“Look, I love you, but you are being a big baby. They'll come off as soon as they aren't needed.”

Seth was pouting in a very un-Seth-like way. Clearly, Morgan thought, the six metal bands, neck, waist, each forearm, and each shin were only mostly-working. Seth was orders of magnitude worse off than any of the rest of them. The fabric of the realm was unraveling just a bit, fraying throughout its warp, and somehow Seth's innate resistance to the forces of magic was trying to push him outside of, well, everything. Chaos hung about all his features, his sanity included.

The sorcerer's steel was wholly conjured. Morgan had summoned an elemental, compelled it to make the iron from nothing, and then he transformed and applied it without letting it mingle with the matter of the realm. It was, in a very real and important way, a thing of a separate creation and independent reality. That distinct island of influence, anchoring and combined with a good bit of the otherwise insufficient spatial folding had, more or less, brought Seth back to his own mind.

With no link between them, Morgan was powerless to deal directly with Seth's insides, so he had no sense of the profound changes within him. The force driving him into insanity since the carriage wreck was abated but the revelations and changes it had already engendered within him were real and persistent. He was still lost in the fringes of a love he was unable to cope with and all the follow-on feelings that insisted on stirring within him.

The thirty or so pounds of steel bound around him was as good a distraction as any. It made him feel trapped, and owned, and ever so slightly helpless again, and that jarred with any idea of love he possessed. He just wanted to sit catatonic in a corner until everything went away.

The patterns forged in a lifetime of service and obedience were small comfort but gave him something to do, so he was out, doing what had to be done.

But yes, he was sulking.

They'd just spent half the morning searching for Morgan's staff. Seth had managed to keep it with them until just after they'd reached the city limits. It had ended up as one of the poles of the drag-litter. They'd become separated from the litter during the chaotic moments of arrival when Cyreste had been taken in for real healing. None of those people had given a second thought to the litter until someone did nothing-in-particular with it. Just a few days later and it was as if the thing had never existed. So they were looking in every spare room and rubbish heap in the area, starting with the tower, and buttonholing anybody they could think of who might have a clue.

The thing finally turned up in the guard house. Someone rather more attentive than the person who threw it away had been picking through the a scrap heap looking for a tarp to cover a hole somewhere. When they'd tugged on the litter-cloth they'd spotted the staff as something other than garbage and had the presence of mind to turn it in to someone in authority.

Walking back to the small room that had become their base, as soon as they were out of earshot of anyone, Morgan glanced at Seth and said “Good, now we can get out of this hole” and grinned. “I can get us home to get some stuff, and then all the way to The Seed.”

It made Seth flash on the Morgan that had been gleefully popping squirrels while they'd been wandering. Seth tossed a little abject dread into his mix of feelings. None of this could be good. They were both just so screwed up.

* * *

Morgan didn't just yank them away like Seth had feared. He'd taken the time to get several of the tower talents to take over his spiral of stabilizing sentinels. While the problem was probably spread all over the realm, there was no reason to drop the protections he'd managed here.

The pattern of binding was distributed to other communities via the tower and soon cities all over the realm were beginning to protect themselves. It was the genesis of a unique moment in the history of the realm. A single piece of technical knowledge began to spread freely and completely across the realm. Issues of politics, species, and enmity were set aside to create identically ensorsceled islands of stability and sanity across the entire face of creation. It wasn't instant, some places fell to riot or ruin before the local talent believed and acted. Still it was a remarkable fruit to Morgan's labor.

He took no moment to appreciate his act. Morgan simply led the three others to a spot that seemed in no way unique, raised his hand and said “here.” They all stopped, and then they simply weren't there anymore.

To Seth it felt as if a giant hand seized him by the throat and dragged him through a tiny crevice to somewhere else. He wasn't all that wrong. For the others it was just momentarily dizzying but since Morgan couldn't get a line on him, he'd used the bands, mostly the collar, as a lead and dragged Seth along behind them.

“Somewhere else” turned out to be the patio behind Morgan's house. This time there was no lightning and no storms, just an odd sizzling sound like live bees being sautéed in a buttered skillet, followed by an errant puff of air.

The whole effect of impertinent ease was undermined by Morgan's instantly bloodshot eyes and profusely bleeding nose. “That was not as easy as I thought.” he managed to say before he realized that he was splattering blood with each syllabant and hard consonant.

Seth muttered “shit” and stripped off his shirt and held it to Morgan's face so he would have something to bleed into, and began leading him into the house.

* * *

The house was empty. Not everybody-is-out-shopping empty, it was nobody-has-been-in-here-in-weeks empty.

Seth sat Morgan on the couch and made a quick padding pass through the house. There were no signs of struggle, nor were there signs of deliberate packing and leaving. It didn't feel like a sudden disappearance, there was no half eaten food rotting on plates, or still-running water. The goody-bag that Liane usually packed with toys and whatnot when she was taking the kid out was gone along with some toys and whatnot. In the middle of the day some days ago Mieka, Liane and Shiea had simply stepped out and not come back.

Seth came back into the main room carrying an armload of stuff. He tossed a wad of cloth at Morgan and said “They're gone.”

Morgan, who had already healed the worst of his damage, un-wadded the bundle to find it was his aotahe and a set of clothes chosen to be both presentable and comfortable to work in. He thought to himself `a bath would have been nice' but when he looked back at Seth who was already naked except for the steel bands, and trying to separate bits of thin twisted gray hide from his own bundle he knew that was too much to ask for.

Seth looked exasperated. Then he looked up and caught his eye on the bloody shirt. He snatched it up and began daubing the fresh blood sparingly onto the gray skins, which began to soften and unfurl at the touch. Wyrsa hide. The not-dead skin of the strange marginal creatures was hungry and had been neglected overlong.

Seth had to fight his armor a bit to get it on. Wherever the soft suede inside layer touched skin it adhered immediately. The first major piece was cut like a wide belt that needed to be positioned more or less exactly where the intimately flexible metal band circled his waist. There was a good bit of swearing happening while he dealt with getting the layer of hide to lay flat and correctly. It was kind of funny to watch, like seeing a shoplifter trying to slip fly-paper into his under-shorts unnoticed.

The rest went on from there like a puzzle. Sheets of the stuff had been cut to lay just so and overlap slightly. It was actually fascinating to see how the assembled parts moved with him like they were his own skin. Seth had lesser problems again, with the bands on his forearms, shins, and neck but when he finished he was in a full body suit that covered him from the base of the skull and jaw-line down. Even the backs of his hands and the heels and arches of his feet were covered.

When he finally stopped peeling and re-sticking bits, satisfied with the fit and the way the skins were swelling with sweat, nutrients and bacteria robbed from his skin, Seth looked pointedly at Morgan. The piercing glance clearly said “What are you waiting for?” with no words spoken.

Morgan shed his own mismatched and dirty, borrowed clothes and slipped into his own things. He swam in them a bit, having lost a good measure of weight, but being in his own clothes for the first time in a while was like a soothing balm. Feeling the soft whispering touch of his aotahe and the light tingle of it taking a charge was likewise refreshment to his soul.

When he got to the empty sheath Morgan stretched out his hand and spoke an odd word that kind of hurt to hear. Instantly his athame was in his hand and he sheathed it.

Seth had already put on an outer layer of clothes so that he looked his old self, but with the crimson vest mute commentary to his mood.

Morgan looked at Carteher and Raiolal and said, pointing as appropriate, “Kitchen. Bath. Make your selves at home.” and headed for the bookcase in the den, and the basement workroom it concealed.

When they'd gone Raiolal and Carteher looked at one another. They were still somewhat in shock from the teleport, which they both knew to be impossible. Finally Raiolal said “you don't usually see someone put on armor to go into their own basement.”

Carteher shrugged. They both knew about the teleport now so no telling where the two were really off to. They tacitly understood that they were to go to The Seed too, when they went, so there was nothing to do but wait for the immediate things to be resolved.

They didn't get nervous until they began to feel a deep continuous rumble thrumming its way up through the solid stone floor.

* * *

Morgan wasn't sure how he did it. How he knew how to do it. He opened himself up fully, inner and outer channels, and simply woke the ancient construction and bent its vaguely understood purpose to his will. It was exactly the way a tornado turns a simple stalk of straw from harmless plant to deadly, wall-penetrating projectile. In all, it was an artifact of his missing mental parts. He didn't know his limits, or what he normally would have thought of as his limits, so he was free to act.

As identities Liane, Mieka, and Shiea were part of the household bindings, their signatures set into the castings to allow them to live safely and comfortably within them and to control them as desired. Morgan stoked those signatures with power, poring in un-aimed un-differentiated energy like he was casting molten iron into a mold.

A dark, evil impulse whispered in his inner ear. If he simply struck the binding a certain way it would shatter and the three would be selectively and completely obliterated where ever they were. But it was a small voice, and one of many that seemed to be trying to teach him terrible, wondrous truths. Chief among those was the knowledge that the entire realm was going pasty and insubstantial throughout its underpinnings in a way that was completely wrong.

Morgan rapped gently against the pregnant bindings and they rang like a dinner-bell that only three people in the universe could hear. The single clear trifold note spread out slowly and even as the square-cube law began to take its due the power began to stir harmonics dangerously within the softened fabric of local space.

If anybody else had stood with them in the stone chamber they would have likely been crushed by the vibrations. These were Morgan's doing so he was safe from them after a fashion, and he was actively reabsorbing the waste energy to pump back into the casting. As for Seth, the whole thing was happening at levels to which he had no access, and which, as usual, had no access to him in return. All he felt was a buzzing, continuous, vibrating after-shock coming from walls, ceiling, and floor.

The casting reached out some eight hundred miles and change before it found its targets.

It took a few seconds for the energy of the seek to transform into a solid connection. Morgan coerced it from bar-shaped to a hollow conduit through which he could sense and act. The softened structure of the realm made that more difficult than it normally would have been. In fact the softness was far worse than Morgan expected, in some places it was like trying to mold clay underwater. Finally he'd had to make a big wad of folds and force it along the connection the way a plumber snakes out a drain.

That did the trick.

Morgan was able to sense that they were all together and otherwise alone. He began matching up molecules of air near each end of the link and bound their energy states together across the link. A seven foot wide circular plane of air shimmered and spread open like an iris. It was a limited kind of portal allowing the translation of only sound and light in both directions. At the near end the portal was framed by a slow-motion flame-looking effect as the warmer air temperature of the other end tried to translate through as simple Brownian motion.

All three of them were a mess. The room they were in looked well appointed, even palatial, but they themselves seemed to be haunted by fear both vague and unidentifiable. The instant the visual portal formed they headed for it like it was a proper transport portal. Morgan shielded the remote end so they wouldn't burn themselves trying to get through. He then knotted space around them to give them some relief from the softening.

Since the photons being translated were “normal” Seth could see through the casting and Morgan had to raise an arm to keep Seth from trying to go through to them.

Morgan was busy with the castings so Seth, as soon as he realized sound was working too, asked “are you all all right? Where are you?”

Mieka, talking oddly over-loud like he expected the link wouldn't carry his voice, said “We're just outside Kings Cross at some estate. When the two who were sent after you didn't come back the Royals offered us sanctuary here as guests. But everything here is wrong. The guards have gone. There have been odd fights breaking out for days, and we could see fires in the city two nights ago. Since then everything has been ghostly quiet.”

Morgan asked “what day is it?” A suspicion was dawning on him.

They could see Mieka counting up in his head “Uh, the third night of Bells I guess.”

“No, the First of Fastings.” Liane said.

They did a quick reconciliation of dates and events and decided that Liane was right.

Seth started to say to Morgan that that couldn't be right, but Morgan caught his eye and shook his head. Then he skip-scanned the area around the far end of the portal. The city of Kings Cross was blanketed with spatial knots in the exact same pattern he'd established back at the tower. The estate where his family was staying was simply too far removed from town to have been protected.

Morgan set portable wards on them all, “You have to go into town.”


“All of you, it isn't safe out where you are.” Morgan didn't want to speculate at the possible actions of people wandering outside the protections of a fortified spatial area, but speculations he had nonetheless. Perfectly civilized people had been burning their own capital two nights ago.

“Oh, Mieka, do you have paper?”

“Sure.” he said in a way that really meant, “of course fool, who do you think you're talking to” and proceeded to get out paper and pens.

“Hold up a large sheet, spread open.”

Mieka did. It burst into flames and he barked “damn it!” as he dropped and stomped out the little blaze.

“Sorry, I guess it needs to be something thicker. You see any canvas or hide near by?”

“There's that tacky Viela-skin throw on the couch in the other room.” Liane said.

“Get it.”

Mieka disappeared from frame for a few moments and came back with what was indeed a tacky Viela skin. The final indignity in the life of the little plains herbivore was clearly that someone thought its hide would look good bordered with tassels.

“Yech... hold it up... fur-side away from me.”

With a soft area of hide exposed Morgan gathered his thoughts and expressed them as a stream of high-energy particles. It looked like someone were drawing on the hide with a hot poker. Flame and smoke sizzled from the hide leaving a twisting line spiraling first out and then back in, leaving a ten-inch wide mandala. The design was a full spell formula complete with explanatory subtexts and perhaps just a hair of compulsion to perform.

Again a corner of Morgan's mind just kind of noticed that he didn't actually know how to do what he'd just done, or at the least, doing it was incredibly dangerous over this kind of distance.

Morgan said “Take that to Court and get a mage to look at it. It'll help spread the range of the protections they are generating.” making it clear that he was ready to drop the link.

Liane looked at him with her you-better-think-twice face and said “what happened to you two anyway?”

Morgan kind of grimaced his this-isn't-the-best-time face at her and then gave her the once over on what had happened, somehow reducing all of the events of the last, what, three months into about five less-than-informative sentences.

Liane pretended to not worry and Mieka just stared at him with the I'm-not-buying-it look that meant he'd get the whole story out of him later.

They said hasty goodbyes and Morgan shut down the link, only allowing his if-there-is-a-later face to peek through after the line was closed.

“First of Fastings?” Seth said incredulously “We had more than two weeks this morning and now we only have three days?”

“I think we must have skipped over a few days in transit. It didn't go well.” And Morgan suddenly realized what good actors Mieka and Liane were, his face was covered with dried blood, his eyes were sunken and bloodshot, and really, finally seeing him, Seth looked like hell. Well, there was no point in trying to reopen the link just to say they were a lot better off than they clearly looked. Especially since Morgan had never been able to lie acceptably to Liane.

Seth wasn't sure it was his place to ask, “Why exactly are we going to The Seed?”

“Exactly? I'm not sure. While I was... While... I heard Calhwin and Rienaegh. They thought that the book could be opened in The Chamber of The Seed. Elementals can't exist there. That is where Calhwin is going.”

“Why Winterdark?”

“First two things, and now a third. Some of the most dangerous things a mage can do are best done at Winterdark. The symmetry of Long Night privilege is woven in to the fabric of the Tenets of Rule, so the darker things Calhwin will do to open the books is best and most easily done then. And now, seeing the way the fabric of space is warping and softening, something will have happened to the realm... that's not the right verb tense...

Morgan was having trouble wrapping his mouth around what his mind knew. “Everything we see and feel happening to the realm is an after-effect moving toward us from the future. There is only one time and place I can conceive of where you could effect everything. Between the ease and the draw the realm is at rest, like a big machine shut down for maintenance, and that entire machine lays at arms reach when you stand on The Seed. Something very wrong happens three midnights hence, and it happens there.”

Morgan started for the hall and the stairs.

Something bothered Seth momentarily, and then he had words for it. “And we don't prevent whatever it is from happening then do we?”

There was a certain toughness, and tightness, maybe even flippant fatalist aggression to Morgan's voice when, without stopping or turning to look back he quipped the single word “Nope.”

* * *

When they came out of the basement Raiolal stood and asked “Well?”

Morgan said “They're okay.” as he stripped off his aotahe and dropped it to the floor.

“So what now?”

“Now?” Morgan stopped and looked out the patio doors at the afternoon scene that he imagined looked a little fuzzy but which actually looked fine. “Now I am going to take a long, hot bath. Put on a fresh clean set of my own clean clothes. Have a nice meal. Wait for sunset and observe the First of Fastings.” And as he walked off down the hall he added “you are welcome to join me or not as you see fit.”

Raiolal looked at Seth, who was picking up Morgan's aotahe. “Fastings?”

At which Seth started to explain.

After stripping directly into the hamper in the Bathroom, Morgan got into the tub and let the water sluice down on him and out the drain gate, running near scalding to near freezing moment to moment as suited his shifting moods. Finally with the first of the open road and its insults carried away he closed the drain and let the tub fill hot and comforting.

Morgan washed and then drained and refilled the tub. He was soaking away when Seth came in to use the sink. He'd stripped his outer clothes away until he was only wearing the steel bands, his pants, and the clinging skin-suit of armor. He was running water over his left forearm and trying to get a purchase on an edge of the armor with his right thumb and forefinger.

After a few moments Morgan stirred. “What are you doing?”

Seth looked at him with exasperation. “The damn hides won't come off.”

Morgan touched them with his asense. “Get in the tub.”

Seth stripped off his pants and climbed into the hot water.

Morgan watched him with many eyes. The clinical eyes saw the hides were starving, unwilling to release the nourishing flesh and the places where normal purchase and a strong grip could make that desire moot were covered with pliant but implacable steel. Clinical talents fed the hides succulent essences and clinical hands peeled away the pliant and replete sheets of alien tissue.

The other eyes saw from other perspectives. Perspectives of need, lust, loneliness and perhaps the desperation of someone who knows that in three days time nothing may matter to anybody anymore. And finally there were excuses, liberating excuses that whispered to him. The same voiceless whispers that let him exceed himself in his recent castings were not silent about what was before him. As he was acknowledging the very liberating absences within his head, they were redressed and he became complete and whole again. He studiously ignored that fact. Those seeking eyes, and the needs they grew from, were essential parts of who he was, and some of those eyes had hands of their own.

When the last of the hide was stripped away and tossed into the sink Morgan reached up to Seth's collar and pulled him down toward him.

There was a kiss and it lingered and it spoke. There were things between them that there was no longer any point to denying. Things everybody else could see plainly when they saw the two together. Those things were right and essential to them each separately and to them both together, and it was time for those things to find their own expressions.

But there was more there too. Dark needs and angers swirled within Seth and with lust there came a wave of cruelty. A lifetime of things, of being used, and of being abused welled forth. And will-he or not, those things found expression too, and Seth tried to hurt Morgan deeply and intimately the way a person can only hurt their lover.

But Morgan would not be hurt. He had his dark places too, and they had been dredged to the surface well and fully in all-too-recent memory. In truth some edge of him wanted to be hurt and to hurt Seth back, even as more of him felt the need to feel, harsh and brutal, some edge of life that was never spoken of openly. But beyond anything, Morgan understood Seth's need with every fiber of his own being and more still, where Morgan couldn't be hurt, he also couldn't be harmed.

Neither would hesitate or let themselves be driven away from the other no matter what dark impulse to destruction welled up and made itself felt. They required each other so deeply that there could be no rejection.

For a time they raged, alone and together, in a way that looked nothing like love and everything like rape, though who raped whom moment by moment was impossible to descern.

And when that played itself out and each had taken from the other in ways that perhaps nobody else in the realm would have even survived, there was still more and better in each of them. The animal and the monster within them both was acknowledged and consumed, and finally laid to rest forever.

Finally naked of pretense and exposed in desire. Divest of their inner demons of fear, anger, and doubt, they made simple and gentle love.