Morgan got to miss all the excitement he caused. For days every sentient talent in the realm was talking and thinking about little else than the mysterious rush of energy they'd each felt. The school, much like every other similar gathering of human talent in the realm, was more like an ant hill stirred by a stick than an institution of higher education. The result of all the excitement was the full knowledge that nobody had any real idea what had happened. Morgan missed all this because he was stuck in his basement trying to reintegrate his powers.

He was successful, after a fashion, in that he emerged from the ritual after ten days of concerted effort with his mind and body intact. His talent was another story altogether. When he'd pulled out of the restorative ritual Morgan found himself without any active, conscious abilities what so ever. He could vrec and prev, but he couldn't act on anything. He figured the condition was temporary, like flash-blindness or hysterical amnesia, because he could still use his athame.

All over his body there were new puckered and tender scars where the cuttings had extended themselves through his flesh. This time there would be no `next time.' When these finally healed that would be it, the final configuration of keloid was in place within his body. That had hurt bad, and then it had hurt good, the pleasurable pain of final healing was finally his. He hadn't intended to expand the scars, they seemed to have a final pattern in mind and every time he used his outer strength they'd grown. That was what all the previous burning had been about. The reintegration had been of such intensity that the scars had to find their final shape for him to complete himself in all the other ways. Sitting in the middle of his circle, Morgan contemplated the pattern that now lived within his skin.

Despite the generally positive outcome Morgan was profoundly depressed, the largest single component of that depression was an all-penetrating nearly insurmountable feeling of loneliness. He felt like something had hollowed away most of his being. He just wanted to lie back against the cold stone floor and weep. The thing that was missing was Seth.

Of course Seth hadn't actually gone anywhere. Morgan knew he need only lift his eyes to find Seth waiting on him. It was the link, or in this case its absence... again. From the moment Tor had handed him the original control ring to the moment Seth had severed himself from the trap-link Morgan had been constantly in touch with at least a tiny bit of him. Even when Seth had been ground up by the collar Morgan had felt Seth's presence, he'd been monitoring his health constantly. Now all that was gone.

In a way, even that breach had saved Morgan. When he'd been reintegrating his powers he'd taken huge risks. Risks that he took half hoping he'd destroy himself and not caring which way it'd come out. If he'd not taken those risks he'd likely have failed and done himself grievous harm by being over careful. Small consolation it seemed.

Morgan wanted to remake the link. Even with no better reason than to banish that empty feeling. Even though that would mean that it would be worse when the new link failed. Even, perhaps, if he had to force it or sneak it into place. Almost no matter what, the feeling of loss compelled him, but he had no power to do it. His talents were stuck while this last personal healing ran its course. No matter what the impetus, he would have to learn to do without.

* * *

Seth was in some ways worse off. He too had become accustomed to Morgan's constant subliminal presence deep inside himself, but Seth had no understanding of what he'd had and so what he was now missing. He had no words for the loss. No way wrap his feelings in a blanket of soft remorse or implacable reason.

Every night of Morgan's re-assimilation, Seth had nightmares more bizarre, intense and enigmatic than he'd ever had before. By the time Morgan returned to the outside world Seth was on the ragged edge of exhaustion. When Morgan did finally step from the circle Seth, who'd never really had a personal friend before Morgan, was totally unprepared. When he touched Morgan in causal friendship the man had pulled back like he'd been burned, and that wounded Seth to the quick. But he was no fool, and wounded or not he soon understood that whatever was happening inside Morgan was profound.

But it still hurt.

The day was awkward, and painful, and miserable to them both and everyone who came within reach of the two. In the course of less than ten hours they managed to do more emotional harm to one another than either of them understood. By bedtime Seth was looking forward to something as understandable as an simple nightmare. Physically and emotionally exhausted, Seth, who had lately been sharing Morgan's bed in platonic friendship, curled up in the corner of the room on a pile of dirty clothes instead.

* * *

In the middle of the night Morgan found himself awake. His eyes heavy and stinging with partly shed tears. He could hear Seth quietly moaning and grunting in his sleep, and he was drowning in his own misery. Then he heard Seth start to move, twitching and thrashing in company to the tiny noises he made. Morgan knew that was bad. He'd learned that was not Seth's way. When he slept he was motionless as a stone beyond the odd deliberate turn every hour or so. It was just too much.

Morgan vrec'd out toward Seth to check if he were all right but found nothing. He could see the room and the house and the spell-works that hung all about it, but there was no hint of Seth anywhere. Concern warred with despair and won. Morgan crawled to the edge of the bed and looked down at him. He was there, twitching and grunting in the throws of night terror. The failure of his insights frightened Morgan, but his empathy for Seth's pain was stronger. Morgan eased himself from the bed and onto the pile of clothes.

Acutely aware that the huge man could unwittingly do him grievous harm if he lashed out in his sleep, Morgan gently laid a hand on his shoulder and began talking to him in a whisper.

“Seth... Seth, wake up... It's all right... you're having a nightmare... wake up...”

Seth did wake, part-way, to that half drowse that defies logic.

“Everything's all right now, I'm here...”

Seth rolled over and seized his arms around Morgan's waist, crushing him an a brutal bear-hug, which gradually loosened as he feel back into deeper sleep.

`Oh gods' Morgan thought to himself, stroking Seth's head. He didn't notice the pain in the hug... his heart ached far worse. This was stupid. Completely doomed for being so one-sided, but it felt so good not to be alone. To have one person, even if it was just a fever dream, something of his own making. Just then reality or illusion meant nothing. It felt like everything, not to be alone.

* * *

Morgan woke first, still pinioned in Seth's arms, Seth's head on his chest. His right leg was numb from Seth's weight and his back and neck were sore from the awkward position, but he didn't care. Contentment warred with shame and a distant foolishness but this time there was no clear winner. He wanted to crawl away somewhere before Seth woke, though he wasn't sure why and he knew that he was going nowhere until Seth woke up and let him go. A slight movement of his right hand, now caught up in Seth's long hair, set Seth to stirring.


A slightly renewed pressure in the hug and a deep grunt that Morgan felt more than heard was his sleep-shrouded reply.

“Seth...” he said again, a little louder, and Seth lifted his head and looked him in the face, “I'm sorry...”

Seth didn't understand, a slave grows accustomed to not understanding so a habitual blank look strayed across his face; then he began untangling himself from Morgan and the clothes.

Morgan found himself still at a loss, with no idea what that blank look could mean. Seth headed off on his morning routine. Morgan wanted to follow but couldn't because his leg was asleep. He aggressively chafed at his leg, ignoring the pins and needles, which were nothing to his recent experience, and finally managed to stand.

By the time he reached the hall Seth was already outside doing his exercises, whatever it was Morgan meant to say, the moment had escaped him.

* * *

Morgan tried bathing the way Seth did, by standing under the hot sluice and letting the continuous solid rush of water drag down across his body. The tugging at his scars was pleasurable in an odd way, and he ended up enjoying it to a wasteful degree. When he finished he put on a robe and headed for the kitchen and breakfast.

Morgan ate sparingly, acutely aware that he'd no money and his two mouths to feed could quickly drag Mieka and Liane down into poverty. He ended up sitting at the table, munching some bread and cheese, and watching Seth finish up his exercises. It struck him that he'd never really just looked at Seth when he did this, and somehow he'd missed the total serenity that suffused him when he was absorbed in those strange martial dances.

When Seth came in Morgan nodded his chin back at the porch and said “teach me” in an entreating tone.

Seth glanced back where he'd been and then looked back at Morgan, “I don't know if I can.”

“Not just that... the staff, whatever... I need to learn.”

Seth nodded, and kept nodding to himself as he headed back to dress.

* * *

Starting that first practice on that first day, they went at each other with a vengeance. By the end of the first week they were drawing a small crowd at the practice yard. Seth could have taken Morgan at any time, but he hit as hard and moved as fast as he could while still staying in within the bounds of useful teaching. Morgan was no slouch and he was swinging at near full strength. By the end of each day they'd both have a good crop of bruises.

When two weeks had passed and Morgan felt no kind of return in his talents, a kind of unspoken desperation came which fueled his intensity during practice. They didn't talk about anything much except combat and exercise, and they did little else but eat. As far as eating, they found a way to eat on the dole at least nine times out of ten. Sometimes it was at the garrison but usually it was at one or the other of the school's kitchens. The bureaucracy, with a tiny nudge from Tor here and there, never managed to notice the freeloading.

At the end of the first month of summer there was still no sign of Morgan's talent, but the two of them had managed to work through the bulk of the issues between them in that unspoken way men have. The fury was gone. Morgan's body had remembered its roots in hard work, and he was no longer the flabby student. He'd become lean and wiry. He was fast and wicked with his staff, partly out of natural instinct for the weapon and partly because his unhampered ability to vrec gave him eyes in the back of his head.

Their gallery of onlookers, which had been mostly guards and soldiers to start with, had evolved into regular pool of sparring partners and mock opponents. They fought side-by-side as often as with each other and began to get a reputation. For Morgan the training not only deepened the mundane bond between himself and Seth. It was also particularly effective at keeping him from dwelling on his still missing talent.

* * *

It was the collection season. The School of Disciplines was barely functioning. That was the way it was every year during the summer. Every ranking mage was off in search of material components and what classes there were, were taught by graduate students at best. The registry showed that Master Calhwin was on the grounds, but nobody had seen him for days.

He sat alone in his workroom surrounded by precious metals and rare earths. He was weaving tiny plaques of minerals and organics together. The plan he followed was ancient, he'd found it dozens of years ago it in a sheaf of papers in a chest on sale in a bazaar two continents away. He'd kept this most valuable knowledge to himself despite his oaths as a teacher. Some things are just too valuable to share. Everybody else on the council had this sort of secret, he was sure, otherwise they wouldn't have found the leverage, the raw power, to get ahead. He'd done this several times before, woven a way-gate, but his local one had been ruined months ago. He'd determined that it would be easier to remake the gate locally then it would be to make the long trek to his reserves.

It would take the rest of the summer to complete the gate, but when he was done he'd finally be ready to deal with that upstart.

His pride still stung from the tongue-lashing he taken from Rienaegh, but despite all her invective she'd done no better in their venture. Master Calhwin wasn't sure why she'd been so all-fired hot to get to those gods-forsaken wastes but he'd been more than happy to bump her to the front of the waiting list on the gate. Hells, he'd flung her himself just to be rid of her. Sometimes he had no idea why he put up with her at all.

That wasn't precisely true, he knew exactly why he put up with her. She knew the ways of mundane power and advantage. She was useful to him just as he was useful to her. Just sometimes, her attitude was hard to bear.

* * *

Rienaegh was as happy to be back in the tribe-lands of her youth as she was repelled by the totally uncouth way her people lived. It hadn't seemed so bad when she'd left but twenty clean, respectable years in the inner lands had washed away her taste for this earthy way of life.

She wouldn't be among `her people' very long. As luck would have it there were several young men apprenticed to the 'sgung and ready to take their scars. One of them was a virile young lad, and all she had to do was plant her compulsions on him before he was cut.

The boy would love her. That was the way of her deepest talent. She could control any man she could take to her bed. In the moment of his deepest pleasure a man was especially vulnerable and she'd seen that in her youth. It'd won her complete control of Niyla first, and later the weak soft man who was now her husband, and finally Calhwin. And it was no small control. Her husband had slain his brothers at her whim and then forgotten the deed he could not live with at her touch.

She'd been afraid that there would bee no suitable candidates and she'd have to try to take a full 'sgung. The cutting forever twisted them and she'd been afraid to think what it would have taken to pleasure such a one, but here, like a gift of the fates, was a pleasing young buck ripe for the taking. She would charm the young lad, take him to her bed, and ensorcell him. Then she need only wait for him to take his scars at the end of the month and she could be gone from this squalid place with a new and powerful little toy.

Once home it would only take him a month or two to harvest the needed power. She'd provide the bodies just has she had for Niyla, so it wouldn't take him the several years it usually took a new 'sgung, out hunting victims alone, to establish his founding strength. Then, perhaps by early fall, she could get back to, and finish off, that kayffe of an upstart mage and his beast.

To that end she also set out to collect a particular tidbit of local flora. A surprise. Something fun for putting a mage in his place.

* * *

Morgan hadn't told anybody about his missing talent, but in the middle of the second month of its absence Seth literally beat it out of him. It'd started harmlessly enough, Seth wanted to teach Morgan how to use his athame in combat. The techniques were obscure. Since an athame can cut through an opponents weapon at will, it needs special handling. If you cut an opponents blade during a defensive move he's likely to kill you with the stub without even trying, while he completes the swing. An athame is a weapon that a mage must either know exactly how to use or leave out of the fight entirely.

Morgan had not been eager to even touch his blade but refused to say why. Seth had pressed him and Morgan had balked. They'd finally gotten onto the field to work with the blade but Morgan didn't follow directions and had ended up cutting Seth's wooden practice sword at exactly the wrong time. Morgan went down like a sack of bricks when the stubby wooden remnant struck him on the temple. Seth kicked the athame from Morgan's stunned hand, not wanting to face it for real if Morgan came-to fighting, and then bent down and seized Morgan's jerkin at the laces.

Seth half dragged half walked the stunned man into the sally and then into a private exercise room. Almost immediately the shouting began, followed by a near fist-fight. Morgan being more the physical aggressor and Seth more the verbal. Morgan was tougher than he looked and he would not stop. Seth wouldn't let it go because he knew that people could die in practice combat. If he couldn't find out what was really wrong with Morgan he'd have to stop the practices and it was nearly all he had with Morgan these days. When totally defensive tactics clearly stopped making any progress Seth started putting a light hurt into his replies to Morgan's fists. That threw Morgan into an seemingly inexplicable rage which Seth could only stop with a punishing physical response.

Morgan, looking like he'd been set-upon by a small gang, finally collapsed and, in sobs, the fear and pain worked its way out of him. The missing talents. The fear that they might never really come back. The aching emptiness he felt of late, though not why he felt that. Nearly everything that had been driving Morgan for weeks came out of him in one long emotionally draining harangue. He'd even almost revealed the core of his pain, his deepest feelings for Seth that he wouldn't even face himself, but the same old fear held that back. Still it was enough to explain the distance he'd been keeping from Seth, and everybody else in his life, and it was enough to let some more, deeper healing begin between them.

The two of them had been a walking storm cloud for weeks but after that day the cloud lifted. Slowly they began to laugh again and the more peaceable sides of their relationship began to resurface from time to time. In contrast to that, Morgan developed a controlled ferocity in his fighting style that soon had him near as good as any of the career armsmen around the school and village. They became well liked and even lost some of their negative association with the school.

Morgan had all but turned his back on the school and his talents. It was simple denial. At the three month mark there was still no sign of his talent reawakening. It was frustrating and confusing when he let himself dwell on it. There was no reason he could think of that his talents should still be in abeyance. He was whole and healthy in every respect. He could asense anything he cared to at close range, but he couldn't do the simplest distance sensing nor effect any material conjuration of any kind. He'd even stopped hiding his scars.

People had commented on what a pair Morgan and Seth made. Working in the sun had brought Morgan's dusky olive color out, making the black and white pattern stand out on his skin. The original cuts were relatively straight and even, but the grown extensions curled and branched every which way like wild vines tangled in a tree. His forearms and legs were completely entwined with a pattern too complex to follow. When compared to the colorful and stylized Phoenix and fire-borne creatures decorating Seth's back, arms, and legs there seemed to be an almost complementary discontinuity. Of course nobody actually said anything about it to their faces but the armsmen treated them each as if they were actually marked for one another as bonded shield-mates.

* * *

Nearly a week into the fourth month of Morgan's loss there was an accident. Two men sparring gravely injured a third. It was the stupid kind of accident that happens when bravado oversteps diligence. The first man got his opponent well off balance and then gave him a good hard shove. The second man, attempting not to fall flat on his backside, stumbled back four or five paces and right into the third, who was straining under a heavy arm-load of armor pieces. Man and armor were thereby shoved bodily into a portable weapons stand, whereupon man, load, and rack all toppled over in a crash.

The man landed on the swords and daggers held in the rack with the full force of his weight and the weight of his load. He was cut deeply along the entirety of his right side and the edge of one blade found its way between his ribs and punctured his lung while another slipped trough a disk between his shoulders and rested just shy of severing his spinal chord. Even before the first of the debris had been cleared away someone had been sent running for a healer.

The moment the man was injured Morgan was struck down by a wave of dark empathy.

The blow was so strong that the staff spun from his hands mid-stroke. His opponent's attack struck him harshly in the ribs. He didn't even notice. Compelled, or perhaps even possessed by the stranger's agony Morgan found himself moving to the commotion as if in a dream. His every awareness was filled by the twitching, tortured figure.

The compulsion was all-consuming and unspeakably vile. It had nothing to do with compassion, concern, or even morbid curiosity. Morgan was spellbound by the waves of torment emanating from the fallen man. He wanted what he felt there. Needed it. Lusted for it with every part of a man's soul that can lust. There, crystallized before him, was a forbidden ambrosia that could be taken and savored, or even shaped and used like any of the houses of power. He'd dealt with the elemental force of life before, and had felt the temptations that that can carry, but those were insignificant compared to this focused explosion of vital fear and mortal pain. He was consumed and scoured to the core by what lay before him.

Perhaps equally large within him was that morbid curiosity, buoyed up and riding on a bubble of revulsion so huge that there was no room left in Morgan's mind for the faculty of reason. Powers, strictures, and weavings of intent formed around Morgan by instinct, the way a silken cocoon forms about a caterpillar, innocent of intent or cogent will, an act of organic autonomy that was beyond Morgan's faculty to comprehend. That it would do an unrelenting evil to himself and the stranger was certain.

He was walking calmly to his undoing, and he knew it would change him so deeply that when it was done he would revel in that difference, embrace it as a true destiny of his own choosing, defend it with his every fiber. There was no chance that those around him would save him, they'd be sure to think that he came to help. There would be an audience for his damnation.

When Morgan reached the chaotic center of activity the bloody figure was still beneath a few heavy items that the surrounding men were puzzling over, unsure how to proceed without exacerbating the injuries already sustained. Those things lifted and flung themselves away as the first layers of Morgan's cocoon began to ravel into place. Tiny flashes of sentience came over Morgan as he knelt down and touched the man and more layers of binding flowed into place. Just enough self awareness for him to appreciate the means and nature of his doom. As the flows descended and entwined, Morgan recognized them as a pervasive healing web, but that web carried a dark fiber that warped it into a vile binding the way a drawstring distorts a flat piece of canvas into a deeply pleated bag.

Layer after layer stripped, ground, and twisted away Morgan's sense of self until there was nothing left but the tiniest grain of awareness amidst the massive instinctual work of sorcery. That was enough. Sometimes even the weakest person has within them something that simply will not give way, even if the cost is death. That last tattered morsel of Morgan's essential being was just such a thing.

If the walk to the accident had been half a heartbeat shorter, perhaps things would have worked out differently. Or perhaps there was something intrinsic in Morgan's makeup that was fundamentally incompatible with the way things were heading. Morgan himself would have liked dearly to say that some higher power, or some noble nature, or something fine and unassailable in his makup had helped him win out. The unpleasant truth though, was that Morgan had an undying resentment of any one, or any thing, that wanted to push him around. That resentment sunk its stubborn teeth into that one last repugnant thread and simply refused to let it settle into place.

Then, like bile eating through a table, that resentment began to eat that thread out of the binding one tiny nibble at a time.

The binding was a living thing, possessed of most of Morgan's essence and force of will, and it fought back, struggling to set itself into place, but that unthinking stubborn wisp of Morgan's original self would not be swayed. The new Morgan thought of endless waves of power, free for the taking and a pure orgiastic pleasure to consume, and the stubborn old thing heard nothing. The re-bound self tried reasoning, claiming to understand the danger of talking its fill in front of witnesses and the stubbornness would not be moved.

As each strand of the web was freed from the distorting fiber it became a pitched battle between the re-growing natural will and the dying new self. There was never any real possibility for compromise, either this would be a despicable act of brutality on a stranger that would warp Morgan forever, or a whole and clean healing, but the new self fought the old for its very survival. It changed its goals and tactics again and again in desperate attempts to exist, but by then the thing in Morgan's essence that simply could not be pushed knew that anything less than total victory would mean a lifetime of madness as two complete and totally opposite selves fought endlessly inside his head for momentary control. Once the unraveling was begun it needs must be seen through to the bitter end.

Bit by bit Morgan recovered himself and turned the river of power that was trying to wash him utterly away, into the channel of his own choosing.

“How about a little binding to feed from, to keep this pleasure real.”


“This knowledge, secret, known only here, which will mean victory if things ever come to desparation in combat.”


“A taste of vitality, a tiny binding, he's young and healthy and would never know about so tiny a drain. A fair price for his life.”


“At least remember this shape here, an easy twist to bring hidden feelings to fruit in another.”

“No, Not even that.”

* * *

Then the cocoon was clean. A healing web for the injured armsman, though something which still wrapped and penetrated every fiber of Morgan's original being. There was nothing left to do. Nothing left to fight. So he let it all settle in and do its business on them both.

* * *

When Morgan came back to consciousness he found his talents fully functional and himself possessed of a new instinct. An instinct for flesh. A healing instinct he'd never thought he could possess. He knew that he would never be free of the physical pain around him. He ached in sympathy for every sore muscle and tiny bruise or scratch suffered by the people nearest him. And the temptation was still there, the temptation to twist the tiniest physical harm into a font of power and pleasure. The temptation was proportional to the hurt, but it would never again be the torrent of uncontainable lust it had been this first time.

From now on, being around the wounded would cost him in emotional pain and temptation denied, and delving in to help and heal would cost him far more, but the demon urge had been defeated soundly and permanently. Morgan could remember having a vast and terrible knowledge of the twisting and debasing of flesh, but that had died utterly with his short-lived other self. That knowledge, or at least the absolute certainty that that knowledge could be his again if he dove willfully into the temptation he'd always feel was, in itself, a vast temptation, and an only slightly larger force driving him away from ever again even touching those vanquished instincts.

In less than two hundred heartbeats Morgan had become the most powerful blood mage the realm would ever know, and then fought his way back to become again a sane and potently talented man of honor.