Tap tap tap. Tap. Tap tap...

“Damn it!”

The inlay work was eye-straining, delicate, and frustrating. Morgan lifted the end of the staff off the table to get a better look at the thing. With tiny hammer and bladed punch, he'd been forcing strands of circuitry into the ironwood pole for days. This particularly tricky bit involved taking one strand each of copper, gold, and rarest aluminum, twisting them into a tiny rope, and laying that in a groove that wandered down the whole length of the weapon. Careful inspection revealed that he'd not broken the strand as he'd thought, so he went back to his hammering.

A wizened old mage leaning on his staff. It was an image so cliché that sometimes he had to laugh at making this thing. And people would likely laugh at him for having it when he was done. You just didn't see them in these modern times. Still, he would be able to take a little laughter, he needed the damn thing. Not as a crutch, he was in the best condition of his life, and not as a warehouse for spells he was too old to remember how to cast on his own. He needed it to help him focus.

His talent was back in full fury. Since the near disaster in the sally, he'd had no difficulty accessing any part of his talents at full measure. It was the fine work that was getting him. The whole two-layer effect was still there. He'd direct the tiniest flow of power at something and his outer channels would back that up with a raging torrent. When the circuits were complete and the enchantments set he'd be able to use the staff to help block off his outer channels, or more precisely, get them to turn back on themselves safely, and that would get him his fine control back.

Besides, if anybody took to laughing at him he could always take their heads off with the thing. No magery involved. Just a spin and a thunk, and any soldier would respect him, mage or no.

Getting some of the materials had been tricky, but it seemed he had a patron or two at the school. Kliystreia Oestereen, the woman who he'd helped during her drawing out, had been most generous to him. He'd never thought of asking her for anything but either Tor or Seth, the only two people he'd ever shared those events with, must have leaked word to her that he needed a good quarter-pound of aluminum. A full half pound arrived with a note of thanks “just between them”, whatever that meant, and things were going nicely since.

Seth was out in the smithy somewhere pounding out two sheets of copper that would eventually be the heels for the thing. In all the books he'd ever read on the subject, preparation of a staff like this should have taken months. Morgan expected this one to be done by the end of the day, a perfect week from start to finish. That was more Seth's doing than his own. The man was tireless. Morgan would barely finish a sketch or plan when Seth would jump on it and have it done. It would have taken Morgan weeks just to carve out the beds for the inlay. Seth had done the entire job perfectly overnight and without leaving a trace of essence behind for the clearing.

Not that he expected to have the slightest trouble clearing anything. That is the one thing that a barely controllable torrent of energy seemed to be perfect for. He'd done the test at the beginning of the project. He'd wanted to be sure he could use the tainted materials easily found available around the school. He'd flash-cleared an entire pile of tailings and waste metal from the School of Smiths in seventeen and a half seconds with nothing worse than a mild headache to the negative.

For the first time in nearly forever things were going absolutely and completely his way. He just didn't want to think that thought too hard, lest it call down some new twisted little joke of fate.

* * *

Seth came in with the heel plates shortly after Morgan finished laying in the last of the circuits. Despite his best efforts at remaining oblivious to such things, Morgan took a moment out to simply enjoy the sight of him. He hoped it was discrete and he did his best to cover it with his appreciation of the work. The sheets were flawlessly flat on one side and had an intricate waving pattern on the other. When closed over the wood, patterned side in, the waves would form an inward spiral that was part and parcel of what the staff was about. Man, talent, and product together were an extremely difficult package to ignore. These were the times, he chided himself, that a person who'd studied so many obscure mental disciplines should be able to avoid thinking about one simple topic.

“They look beautiful, any problems?”


“Always the conversationalist, go ahead and position them under the two ends, I think I'm just about ready to do this.”

Seth carefully aligned the sheets under each end of the staff.

“Am I forgetting anything?”

“You mix the coal dust with the emerald?”

“Eh... yes.”

“You have the gold, iron, lead and magnesium in the crucible?”

“Premeasured and ready to melt.”

“You have all the formula?” Seth tapped Morgan's temple.

“Best as I can.”

“Then you're ready.”

“Wait... sand!”

“What sand?” Seth eyed the pile of plans suspiciously, “there was no mention of sand.”

“You're right, but I just had a thought. strands of glass through the attenuator. It would make a good place to park static charges.”

“You sure?”

Morgan thought it out a bit. “Positive.”

“All right, sand. How much?”

“Ah... two pounds, fine grain, no tincture.”

Seth raised an eyebrow.

“Get it from the glass-works, they've got a big bin of the stuff.”

“Anything else while I'm out?” This was near the hundredth time Morgan had sent Seth for something in the last week. Morgan was glad to hear a little bit of friendly banter edging the question. He thought of tossing in something frivolous and bizarre as a joke, but Seth was likely to bring whatever he asked for back and it'd be impossible to know whether that would be a joke in response or not.

Better safe than awkward. “No, that'll just about do it.” Then again, “Besides I can always send you out again later...”

Seth gave him that `you're lucky I don't have anything to throw' look, snorted, and went off to fetch the sand.

By the time he returned the casting was well under way. The staff was floating in mid air surrounded by a hearty glow that even Seth could see. Morgan gestured at the crucible and Seth pored the sand in on top of the metal chunks. Immediately thereafter the contents began to flow together without apparent heat. The intent was an imperfect alloy of the metals formed around a tree-like structure of fine glass threads. Finally that would be positioned inside the shaft.

Unlike the classical form of mage staff, there was no spell-node thickening `the top'. This staff had no `business end', it was all attenuator. The excess alloy would form the butt ends and merge with the copper plates formed around the shaft at each end. The final result would be a straight stick with metal caps at each end and lots of glittering lines running along its surface. It would be a little heavy compared to a normal fighting grade staff but he would be strong enough to make up for that in combat, should the need arise.

Seth squatted down onto his haunches in one corner and watched Morgan work. Good sorcery, like most things, is accomplished with a minimum of flash and noise. For him sorcery was about nothing more than waiting. In a surprisingly short time the completed staff settled to the floor and Seth was up and toweling away the heavy layer of sweat from Morgan's body before he had a chance to take a chill. He knew Morgan would be weak and thirsty and all too eager to play with his new toy, so he took the time to mother him a bit, something nobody can resist if done right, forcing him to eat, drink, and relax for a bit so he'd be properly recovered.

* * *

A child with a new toy is exactly what Morgan was acting like on the way home. He'd conjured a teardrop of fire no bigger than a candle flame and attached it to one end of the staff. He was swinging it around and poking it at everything, including Seth, until Seth wanted to slap him down like an over-active puppy. Still, it was such a happy moment that Seth was on edge waiting for disaster to strike.

The closest thing to disaster was a small brush fire, perhaps ten inches square, set when a certain mage poked his stick where it didn't belong. Three good stomps took care of that handily enough. Morgan just had a good laugh about it. So did Seth. The mood was infectious.

* * *

Homecoming week, the traditional celebration of survival marking the return of the mages who'd gone out for the summer to collect the rare and volatile, always features a festive display of the odd and wonderful in the exposition hall. Items returned from all over the realm are featured and everybody from a hundred miles around comes to visit if they can. Morgan's family was no exception. The five of them in causally formal dress attended the opening ceremonies as a group. The ceremonies were particularly festive this year because of the extremely low mortality rate in the summer registry.

Outside the school proper there was a fair and bazaar. Merchants are, as a breed, far too savvy to let such an attraction go by without trying to sell everything they have at premium prices. Still the bazaar was not to be missed. The exposition features the rare and obscure and so the merchants do the same. It makes sense to cater to your audience, so sometimes the really amazing things to be seen grace some corner of a musty tent on the edge of the fairgrounds.

While in the exposition hall they were an inseparable clutch of five, systematically trying to see everything. One of the most enjoyable parts of the day was the way Seth kept Shiea happy no matter what was happening around them. At the two prior years expositions the demands of her youth cut short their visits. This time she was as happy with `her horsey' as anything else, so everything else there was was just gravy.

Things were different at the fairgrounds. There was plenty for a three year old to touch and eat there, and soon three went one way while two went the other. Besides that, this was a prime gift-buying opportunity and there would likely be a lot of different combinations of who's-with-whom over the course of the day. It was likely that there would be more than one day's worth of browsing and recombining in this event, even if Morgan was flat broke.

* * *

The afternoon was going great. Morgan and Seth were just enjoying the whole event. Morgan considered entering the tournament for staff fighting. He was good enough but he eventually decided not to. He wasn't sure it would be fair since he had his asenses to help him win. They settled for watching some of the competitions, talking with guardsmen they knew, and discussing the technique and style of the various combatants. They eventually quit the competition and moved into the impromptu common square in the center of the bazaar for some food.

Morgan was busily slipping Seth chunks of a giant sweet-roll when he caught sight of Mieka looking distressed and coming straight toward him from the far side of the crowd. When Mieka spotted him he barked out something back the way he came and then started pushing his way through the crowd urgently. Morgan dropped the confection and waded into the casual throng to meet Mieka, Seth on his heels as always. By the time they reached each other Morgan had caught at least one glimpse of Liane coming up from the same direction as Mieka and just as urgently.

“Shiea's gone.” Mieka yelled as soon as they were within clear earshot.

“What?” Morgan barked, as the distance closed.

“Shiea vanished while we were walking near the amusements...”

“Vanish vanished? As in magically? or did she...”

Liane arrived about then and cut them both off. “We were walking along and I thought Mieka had her hand so I let go...”

“But I didn't have her. A couple of seconds later we both realized that neither one of us still had her so we called out.”

“We've been looking for her, or you, for nearly fifteen minutes.”

Morgan adjusted his mind and sent out a probe for the little girl. He'd practiced this sort of thing several times since Mieka's abduction, just to satisfy his paranoia. A scan of the nearest several acres of humanity showed no sign of her. Using the staff to hold back the torrent of his own augmentation, the raw force of which tended to blind the finer senses, he stretched out further toward the edge of his natural limitations. Still no sign of Shiea, but a whiff of something familiar set a chill down his spine and riled his paranoia. The faintest echo of blood magic wafted across his awareness.

One expletive slipped out of him as he drew himself back from the astral. “This is serious.” He said, lifting his head to really consider this surroundings. The oddest thing that met his eyes was Seth, he'd taken off his vest and was quickly but deftly unbuttoning his shirt. That didn't make any sense to Morgan but since it was Seth he let it pass, Seth always had his reasons. A plan formed and Morgan said “Come here” to Mieka and Liane.

Near the middle of the square Morgan stopped short when he heard the sound of tearing fabric. He turned to see Seth change his grip on his vest and pull at it again. As the fabric of the lining tore away Morgan caught a glimpse of blood crimson. Seth's face was that peculiar, intense, deadly calm sometimes seen in the insane. The crimson under-fabric was the color of legal warning that a slave is ready to kill for his master and Morgan suspected that there was nothing that would dissuade him. Morgan approved, and would have liked to club someone himself just then, but too much of his own work would call on different skills. Years of discipline allowed him suppress his own fears, paranoia, and anger just enough.

“I'm going to find her but I need you two...” Morgan looked to Mieka first, “Do you submit?”

“Yes.” He replied.

Morgan wanted to rush, but he couldn't afford to hurry at all. “Stand comfortably.” He said, and then slightly adjusted Mieka's position by gripping him on both shoulders. Finally satisfied he touched Mieka's forehead and Mieka's face went slack.

Liane was already trying to adjust her stance. Morgan guided her a little further away from Mieka so that there was a gap of about an arms length between them.

“Do you submit?”

“Yes.” She said urgently, cutting off the last of his question.

Morgan touched her on the forehead and the same thing happened to her.

Crowds are usually psychic and the people milling about had “coincidentally” left them a generous margin of space. Morgan positioned himself in front of Liane and Mieka, but several arm-lengths away, forming a triangle, and then turned his right side to them. He wanted to keep the staff between himself and them to make sure it would help keep them protected from the raw power he was going to have to use.

Already the top of his staff was shimmering, controlling the strength of the bindings that held his family. Morgan lifted his arms up in a “V”, pointing the staff into the sky, and it flared brightly. This caught the attention of the oblivious crowd, which began to form a ring, expecting some short of entertainment. Morgan released the staff and took a step away. It hung in the air as if mounted there. There was no time to draw a proper casting circle but the staff hanging there would not only serve as moderator, it would become the hub of a wheel of spells that would make the absence of a circle irrelevant.

Finding a parent of a child is easy but finding a child using the parents is a pain. Basically you have to look for every possible child they could have had to find the ones they actually did. The core spell wasn't that complex, but it was difficult in exactly the same way that trying to sort a deck of cards into the greatest number of highest scoring hands could be considered difficult. Morgan didn't even blink before diving into the spell. Within moments spell fibers were flowing from him to wind around an imaginary point just above the tip of the staff like candy floss being spun out onto a stick. And for every spider-silk fine strand of intent from his inner channels, a huge electric snake of congruent energy struck out from his scar-wrought outer channels and into the building spell-node.

The staff did its job. Where the fine fibers coalesced into a well formed spell, the huge pulses of power were deflected into an orbit about the node. Morgan didn't let that power dissipate through the staff this time because when he let it fly the spell would need that energy to touch and test every living thing it encountered. Within heartbeats an eerie writhing blue light was fighting with the overcast sky to be the brightest thing around.

The nearest edge of the crowd began to try to draw away even as the outer crowd tried to push them closer. As the rime of mage-light and arcing electricity was steadily overcome by the multicolored tendrils of unsettled and restless power the first bystanders began to consider fear as an option. When the swirling mass of plasma at the tip of the staff began to kick up a fierce whirlwind about them, the nearest people began to try to run, pushing in vain, trying to get through the wall of people that were still too interested in gathering close to see any potential danger.

Finally, shouting strictures into the mounting wind just to keep his place in the casting, Morgan completed the set. Mieka and Liane safely inside their spell nodes, completely protected from the wind that pulled Morgan's aotahe nearly straight back, radiated their genetic signatures into the complete web and the web made those rhythms its own. Some corner of Morgan's mind glanced about to see if everything was ready, caught sight of Seth standing before the wind unmoved, and thought to itself the single word “now”. His hands raced into the air and came together in a slap who's sound was lost in the tumult.

In answer the outer node of raw power collapsed in onto the well formed node at its core with the deafening clap of thunder. In that very instant, as that sound was finding its genesis, the wind stopped and the chaos around them vanished. Moving out in lockstep with the sound, actually riding the sound wave, was a corona of spectral energy that swept visibly outward across the alternately stunned and near panicked, crowd. The motion wasn't exactly smooth, the expansion seemed to halt for an unmeasurably short time each time the wave front touched a new person. A stuttering wave that sampled people by the fist-full-of-hundreds per second. The moment seemed interminable to Morgan.

One heartbeat...

A second...

A third...

And more...

The return-pulse, weakened from its round-trip journey, finally came back from the south east. Even as it was coming the rest of the spell was responding, rolling in from every other direction like a slurry of muddy water learning to flow through a gutter. From staff-tip here to Shiea, wherever she was, the remaining spell power condensed onto a shimmering, furiously twisting, sinuous conduit of connectedness suspended high in the air.

Through that conduit Morgan caught the scent of a peculiar shield, one he'd known before, and worse, strong and fresh blood magic. Morgan couldn't leave his spot without tearing down the spell, and he discovered that he couldn't move astrally while using the staff. It occurred to him that Seth, being totally head-blind, probably couldn't see the spellway. He concentrated on his physical being and made eye contact with Seth. It was hard to speak aloud when holding a spell this complex, but he forced himself to whisper two words.

“House Annaoral.”

As if in slow motion Seth's head turned to orient onto the straight-line path to House Annaoral. When neck could turn no further his shoulders began to follow. Then torso and hips started. By the time his face was pointed in the correct direction his near leg was bent and his far was flexing mightily. In that single step he went from dead stop to dead run. When he reached the near-edge of the crowd he vanished into it like it was a fog. Almost behind him the crowd seemed to tumble away like the wake from a boat as he finessed, bumped, shoved, or plain straight-armed people out of his way with no more concern than a arrow shows for the things it passes on the way to its mark.

Morgan didn't have time to follow any part of Seth's progress. Tied to his current spot he needed to find a way to use his talents and senses without moving. The only idea he could come up with was frighteningly close to those dangerous fleshy instincts that tugged at his mind. Morgan decided to augment Liane and Mieka. Anybody not totally head-blind like Seth would have some latent ability, sense, and function at the aetheral levels locked within them. One tier at a time he began to boost his best friends into the aether, whispering some few secrets of his talents into their souls as he went. They would be led to their daughter through the spellway and they would know her by way of their parental instincts, there they would become his eyes and hands. The spell-way would carry his intent. It was the only way, and as he began this undertaking a more focused and controlled whirlwind engulfed them.

* * *

Running through a crowd was like dancing. After Seth had passed the first dozen ranks by brute force there was enough room to maneuver. Of course he'd have stiff-armed his way thorough an endless sea of people if he had to, but that would be a waste of time and energy. He was directed as much into himself as he was looking outward. He leapt and dodged and rounded obstacles without much conscious thought, and yes, when it suited his purpose the odd bystander was bowled over or sent sprawling. Within him the coals of a lifelong rage were being fanned again to flame. Within that old flame there was a new twisting tongue, raging because Shiea was his, in his heart anyway, and he would have-out the heart of anybody who harmed her. This rage would make him direct, remorseless and unstoppable, at least until he was finished, when he would pay the cost in guilt and grief.

Hard and dangerous, his mind tuned to every nuance of sound and motion, a machine ready to kill at any breath, Seth came to a stop before the gates of house Annaoral. There were forms to be obeyed in this, and he would not fault a single one. From the limited cover offered by a crease in the construction of the building across the street, Seth bellowed out a challenge and warning as required.

“House Annaoral, I am the just hand of my master, Morgan al'Whaelin, here on a matter of blood. I will not be stayed, assist me or stand aside.” There was no need for an “or else”.

The guard on the gate knew that they were standing in the wrong, and that what was happening inside most likely varied from the wholesome by more than a hand's breadth, but they were bound by oath to their house. Worse they half-knew, by rumor and portend, that to fail Lady Rienaegh Annaoral was to suffer a wrath more fearsome than any death. The sergeant at the gate responded “Your forces will not enter here.” But when only one man stepped from the shadow of the building, the blood ran from his face.

Seth strode to the gate, stepping around or ducking the few arrows loosed at him as if they were bits of fluff carried by a breeze. At the sight of his approach, so calm and direct, one of the guard broke and ran unhindered into town, bent, no doubt, on losing himself in some distant corner of the realm. The rest of the guard waited confidently to see how this interloper intended to deal with the shields about the compound.

As Seth crossed that space where each man had mentally marked the shield to be, without hint of notice or hindrance, their confidence began to shift to dogged resignation.

Two of the guard came forward, swords raised in the classic response to a lone challenger, wary that Seth had not yet drawn his own weapons. The one on the right lost his hand at the wrist to the lightening quick move that brought out Seth's steel. With a snarling yell too much like a Tarkierian Hunting Cat for the liking of those remaining, Seth's second swing muscled straight through the second man's guard and struck his head nine-tenths from his shoulders. Of the original five guards only two remained.

Seth had yet to break his stride.

Seth had to stop his advance for a moment to dispatch the remaining two men. The first lesson of war is an appreciation for the unexpected. If you are not trying to do what your enemy thinks you are, you will always have the advantage. The guards were fighting for their lives, but the lives of these men meant nothing to Seth. He drove the next guard into the gate-wall with nearly all his strength, his shoulder to the man's sternum, robbing him of his wind. When the final man came at him, thinking him entangled with the stunned man, Seth undercut him, taking his hamstring with one blade and then breaking his arm with a stomp of one boot.

Seth now held the gate.

There was no in-rush of new guards. Most likely feeling that feigned ignorance was the better part of valor, a large number of off-duty would-be defenders chose not to find themselves facing this particular foe. Seth looked at the house for a moment. The strategist looking for his next action. Whispering the old adage “sorcerers up, fighters down,” Seth decided that he would most likely find Lady Annaoral, and thereby Shiea, somewhere on the top floor of the main house. Hopefully she would have set enough of a rear-guard to lead him directly to her.

Seth walked across the courtyard to the main house. The arrow spot on his back itching for the shaft, his ears searching for the sound. When it came he deftly stepped aside. If he'd had a proper complement of throwing knives he'd have taken care of the two archers and been free to run. Spotting a nice rock, he bent, spun, and threw. Stone met skull and the archer, who had just fired, fell, not yet dead but in desperate need of a healer that would most likely never come. The soft distant thack of boot-falls announced the second archer quitting his post on the rampart above the gate.

The front door wasn't even locked.

Seth gripped the handle and jiggled the latch and then dropped to the ground in one fluid motion. The door splintered outward and evaporated in flame. Seth felt tiny motes of searing wood touch his skin just before winking out. His clothes were smoldering slightly and his steel was tolerably hot to the touch. With no real appreciation for what hadn't gotten through to roast his flesh from his bones, Seth sprang up and through the gap where the door had been.

A drone was standing at the far end of the entrance hall. Next to him was an unexpected surprise. Some guy in a definitely primitive costume, some sort of hide kilt and vest, had a drawn a sword and was starting to charge. His movements were a little odd, he kind of pranced across the floor with wide set feet taking short slapping steps. Seth readied for him. At the end of his charge he made a sudden step sideways and swung. Seth hadn't been quite ready for that but he managed a good block with his left blade.

Several more exchanges and Seth got the hang of this stranger. He was from one of the more primitive parts of the realm. The stranger was used to fighting on soft ground, hence the prancing movements made to step over irregularities, and he was a damn sight better than anybody Seth had faced since coming in from the margins.

It was a changeable battle that was taking way too long. One moment metal would be striking metal at a furious pace, the next moment there were only feints and assessment. With each movement Seth learned the man's style until he could nearly duplicate it if he so chose. All throughout Seth was being pressed, but he eventually got an opportunity. Right in the middle of everything he turned from his opponent and struck down the drone. He'd been maneuvering constantly to get that chance and had taken a couple of tiny wounds to finally take it. It didn't have any bearing on the direct fight, but it did serve to break the rhythm of the encounter.

It also put down a sizable pool of blood on the marble floor.

His opponent was weak on the hard polished surface already, with the blood in play Seth needed only to bring him into the slippery mess. A feat that was surprisingly easy. When the strangers feet hit the blood Seth flipped back his blades to the defensive position along his forearms. When the foeman next charged, Seth just parried. He drew too close and Seth punched him overbalance. Even as he fell Seth took his life, thrusting point down the way he might bury a knife in a wheel of cheese.

Seth was on the third stair when he heard the word “No” whispered urgently from below. Peering over the balustrade Seth met eyes with Lady Jaesiaria al'Annaoral.

“My Lady?”

“She is in the east wing.” Lady Jaesiaria gestured at a ground-floor hallway. “Top of the east stair and to the right.”

Seth measured her words against their previous meeting and decided to trust her. If she were lying then he'd know soon enough. He bowed his head and charged back down the stairs and into the hallway. It was a fairly long run. The house was apparently larger than it looked. If the lady was telling true, and he'd taken the central stair, it could have well taken him forever to find this part of the house at all.

At the foot of the east stair Lady Annaoral's direction was proved true, at least if the noise were to be believed. Just to the right, at the top of the stairs, was a set of double doors standing open just a crack. The sounds coming out of that room were hard to separate and, several times, punctuated by brilliant flashes. Seth mounted the stair and kicked the doors. They crashed against the inside walls with considerable noise of their own.

For just a moment everyone inside was frozen en-tableau. Scanning from left to right there were a couple of guards, a servant cowering against a wall, and another guard; next was a small raised platform with an angry woman, then Shiea, flanked by a pair of drones, an empty space, and then four or five drones surrounding a young man of about 16 years; just off the platform to the right was a corpse of the smoking-and-smoldering variety, and then finally several more guards.

Everything and everyone was awash in flickering and flowing shades of furnace fire reds and oranges or arcing electrical blue punctuated by the odd flash of white and yellow. Seth knew the effect. He couldn't see the spell castings, but when that energy hit the mundane objects in the room it was reflected back as normal light which he could see. More than half the people in the room were transfixed in fear of what they could see and Seth could not.

Where these energies clashed the air was torn asunder and remade. Whatever was in the air was violently changed, filling the air and covering the ground with voose. A nasty, unnatural amalgam of carbon, oxygen, and whatever else might be floating around, forced into huge, perverse and unhealthy molecules. Voose was a dry powder that burned the eyes and lungs, and made whatever it touched incredibly slippery. Wishing he had a scrap of cloth to cover his face, and the time to spare to tie it on, Seth stepped gingerly onto the polished and powder-glazed floor.

The whole thing was clearly not a preplanned trap. Seth knew that the moment the first of the guards slipped on the voose. Lady Rienaegh, whom Seth assumed was the singular angry woman on the platform, must have been expecting to make off with Shiea before any kind of resistance could be mounted. These men must have been called up from nearby rooms without any foreknowledge, else they would have surely been men who knew how to fight the mundane fight alongside the magical one. These men kept shading their eyes or ducking away from effects Seth could not begin to appreciate.

Seth took another step, and almost a fell. There were mirror smooth gouges in the marble floor. Clearly the contentions here had been fierce. A second, quick look at the room itself showed scars in virtually every surface. It was no wonder that the voose was so heavy, virtually anything one might expect in to find in a sizable dining room had been chewed up and turned. With the variety of things involved the dust was likely toxic so Seth had very little time.

The young man was likely a blood mage, that was clear from the drones flanking him. The woman was Rienaegh. Which to kill first was a toss up. The Lady had replaced her first blood mage easily so if she lived, killing him was only a stop-gap. On the other hand the fight between this mage and Morgan seemed to be at something of a standstill.

Getting Shiea free of this place was only an immediate concern but it outranked any kind of long term solution. The only real choice was to go for the blood mage.

The first of the guards arrived even as he made his decision.

They weren't particularly difficult foes. Their skill was fair to good, but nothing like the strange foreigner from the front hall. The real opponent was the conditions. Time and again Seth had to forgo openings and opportunities because the slick, irregular footing would likely see him on his backside if he took them.

Seth got a sense of where the magical contests were taking place from watching where the guards feared to go. Using that as his guide he tried to keep himself in close to the phantom disturbances, using their assumed presence to watch his back. He was otherwise in the open in the center of the room. The technique proved successful and understandably so. At one point Seth played one of the guards into charging, but instead of blocking the charge Seth let him pass and then shoved him on. Two and a half paces on into the center of the room and the man simply vanished from mid-torso up. What remained seemed to stagger on for a step or so before landing in a heap.

For a moment Seth wondered just how dangerous a game he was playing. He knew enough now to wonder just how immune to sorcery he really might be. The cost of that moments amazement was a long shallow slash across his chest from the next challenger. That got his attention, and his ire, and from that moment on nothing distracted him from the task at hand.

With no real memory of each opponent as a distinct challenge, Seth slew the remaining guards as if he himself were magic. One instant he was facing steel and the next he was at the edge of the platform inches away from a drone. He drew back to strike and a movement on his left caught his eye.

“You Bastard!” Rienaegh spat the epithet at him even as she seemed to begin a most unladylike charge. She wasn't coming straight at him, but seemed to be heading for someplace vaguely behind the blood mage and his drones. It was hard for Seth to see exactly what happened next, his eyes were blurry and running freely from the irritation, but she seemed take a sort of leaping side-step and then she was gone.

In a heartbeat the mage and drones were moving too. They each, in turn, got to about the same point and vanished also. It all happened so fast that his opportunity to take lady, mage, or even a single drone out of the game was gone before it had even had a chance to happen.

The only saving grace was that Shiea still stood, apparently unmolested and unaware, right where she'd been ever since Seth had entered the room.

Ignoring the bright yellow light that seemed to reflect off her skin from nowhere, Seth moved to her and snatched her off the platform. There were still too many potential dangers here. There was no way for him to know whether the portal was still open and if so what might come back out of it at any moment. Worse, mages were notoriously bad losers and a collapsing roof or floor could finish the two of them quite thoroughly and, from what he'd seen, burning the whole compound down around them would be in keeping with this lady's style.

* * *

Just outside the house Shiea regained her senses. Morgan had, as a part of protecting her, pushed her mind far away. As well as physical and psychic trauma there'd been the chance of plain old emotional injury. Keeping her vacant made sure that she wouldn't be frightened. She woke up as happily as she'd been following the nice strange lady seemingly moments before.

Seth transferred her to his back, where she hung on the way she always did. She liked riding him and was completely oblivious to the fact that this new running thing was a matter of life and death. She simply held on to her horsey real tight and giggled with glee every time he vaulted over or brushed frighteningly close to some obstacle or another.

By the time Seth reached Morgan and the others he was unnaturally, for him anyway, light headed. Morgan had finished taking down his spell-works and so Liane and Mieka were free of their ensorcellment. Seth handed Shiea to her mother and then turned aside. His mission finished, he let the demands of his body resurface.

Bending over and bracing his hands on his thighs Seth began to cough. Deep, huge racking coughs that started in his groin and forced the blood into his head as much as they forced the air out of his lungs. His eyes were still running, along with his nose, and once begun, the coughing spasms would not let go. The fact that what he was coughing up was as much blood as anything else was as frightening as his inability to stop the actual hacking cough.

Morgan thumped his hand against Seth's back a few times, more to get his attention than to help him clear his lungs.

“Let me help you.”

Seth swallowed a few times to try to stop coughing, but when that was only partly successful he nodded his head in big exaggerated nods of consent.

Tugging at one arm, Morgan managed to get Seth moving toward the fountain.

With water at hand Morgan helped the still-coughing Seth to rinse the worst of the voose out of his eyes and off of his face. Morgan couldn't do anything about the coughing, or more importantly what was causing the coughing, until he could get Seth to calm down a little bit and help him make the necessary connection between them. Morgan got him seated against the fountain with his knees up and his head resting on his crossed arms. He was beginning to kind of whimper along with cough just from the pure strain of exhaustion that nothing but prolonged coughing jag can bring on.

Morgan spun a healing web but realized he had no chance of getting through to Seth as things were now.

“Seth, do you remember when we made the collars?” The link. Morgan was not looking forward to the link because he knew how much he wanted it.

Seth nodded his head without lifting it from his arms.

“I need you to do the same thing now. In your mind reach out to me and draw me in.”

Morgan didn't feel anything at first. It was probably hard for Seth to concentrate. While still holding the healing web out to Seth in his mind, Morgan laid his right hand on Seth's neck and tried to be soothing and supportive. Then suddenly something snapped up Morgan's gentle probe.

Morgan actually winced.

It was pleasurable to the point of pain, having that connection recreate itself in his head. The first time it had been so subtle, now it was anything but. It wasn't some strange sending from Seth, he didn't put out the tiniest erg of mental power, he could however hold shut or selectively fling open some sort of inner door. At a primal level, far below anyplace Morgan knew himself to function, he'd jumped onto that open conduit like a predator.

But it wasn't a bad thing. Far from it. As soon as the spasm of first contact passed that tiny mutual leak of life energy they'd shared before resumed in full.

With the link restored Morgan was able to place the healing web. Things inside Seth's body were a mess. Morgan had only encountered voose as part of his schooling. He'd no idea that it could get this nasty. Destroying the stuff outside the body was very easy but once it was in the lungs and blood it had to be dealt with very carefully. Only a tiny fraction of the stuff had to be cleaned out the hard way, the body would do most of the work naturally as long as those natural processes were supported.

With the healing web in place Seth was no longer in actual danger. There'd be no uncontrollable swelling or bleeding and Morgan would know the instant any kind of toxic reaction started. It would just be a matter of spending a couple of days linked, and then facing up to breaking the link again.