of the five major houses. They were like geasairia transformed into material objects. They wouldn't last very long, perhaps a few days, but it would give Morgan a chance to find a more permanent way of coping.

The new damage to his system caused by making the chaos node, the renewed agony of his cuttings, and the trauma of having five distinct chunks of life essence ripped from his body left Morgan empty and unfocused. He managed to get out orders to Seth. Orders to get him home and safe in the basement circle, orders to find and retrieve the five luminescent crystals, and most importantly the need to keep those five stones as far away from him as possible until they reached the basement. If he touched them now they'd open like seed pods and kill him with in-rushing energy.