Calhwin bade Seth close the book, and he did, then Calhwin snatched up the book protectively and ordered them to follow him.

Seth had managed to bunch the cloth of his shirt into a makeshift sling and with Morgan proceeding zombie-like before him, and his arms clutched to his chest protectively, he shuffled along as fast as he could.

It was a long walk across the expansive floor and for the first time Seth realized that there were arcane markings etched into the huge surface. A deep etching nearly tripped up his flatfoot-slide of a stride. One thousand frightening, merciless yards to go. And then he noticed the sound of their passage was wrong. Looking to his side he realized that they weren't really on a floor at all, but a great stone pier leading out into an truly remarkable space. And he stopped in awe.

The room, no the vault, was octagonal but it wasn't a proper octagon. It was more like a properly square room that had had lesser walls built across its corners. The short walls were maybe one sixth the length of the long walls. All along the periphery was a flat expanse some forty yards wide that could only be called, given the scale of everything, a wide ledge. The tunnel they'd entered by was square in the middle of one of the short walls, but their camp was centered before one of the long. Above their campsite loomed the depiction of what looked like a giant door. The door to the house of fire if Seth had to guess. The pier was laid out along the lines of perspective so that from on top of The Seed it looked like a great stone road that exactly fit the giant door but also reduced the apparent size of the door if one imagined a flat scene.

In other words, the walkway became rather narrow out in the middle of the space.

And hanging there, by no apparent means, in the center of everything was The Seed. A table-flat expanse of stone just under forty paces wide with a single pedestal jutting up from its center. The underside of the stone came to an irregular point. It was like a lumpy teardrop had had its wide end shorn through and then been hung upside down in open space. On the wall directly across the way was the door to the house of water. Earth was to his left and Air to his right.

Everywhere on the great walls fantastic creatures were shown struggling in what looked like a celestial tug-o-war with the short walls at their focus.

It was amazing.

It was so amazing that Seth nearly fell to his death.

Each of the stone piers reach out to The Seed but they do not actually touch it. At the end there is a space slightly larger than the comfortable stride of a grown man. Seth only noticed it about half a shuffle before he would have fallen through it.

For the briefest of moments Seth considered letting the accident happen. The book was closed again and if he died just then Calhwin would certainly be thwarted. But he'd already read all the base text and most of the genufashea, and he likely would not remain thwarted for long. Already he had the knowledge to do untold harm and Seth knew in his soul that the first decades of that harm would consist almost solely of him expressing his displeasure by torturing Morgan.

It just seemed too late, or at least completely wrong, for him to solve anything by falling.

Calhwin called to him “Come along!”

“I can't!” he spat back, looking pointedly at the fissure.

“Oh I see.” he replied.

Then Seth found that he could stretch his legs for one glorious stride. It felt wonderful and he took it slowly and carefully to savor the pleasure of it. And sure enough as soon as his hind leg came even with his front he was stuck shuffling again. He'd expected the free floating stone to shift ever so slightly as he added his weight, like it was hanging on a rope or something, but there was no sense of that. The thing was immovable.

When they got there Seth reopened the book and three more of the instructional works were consumed by Calhwin, this time without the experimental pause after each. Time was running short, it was nearly Winterdark. Calhwin didn't restrain Seth during the studies because he knew he was trapped by the rift. They each just stood there, or in Seth's case knelt there, in a still-life depiction of waiting doom.

After several hours of this Seth noticed something.

“We're turning!” he thought to himself.

“What?” came a reply.

It took a moment for Seth to realize that nobody had spoken aloud, the other voice had been Morgan, physically petrified where he stood but mentally alert to the link.

Seth thought back at him. “We are turning. When we got here the door to Fire was directly behind us, er, you. I've moved several times but you've been stock still. Now Air is behind you more or less.”

“I've never heard anything about The Seed rotating...”

“You think it's a Winterdark thing? It's almost time.”

“How long?”

“Two hours, maybe a little more. Maybe he'll be stuck in the thrall of the book right through it. Especially if it's short this year.”

“No way.”


“All his messing around here has weakened the bindings a bit but no where near enough to have scattered all that damage back into the past.”

“How bad will it have to get?”

And Seth's mind was suddenly awash with images of grinding desolate destruction and erupting chaos so twisted and profound and inconceivable that he had to close his inner eye to the miserable despair welling up out of Morgan.

He had to close that inner-eye because he believed what he saw and couldn't tolerate one more moment of standing before that pummeling sense of defeat and despair.

* * *

Sure enough, while they waited for some sign of Winterdark, Calhwin came back up out of the book.

“Ah, it is getting late” he mused “I think we must skip ahead.”

He looked down where Seth was kneeling hunched over, pinning his arms to his chest with his legs. “One last time to turn the page before we can close this book for a while.”

Seth knew his cue and fought his way to his feet. “Which page?”

“The main work in the Center.”

Seth remembered adding that special page and groaned in anticipatory agony. His fingers were nearly numb from the pressure and damage of the pins through his arms. He fumbled his way through to the center of the book and then hissing and whimpering, unfolded the insert. That special sheet was a complicated fold that revealed a huge mandala four pages wide and three high. Keeping with the truism that it takes more time and effort to explain a thing than to do it, the fold out was slightly larger than the top of the pedestal of The Seed.

Calhwin looked over the open page for a few moments. “This will take altogether too long to complete. We'll have to wait.” Then he looked at Morgan, remembered that he'd been immobile for hours and waived a hand.

Morgan dropped like a sack of bricks, finally free to move his legs, exhausted from holding himself up and still for so long.

Seth, to his credit, wanted to try to catch him, but simply couldn't make his body respond. He just leaned on the edge of the work table appreciating the numbing agony that suffused his hands. And then he just had to know, had to ask, “why are we here?”

Calhwin chuckled “ah, eternal verities.”

Seth had to fight down the urge to plunge his weighted arms through Calhwin's skull and all their deaths and the catastrophe to come be damned. “You know what I mean...”

“Yes, and it is not your place to ask.”

Then he seemed to reconsider.

“Actually it might be helpful if you know, Morgan, so I will answer the question for both of you.”

He paused to compose his thoughts.

“I have spent decades studying the Book of the Outsiders and I have come to realize that we live under a subtle and difficult to perceive despotism.”

Morgan said “What?” and Seth whispered “Book of the Outsiders?”

Calhwin gave a displeased glance at Seth.

Morgan said “the collected statements of sentient creatures who were known to come from any other reality” to Seth, then “what despotism?” to Calhwin.

“There are many restrictions and limits we live under that simply don't exist elsewhere. The roles we take are limited. The commoners farm and labor and soldier and study the mundane and the Talented serve them.” Those last two words dripped disgust as if the idea were inherently unclean. “To build a stone building a geomancer must determine where to find the stone and how much can safely be quarried if there is any to be had at all. Knowing how much wood can be taken from a forest for building or burning each year is the purview of a geomancer or trained forester, as is how much land can be cleared for farms. If there is a place where a city can be built and operated, full magi must summon elementals to produce stone and iron and a myriad of other raw materials. When masons cut and lay the stone then the waste must be conjured away.

“For more than a small town elementals must be maintained to supply water and sometimes heat.

“And if the restrictions are not taken to heart what happens? A wilding. People disappear. Terrible creatures, foul and obscure, begin to appear, usually killing people and livestock. Structures are lost to mist or damage. That is a punishment most foul. The act of a dictator.

“Worse still. While the Talented are being pressed into low service, the commoner has no place to rise to. No way to gain what is needed to break the thrall of oppression. Our science is organic and simplistic because of the limitations enforced about us. Our technology is limited by a complete lack of mundane resources. We are trapped.”

“Well... yes...” Morgan shook his head, looking confounded to Seth, “but no. We aren't `trapped' here any more than anybody is trapped anywhere. Yes it takes magic to do a lot of things, but the realm is made of magic. Of course it has to be manipulated with magic.”

“Why?” Calhwin asked. “Why does it have to be manipulated with magic?”

Morgan paused to think better. “Wait a minute. It doesn't have to be. My family has been mining gems and rare earths in the Alczars for generations. When things get scarce in a shaft they seal up the mine and wild it with chemical explosives. After a year they can reopen the shaft and it is refreshed with new materials.

“There are rules sure, but everything has rules, everything must have rules. That is the first stricture of Talent.”

Calhwin gave a chuckle like he were saying “poor deluded child.”

“Yes,” he said, “everything must have the rules by which it is known and by which it may act and be acted upon. In the organic realities the rules are sovereign. What you do, you do. You can change a place to be what you would make of it for yourself and your progeny. Forests may be made plains, and great machines reshape the earth at will.”

Seth said “Why would anyone want to do that? Strip the trees from the side of a hill and even if it is far fewer than that needed to wild a place, you leave poor soil that will wash down on whatever is below the next time it rains. `Reshaping the earth' all at once sounds like it would make quite a mess of many sorts. Better to have the geomancers call on the earth to rise or subside over time, the largest hill could be made flat in what, two generations? And the land around it would change to accommodate the new needs of the earth.”

Calhwin was warming some to the conversation. “The point boy, is that cities can be built to house millions of people...”

Morgan cut him off, “no way. Who could feed a million people living settled in one city.”

“I didn't say a million, singular, I said millions. Two, eight, twenty million people in one city. Great structures more than fifteen stories high built by commoners.”

“You couldn't ever feed twenty million people let alone keep them clothed and give them something useful to do every day.” Morgan said derisively.

Calhwin said. “You are partly right, all the mages around could never summon enough food fast enough to feed such a mass of people. But you see the untalented can participate in the greater tasks that only mages do here. Those common folk are themselves the ones who are involved in bringing in food and moving goods and money around. They keep themselves busy in the business of living and with the commoners supporting themselves at the base level, a substantial fraction of the commoners can ride that effort in a way that liberates them to higher pursuits. Then that higher tier stabilizes and a percent of them are freed to go even higher.”

Morgan said “doesn't sound all that efficient.”

The conversation collapsed a bit there and went on for a while. Seth followed everything carefully and dispassionately while Morgan chased the individual tracks through Calhwin's reasoning. Calhwin didn't seem to care that Seth wasn't participating. Seth was beneath Calhwin's notice. Finally that was what Seth found at the core of Calhwin's point of view.

Seth, slaves in general, all commoners, anybody with no Talent, really nearly everybody was beneath Calhwin in his own mind. He genuinely resented the fact that the Talented, whom he saw as a class apart and above everyone else, had to serve a role to the needs of that common `everyone'.

The other two reached a regrouping stage in their battle of ideas and Seth posed a question into the gap.

“So there is this world where the commoners,” Seth didn't like using that word like that, “service all their own needs right? The Talents are free to do whatever they feel themselves called to do, commoner be damned. How do the Talents earn their keep?”

Calhwin flushed at him. “We are the researchers, we advance the human condition.”

“You said that the untalented studied science, engineering and art and such like they do now, but to the point of supplying the needs of the common man. So if those needs are supplied how do the Talented get the commoner to part with bread? Only extortion is left.”

Calhwin said “you simply don't understand” and Seth mumbled “true” in response.

Morgan had a fresh bone to gnaw on for the argument and Seth began to wonder if Morgan intended to simply try to distract Calhwin for the entire evening and hope he missed the Ease and kept right on pontificating until the Draw.

Sometime later, Morgan asked how this army of untalented people marshaled the forces necessary to do all these marvels. Calhwin had described how great deposits of energetic combustibles could be extracted from beneath the ground. He hadn't been able to answer Seth's question about how such sources could be refreshed without wilding. He'd just waved it off as another near-sighted concern and said that was actually covered by a process of organic deposition of materials.

Somewhere in there Seth realized that Calhwin didn't understand how what he'd studied actually worked beyond the overview. That made a huge degree of sense. Seth didn't doubt that most of the testimony in this “Book of the Outsiders” was largely accurate, but it needs must have been woefully incomplete. Most of the people who came through were probably just normal folks from wherever they came from. Ask a tavern cook to describe the work of a smithy. He could tell you how a forge was shaped and probably a decent amount about how it seemed to be built and operated. Ask that cook how to put the steel face on an iron chisel and the best you would get was a wild guess.

Worse still. Consider if the chronicler was a full-time undersea dweller, say of the Fereedwin Abyss, he might not even know to ask about facing the chisel because the idea of open flame is fantastic nonsense to someone who has spent their entire existence under water. That person would only have the slightest clue that there was a difference between iron and steel in the first place. He'd probably even be stuck on the idea behind the word melting. In short the interviewer would be too many information-steps away from the facts to properly extract the useful core of knowledge.

Clearly the tales couldn't possibly give proper coverage to the down-sides to all these miracles. That absence alone would prevent a proper relative assessment of the true merits of one reality over another. Even a partial comparison of little parts of each were untenable with the biased and scant information.

Worse, Seth had become convinced that Calhwin's personal perspective was fatally flawed by self interest. He wanted all those pesky demands of the real world to leave him and `his kind' to their important transcendental pursuits. He had decided some years ago that all the tawdry mundane requirements that the common put on the talented were somehow unfair and unilaterally pointless. The untalented should leave their betters alone except when they rightfully make themselves useful by fetching food and maintaining the grounds and such. A self-centered egotism polluted his mind so profoundly that he was no longer able to see how the ways other people were affected by his actions would, in the long run, come back to haunt him.

Egotism and the lust for easy answers are anathema to long-term perceptions.

* * *

Seth was about to play through on the argument again when the Ease started.

Out in the realm the Ease was a gentle passing into silence, peace, and rest. In The Chamber of The Seed it was a punishing and chaotic rushing of dust-laden air from the outer galleries into the chamber proper. From a distance they all saw the camp topple in every seeming direction at once and then a huge wall of what looked to Seth like the wilding mist formed and swirled out where the continuous ledge ended. The great stone piers still reached out to them from four sides but the dust seemed to resent having to pass over and around the solid rock.

Seth actually thought it was the mist again, it would represent a certain symmetry if it were, but the continuous sound of grinding grit and the light ephemeral fall of the gray powder Carteher had pointed out on the gallery floors, said this stuff was real dust, whatever the technical composition.

Both Morgan and Calhwin saw more than that. The drawings of the great doors on the chamber walls opened, when considered from the seven-dimensional perspective, and the lights of chaos seemed to shine at them from a near-infinite distance through those terrible portals. And held back behind the shell of dust and eons, elementals did rage upon and revile one another, just as depicted in the drawings, all in terrible infinite slowness.

Morgan's mind fought to encompass everything he saw but Calhwin was unimpressed.

Calhwin's myopic perspective somehow no longer allowed for awe. He said “now to work” and Morgan fought desperately to end his own life rather than allow the fruition of the stricture Calhwin was forcing through him. Morgan had no hope of stopping the thing and before his mind's eye and against every fiber of his will, a small twelve dimensional binding took shape.

Calhwin's technique was bad and completely misunderstood the way Morgan's outer channels worked. Had his absolute will been expressed Morgan's prayer for death would have been answered. If every erg of power he could summon and control had rushed through his natural pathways he'd have been snuffed like a candle in a hurricane. Unfortunately the way of keth perfects the intent of the controller when the hold is so deep. Morgan's under-mind betrayed him and corrected the sending. The tiny fruit formed using only his inner channels and then the outer did exactly the thing Morgan had struggled to master. They took up the small casting and magnified it to their scale.

And they all three stumbled a little as slow turning of The Seed beneath them stopped suddenly.

“Now we have time for me to proceed.” Calhwin said, and Morgan knew that this Winterdark, this Long Night, would last as long as Calhwin's whim and need dictated.

Morgan could feel the realm begin to die immediately. This was the start of the great harm he'd felt coming for days. It was as if Calhwin had ordered him to reach into the chest of a man and squeeze his heart to stifle it mid-beat. If the stricture were tied off the realm would whither to nothing until only The Seed remained, floating in the first rank of elemental chaos.

That process would take subjective decades to complete. The immediate nature of the beginning-to-die didn't mean the end would be swift. The real death wouldn't truly start until plants, deprived of sunlight for days, began to wither. Animals would suffer sooner when the creatures that slept through the night awoke to find their nocturnal brethren still up and about in the darkness. This happened a little bit every year but this time the signals, the biological delay timer set within every organism by the Ease would expire before the Draw came, and the failure of the Draw would prove a shock to many of the smaller living things.

Already that damage was done, the Draw would be late even if they relented right now. But Morgan saw Calhwin turn again to the great text of the book and immediately loose himself into the knowing spiraled onto the great page.

Then Morgan's horror was redoubled. Calhwin was of Many Minds. Even as he was reading and learning he began to force Morgan's talent deep into the spell-work on which they stood. Morgan pulled up the thick cables of directed elemental force and held them there as Calhwin plucked and twanged at the strands experimentally. With Morgan's inhuman capacity spent to bend and twist the titanic forces into easy reach, Calhwin could safely enmesh himself with selected parts of the proffered structures using his own Talent. Even without knowing exactly what Calhwin was trying to change, watching him was dread personified. It was in every respect like watching a freshman candidate for the School of Disciplines take up an amplifier matrix and try to transform a stand of fir trees into pod of dolphins using only childhood stories of the sea, all the while taking his first reading of the text from “Science 108, Biology for the Liberal Arts Major”.

They would be exceedingly lucky if less than two-thirds of the realm didn't calve off into the elemental chaos and get instantly reduced to waste heat. Most likely the entire thing would simultaneously denature, fundament to firmament, and not leave enough mass behind for the formation of a shock-wave.