The old farm house shook ever so slightly.

None of the talent surrounding Morgan seemed to notice in the least.

The woman who was actually doing the mind work was almost decrepit with age but Seth found her amazing. The first time she'd touched Morgan's mind he'd physically lashed out and struck her in some instinctive self defense. She'd shook that off like it was nothing, despite a serious bruise coloring her face. When they'd tried to tie Morgan down that similar instinctive reaction had him call up bits of wind and fire despite his drugged torpor and the two young men, both with the seeming affect of idiocy, who were supposed to be holding keth on him.

Seth now had the job of restraining Morgan. He was propped up on pillows, half sitting, half lying on his back. Morgan reclined against his chest, right hand holding right wrist, left holding left, legs around Morgan's waist with his feet just inside Morgan's knees, pinning his legs. Seth had devised the awkward position so that his superior strength could contain any sudden movements Morgan attempted, while still not completely immobilizing him, which he seemingly would not allow.

The two young men, slack-jawed and all but drooling, flanked them at Seth's shoulders, just beyond arm's reach. Their slack faces were apparently indicative of some trance as the two took subtle direction from the old woman while seeming vacant. The old woman herself was, unexpectedly, about two feet below the foot of the bed. To all appearances she had dozed off. For all that she looked like someone's great grandmother dozing at a reunion, the occasional deep tremors running through the whole house and the irregular twists, lunges, and backward head-butting that Seth was dealing with all said that something was happening.

Seth suddenly felt a snap through his entire being followed immediately by a crack to his face that set him reeling as Morgan's head snapped back and nearly broke his jaw.

* * *

Lady Cyreste d'Arte was old, older even than she looked, and she knew a mess when she felt it. The young magus was a total mess. They'd described to her the threat that the plant would “gut” the boy, and it had well been on its way. Motivational pathways and physical responses were crossed up with each other in ways that no sentient would have considered doing to any living thing. She'd started out by trying figure why a plant would do such a thing, in hopes of finding a good way to approach the problem.

She had no way of knowing that among all the operant creatures to have ever encountered the plant in the wild, only the Blood Shaman of the Lasserial Plains ever survived. They weren't much for writing down or sharing their knowledge so there weren't any hints to be had for three continents in any direction. In fact, the broad leafed alien plant grew wide and flat across sometimes dozens of square feet. The barren rocky plain was nearly sterile and the soil was nearly without nutrients. In such a place plants become hunters. This unnamed horror trapped prey for food, but if it trapped an operant creature it wouldn't feed on it, it would bond itself to the unfortunate captive. From then on the trapped operant would scrabble mindlessly around, tethered to the main plant. It's mind hollowed out, or more precisely its higher functions trapped and helpless but aware, and dedicated to searching the distance for creatures which it could draw in by keth, compulsion, or illusion. Once drawn in, they would slay the new prey. If it was a operant catch, sometimes the plant would take over the new creature and consume the old mage from the inside out.

A human mage could last five or more centuries, and being “thrown to” one of these plants was the ultimate punishment a shaman would visit on a captured rival.

With no knowledge of those details Lady Cyreste was left to pursue a brute force approach. Search out connections that don't belong, build a structure to prevent that connection from being rebuilt, dig it out, and then hold on to it while looking for anyplace where it really belonged. It was tiring and it hurt him, her, and her ialsars to the bone. It was like trying to sew together mulch.

So she knew a mess when she felt it. She knew a mistake the same way. The boy's mind had been fighting against her at every turn, that's why the damage was so insidious. There was a particularly intrusive knot of odd connections underneath the rest. She'd had to lay bindings and protections all over the place before the first thread would even pull free. She'd had a firm grip on the structure when she'd pulled the last of it's connections. The instant it was free it just skittered and faded away to nothing. That was the definition of bad, but for whom?

She snapped her eyes open just in time to see the boy go limp and the tattooed man holding him succumb to some kind of shock.

Cyreste reached out for Seth to see what had happened. She reached and got... nothing. She was trying again even as her eyes registered the black bar. She didn't know anything about Seth, even his name, so she assumed him to be supremely dangerous. She'd had one prior experience with an adult Bar, and that woman had slaughtered several people in a momentary rage. Remembering this, Cyreste was nearly struck down with fear. She marshaled her expression and dived back down into Morgan but it was too late. The protections were already folding deep into the mesh of his mind, he'd wake up soon, but she knew whatever he'd done to control his slave, he wouldn't be able to do it again any time soon, if ever. The protections intended to prevent any leftovers from the plant ever reasserting themselves were already too deep to ever excise safely. She'd separated their minds forever.

Cyreste smiled wanly at Seth. “Well, that ought to just about settle everything. He should be unconscious for some time but someone should stay with him.” She didn't think she sounded very convincing but it got her out of the room.

She tried to talk to Carteher and Raiolal. She wasn't sure how to say what she felt she must, and when she did, she was fairly sure the point hadn't gotten through.

For days she watched Seth split his time between his combat practice and Morgan and it didn't make her feel much better. I'd been decades since she'd had to read a person completely without her talent. When he was fighting there was a cold fury just barely contained. When he was attending Morgan he showed devotion. Most of the rest of the time he seemed flat and distant. In odd moments she could see signs of deep despondency. The subtext was impenetrable but it smacked of something troublesome.

Morgan himself was doing surprisingly well. He was weak and tired but day to day his personality showed every sign of reintegrating itself The bulk of his intellect would likely be the last part to manifest itself so in some ways he was just a big child. Unfortunately the only available person who knew him well was Seth, so it was hard for Cyreste to gage things to an absolute. The person waking up in the boy was a fairly good balance of thoughtfulness and humor. There was still a ways to go in the area of physical coordination and his affect would flatten out or spike without warning, but given the damage it was a remarkable recovery.

Cyreste finally decided what needed to be done. She told a `measured truth' and got the four strangers packed up and on the road home with her. A full measure of that choice was buried in a truth she hid even from herself. When she'd been rebuilding Morgan she'd found a devotion to and trust in another, she'd wired a fail-safe into him that he would be able to fall back onto that persons judgment when he was in doubt. The truth she knew but wouldn't face was that she'd bound the judgment of the strongest mage she'd ever met to an almost-certainly unstable slave.

* * *

The local townsfolk managed to supply a buckboard, team, and drivers. The whole town was sort of sad to see them go since they'd been the most interesting thing to happen locally in ages. Morgan was riding up in the carriage that had brought Cyreste and her helpers. Seth, Raiolal, and Carteher spent the first two days of the trip silently lost in their own thoughts, swaying to and fro with each bump in the road like so much cargo. Each of them was letting the single thought “what now?” roll through themselves ceaselessly. It took various forms “where next?”, “how long”, and “what's Calhwin doing right now?” but it was really just the one question and there was no pretending that anything was resolved. For all that the small hamlet had been one of the most civilized places they had been in a while, they were all headed back to `civilization' and the current events that they'd been away from for a while. It was like soldiers coming back from leave, left to wonder if war had broken out anywhere during their absence.

They were on a switch-back road working its way down to the great plain Seth and Morgan had paralleled for days. Seth had seen the view before and was looking into himself. Seth was midway through contemplating what misery he'd have to face now that it was `his turn' again, when Raiolal barked out “What in Adriahal's black heart is that!”

Seth had seen a smaller versions of it before. The sky was cracked open with streaks of day and night intermingled. This time though there was a wall of visibly boiling air coming with it, and it was at least as wide as a third of the sky.

For three panic enhanced heartbeats Seth drank it all in. The thing was too big to comprehend but not so big as to become abstract. It was moving fast but it was so far away it seemed to just loom. Finally he saw that the billowing clouds were huge and, given the distance and scale, had to be bursts of air moving in random directions at dozens if not hundreds of miles per hour. It would scrub them off the escarpment. They had maybe twenty seconds.

The realization that they had time finally registered and Seth was out and shouting “Out! Everybody Out!” or words to that effect constantly and repeatedly. He was as good as his word, he didn't quite throw everyone from the wagon but it was a near thing.

“Loose the horses!” was in there somewhere, the horses might run off with the wagon but more likely the wind would suck the wagon off the cliff-side and plunge the horses to their deaths.

Seth didn't wait to help, he ran forward to the carriage and snatched the door open. It was immediately snatched back closed out of his grip. The second time the door didn't budge at all. The third snatch at the handle was likewise futile. The door was spelled shut. Even Seth realized that it would be funny if it weren't so urgent. He punched through the carriage window and ripped it apart.

“Out!” he yelled into dim interior, “everybody get out now!”

Cyreste goggled at Seth in abject terror. Even as he registered her terror he set about expanding the opening he'd made. None of them had the time for her to get over her issues.

He threw his full weight and strength against the relatively insubstantial decorative panels bracketing the windows and when the hole was large enough he snatched her out through the opening like a sack of laundry.

Once she was out he pointed at the looming wall of chaos shouting “look!” and didn't wait to see her freeze up in incomprehension, her spell was broken.

“Morgan! Get them out of there.” he yelled, seeing Morgan was already getting himself out and trusting him to help the young men.

The carriage driver was kneeling on the driver's seat, frozen, staring at the chaos. Seth yanked him from his perch and tossed him to the ground. He set about cutting the horses free. The horses weren't panicking because the approaching wall was deathly silent and fit nowhere within their equine brains.

He'd only managed to free one horse by the time knew he was out of time. The old woman and coach driver were still frozen. Morgan had the two young men out but they were all just milling about. Seth sheathed his sword and bowled them all over against the wall. Seth covered Morgan and as much of Cyreste as he could. There were two heartbeats of silent pause, then all nine hells erupted around them.

Frozen winds laden with sand and fine gravel scoured at Seth's back, punctuated with furnace hot blasts that would have cooked his flesh if they weren't so mind-numbingly short. A fist sized rock smacked into Seth's head and knocked him seven-tenths of the way out.

Then it was over, more or less. A bubble of stillness enveloped them and beyond that a blustery, heavy snow immediately began to blanket everything.

Raiolal, scraped and bleeding here and there, quipped “that was special” as he helped heft Seth's uncoordinated bulk off of Morgan and the old woman.

“How'r the horses” Seth slurred.

“er, gone” Raiolal said.

“That's good.”

Raiolal searched Seth's face “you aren't making any sense guy”.

The driver from the village, who was absolutely unscathed, said “what's this?” reaching out to touch the warbly half-bubble surrounding them all and separating them from the cold and snow.

Cyreste said “It's him, he's doing it.” pointing at Morgan, who was ever so slightly thrashing and foaming at the mouth. She said something unintelligible to one of her assistants and a moment later he shook his head and said “no”.

All but creaking audibly Cyreste heaved herself to her knees, bent over Morgan and slapped him. Hard. So hard that she broke a bone in her hand. Everyone's ears popped as the barrier collapsed. Cyreste nodded her approval as she clasped the broken hand against her breast.

Seth half-staggered, half-rolled over to Morgan and lifted his head onto his lap. Cyreste called to her other assistant to come heal her hand and that's when everyone noticed that a quarter-ton bolder had been dropped into their midst, crushing the young man.

Morgan, slightly more groggy than Seth, opened his eyes for a moment. “We have to get to The Seed. Winterdark. It's all falling apart.” Seth suddenly knew that Morgan, whole and real, was there for the moment.

“Okay, we will.” Seth said reassuringly.

Morgan reached up and touched Seth's face in a odd, potent, and intimate gesture. He smiled fleetingly “love you” he whispered, and then blacked out again.

No sloppy-drunk declaration between buddies that, Seth was instantly sobered so that he could be stunned a different way. It wasn't confusion, at least not about what Morgan meant, that was clear enough, but the entire idea was completely out of context to Seth's life. Besides, Morgan was not totally there just now so... what?

Seth decided to pretend it didn't happen.