They'd kept Seth and Morgan together. Seth was tethered to a tree like a naughty dog and Morgan was just standing next to him where he'd been left. It was more of an insult than anything. Seth could have snapped the flimsy twine with one tug, but he swallowed the insult and stayed on his lead.

Seth examined the growth on Morgan's back. It was a plant all right, and it seemed to be ever so lightly rooted into Morgan's skin. Whenever he touched it Morgan would quake and whimper but beyond that there was nothing much to be learned. It looked vaguely like clover but there was a desiccated central structure laying along his spine that looked like a flattened sweet potato. Seth had seen some exotic flora and tricky spell-work in his time, and the only real lesson that definitely applied in this situation was “if you don't know what it is, don't mess with it.” This was especially true since that woman had left Morgan in easy reach. She was clearly certain that anything Seth might do would only make things worse, and she'd bet he knew it.

She was mostly right, but Seth knew more herb lore than she and he would keep his eyes open. There were plenty of ways to kill a plant, it would mostly be a matter of finding a way to kill this plant gently. Seth got Morgan to sit right in front of him. Then, when the others were particularly distracted he urinated all over the growth. A couple good doses of piss will kill almost anything small and leafy-green. He mentally apologized to Morgan for the indignity but “the sooner the better” was also an adage that applied and they were in sorry shape.

Their captors were hardly doing any better. They'd been forced into moving without much warning, and the latest blood-mage was nicely dead and gone. Rienaegh was riding Calhwin more than Seth would have thought prudent. Master sorcerers are incredibly volatile, but this one was pliant as a lap-dog for some reason. Still, kick a dog and eventually it'll bite, and Calhwin surely must have quite a bite to have become a Master. Seth figured if Rienaegh had a talent it must surely have something to do with bringing mages to heel.

The two principals were in heated conference while the serving woman was doing her best to both stay out of the way and prepare a meager meal. Seth could have fed them all quite well on the food available in and near their clearing. Not that he was going to volunteer. Neither Rienaegh nor Calhwin had probably had to face real hardship, or even much in the way of discomfort, in recent memory. Seth was well used to lean times.

With nothing better to do for a while Seth turned his ear to what Calhwin and Rienaegh were saying.

It was kind of fascinating in a distant way. Rienaegh clearly had some kind of hold over Calhwin, but it was a delicate thing. She was working him like a big fish on a weak line. She wanted them to go to Calhwin's family estate and he most definitely didn't want her anywhere near the place. It only took a few minutes for Seth to realize that however long it took, Calhwin would eventually cave in and they would go there.

The most amazing part of the whole exchange was that Calhwin couldn't see how thoroughly lost he was to her will. That unpleasant thought brought Seth back to the crux of his own problems. He was going to have to find a way to `make nice' with that woman or find a way out of his situation fast.

They were paying him no mind at all and ideas were beginning to crop up. The nearest question that begged attention was why had Calhwin and Rienaegh been trying to make off with Morgan? If the odd foliage on Morgan's back was such a great control why hadn't they tried to use it against Seth earlier? She claimed to have a strong hold on the plant that had its roots into Morgan and she'd been quite brazen in leaving Morgan so close. Somehow it just didn't make sense. She was fully occupied bringing Calhwin to heel, the likelihood that she was actively doing anything about Morgan was vanishingly small.

With time to think on it, things didn't seem all that set. All in all they were just about one disadvantage too far in the hole right now. If he could turn one significant thing to his advantage he would take Morgan and make a break for it. No ideas immediately came to mind, but he'd watch for a chance.

* * *

Seth and Morgan didn't get any dinner, no surprise there, and they settled in for the night.

Somewhere in the darkest hours of the night Seth woke with a start. A blue and gold ripple was rolling slowly across the sky like night had been torn open and a sliver of daytime sky was peeking through. As it passed directly overhead there was a ruffling gust of wind that felt like dead winter. The experience sent a chill through Seth that had nothing to do with being cold. All around him he could hear the absence of natural sound. Every creature shared his foreboding.

Calhwin, Rienaegh, and the serving woman didn't even stir in their sleep and Morgan was as oblivious as ever.

Seth considered stealing away with Morgan right then, but a deeper animal instinct told him it was no time to be off in the woods. At the same time things that were nagging at his insides would not let Seth turn over and go back to sleep. As he watched the rolling ribbon of freakish daytime ripple and surge unevenly across the sky Seth realized a pattern.


Waves and Cycles.

Since he'd arrived at Queens College, and possibly farther back than that, he'd been enduring a series of injuries, collars, indignities and imprisonments. Morgan had been through much the same. Each successive insult was worse than the last, and each recovery was faster or more strange than the one that came before. There was some sort of cycle building around him and Morgan and it was actively and steadily getting worse. He may have no particular destiny but simple fate says that when a wave hits a beach the wave loses.

He'd been stone dead and walked away from it, he had no interest in seeing what his next cycle could do to top that.

He needed to do something to break the pattern. Something random but decisive. Rienaegh seemed to be at the center of everything. She was the only real person of note right now, supposedly keeping Morgan from his doom. She was the one person he dare not move against as things were. She was the crux of this moment. The decision was made. Seth snapped the flimsy tether.

He hoped he wasn't wrong.

* * *

Morgan still had his athame and his staff was somewhere in the small pile of goods they had taken through the gate. Not surprising really since they supposedly had a plan for him. If they somehow managed to control Morgan his tools would be valuable.

Seth quickly found a large section of branch and then crammed it into Morgan's mouth. He flipped Morgan over onto his stomach, and with one brutal stroke of the athame he half-shaved, half-tore away the odd plant. Morgan kind of wailed but it was almost completely muffled by the branch and the dirt. Such a cut would have been impossible with any other tool, he'd have flayed Morgan's back, but the very nature of an athame includes a stricture that makes it unable to harm its creator without consent.

Seth dropped the blade but kept the plant.

Any mage would feel the athame coming, even in a deep sleep.

A warm and substantial rock from the fire ring was the blade's replacement.

* * *

Rienaegh looked so content, just lying there asleep. Seth knelt astride her torso and crammed the plant into her mouth. With his other hand he raised the rock to crush her skull but hesitated. As soon as it touched her flesh the plant began to writhe. She was writhing too of course. Neither observation was what staid his hand. Killing her had suddenly become obvious thing to do. It wasn't very random. It suddenly didn't seem like the way to break the pattern.

Then again letting her die by her own viscous tool was too classic.

Amidst her struggles she looked him in the eye, and he found himself hissing “Sometimes you just have to do what feels best.”

The rock split her skull open, face first, like a ripe melon.

For the second time in one day Seth relished taking someone's life. He'd never liked killing anybody before. Within a few feet was another mage. One just as bad as or worse than the corpse between his legs, and probably the last conspirator against him and Morgan. The book was there too.

...And he still had the rock.

Seth got up to kill Calhwin. Calhwin was just lying there, clutching the book to his chest and staring into space. Mages always did that before Seth killed them. He knelt down and raised the rock but before he could bring it down Calhwin was gone.

Unsatisfying. Very unsatisfying. There was still work to do.

Seth turned on the serving woman. She was awake but paralyzed in fear. Seth was ready, no eager, to crush in her skull. Then all at once he realized what he was about to do. She was innocent, or probably innocent anyway, possibly even a victim of Rienaegh's power.

Seth dropped the rock, keeled over, and began retching bile from his empty stomach like he was trying to force some darkness from his soul. At the same time hot tears burned at his face, not for what he'd been about to do but because of how much he still lusted for it. Seth was paralyzed with killing rage and he didn't know why. He stayed very still for a very long time, doing nothing but trying to regain any sort of self control.

If she had still lived, and were told of the link Seth shared with Morgan, Rienaegh could have explained Seth's new lust. Of course if she'd known of the link she'd never have used the plant to begin with.

The first drops of rain from a great storm spattered the three prone forms as the serving woman crept into the woods for safety.

* * *

Calhwin lay on a stone slab. Panting and straining for full consciousness, blood leaking from his ears, he fought for a sense of where he was, and why. The recall had worked. He'd set the spell decades ago. It'd taken his prime efforts for nearly a year to build the spell and it could only be used once, but since it'd just saved his life he couldn't fault the effort or the cost. Still it was spent now and triggering it had injured him deeply.

Beneath his outer difficulties other thoughts stirred. Finally unfettered of Rienaegh's controls, though he never would fully realize that they had ever been there, Calhwin began to think fully of himself for the first time in years.

He had the book and he began to appreciate what that really meant. He was shocked to realize how small their previous plans had been. There were inequities, great burdens on the talented imposed by the very nature of this reality. Flaws that he would have the power to correct once he breached the book's protections.

And he had an insight on how to do that now too.

A crystal thought “Things will be different, better, when I'm through” chased him into a healing sleep.

* * *

Lightning pulled Seth to his senses. The deluge was starting to sting his back constantly and the largest drops felt like small rocks hitting his head. As soon as he looked into the sky Seth realized that all nine hells were breaking lose. The killing rage was still in him somewhere but in the time it took to assess his situation lightning had struck close by three more times. The concussion from the fifth strike threw him to the ground and put his survival sense in command.

The idea of seeking cover was appealing but impractical, the trees were already taking a pounding from the lightning and being under the canopy meant being too near getting struck. Seth dragged Morgan to the center of the clearing and tried to find anything to cover them with.

In the meager supplies that had come with them through the portal Seth found Morgan's staff and the portal tapestry itself. The staff wasn't very useful in terms of shelter but it had to be kept track of. The tapestry was rolled up neatly and looked tightly woven enough to be useful. Seth wasn't sure how the bits of metal and whatnot might effect their chances of being struck but there was literally nothing else usable.

He dragged the tapestry to where Morgan lie and unrolled it tiled-side up. He rolled the staff up in one corner so that it would stay with them but also remain far enough away to be prudent. It was, after all, made to be one giant conductor. Then he dragged himself and Morgan under the rest of the tarp.

It took him a while to struggle himself and Morgan into proper position. If they laid down a nearby strike would be more likely to go through them. He got himself sitting up with Morgan sitting up against his chest so that he could kind of hunch over and around him. The edge of the tapestry hung almost to the ground in front of him and was tucked under his knees. The tiny gap at that edge was to make sure they didn't smother under the wet canvas.

Then the only thing for Seth left to do was wait... and try not to kill Morgan.

The impulses pounding into Seth kept him on edge through the storm. He wanted to kill, no he needed to kill, and Morgan was right there. If it had been anybody else he would have done it, but every time the tugging in his soul started his arms moving to squeeze the life out of him other feelings that he didn't really understand would rise up and stop him. All the while his intellect was struggling to get a handle on what he was experiencing.

None of what he was feeling made sense to Seth. Most of the time the war in Seth's head was clearly divided. At other times an intense possessiveness would sweep through him that was so consuming that he wanted to hug the life out of Morgan as an ultimate expression of ownership. Other moments he just wanted to eat him up, in the literal sense. Seth was smart enough to realize that those odd impulses were some dark fusion of the normal things he was feeling. Odd psychotic fantasies would ripple through his head only to make him shiver with revulsion a moment later. All the while the storm outside pounded, muted but merciless, against the canvas and through it to his back and head.

Struggle became trance and then trance became nightmare. It was an ill-formed and unclear stream of images and activities that had no linear sense. Things like drowning in live caterpillars while trying to eat iced red-fruit, or running through a forest trying to remember what he did with the mattress. The images wouldn't last long enough for Seth outwit them. He'd had horrific nightmares all his life but this one was in many subtle ways the worst. More-so because it made no sense. What finally roused him was a sharp elbow to the gut.

From one nightmare to another.

Morgan was suddenly awake and fighting like a trapped badger.

Seth let him go and Morgan struggled out from under the soaked tapestry. The rain was still streaming down heavily, but nothing like the continuous waterfall that it had been. When Seth got free of the canvas he could see the edges of the clearing. He expected to have to track Morgan through the woods but instead he saw him coming back toward him.

Seth recognized the killing rage on Morgan's face even through the rain. He was about to bellow out some kind of reasonable overture but mid-thought Morgan summoned his athame into his hand. Seth felt his own rage resurface but there was a good bit of caution in it. That blade would section him like fruit at the slightest contact. The fact that Morgan had summoned it was also not lost on Seth. Morgan had his powers in full effect.

Seth suddenly had a familiar feeling as all around him raindrops popped from water to steam and behind him something caught fire.

Immediately after that Morgan charged.

Seth didn't want to kill Morgan, at least not with the thinking part of his brain. Then again he'd never really tried to just overpower a mage before. Seth took the rush head on and then as Morgan thrust with his blade Seth stepped wide and turned. Morgan had no experience in a knife fight and Seth cracked his wrist with a hard heel-kick as Morgan passed. It wasn't an optimal solution but this wasn't an optimal situation.

Moments later Seth had Morgan down flat on his back. Seth was astride him, pinning his legs and arms to the ground with his own exactly the way a bullying big brother might hold down the family runt.

Face to face Seth bellowed Morgan's name and whatever else came to mind, trying to get him to snap to. Morgan was raving and squirming and Seth began to feel a unique sensation. Morgan was doing some magic and this time it would strike home.

There was only one thing left to do.

Seth smacked his forehead into Morgan's, hoping to knock him out without doing the same to himself.

It wasn't the smartest move, but it worked. It also hurt. Seth rolled off Morgan and pressed the heel of one hand to his head in pain while stars danced in his field of view. He didn't have very long and he knew it. Hedging his own recovery Seth staggered as he flipped the canvas over, plated side down. Then he hefted Morgan onto one corner and proceeded to roll him up in it.

Moments later Seth was in the edge of the woods looking for something useful. The seconds were running in his head and he was sure he was taking too long. Finally he found something he could use. “Night's Passion.” There were no flowers or seed-pods on it but the distinctive gnarled stalk twining amongst the branches of an innocuous bush were clear. Seth scrabbled at the base of the bush to get to the root of the plant.

As soon as he uncovered part of the tuberous root mass he snapped off and yanked out the biggest piece he could manage, and began chewing it as he ran back to where Morgan was bound.

The leaves and soft overgrowth of Night's Passion make a nice sedative with some interesting but mild overtones. The sap could be a bit intoxicating. This late in the year the fibrous roots were foul-tasting, acrid with mind altering alkaloids, and pseudo toxic from their load of anesthetic. Seth's mouth was already starting to go numb by the time he reached Morgan.

Seth straddled the rolled tapestry, forced open Morgan's jaw and dribbled his now-copious saliva into Morgan's mouth. Only semi-conscious, Morgan swallowed the nasty liquid reflexively. Despite his attempts not to swallow much of the syrup himself, Seth was beginning to feel lightly disassociated from everything by the time Morgan began to react.

When Seth figured that they both had had enough he spit the chewed stub of root away over one shoulder and began slapping Morgan lightly to rouse him. Seth hopped the disassociation and euphoria of the drug would let him get through to Morgan's mind without the murderous rage overpowering everything. He felt sure it would work, but he also knew that most of that feeling was coming from the good bit of Passion in his own bloodstream.

Morgan came around yelling “what are you doing to me!?!” and “get off of me!” and some other, more colorful things.

“Morgan! Morgan look at me!” Seth shook Morgan gently, trying to walk the line between effective and angering.

Finally Morgan seemed to settle down a little and, more importantly, focus on Seth “What?”

“Listen, there is something wrong with us!”

“What?” perhaps he wasn't that focused.

“Listen!” Seth barked stridently, getting agitated again himself.

“What!” Morgan's eyes were still wandering.

Seth paused for a heartbeat to recompose himself a little. “listen...”

“Alright... what?”

that was better.

“Something has got us raging at each other.”

“What?” This time it was an intelligent question.

“I don't know, something they did to you, a spell or the plant that they put on you I think.”

“There's nothing wrong with me!” Morgan was getting his back up again.

“No, yes there is, can't you feel it? Not three minutes ago we almost killed each other.”

Morgan growled his denial and squirmed

Seth grabbed Morgan's hair with both hands and shook him some “See that, Right there,” and forcibly stopped himself from pounding Morgan's head against the earth. Instead he lowered his forehead to Morgan's again, gently this time, and then whispered. “There is something wrong and I can't fix it. You have to do something...” and let the rest of the sentence trail off as he let own his head slide off Morgan's and down to the ground beside him.

Morgan's own fury was coming and going in waves, barely held back by the drug, but it was an empty fury. When he looked at it he felt that it wasn't right, but it dragged at him anyway. A huge mass of Seth's wet hair was laying across his face and he could feel Seth's cheek resting against his own, trembling. As the sudden irrational urge to clear away the annoying wet hair with a blast of fire strained up unbidden within him, Morgan twisted it into a more-or-less self-purgative blast of spiritual flows. It was guttural and instinctive, like a sneeze, and he had no idea where it came from. It was just that some untouched corner of himself knew what Seth really meant to him and wouldn't let the rest of him kill the man.

The unbalanced backlash flipped open the roll of tapestry and sent Seth flying. It wasn't quite enough to completely break the organic spell holding Morgan but it did stretch it out enough for him to see it with reasonable clarity. In that tiny frame of non-time when he had perspective against the spell he launched a lesser unbinding against it. That was kind of drastic, and Morgan felt a sparkling of pain all over his back as the tiny root fragments still embedded in his skin erupted away in minute explosions.

Morgan let himself surrender to the backlash injury and the drug because it was better than facing the sudden emptiness he felt.

Seth took the throw like a champ and rolled over just in time to see the upper half of Rienaegh's body, with crushed skull and entwining plant, boil into the sky. The remainder of her remains flared brightly for a moment and then burned on like it was atop a funeral pyre. Seth watched for a bit only to realize later that his rage was gone and he was sitting in the rain drugged half out of his wits.

The lightning was over so Seth gathered up Morgan and retreated under the cover of a nearby tree to wait.

* * *

Dawn came with a clearing sky and an unseasonably warm breeze. Seth got up heavily and began poking through the remains of the camp. Back to start, needing clothing and weapons again, the feeling that tightening circles were closing in around him came back to mind. There was nothing left of Rienaegh's body, even the last traces of ash were washed into the soil by the rain. Morgan's staff was there and so were Seth's blades. Calhwin had known they were enchanted and that made them valuable. With the possible exception of the way Morgan seemed to drop spells and enchantments like hayseed now that he had the knack, endowed items were plenty rare. The blades were essentially indestructible so it was very unlikely a Master of Calhwin's rank would have left them behind with the centaurs or at the keep. The only surprising part was that Calhwin hadn't managed to make them part of his sudden disappearance.

Beyond the fortunate presence of the swords and staff, the leavings of the camp were quite poor. The collapsible framework for the gate tapestry had no parts of obvious use and the rest of the stuff that the two mages had brought was genuinely pointless. Obviously neither of them had ever thought about what to pack for a quick getaway.

The most useful thing in the lot was the sturdy chunk of cloth the two short swords had been wrapped in. Seth considered what to do with it for a bit, re-wrap the blades in it or wear it. In the end he was tired of being naked so he pulled it around his waist, towel fashion, and moved on.

The only other thing of likely use was the gate tapestry itself. It was a classic example of a material component carrying a partial enchantment. Something halfway between a rough handicraft and a fully enchanted object. Seth put the point of one of his swords down on a corner of the thing, and started hammering the pommel with a heavy rock, all the while trying not to guess if that rock were the one he'd used the night before.

Seth couldn't see the flashes of magelight that burst from the point where steel met cloth every time he struck. If he could have he likely would not have cared. That tapestry was linked to Calhwin and that was dangerous. There was no way to know if Calhwin could open the gate remotely, but even if he couldn't as long as it was whole he would still be able to use it to find them.

They did not need visitors just then.

Finally the point pierced the cloth, and with it, the enchantment. The thing immediately changed back into a totally mundane bunch of objects. Some few of the little plates were gold and silver, which would do nicely for starting capital. Seth stripped each of those off with a yank and set them aside. Then he stripped the rest of the bits off like he was scaling a fish. What was left would be excellent as a passable, if stiff, blanket.

Seth draped the blanket over a large bush to dry and went back to check on Morgan.

Morgan was still asleep, which Seth realized was a pretty good idea. He needed to get some rest too. Seth settled down and curled up next to him as tried to sleep as best he could.

It takes a hearty man to fall asleep uncovered on muddy, lumpy ground in a light rain next to a possibly insane mage that tried to kill him no more than three hours earlier. Seth was asleep in moments.

* * *

Morgan woke up first. He knew something was wrong inside. How could he not. He knew he was lightly wounded, he had clear memories of the last several days, he was lying in Seth's arms, and he felt nothing. Well not exactly nothing. He was thinking, and to think you have to feel at least a little, but there was no sensation of feeling. There wasn't even a sense of yawning emptiness. Morgan decided to scan himself to see if he could find out what was wrong. As soon as he touched his talent his mind began tumbling like bones at a seers convention, but from inside he really couldn't tell.

* * *

Seth woke up to find Morgan making a kind of `snorking' noise. It took him a surprisingly long time, several seconds, to realize that Morgan was laughing. It wasn't a good, happy laugh. It was a crazy-happy laugh that sent a knife of worry down his spine.

On the plus side Morgan wasn't attacking him, or totally raving... yet.

Seth unwrapped himself carefully from around Morgan and sat up, trying not to do anything sudden, just in case.

Morgan sat up too, and then reached out and put his hand in Seth's hair, then pulled back suddenly.

Seth flinched despite himself.

“Gods' Seth! You're covered in gunk. When did you stop washing?”

It wasn't quite what Seth was expecting. He ran his hand through his hair and it came out covered with little bits. Quick review of the last day or so possibly named those bits `human remains' when he flashed on the gruesome end to the unnamed blood-mage for a moment.

Morgan just kept on talking. “Well, we better get going, we have some people to kill.” He said lightly. It sounded so wrong.

“Rienaegh is dead... so is her blood mage.” Seth said, shaking the moist tidbits from his hand pointedly. That was wrong too, and Seth knew it. “But you are right about the bath. I need to clean up.”

It was mostly a stall. Seth knew that things were still not right between them but he also knew that he was not the person to get it fixed. They, that is Morgan, needed a mind healer. Seth considered trying to break the link but rejected the idea. He figured that he could do it easily enough, but if he was getting some of Morgan's insanity, Morgan may well be getting some of his stability from Seth. There was no telling what Morgan would be like without the link.

Maybe that was just hubris on his part, Morgan could just as easily be getting nothing from Seth at all, but Seth didn't think this was the time to take that chance.

Seth got their meager belongings together and schlepped it all down-hill looking for a creek or something to wash in.

He found a beaver pond and things went well for a while. He got himself clean; the little gruesome bits floating away in the chilly water. Morgan was oddly docile and Seth had to wash him. It was almost idyllic for a moment or two but Seth was wound tight waiting for the wrongness he knew was there to bubble up to the fore.

Near the end Seth was just relaxing in the slightly too cold water, just beginning to hope that maybe things were not totally beyond hope, when Morgan barked “Squirrel!” and pointed.

Seth looked and sure enough, a mundane squirrel was bounding from limb to limb. Before he had a chance to say “so what?” there was a zzzitit noise and the rodent was popped off the branch and evaporated into voose.

Seth turned to look a Morgan in shock.

Morgan was standing waist deep in the water, laughing, almost hysterical, like that was the funniest thing he'd ever seen.

Seth was speechless.

The shocked, puzzled, worried, and angry look on Seth's face finally penetrated Morgan's awareness. Morgan stopped laughing and a puzzled look of concentration stole over his face as he bowed his head. After a while Morgan looked up at Seth almost uncomprehendingly. “That was wrong, wasn't it...”

Somewhat wide-eyed, Seth nodded emphatically.

“It didn't feel wrong...”

“What happened?”

“I was just wondering what was around so I started to vrec. The squirrel was the first thing I noticed. Next thing I just felt the impulse to, well, you know, pop it. So I did.”

There was no way to intelligently respond to that. Obviously Morgan wasn't himself but without a mind healer... Seth just did his best to enjoy the last of his bath.

* * *

That first interlude was a harbinger. The next several days were a surreal journey through both the woods and Morgan's lagging sanity. At times Seth was all but drown in the unreasoning impulses being dragged up from his innermost self by way of the link. At other times they were both as normal they had ever been. At least Seth hopped that they were, it was getting increasingly difficult to tell, moment to moment, how they each were.

Several more innocent things and creatures suffered sudden, pointless ends.

They were also moving more or less at random. Morgan was intent enough on `getting' Calhwin, but intent was where the mental process ended. Morgan almost seemed to feel that Calhwin would eventually be found behind some next tree, or under a rock, though he didn't quite go as far as turning one over. If his resolve was firm, his method was non-existent.

Seth was oddly content, and not in the least because if they never got anywhere it was unlikely that Morgan would suffer the impulse to “pop” someone instead of something.

* * *

By the fourth day Seth had all the evidence he needed. Clearly every time Morgan touched his talent he suffered a mental lapse. The greater the feat attempted the longer and deeper the lapse. If he could get Morgan to understand, and forgo his talent for a while, they might be able to go find him some help.

Morgan also seemed to finally understand, or at least be ready to admit, that something was actually wrong.

At the end of a particularly long lucid interval Seth finally intervened. The conversation wasn't entirely sane but Morgan finally agreed to set aside and forswear using his gifts. It was something not unlike asking a musician to not even think about music, because unlike music, thinking about magic is almost doing it.

With the promise made, Seth began to lead them out of the wild, which was easier said than done. Calhwin had targeted the portal to that area because of its remoteness. Add days of wandering to that and they were well and truly lost. The only course was the time-honored one. Find flowing water and follow it downstream.

* * *

Days earlier the serving woman had run away in a blind panic. She'd run up-hill to the north-east where she crossed a inflection in the terrain. Shortly thereafter she'd come to a path that led, in turn, to a cabin. She was treated hospitably, given food and shelter, and then escorted to a local village despite the obvious holes in her story. In short she'd done everything wrong and been rewarded.

Seth's careful thought led them south to a rocky precipice where the small stream tumbled freely down an impassable rock face. The landscape below was generally untamed, but in the distance a road wended its way across the forested plain below.

Finding a way down was going to be `technical.'

Seth turned to Morgan. “Right or left?”

Morgan shrugged, “right”.

It was the longest conversation they'd had in hours.

Over the course of several more days they said very little else to one another. It was a companionable silence punctuated by the occasional outburst of contagious insanity. Their progress was slowed by the need to eat off the land as much as by anything else, and the ever-present precipice gave no sign of ending any time soon. Periodic checks found the road below keeping a even distance from the cliff. Seth was beginning to feel like they were stuck in some private universe where they would be doomed to trace along an endless cliff for all eternity.

Once that idea, ridiculous as he knew it to be, edged into his mind Seth couldn't seem to shake it. It was probably a thought born of the leakage between himself and Morgan and he knew that too. Still a paranoid sense of being the only people in existence was coloring Seth's every thought and perception.

A kind of pressure in his head built and built and then Seth had a huge lapse of awareness.

One moment it was early afternoon and they were traipsing along, then next it was nighttime and Seth absolutely knew he was being stalked and neither Morgan nor the precipice was anywhere nearby.

Seth was crouched down. He knew the pose well. He just wasn't ready for the sudden change of, well, everything. He'd obviously been allowing himself to be hunted. This wasn't his normal role and he had no intention of letting it continue a moment longer. He found passable cover and unslung the makeshift scabbard from his back, taking out just one of the blades. The other he left in its wrap, retying it to his back more snugly.

The tiny, precisely wrought pyramids that textured the bare metal grip of the sword were ideal for holding a proper wrap of leather. Against his bare hands it was far less than ideal. If he had to handle the bare haft for more than a few minutes the eternally sharp nubs would strip away callus and then skin.

Seth held himself still, trying not to shift his grip while keeping a supple hold of the blade.

Behind him, or more precisely from back in the direction he must have just come from, Seth heard the tiny movement of a large predator. He waited silently, suddenly aware that the wind didn't favor him.

Searching the woods with his eyes Seth finally spotted a heavy, vaguely reptilian snout. Then the rest of the figure came clear to him in a flash of shocking recognition.

Seth spoke softly but clearly, mistrusting the coincidence. “I see you Carteher.” It was clearly a threat.

Carteher froze, recognizing the threat immediately. “Ah, friend Seth... are you back to yourself?”

Answering that question would give away more than Seth was comfortable with. “It is a strange coincidence to meet you here like this, friend Carteher.”

“Mistress Fate has made much sport of me of late, but this meeting is no coincidence. Your king, by way of lord Muall, sent us to aid your master. Maull named us `inconspicuous and utilitarian' though he wouldn't name the exact cause in which we are to aid.”

“How did you get here?”

“You two have been missed by your clan. Morgan's disappearance, and some artifice of craft he left behind at that school, has set things on edge. That woman Liane is something to be reckoned with. When Magus Morgan's works did not fade, she and citizen Tor had Morgan traced to wherever `here' is, and then had us transported by way of a most remarkable room.”

The gate. It made some sense. There was precious little Seth would put beyond Liane's determination and Tor's resources. Still, it was just a little too much to take Carteher's presence on faith. More immediately, Carteher was moving somewhat closer as they spoke, which Seth allowed.

Carteher continued on. “I enjoy speaking with you again, but I fear there is little time for it. Raiolal is tracking Morgan from a safe distance but our retrieval time is several hours gone. The gifted ones who hold the bridge open said that Morgan's talent opposed them and they could only hold the line for a day or so. That time is gone again by half. If the bridge is lost they may not be able to retrace the way for days or even weeks. You must help us reach Morgan now.”

Raiolal's presence was even grater cause for suspicion, but the rest of the short tale made some kind of sense. If some mages had been using Morgan's spell works to track him then he reflexively would fight back, even if he didn't know it consciously. The side effects of that channeling would explain Seth's lost time. As for whether the line was from some friendly adept working with Liane and Tor, there was no way to tell.

Maybe it was mental fatigue, or maybe Seth's mind was still polluted, but he wasn't sure whether the paranoia or his willingness to accept Carteher's story was more incorrect. He decided to take Carteher at his word for now.

* * *

At first Seth was quite wary about every move and change of landscape. He constantly searched for signs of betrayal or ambush. He felt decidedly unarmed with both his swords once again tied to his back. Seth just didn't dare grind away his hand on the bare haft.

Carteher led him generally back the way they both had come, Seth could read the signs of their previous passage. They were on a straight course now, but they crossed and re-crossed the previous trail repeatedly. Clearly they had been playing cat-and-mouse in the woods for nearly two days.

After a ways Carteher veered left two points or so and then a while later they were in the midst of a large body of much clearer signs. There was no sense of coyness to the trail, which was punctuated by several scorch marks. Morgan was nearly rampaging through the woods. Another set of tracks, presumably Raiolal's, were only slightly in evidence.

Much later still Carteher stopped and made a surprisingly soft-but-penetrating chirp-and-twill noise that sounded like a combination of bird song, cricket chirp, and tearing canvas. Seth reflexively stepped back, his first instinct was that he was being betrayed, but several heartbeats went by uneventfully.

Finally a call answered them faintly from the north. It was some kind of bird cry, but Seth knew it was an answer because it just somehow didn't quite sound like it belonged.

“Raiolal?” Seth asked.

“Ziathia preserve me, yes.”

Seth cocked an eyebrow at him.

Six months ago the expression would have had no significance to Carteher. “Ever since we returned from the mist... we just... that infuriating biped is the only one who understands when I need to talk about the dreams.” The tone of resignation struck a chord with Seth.

“What dreams?”

“Time for that later... he comes.” Carteher did a surprisingly effective directional shrug to the north.

Raiolal looked... different. When they'd first met he'd seemed the brash fighter, and then he'd been somewhat cowed by the mists. The man who emerged from the undergrowth was lean and animal. He moved like he could feel the pulse of the realm coming up through the soles of his feet. The earlier man would have sat like an armored bolder to face any challenge. This one was evasive, supple, and dangerous.

Raiolal came to a crouching halt that instinctively brought Seth down into a crouch too. He was wearing gloves harshly worn at the knuckles, and Seth suddenly knew just how much time he and Carteher had spent together.

Raiolal grinned at Seth, “Well met Seth, your master is one tricky bastard.” There was a pause, he blinked twice, and then he half-barked “what in Kadrian's hells happened to you?”

Seth wasn't sure what he meant until Raiolal reached out in the near total darkness and ran a hand down his flank in disbelief. The tattoos. “It's been a harsh little while.”

“Must have been. Is he as greatly changed as you?”

“In ways that don't show so clear, I suppose he is. Then again you're no little different yourself.”

“If the time ever comes, we'll have to trade tales.”

Seth grunted ascent, “where is Morgan now?”

“A mile north. He's been laying about himself wildly for near two days, then about two hours ago he just fell asleep in mid-step.”

That was just about when Seth came to. It figured. The trace on Morgan likely broke about that time and just as Seth had revived Morgan would likely have collapsed in exhaustion. If he'd been `laying about' the way the scorch marks said, he'd be quite drained. Come to think of it Seth was fairly well drained himself.

Raiolal fished out a pouch and dumped a lump of blackened something onto the ground.

“So the path is gone.” Carteher said flatly.

“Any idea where in the realm we are?” Seth asked.

“Not far, somewhere within the first lands.” Raiolal said.

Seth thought that was an odd interpretation of `not far'. If he was right they were somewhere on the inner-most five continents, which didn't really narrow things down much. The better part of that news was that they were likely to be near high-end civilization. Seth really only needed to get Morgan to a good mind healer and then they'd be fully mobile again and the distances wouldn't matter much.

That, of course led to the next thing. How much of Morgan's condition was it really safe to reveal. Next beyond that, or perhaps really somewhere before it, how could Seth prepare Morgan for the presence of these two. There was no way to tell how he'd react if he just met up with them. One twitch of spell work and they be back where they started.

“I don't think that we should camp together tonight...”

There was a bit of an exchange after that, but Seth finally got the other two to understand how delicate a condition Morgan was in. It was a difficult conversation and they all knew that they each knew that Seth was holding something back. Everybody agreed not to push things and Seth went to go curl up around Morgan.