Raiolal and Carteher had left the house early and spent the first night of fasting for the year gone past alone together, sitting by a fire, talking, deep in the private valley behind the house. The First of Fastings was a time to gather with family and talk of those lost to the passage of time. Lore of blood and clan, shared with the distant fondness of nostalgia. A night of salted water, tall tales, and dying embers.

* * *

The morning dawned queer and off-color before settling into normalcy. When they returned to the house Morgan and Seth were up and about, preparing as much of a traditional meal as they could using the dried fruits and grains that hadn't spoiled while the house was unoccupied.

To Raiolal's eyes they were transformed. Fully vital for the first time since they'd tracked them down on the plateau, Morgan and Seth seemed excited, like schoolboys eager for their first day after harvest break. They moved together within an aura of casual but extreme awareness of one another. Raiolal gave Carteher a meaningful glance before propping a chair up backwards against the table for him.

They all sat around the table, Raiolal pored himself a mug of tea and held it up in the traditional seasonal toast. “The end of days...”

Nobody joined him and the ghost of prescience, or dread, passed across the table for a moment as Raiolal slowly lowered his mug.

Then Morgan lifted his mug, looked at all assembled, and said “so be it”, his mood was unassailable.

It wasn't the way the toast was supposed to go at all, but each of them took a moment to appreciate it as some kind of accidental truth.

They ate for a bit and then Carteher asked Morgan “What do we do next?”

His affect clouded for a moment. “Those of us who will, go to The Seed, and desecrate that holy place with the blood of our enemies. Then we retrieve a certain text and set everything to rights.”

There were two clear implications. In the first, Morgan was offering them the choice not to go with him and Seth. In the second, by the way the task was couched in those simple terms of sarcasm both grievous and unmistakable, was of doom on whoever chose to go.

Carteher said “better to face the flood than wait in your den hoping it will pass you by.”

Raiolal, heavy with pleasant sarcasm, said “Right! Where `his honor' goes I can naught but follow in awe.”

Morgan mugged at them with one eyebrow and a half grin, and Seth nudge-shoved him an I-told-you-so with his outside upper forearm.

Morgan shrugged his acquiescence and lifted his mug again using an old solder's misquote of an ancient aphorism. “From each, according to his ability, unto each, according to his doom.”

This time they each said “here here!” and drank heartily.

* * *

Everything was ready. It had taken all morning and much of the afternoon but everything they could think of wanting or needing had come to hand seemingly without effort. For Morgan and Seth that was obviously easy, this was their home and it was stocked with their belongings. But in odd serendipity everything that Raiolal and Carteher could ask for came easily to hand as well. They were going into battle, not wilderness, and the fittings for that were far different.

The only make-work that had to be done involved Morgan applying himself to a old set of armor, stretching it and re-tempering it to fit Carteher's odd shape. Other than that, weapons and supplies were theirs for the having, or more precisely the stealing. The bazaar was open to a stall, but the shopkeepers and other patrons were simply missing.

Maybe stealing was too harsh a word, they did keep track of what they took so that if they returned they could make restitution.

Morgan also looted the library of a few things. He recovered the transformer ring he'd used before and something that looked like a puzzle box, but on the way out he set those aside and took a whole lot of raw materials from the workrooms and chem-labs. Then he headed back to the library for an atlas. Finally as they were coming back across the campus Morgan stopped, handed all his get to Seth and said “wait here.”

He disappeared into a building Seth had never been in before. A while later he came out with a sixteen-pound sledge hammer on his shoulder.

Seth frowned. “What's that for?”

“Breaking things, silly.”

Seth smacked him playfully up the backside of his head. “You know what I meant,” he said meaningfully, “why do we need one of those now?”

Morgan leaned against him companionably “I don't have the slightest idea,” he said wistfully, “I just got the sudden inescapable urge to have one.”

Seth got the understandable urge to say “that's not right” or “don't you think that's odd?” but a different urge told him to keep his mouth shut.

So, everything was ready.

Morgan was looking quite the mage, dressed and outfitted as one might expect, with aotahe, athame, and staff but also with an industrial sack of noxious dust on his shoulder consisting mostly of powdered oxides of mercury. Seth was armored, dressed, armed, and carrying a sledge hammer strapped to his back for no apparent reason. Both Raiolal and Carteher were standing at the ready, also armed and armored but without any odd accessories apparent, except maybe the large quantity of climbing gear they had between them.

And they stood there.

In the basement.


Finally Raiolal said “Well?”

Morgan said “something isn't right.”

Raiolal replied “of course something isn't right. We are standing around in your basement while the realm crumbles around us.”

“Exactly!” Morgan barked. “That's it! Thank you.”

Raiolal looked down at Carteher. “What'd I say?”

Morgan began a casting. It wasn't the gate/teleport hybrid he'd been contemplating. Instead he began to make a chain-stitch of spatial folds that coiled about him like an elastic rope. He kept it up until the fabric of space around him was so strained even Seth started to feel itchy.

Raiolal drew breath to say “Well?” again, this time with more feeling, when Morgan began the portal. The expanding ring of flame forming before them caught the imperative interruption in Raiolal's throat.

Once the near threshold was complete Morgan began questing for the ideal spot for the terminus. While he was reaching his mind out and around, he played out the elastic line of force so that wherever he roamed, space would be firm and decipherable, as would the path back through the gate.

Finally Morgan found a suitable spot to place the remote end and the portal was complete. He left the chain spanning the distance through the portal and returned from the astral.

“Everybody ready?” He asked.

Carteher asked “Where does it lead?”

“The Emperor's Fortress, main hall, I think.”

Raiolal didn't exactly like the sound of that. “You think which? Fortress or hall?” he said somewhat light-heartedly. Where ever it went, he knew they were going to step through regardless.

“I know it's the Fortress, I am fairly certain it's the main hall.”

Raiolal said “Oh. All right then. Everybody remember to hit the head?” and they all laughed a little.

“This is all going a little too easy isn't it?” They'd all been thinking it, Seth just had to give it voice. “I mean the last couple of days... Ever since we decided that we had to be at The Seed by Winterdark not a single thing has really stood in our way. It's like we are being drawn there by something too huge to even... And we have all this extra...” he ran out of words while eying the bag on Morgan's shoulder.

Morgan started to step forward but Seth held out his arm to bar his path. “I should go first.”

“You can't. I'm going to have to pull you through as I go.”

Seth grunted mild displeasure. “I am right about this being too easy, though, aren't I...”

Morgan looked him in the eye, and in that strange fatalistic angry voice he said “Yep” and then he stepped through the portal.

Seth felt that dragging, painful, crushingly-wrong extruded-through-a-crevice feeling again as Morgan dragged his essence through space-time bodily via the metal bands. Somewhere along the trip Seth realized that there was no link between him and Morgan and that was part and parcel of why he'd been packaged in the steel to begin with. That was why he'd had that empty feeling so much lately. He also knew that going into combat unlinked was dangerous for him. He could even think back to the exact moment it happened. He really ought to ask about it as soon as they arrived. He realized several other things on different topics, but the absence of the link was the only piece of new insight to survive the nauseating trip.

As soon as he arrived, Seth dropped to his knees in a real and concerted effort not to retch. Somewhere in those dry heaves was where he forgot to question Morgan about the link.

Raiolal and Carteher stepped through and immediately Morgan's eyes glazed over while he took down the portal.

Seth looked around for any kind of threat but found nothing at all.

For all that this was “The Emperor's Fortress” it had never been occupied by any kind of ruler nor seen any battle or siege. The building was palatial, beautiful in craftsmanship and decorated with frescoes and inlay and all manner of durable art that can be installed in a building while it is being built. It was also the size of the largest occupied city in the realm. The fortress sat on a high escarpment like someone had planed off the top of a mountain and replaced it with a single large building. And for all that it was hundreds of centuries old, the floors were only lightly dusty and completely unworn.

No one lived here.

Nobody had ever lived here.

Well, really, there were constantly scholars and occasionally tourists about the place but none of them had ever dared occupy any room of the Fortress for more than a few days. The very existence of the building was a mystery so old that nobody really bothered to wonder over it any more. This was the residence of an august personage who was never home. The Emperor. The creator of the realm and the entity who dictated the inescapable Tenets of Rule to every leader and monarch to ever hold court anywhere in all the history of creation.

There was no such person in the concrete sense. No guy who would show up with entourage in tow and tell you to grovel before him as he pronounced edicts at you. There was just this idea. You could go to any tribal chieftain in the realm, regardless of species or education, and if he'd held the post for more than a year he could, if asked, dictate to you a core list of structures, edicts, principles and limitations in all ways identical to those held forth by every other leader.

The Tenets were broad and within many of them there was terrific latitude. The realm had seen benevolent rulers, viscous despots and even bureaucratic oligarchies flower and endure within the Tenets. And from time to time a ruler would act outside the Tenets in some small way and seem to get away with it.

But when a transgression was real and somehow adjudged grievous, those rulers would receive warnings in dream and portent, and if they ignored the warnings and persisted in their deeds, they would be brought low. That undoing was usually something odd but explicable. Accident, drowning, poison, coup, fire, even lightning, and sometimes, though rarely, whole governments would crumble seemingly overnight. And it could be thought the fickle action of a whimsical fate, or just odd happenstance, except that every other ruler would witness the sundering of their fellow in their dreams.

The Emperor was a real force, if not an actual person, and this was his fortress. It lay centered within the realm, and centered in the basalt beneath its cave-ringed foundations lay The Seed. The singular piece of alien rock from some forgotten organic reality which holds the prime litany of creation.

No sentient being ever felt unwelcome within these halls, but none felt so welcome that they would dare take up residence. Even wild animals and vermin knew not to come to this place with a mind to den or nest.

The place was beautiful, and solemn, and fantastic, and somehow stern and terrible in its isolation.

Seth shivered in absolute dread even as the others' jaws hung open in collective awe.

* * *

It took them an hour to find a stairway down to the galleries deep below. In that time they had come to the conclusion that they were alone here. Seth finally took the heavy bag from Morgan who, while he couldn't give a decent reason for its presence, insisted that it must not be left behind. Encumbered with the bag he wouldn't be able to fight but there wasn't the slightest sign of anyone who would need fighting.

Once they reached the bottom of the stairs they found themselves within the most striking piece of artwork any of them could imagine. The ruddy stone walls were irregular and on each facet and each surface there were fine lines of what looked to be ink or charcoal, depicting a barren plain of volcanic rock decorated with standing stones and hummocks of stony earth. Even the opening in the wall where they emerged was worked into the design so that they appeared to emerge from a deep cleft between fallen monoliths. The patterned tile floor beneath them was extended into the drawing so that it looked like they were on some ancient hewn foundation set in the wasteland. There was even a suspicious, silent breeze that gave the feeling of wide open spaces.

It was near impossible to perceive that they were in a ring-shaped room, but Morgan knew it was so because he had read the descriptions. The perspective of the art tumbled the senses as one moved, the pure picture resolving again whenever you stopped and looked.

Morgan led them around the arc of the room until he saw what looked to be a cleft in a stone depicted on the inner wall. This was a passageway into a more interior ring.

As they approached the opening Raiolal let his hand drift against a wall and when it came away black he said “Hey!”

They all stopped and Seth said “What?”

“Look at this.” Held his hand out for inspection even as he looked at the walls for a smudge.

They all looked at him like he was off his nut so he boldly wiped his hand on the wall again and this time it was covered with a fine dust, like the charcoal was rubbing free. He checked where he had touched, but there was no trace of smudging. Even as he looked back and forth from hand to wall, a gust of breeze seemed to try to wisp away the fine powder from his palm.

Carteher dragged a hand across the floor and showed it was covered with a fine film of irregularly-gray dust. He whispered “Magic” and bobbed his head a bit.

Raiolal said “Oh... right” and wiped his hands on his pants.

In the narrow passage into the next inner ring there was an eddying breeze that tugged indecisively at their ankles, changing directions frequently. Despite that, the dust stayed low to the ground and didn't even hint at making anyone's nose tickle. The only effect seemed to be that every trace of their progress was erased even before it could be left behind.

In the next innermost gallery there was a scene at once largely the same and totally different. The barren plain was the same, though the mind refused to say whether the stones were placed just so in the previous room. The illusion of the tiled foundation was identical. The only clear difference was that the interior details were less sure and, as if it had been laid out by a different hand altogether, there was a feeling of brush-stroke and deliberation the previous scene had lacked.

They had not begun in the outermost gallery but they knew the innermost when they reached it. For all the world the scene looked as if someone had walked around the room a hundred times, each time holding a brush at a different, fixed height. The entire scene was rendered in these perfectly horizontally parallel stripes which seemingly varied only by their thickness from point to point.

It was dizzying to look upon.

But when they drew close to the walls and really looked, each “line” was really a tightly packed cursive script in the language of summoners. The symbols were packed tightly the way a madman writes, obsessively-small with a razor-sharp quill.

They knew it was the innermost ringing gallery by three certain features. Despite its immense size the space was somehow claustrophobic and surreal. The inner surface wall was blank of decoration, just a vertical expanse of off-gray stone. And they had entered by an ascending passage that had come up through the floor so that the lines of the text on the outer wall were not disturbed or interrupted by any opening.

Still there was further to go. Whatever dictated the floor-plan of the galleries it was assuredly not convenience.

* * *

They had been walking for hours since they'd entered the Fortress and the last seeming hour of that time was spent circling the seemingly endless inner wall. Finally they reached one of the four entryways to The Chamber of The Seed. An arched passageway about eight feet wide and twelve high was hewn hundreds of feet straight through the living rock with mathematical precision.

The instant they stepped within it, the passage was pitch black, like someone had summoned the essence of the void and anchored it there. The very blackness made them each suddenly wonder at the light that had been ever-present, sourceless, and totally taken for granted in the great galleries. Whatever that light, it didn't so much as glimmer distantly behind them. It was a thing of a different place and time than this passage.

Far in the distance ahead though, there was ambiance and even the hinted speck of a small structure standing alone in the midst of a veritable sea of open floor.

After several hundred paces the walls of the tunnel were suddenly not around them and they were within a vast open space.

Ten steps into the open Calhwin's voice spoke to them from the darkness “You certainly took long enough.”

Seth instantly shrugged, sending the thirty-pound bag thumping to the floor where it burst open, the contents blowing pointlessly down the corridor. Before it hit the ground he had his steel halfway bared and was starting to run toward where he'd heard the voice.

Morgan hung his staff in the air and began to reach out.

“I don't think so.” Calhwin spoke again and Morgan's staff clattered to uselessly to the floor and, committed to the charge, Seth suddenly discovered that he couldn't bring his right foot past his left more than a few inches. Mid-stride Seth's instantly hobbled ankles left him overreached without support and he tried to convert the fall into a roll. That was only partly successful as he discovered that his wrists entangled themselves about his waist the same way his ankles were entangled with each other.

Morgan, realizing that his talent was suddenly and inexplicably inaccessible, saw to retrieving his staff so that he could beat Master Calhwin to death in the more traditional manner he'd been studying all year.

Master Calhwin didn't even consider that Morgan might actually try to hit him with the staff. It just wasn't done. However he gestured with one hand and mage-light blossomed around them revealing about ten crossbowmen with weapons leveled on them. Calhwin's intent was to persuade Raiolal and Carteher to yield. It worked perfectly, and also persuaded Morgan to hold his action.

It was a textbook, classic, and completely successful ambush. Not a drop of blood spilled nor moment's effort wasted.

Calhwin addressed his men. “Those two are of no significance. Bind them and lock them in a wagon until we are done here.” Raiolal and Carteher were stripped and bound, Raiolal to his small-clothes and Carter, who actually never wore clothes, just gear and a belt of personal possessions, was stripped naked.

Raiolal was bound for transport but Carteher proved a bigger problem. If they tied his limbs they'd have to carry him and he weighed considerably more than a man. One clever guard came up with blindfolding him with a bag over the head and putting a money-pouch over each hand and lashing it around the wrist. It was something he could get out of with some struggle, but not before they could put a couple of arrows and a sword in him.

* * *

“Help him to his feet, but be careful of him.” Calhwin said to no guard in particular while gesturing at Seth. Then he looked at Morgan and said “come.”

And Morgan followed. A substantial part of his attention was taken up by trying to figure what had happened to his talent. It was just gone. Other than that, he was looking for the first chance to bash Calhwin's head in with his staff.

One of the guards, unfamiliar with the way of mages and unbiased by their assumptions saw the staff as the weapon it was, and relieved him of it almost immediately.

Behind him Morgan could hear Seth shuffling along quickly, only able to move his feet about eleven inches per stride.

An interminable distance away they finally came upon an indoor camp of sorts. Several collapsible work tables were erected on a large heavy insulating rug and festooned with items and components most arcane. Near that was the trunks that the gear had come out of, and past that there was a small area covered by more carpets with a cot and night-stand on them. Comfortably beyond that was the provisions and whatnot that a dozen men would need while guarding and waiting on a master magus.

Camp chairs were got, and Calhwin had Morgan and Seth sit and then sat himself, a discrete minimum distance away.

Tea was brought and then Morgan felt Calhwin poking around in his head in a most disconcerting and unstoppable way. Finally Morgan spat “what have you done to me?”

Calhwin refocused on the material. “Keth'yetal — of a sort.” He gestured at a large object on one of the work tables. “The glass matrix contains your tribute to the throne redistributed as a sparse simulacrum of your body. Very old, very basic sympathetic magics bind you to that material in that shape. The iron remembers the first awakening of your talent and so can be used to control your talent now. Every talent you have now grew from that seed, even those remarkable etchings in your flesh.

“You really should have destroyed that object, not given it away. With it, and the proper skills and insights, anybody has a back-door into the considerable stronghold of your mind. Since the day you identified it publicly and then left it in mundane hands, I have been working to secure it for this very purpose. Now I can and shall use you to great effect.

“You have remarkable reach and depth. I shall, once we are done here, study these at my leisure.

“But don't be concerned. I am not a cruel man. You are in no discomfort now and there will be no reason for that to change. The lovely Rienaegh is gone.” he didn't look at Seth and he didn't seem to mind that fact overmuch to hear his tone. “I never had much use for her associates and their distasteful practices. A necessary evil in which I never directly took part. And you have done to yourself something which quite transcends that barbaric practice. Something that should have been impossible to survive, let alone do without assistance...”

Calhwin seemed ready to talk forever but Seth had already heard enough to start the wheels of his mind working. When Calhwin had said “glass matrix” Seth had become acutely aware that he had a sledge-hammer strapped to his back. When the guards had searched him for weapons they had been oblivious to the thing. His swords had been picked up where they lay, and several knives had been taken from his person, but the hammer hung unnoticed on it's straps. He just, and rightly, assumed that for some reason Morgan had set one of those do-not-notice-this blocks on the thing sometime before they got to the chamber.

Then Seth realized that he was being addressed directly and he rolled through his memory of the conversation quickly to get back into context. No Morgan hadn't been compelled to come to The Seed, the construct had just been a precaution. Calhwin had been able to track their approach via the construct once they had gotten to the Fortress, which is how he'd been able to execute the ambush so precisely. Calhwin had intended to force the book open here by his own means, which hadn't been going at all satisfactorily, and then rely on the fact that no elemental summoning forces worked within The Chamber at all, which would allow him to pursue the text here in safety. Finally the question that had been addressed to him was simply how was he able open the books?

The question Seth needed to explore was how could he get his mobility back for even the few moments he'd need to smash the hells out of that “glass matrix”.

“I don't actually know sir” he said. “My Lady Korane's assessment was that some innate resistance I seem to possess meant that the enchantments simply didn't recognize my existence so they don't oppose me.”

“Do you concur Morgan?”

Seth looked at Morgan and saw that he didn't look at all well. Looking back again he could see places in the conversation where things had gotten tense and Calhwin had casually used some inner coercion. Morgan seemed to resist his own speech, but finally a “yes” worked its way past his lips.

“Ah, fascinating, I thought you were just shielded in a profound way. This resistance is something else the three of us will have to explore. So this resistance is the means you employed to prevent us accessing the text by using you through the control collar.”

Thoughts were connecting in Seth's mind and he let honesty do his work for him. “Er. No sir. I don't know why I couldn't open the books then. I fully wanted to do so since I knew the protections would kill those present.” The seed that Seth needed to plant was simple, the binding enchantment of the collar had let the books sense the essence of the person controlling him. The inference being that to open the books he had to be unbound.

Seth let Calhwin fish around for that idea, tugging here and there for a few exchanges until the fish was the fisherman.

Calhwin looked back at Morgan “So is that the reason you severed the binding between yourself and the slave and replaced it with these physical restraints?”

Morgan said “no” and then started to squirm a little. Finally he said “please stop. The question isn't answerable...”

Calhwin raised an eyebrow, “how so.”

Morgan heaved a sigh of relief and said in a rush “I didn't sever the binding. I lost it somehow and couldn't figure how it was lost or how to get it back. The bands aren't restraints...” he flinched under a technicality the truth compulsion recognized “weren't restraints. I just put them on as a means to set proximity effects that would track with him when he moved.”

“Ah, I guess it was clever of me to restrain him with them then.”

Seth just wanted to punch the egotistical old jerk, then maybe hurt him a lot, before killing him dead. The feeling didn't fade much as the conversation went on, but for all the words that followed nothing much of meaning went by.

Finally they got back to the books, or more precisely the large book sitting on the worktable, and Calhwin said “Open it now, if you would.”

Seth looked long and hard at him, and considered refusing outright but when he took overlong Calhwin did something and Morgan let out a pain-filled exasperated yell.

Seth said “all right!” got to his feet and started shuffling quickly toward the table.

When he got there he looked meaningfully at Calhwin, who had followed him about half way. When the other man didn't get the hint he kind pantomimed tugging at his waist.

“Oh, of course, how silly of me.” He said, and closed his eyes to concentrate.

Seth found he could lift his arms away from his waist but they stayed together like he wore short manacles. He reached for the book but again the clasps would not yield to his touch.

“Do not dally.”

“I am not. The clasps will not open.”

Calhwin vrec'd the situation and could plainly see the enchantments of the book interacting with the spells on the wrist bands.

“Go to that table.” Calhwin pointed with his eyes and then closed them yet again.

Seth found his arms forced to his waist again and he walked over to the indicated table. When he got there an unexpected thing happened. The metal of the band around his waist split and half of it's mass was added to each of the arm bands so that they wrapped his forearms to the crook of his elbow and weighed probably twelve pounds each. But still Calhwin stood his ground for a while.

Finally Calhwin walked over to the opposite side of that table. “In the name of assurance I have done a very ancient thing. The old warrior mages didn't like the idea of being outlived by those they had conquered, they also wanted to insure a certain vigilance on the part of their conscripted fellows. I have linked your previous master's life functions to my own through the keth. Harm me or act against me and you harm him. And if that isn't enough to keep you in your place, I have made him modify a few things. If he dies, that beautiful collar you wear will denature and take off your head most spectacularly. Do you understand?”

Seth thought ``previous master' my ass, I am not and never will be your man' but he also understood exactly so he just said “I understand.”

“Place your arms on the table, hands closed, thumbs up.”

Seth did as he was told.

Calhwin placed one hand on each of the shining steel bands and said “understand too that this is necessary.” It wasn't an apology and it wasn't strictly true. Calhwin did not perceive himself to be a cruel man, and years ago he hadn't been one, but Rienaegh's influence had changed that some time agao. And her influence occasionally made itself manifest from beyond the grave she'd been denied.

Seth's scream started in his groin and erupted out of him until it filled the seemingly unfillable cavern. Morgan screamed in sympathy since it was through Calhwin's control of his power the bands reformed themselves. The inner surface of each band sprouted three nubs which became spikes. They extended themselves inward through hide and flesh, forcing their way between the tendons and then the bones of his forearm and then through the skin and hide at the other side. Then they thickened and the bands loosened a little so that the pins were the main force that would hold the weights steady on his arms. The final insult and torture was really the only necessary part. The sorcery was withdrawn from the sleek and pliant stuff rendering it to its original consistency of smooth but still relatively rough and common iron bar-stock.

“Now I have waited long enough, and you will open the book.”

But Seth didn't hear him. Unable to move his arms when the pain started, he'd thrown his torso up onto the table and curled his legs up beneath it in that most-ancient protective reflex. It was amazing that he hadn't broken his own bones with the power of that foetal clench. But his legs could not yet uncurl from the cramping and his mind was not returned enough to know that it was urine and bowel that the wyrsa hides were feasting on as it tried to work its way down and out into his clothing and boots.

One other thing happened in those moments when Calhwin was greedily satiating his hunger for vengeance and pain.

Seth had reached out in the desperation of sheerest agony. The unblockable empathy Morgan had inflicted on himself in the mist had teamed up with his instinct for flesh and, galvanized by the animal memory of his cutting, searched for that call, seized it, and forged a many-threaded chording bond between them.

And in Morgan's mind he was stroking Seth's back and Seth felt it as a ghostly comforting touch. His talent was not available to heal nor block pain but he promised to share the pain whenever their tormentor's mind could not see and so use it against them. And in words that Seth could hear as plain as if Morgan whispered in his ear, Morgan promised a reckoning that would make vengeance look a pale and pointless thing.

With the touch of a distant lover Morgan helped Seth uncurl “That's it love, you can take this. It is only for a little while but you must move before he strikes again.” And he felt everything through that side channel but refused to let any of that be hinted at within the keth Calhwin held. Morgan helped Seth stand and cross to the book, but as he reached for it Morgan said “I must withdraw, but I will not leave you.” and Seth felt his awareness of Morgan fade like a most distant memory.

Seth had to cradle his arms against his chest to walk, and gently lay the iron weights on the table because he couldn't stand to have the pins resting the weight against his bones. Then maneuvering his arms without lifting them, he got his fingers near the latches and they opened under his agonized manipulation.

From the distance Calhwin said “Ah excellent. Morgan... if you would.”

A fusion of cowardice and caution. Calhwin compelled Morgan to try the text first while he looked on safely.

The protections were not unaware of Morgan's gaze but what they summoned and directed would not, could not, appear here. Even the first page was marvelous. Both insightful and well written. It began with some of the more common understandings about the realm. How it existed as a bubble of surface tension in that space where the elemental ideals common to the disparate universes found material expression, balanced in the spot where the distinctions of elemental concept became muddy with the proximity of their opposites.

Morgan reached the bottom of the first page and was reaching to turn pages when a paralysis came over him. His finger was a scant inch from the paper when Calhwin stopped him.

“It would seem ill-advised to actually touch the work.” Calhwin said. “Quite a charge is built up near your hand. While I would be interested to see exactly what the effect of direct contact would be. It would be far too wasteful to have you killed just now. Have him turn the page.”

It was agonizing and awkward for Seth to turn the page but he did so nonetheless.

When it proved safe to continue, Calhwin took over reading the text directly.

All through the night of the Second of Fastings Morgan stood by and Seth turned pages while Calhwin read and scanned the mundane text of the book. He'd made a point to skip over the direct teaching genufashea so that he could get an overview of the work.

Finally late in the morning, which announced itself as the brightening of the ambient light level in the chamber to a comfortable but sourceless overcast daytime glow, Calhwin called a rest. He ate heartily, and Seth and Morgan were reasonably fed. Then Morgan was simply pushed down into a deep unconsciousness by way of Calhwin's power over him and Seth's torturous bonds were lashed to a couple of chests so that he was helplessly on his back.

At which point Calhwin himself ordered that he not be disturbed and retried to his cot.

Seth didn't sleep exactly. The pain was still too intense. The sledge hammer he was lying on was no picnic either, especially since he couldn't change his position at all. As a bonus, somewhere down inside his head was the distant phantom nagging ghost of Morgan, pinned and suffocating. It felt the world to Seth like the tiniest bit of life was leaking out of Morgan and going somewhere. Down that leaking thread was a cancerous blight that had to be Calhwin, but the life thread didn't seem to end there.

So where he couldn't possibly sleep, he meditated on that awful truth he had no way to unravel, a meditation through which he found unconsciousness.

* * *

As the light waned Calhwin roused himself and his toys, and through that third night of Fastings he would have Seth expose a fold out page of genufashea then secure Seth and suppress Morgan, and then lose himself in the turning spell of knowledge for little while. When he'd rouse, the knowledge instilled within him, he would rouse Morgan and use his strength to experiment. Then he'd get Seth to expose the next one.

After each of the experimental bouts he'd give Morgan just a little slack to heal and replenish himself with.

One time during that slack Morgan looked at Calhwin and, bleeding from the eyes and one ear, croaked “we should not be doing this here...”

Calhwin looked at him as if he were an impertinent child. “Why ever not? This is the one place where creative conjuration can not do harm.”

“We are depleting the bindings here. The protections are starting unravel. Can't you feel it?”

Calhwin looked around himself but clearly felt nothing.

Morgan shook his head in disgust and drew on his essences to repair what harm he'd taken.

Calhwin did, however, pay attention to him then. “Stop that boy! Do not deplete yourself, you will need all your strength tomorrow night. Draw from your surroundings.”

“That's what is depleting this place!”

Calhwin snapped up his healing web by proxy and opened all Morgan's exterior channels.

Seth had never imagined that healing could be so excruciating. Morgan writhed like a live badger on a spit as every cell in his body was forced to accept a maximum dose of foreign, vitalizing energy. It lasted for only two heartbeats but Seth felt through the link an agony possibly as profound has he'd felt from the arm-bands, but completely different and so universal that Morgan didn't so much as whimper. And because it was healing energy, he couldn't even sink into collapse afterward.

Whatever Calhwin knew, or was learning, he was no healer.

Morgan looked and felt like he was walking the thin line of Kavetta Weed overdose, trembling with stimulation and adrenaline.

“What is happening tomorrow night?” Morgan barely managed to marshal himself to ask.

“Tomorrow night is Winterdark, and we are going to do some editing.”

Morgan barked “You're mad!” and then he was writhing on the floor.

Seth looked obliquely at Calhwin's fuming visage. He was livid at the insult. But Seth also looked at the armsmen. These were fit and hale men here in the name of gold instead of compulsion, and they were beginning to look between each other in a way Seth recognized. They were just one unpleasantness away from taking their money and running. Oh, not the throw down the swords and quit the field kind of desertion, more the go for a pipe and never come back kind.

Calhwin didn't know fighting men, or even common men all that well. Thinking about them was beneath him. And they were going to fail him quite soon. And if it was soon enough Seth was going to hold a discussion with a certain hammer and a certain volume of glass.

And again on through the noon of Winter's Day they “slept” at Calhwin's will and in the afternoon he had the last of his men carry a work table out to The Seed itself, even though he didn't comprehend that these were the last of them he'd ever see.