The horse ran smoothly through the woods, muscles clenching and releasing with a steady rhythym. Lydia kept her weight balanced over his withers and a light contact on the reins. Behind her, Meeplar clung like a burr to her pillion pad. Energy passed in a smooth flow from Lydia, to Meeplar, then the amplified energy came back to Lydia and she passed it on to her horse and the other three running alongside, keeping their muscles working tirelessly and their lungs functioning smoothly long past the point when an unassisted mount would have collapsed.

Ahead of them, a brilliant flare of light bounded away, hovering over the head of their target as it ran for its life, dodging and twisting among the trees. It was an ugly beast, the fourth such thing Lydia and her cluster had hunted down today. Once it might have been a boar. Now vastly overdeveloped mounds of flesh made it look more like an oval blob of muscle with little stick legs and delicate boar hooves. The poor things could hardly even see anymore, with only one eye almost obscured by a roll of bulging, overhanging neck muscle. Ugly. Pathetic, even. But a pack of them had been sent in to ravage the countryside around a small village and the desperate village council had sent for the Circle of Light to help. The irony of the situation was not wasted on Lydia: the village was Greentree, where she'd grown up.

The snorffle ahead of them faltered and slowed. Although it was a creature born of magic, it couldn't compete with horses that felt constantly rested even at the fastest pace they could maintain through the trees. Kesh, the swordsman, called out and gestured with his boar spear for the Cluster to fan out.

Lydia helped pen the snorffle between horses so it couldn't escape, but she wasn't too eager to get blood on her own spear. She felt bad for the creature, although she knew it had to die. It wasn't the snorffle's fault someone had changed it with magic and set it on helpless villagers.

“I think that's the last,” Kesh said, once the beast lay twitching and bloody on the ground. “Back to the village?”

“I hope you're right,” Marlan, their loremaster, said, wiping sweat from her face with a grimace. “I hate chasing monsters.”

“You hate anything that's not reading,” Kesh teased.

“Not true,” Marlan said, tossing her irrepressibly curly hair over her shoulder. “I don't hate food. Or sleeping.”

Everyone laughed.

“I need to make a couple stops before going back to Caissa,” Lydia said, rubbing her horse's neck. “Will you all wait for me, or go on alone?”

“Stops? What kind of stops?” Healer Larissa asked, fastening her boar spear into its carry position on her saddle.

“I need to visit family,” Lydia confessed. She hadn't told anybody that part.

“Family? You have family?”

“I wasn't spawned from the forest floor, Kesh,” Lydia said dryly. “My parents live here, and my former Master lives a few miles down the road, in Greentree. I promised to come back for a visit when I was allowed to travel.”

“But you've been—oh. That's right. They didn't allow you to travel until you got your Cluster. Sorry, I forgot.”

“It's okay,” Lydia said. She hadn't minded the restriction on travelling much, not after that rotten experience her first year. The Circle had done everything it could think of to shelter its youngest, most powerful member. Sometimes the care was enough to smother her, but Lydia knew it was better than the alternative. Sometimes she still wished the power would go away and she could just be an ordinary baker, but it wasn't going, and that was that. For whatever reason, destiny or freak of nature, she held more power than any other living mage in the entire Circle of Lights, and she understood the need to keep safely away from those who would try to take it from her.

Of course now, the story was different. Sixteen years old, fully trained, and with her Cluster around her, Lydia was as ready to face the world as she'd ever be, and the Circle had sent her out with great expectations.

Of course, she wondered how in the world she was supposed to fulfill those expectations if the Circle kept sending her out on such boring missions. Rampaging changelings? Come on. Any would-be hero or adventurer could take care of such things.

“Who said anything about going back?” Marlan spoke up as the horses began to pick their way back through the trees to the village. “i think we need to find out who sent the snorffles, and why.”

“Good idea,” Lydia agreed readily. “They certainly aren't native to this place. Anyway, can you all make the report without me?”

“At least stick around long enough to help the horses get back to the village,” Larissa said, rubbing her mount's neck. “We ran them a very long way. I don't want them to collapse without your support.”

“Of course,” Lydia nodded. “They're perfectly fine at the moment, but you're right, that could always change. And we might always see another of the ugly buggers.”

“They are ugly, aren't they?” Marlan agreed, with a shudder. “All that flabby flesh. Ick.”

“Why do people make such things, anyway?” Kesh wondered. “Lydia? You're a mage, tell us why someone would do that.”

“Because they can?” Lydia shrugged. “I don't really know. The changelings are useful for playing war, and that's about it. They don't have any practical purpose beyond fighting and raising havoc, as far as I know.”

Meeplar chirped behind her, tugging at Lydia's light mail shirt. “What is it, Meep?”

The fuzzling chittered, and sent a feeling of just wanted to see you jump.

“Oh, you,” she said, fond and exasperated as she frequently was by her mischievous familiar. She twisted around and rubbed the fuzzling vigorously.

“What is it?” Kesh said, scanning the trees for any sign of danger. He might not be able to see the fuzzling, but he could hear her, and trusted her warnings.

“Nothing. She was just feeling a little neglected.”

“Silly beast,” Marlan said, without rancor. “I do wish I could see her. It seems so odd to see you having conversations and other interactions with a creature that doesn't exist for the rest of us.”

“I know,” Lydia said, then shrugged. “But what can I say? The only way you can see her, or any other creature from another plane, is to have magic in your soul. Otherwise, you just have to take my word that she—and they—are real and here.”

“Oh, I do. I just wish I had that ability, at least a little bit.”

“So do lots of other people,” Lydia said, giving Meeplar's ears a final scratch. She'd run into some jealousy over the years, even in the Hall of Lights. People wanted to see her fuzzling, to have one of their own, especially since having a fuzzling around at all marked a mage as very powerful. But there was nothing anyone could do about it, so she just dealt with the problems and moved on.

They reached the village shortly before dusk. A child lookout spotted them returning, and by the time they reached the village square, nearly the whole town was assembled.

“The beasts are destroyed,” Kesh announced to the expectant crowd. The villagers cheered.

“Tomorrow we ride in search of who sent them,” Marlan said. This brought another cheer.

Lydia spotted her father in the crowd and gaped for a moment. He looked so old! Then she hopped off her horse, put Meeplar down on the ground, and made her way to him.

“Hello, father,” she said.

“Lydia!” The old man's face crinkled into a big grin, and he hugged her. “You looked so magnificent up there on your fine horse, daughter. I see you've done well for yourself off in the big city.”

“Yes, I have.” Lydia looked around. “Where's mother? And what of my brothers and sisters?”

“Your mother's feeling poorly these days, so she stayed home. As for your brothers and sisters, well, you know they're all out and about, scattered every which way. The only one that really comes by anymore is Janos, because the others are out making their ways in the world, just like you. But Janos brings the grandchildren by and makes your mother happy, and everyone writes at least once a year or so.”

“I'm sorry I haven't been able to visit,” Lydia said, sad at the dispersal of her family. They'd been fairly close, once. “But you know they wouldn't let me out until I got assigned to a Cluster.”

“Yes, no harm done. Bring these friends of yours by the house, we'll give them a good dinner and make your mother feel better. She loves having visitors.”

So Lydia found herself bringing her Cluster home for dinner. Her mother was overjoyed to see her, of course, and one of the townsfolk sent a child to tell Janos and his family the news. So everyone showed up, for an impromptu reunion and party.

Larissa had a good time, up to her ears in little ones. Janos and his wife had produced four children over the last eight years, and they loved the Healer. As for the others, Kesh was curious enough to start Lydia's mother talking about Lydia's childhood, and wound up unable to get the old lady off the subject. Marlan was a bit uncomfortable, with the strange people, the overexcited kids, and nobody to talk about her favorite subjects with. Meeplar stalked children and had a blast making them squeal and jump. One child, the youngest, could even see her.

Lydia was a little—okay, more than a little—uncomfortable. She hadn't seen her family in eight years. They were the same. But she... she wasn't. She was a mage now. The power was in her always, even here, singing with a seductive song. These people, these simple, honest, hardworking people, would never know or understand what it felt like to control mage-power... the power to change and shape the very world. So she smiled, and laughed, and all the while knew that she probably wouldn't be back.

Before the end of the evening, Lydia made sure to pull her brother off to the side.

“What's on your mind?” Janos leaned against a wall, watching the antics of the children and their invisible playmate with a small smile.

“That,” Lydia nodded at the youngest child, who reached out and captured Meeplar from behind, squeezing the fuzzling with a triumphant squeal. “Little Sophie has mage power.”

“What? Really? How do you know?” Janos's eyes widened, and he looked more closely at his youngest offspring.

“Easy. It's the same way people knew about me. She can see Meeplar.”

“Well...” Janos shook his head slowly, although his eyes began to light with pride. “Mage power. Who would have guessed... What should I do with her?”

“Nothing, really. Just love her, and take care of her, and make sure she knows she'll be a mage when she grows up. Then you can drop her off in Caissa just like you did me, and the Circle will take it from there.”

“Mage power... amazing.” Janos smiled.

“Oh, and you might want to give her a use-name now, too, so she can get used to it. I still haven't found one.”


“Mages are vulnerable through their real names. We can be attacked at a very unpleasant, deep level by people that know our names and what to do with them. But I'm too used to my given name, I haven't been able to find one yet I like to replace it. I've got to do that, and soon. I feel... naked. Vulnerable. Like I'm running around the wide world with my ass uncovered.”

Janos snorted. “Right. A use-name she will have, then, before week's end. And for yourself... why not just take mother's name? Or grandmama's?”

Lydia squirmed. “That's the first option I thought of, but... I don't know. Would you want to be called Harn?”

That was their father's name. Janos grinned. “Point taken. What about... hmm. Can't really call yourself Little Bug, that's just not dignified.”

Lydia laughed.

“Have you got a favorite animal?”

“Fuzzlings,” Lydia said, without hesitation. Meeplar leapt on the back of a child and they went to the floor in a laughing, meeping heap.

“That won't do. Hmm, I see what you mean. It's almost worse than choosing a child's name, because the baby has no choice in the matter, and you do. Got a favorite bird, maybe?”

“I thought about Linnet, but it just didn't sit well. I could never--”

“Hey!” Janos interrupted, after a thoughful gaze out the window. “How about Aurora?”

“Aurora? Hmm...” Lydia turned the name over in her mind. Aurora. Not bad. She'd always loved the auroras that happened once in a while in the winter, usually accompanied by one of the region's rare snows. “That might work. Just a minute.” She looked at her Cluster, then waved to attract Marlan's attention. The loremaster picked her way across the seething heap of children on the floor and joined them.

“What are you two doing, off in the corner?”

“Jannos is trying to help me pick out a new use-name,” Lydia replied. “What do you think of Aurora?”

Marlan smiled. “It's a very pretty name. And it's worlds better than running around with your real name out in public. Would you remember your new name?”

Lydia grinned. “Maybe, if you lot remember to use it.”
“Trust me, we'd remember. None of us likes being out in the world with a mage that's not only powerful enough to attract the attention of any other mage within three counties, but vulnerable as well. I'm still surprised the Circle let you out without a use-name.”

“Sounds like we might have a winner, then,” Janos said. “Sister, I hearby name you Aurora, from this day forward.”

“Aurora,” Lidya—Aurora—repeated. “Good. I like it. But let's not tell mom and dad.”

Janos laughed. “They might not like it, hearing you've changed the perfectly good name they gave you.”
“Probably not. Thanks, Janos. And now you and your wife get to do the same thing all over again, for Sophie.”

“Thanks so much, sister,” Janos said, with a roll of the eyes. “But I'm glad you told me. It'll be easier for her to know about herself, instead of finding out like you did.”

“What about the little one?” Marlan asked, one eyebrow raised.

“She's going to be a mage,” Aurora replied. How long would it take to get used to the new name? Hopefully not very. “She sees my familiar.”

“I wish I could see your familiar,” Marlan said. “From what you've described, she sounds adorable.”

Aurora glowed with pride. “She is. She's also a silly little fluffball, in case you can't tell.”

“Yes, but she comes through when needed.”

“Yes, she sure does. I'm glad she chose me. I don't like to think of doing all the magework on my own.”

“What do you do, anyway?” Janos asked, which led into a discussion of what a Cluster in general did on assignment, and what Aurora's particular roll was. They found chairs, mostly out of the way of the rolling mass of children and fuzzling, and talked until the kids were worn out and everybody dispersed.

Aurora's parents protested her decision to stay with her cluster in the village common house, but they couldn't really argue with her logic. The house was small. Her Cluster consisted of fully-grown adults. Many children fit in here, it was true, but the children's leftover beds were small, sized for the little bodies that used to fill them. Also, there were four horses to consider.

So the Cluster left, after a somewhat tearful farewell from Lydia/Aurora's parents. They rode the horses slowly through the moonlit night, and Aurora told her group about her new name. They uniformly shared Marlan's reaction, and Aurora felt a stab of guilt. She hadn't known how uneasy they all felt at her personal vulnerability.

The next day, Aurora woke cold, and stiff, and achy, but relieved. She stretched in her bedroll and then quickly tucked herself back into the warm spot her sleeping body had made. Meeplar made a sleepy protest and snuggled closer. Fall... time for the harvest. What kind of idiot launched a campaign in the fall, anyway? Soon it would be grey, and drippy, and thoroughly unpleasant, and yet some nutter was out there plotting against the local government. Why else start sending in magically altered monsters? Ugh. Winter campaigning was just wrong.

She rolled out of her blanket, ignoring Meeplar, who protested and burrowed back into the warmth. It was her own special curse to wake up early every morning, no matter how late she stayed up the night before. She'd even learned to appreciate the beauty of early mornings, but gazing at the still lumps of her sleeping companions, she still felt envious.

But her body refused to sleep in, so might as well get some use out of it. She made her way out into the dawn stillness and to the animal shelter out behind the common house. Not really a barn, the building was more geared towards sheltering the occasional ox when a farmer stopped over on his way to the markets of Caissa. The horses were all loose inside the structure, three standing hip-shot and one curled on the floor. The one on the floor scrambled to its feet when she entered. All whuffled hopefully, shoving their big, soft noses at her. Lydia—Aurora—rubbed noses and shoved faces out of her way with a smile for her long-ago terror of the beasts. They were big and dumb and friendly. Why had she been so afraid of them? Probably because she'd never seen them before, but now, they were familiar old friends. Her horse, with the very original name of Stripe, which came from the black stripe down his spine, rubbed his terminally itchy head on her even as she tried to pick her way through beasts and droppings to reach the hayloft. Stripe was a rich mahogany bay, a really pretty horse, and she liked him a lot. But for now, she gave him a quick scratch, then pushed her way through the herd to the ladder.

A few minutes later, to the steady sound of munching jaws, Aurora found an apple-picker and cleaned up the messes the beasts had left overnight. Not her favorite job in the world, true, but she knew better than to leave the barn a mess. Anyone using the village's common facilities was of course responsible for their care.

By the time she got the messes cleaned up and the still-eating horses groomed, the sun hovered well above the horizon, and her Cluster was probably up and moving. Lydia made her way back out of the shelter and returned to the common house to find Larissa up and making tea and roadbiscuits over the fire. Aurora's stomach growled. Plain and simple though they were, she loved roadbiscuits.

Larissa smiled a greeting, but didn't say anything. Auroroa was fine with that. She was never too certain her voice would work first thing in the morning, anyway. She fetched herself a cup of tea and sat on her bedroll, rubbing the warm lump inside. A sleepy purr rumbled out of the blanket, but no other response.

The smell of the tea and biscuits roused the others. Kesh rolled out of his bedroll first, looking indecently awake like he always did right after getting up. He munched a quick biscuit, slammed a cup of tea with a series of funny faces as it burned his mouth, then went outside for his morning workout. Marlan got up far more slowly, with her ritual grumblings and stretchings and complaints. She hunched over her roadbiscuits and tea with a morning headache, obvious from the pain crease between her eyes.

“Good morning, sleepy,” Larissa said to her. “Have you got a plan of action for us yet?”

“A start of one, anyway,” Marlan replied, rubbing her head. As loremaster, she was in charge of things like strategy and planning, as much as any of them were. “Sleeping on floors is miserable.”

“Agreed. The tea should help. It always does for me, anyway.”

“Good for you. Hope it helps a lot, you get to ride out and scout today.” Marlan hunched over her tea.

“Don't forget, I'm heading off to Greentree,” Aurora put in from her bedroll. “I'm off to visit my former Master and his wife.”

“Yes, I remember. Will you bring us back something amazing from this baker of yours?”

“I might. That depends entirely on how nice you are to me.”

“Ha! In that case, I guess we'll never see a treat at all.”

Aurora grinned. “Well, fine! If you're going to be that way, I'll just leave now. I'll be back by the end of the day, I hope. See you then.”

She shook Meeplar out of her bedroll and rolled it up tight, securing its bindings. She picked up her light chain mail shirt and pulled it on, grimacing as once again it managed to pull just one or two of her braided hairs out by the roots. Then she grabbed her saddle bags and headed out, waving to Kesh as she passed him.

Stripe was perfectly willing to be singled out from the crowd and saddled. The creature actually enjoyed a good run in the mornings. Back when she'd been so scared of horses, she never would have believed they had enough variation in character and personality that one could be a morning person, but here he was, snorting eagerly and ready to go.

She let the horse run a bit, but pulled him to a more reasonable pace after less than a mile. He wanted more, as always.

“You missed your calling in life, Stripe,” she said, rubbing the arched neck under the black mane. “You should have been a racehorse, not stuck with me.”

Stripe snorted, shaking his head, striking out without missing a stride. He wanted to go.

“Oh, okay...” Aurora got settled deeper into her seat and warned Meeplar to hold on, then let the frisky horse go again. He rocketed off down the narrow trail like all the demons of perdition were after him. His long legs ate up the trail, blasting them through the forest in no time at all. Aurora pulled him up again before he even started to sweat, amazed to recognize the halfway point between Greentree and Greentree. Hours on foot, minutes by horse...

Stripe settled in to a good, steady trot, happier now. What must it be like to be such a creature, whose entire being focused on eat, run, sleep? Probably a much simpler existence than her own. Aurora sighed, her body moving with the horse's trot without her needing to tell it to. Seeing her family last night had illustrated many changes in herself that she hadn't even noticed as they occurred. Some of those changes were not all that welcome.

For example, when had she, born into a life of hard work although not poverty, begun seeing herself as better than others? Deserving of special treatment? She'd looked at the home she'd known so long ago and seen something fit only for an ignorant peasant, not a Great Mage such as herself. When had her ego grown so large? She must never forget her humble origins, nor that her father had taught her to work hard for a good life. Nobody was going to hand her anything on a silver platter that she didn't earn.

Except they did. Because the extraordinary strength of her mage power set her apart, people treated her differently, convinced that she was special. Somehow, they'd convinced her that she was special, too. Now she expected to be treated differently, better, spoiled rotten, as her mother might say. And worse yet, part of her thought she deserved that special treatment.

Greentree's outer walls loomed into view before Aurora settled her seething thoughts and recriminations. They looked a lot less imposing than she remembered, made of wood instead of Caissa's ever-present marble. The gates stood open for the day and she slowed Stripe to a walk. His hooves clopped loudly on the cobblestones. People stared at the horse, here in this town where horses only came attached to trader's wagons.

Her memory guided her right to the bakery without hesitation. Aurora looked around, then settled on the fountain for a place to tie Stripe. She checked to see if he was hot, but her very athletic mount was barely even warm, so she felt safe leaving him with all that water.

Inside the bakery, Aurora was greeted warmly by Nana, who recognized her right away.

“It's been so long, child! My, how you've grown.”

Aurora laughed. “Of course I've grown, Nana. It's been eight years. They wouldn't let me travel until my training was complete.”

“So that's why you never came back. Let me go get Danno. He'll be pleased to see you, I'm sure.”

Aurora looked around while she waited. The bakery had not aged as well as Nana, who looked much the same as she had eight years ago. Signs of age and wear were apparent in flaking paint, cracked glass iin one of the display counters, an actual cobweb up in the corner...

Danno was indeed pleased to see her. His appearance shocked her almost as much as her father's age had on first sight. The large, jolly baker had deflated, somehow. He looked smaller in every way, and his eyes had a tired, almost defeated look.

They chatted for a short while, catching up quickly on the last eight years. Aurora told Danno that she'd received permission to use one of the smaller ovens in the kitchen on restdays if she really wanted to bake something out of his recipe book, and he smiled. But despite being happy to see her former Master and his wife again, Aurora was glad to escape when Danno said he had to get back to work.

Meeplar rode on her shoulder and made a reassuring croon as Aurora let the door close behind her. It's fine to feel this way, you've grown up, the feeling she sent indicated. Aurora paused by Stripe and rubbed his head for a long moment, trying to settle the inner turmoil she felt. What was she becoming?

Stripe blew a sympathetic gusty sigh, shoving his head into her chest. Aurora gave it a final rub, then untied him and mounted. She rode out of the courtyard that had once defined her entire world without a backward glance.

Whatever strange and unpleasant things she'd discovered about herself in this return home, she had a job to do, and she'd better get back to doing it. Stripe's endurance and steady gait ate up the miles back to the village without any need for magical support. Aurora trusted him to keep to the path, while she tried to figure out what she was going to do about the unpleasant trends she'd discovered in her own personality. They reached the village before she resolved anything, and she pushed the inner conflict away to deal with later.

Uneasiness built in her as they approached the village. Meeplar felt it too, fidgeting and muttering to herself on her pillion pad. Something gnawed at the edges of her consciousness, something just not right...

They reached the common house and Aurora darted inside, leaving Stripe at the hitching rail, still saddled and ready to go. Two of her Cluster looked up from inspecting their mail, startled by her abrupt entrance.

“Where's Larissa?” she demanded, the feeling intensifying when she said the name. Meeplar chittered.

“I sent her out to scout,” Marlan replied, shoving her unruly hair out of her way. “Why? Is something wrong?”

“Can't you feel it? She needs us. Come on, let's go!”

Kesh set his mail shirt down and climbed to his feet. “Whatever you say, mage-lady. She went out shortly after you did, and probably should have been back by now. I'll go get the horses.”

“Hurry,” Aurora said, then started bundling up the two still unrolled bedrolls. “I don't think we have much time.”

“I wonder what happened,” Marlan said, twisting her hair into a knot and pinning it up. Springy curls popped loose at random. “And I wish we could feel these things.”

“So do I,” Aurora grunted, tightening a strap. “Then you'd be moving faster.”
Marlan gathered up the tools they'd been using and tucked them away into a saddle bag, then slithered into her mail shirt. She hauled both her and Kesh's saddlebags out to the front porch then went to help with the horses. Aurora followed, bedrolls in hand, and secured them to the saddles. The remaining two horses, Jaren and Dunny Boy, snorted and danced, picking up on her unease.

They were all mounted quickly. Aurora took a moment to concentrate, then cast out a tracer. The bright yellow ball of energy hovered for a moment, spinning, then darted off into the surrounding trees. The Cluster followed.

The tracer led them through the forest once again, although it didn't bother to stick to any path. Fortunately, the forest floor was open, rather than dense with ferns like some forests. Aurora wondered about that with one corner of her brain as the horses wove their ways, once again magically supported by herself and Meeplar, through the trees. She'd heard the term “old growth” applied to the forest before, although never known what it meant. But according to the history books she'd studied at the Hall, no forest in the countryside surrounding Caissa and especially Eirian counted as old, because the ancient stands of sacred trees had been eradicated only a few hundred years ago. Whatever... for now, she needed to worry about following the tracer and finding Larissa.

They travelled in a fairly straight line to the northwest, and Aurora racked her brain to figure out what could possibly be dangerous in this direction. There was nothing out here, only an old ruin. Maybe that was where they were going?

And then they reached their destination. The tracer stopped dead and hovered in front of a tumbled ruin of a shack. Then Larissa herself appeared in what was left of the doorway, beckoning them urgently closer.

“I knew you people would come. Drat. Now we're all trapped. Quick, you've got to get the horses in here, keep them quiet and under cover.”

“What's the situation?” Marlan said, even as she dismounted and led her reluctant horse into the patently unsafe structure.

“Everybody inside, then I'll tell you.”

Persuading four horses to share the ramshackle shelter was a bit of a chore, to say the least. At last, though, they all huddled inside, with more of Aurora's magic to keep them calm and quiet. Then Larissa finally told them why she didn't want them there.

“I started out asking questions in the village,” she said, rubbing a horse's nose in the close quarters. “People have heard rumors there about strange activity at the old castle. Lights, people where they shouldn't be, that kind of thing. So I came to check it out and found out there's something magical going on here. There's some kind of barrier. Once I crossed it, I couldn't go back. If I go forward, I run into a thick mist, and like I said, I can't go backward. And now you're all here too, so we're all stuck. And there are... things out there. I don't know what they are, but they come by and make truly awful noises.”

“Sounds like there's work for me,” Aurora said. “Anything else I should know?”

“Well, the mist stinks,” Larissa said, making a face.

“Thanks. Very helpful. Now, if you all will keep the horses from stepping on me, I'll be over by the door.”

Aurora sat by the door and gathered Meeplar into her lap. “Sounds like there's trouble out there, Meep,” she said quietly, as they got settled. Meeplar chirped a reply. Aurora leaned back against the ramshackle wall, feeling gingerly behind her to make sure nothing sharp would stab her in the back, and set up a personal shield to protect them while she felt out whatever magics were in the area.

She and Meeplar emerged from the shield over an hour later, Aurora groaning and rubbing at her back and legs. Sitting on the floor hadn't done her any favors.

“So what's going on out there?” Marlan asked, noticing her movement. “What in the name of all that's holy are those blasted groaners?”

“We've got a problem, crew,” Aurora replied, making a face as she stretched. “The barrier? It was very well made, and will hold against anything I can do to try to break it. I think the enemy killed someone to raise it. And the groaners, as you called them, are demons. They're a group that is very dumb, but that's the only good news. In addition to being stupid, they are very strong, and incredibly tenacious. They also have poisonous bites, so stay far away from their mouths if you can. We're going to have to find the mage that did all this and kill him. That's the only way to dispell the barrier.”

“That's it? Find and kill mage?” Larissa shook her head. “So simple. Why didn't I think of that?”

“Knock it off, Larissa,” Marlan said. “Sarcasm won't help us now, and if Aurora's right, this fellow wouldn't make it to a fair trial in nearly any jurisdiction. You know what people do to mages who kill for power.”

Kesh rubbed the hilt of his sword from his position on the other side of the group. “Lead me to him. My blade is blessed, and ready to take on a life-stealer.”

“This will require all of us, I'm sure. Whoever it is out there is very powerful. I doubt he'll just walk up to us and announce himself. And I can't do much until we get through the demon-mist. About the best I can do to help is cast confusion over us and the horses, so anyone looking at us won't be able to tell exactly where we are. I'm pretty useless until we get to the mage himself.”

“Why is that?” Marlan asked.

“Because the demons are corporeal here. They have intensely strong, impervious to magic, physical bodies. Our enemy is no fool.”

Marlan groaned. “Wonderful. Very well, then, here's what we do. Aurora, get busy doing whatever you need to do magically. Kesh, you and that demon-slaying blade of yours go first. Larissa and I ride rear, same as always. Once we're through the mist and demons, we find a secure location and scout the castle from there. Got it?”

Marlan and Kesh nodded. Aurora was already muttering to herself, a faint glow emanating from her hands and Meeplar's fur. This continued while the others sorted out the horses and got ready to leave the dubious safety of their shelter, then she said one sharp word, hands outstretched and eyes closed, and a wave of rippling energy shot out to cover the entire group. Then she said another word and made a tossing upward motion, and a globe of light floated over her head.

“Okay, I've done what I can. Let's go now.”

Aurora took the reins of her horse and everybody moved single file out the door. She concentrated for a moment and lifted the calming spell from the horses. All of them immediately snorted and tossed their heads, looking around wild-eyed.

“Hurry now, those demons have good ears!” With that, Aurora swung up into her saddle and surveyed the surroundings warily. So far nothing, just utterly normal looking countryside, but she could feel the sense of wrongness where the mist began.

“Move out, Cluster,” Marlan said, and they all mounted swiftly and set out at a slow jog, shaking themselves into normal travelling order without thought as they moved: Larissa first, as scout, Kesh and his sword behind and to one side of her, Aurora behind him to the other side, and Marlan last of all. Everyone except Aurora had a weapon ready. Aurora sent the light globe, pallid and weak in the normal daylight, out to the front of the formation, where it would do the most good once the mist closed around them. She kept a defensive power blast at the ready, but for all her vast capabilities, she was nearly helpless against fully corporeal demons, with all their magic translated into physical capabilities.

The mist closed about them soon enough, smelling of rot and decay. Their first demon followed soon after. Kesh kicked his horse forward and attacked it with a yell, swinging his sword in a vicious overhand arc aimed at slicing through the short ugly thing's head. It never connected.

But Aurora's spell worked well, and the demon couldn't seem to get a good look at Kesh. It fought hard, but had no real chance against an enemy it couldn't quite find. Kesh sliced its head off, his preferred method of demon-slaying, and let loose a yell of triumph.

“Quiet!” Aurora hissed. “Do you want to attract more?”

Kesh laughed. “Bring 'em on. I've got the sword and the ability to deal with them. Why not? They're not so tough.”

By the time they'd won free of the mist, however, Kesh wasn't so confident and amused.

“Sorry I laughed at you, Aurora,” he said, wiping sweat from his face. He scrubbed futilely at gooey brown blood on his sword and grimaced, dropping the rag on the ground. “Those bastards were nasty. Nobody got bit, though, right?”

Heads shook all around. Larissa scanned the now-visible countryside, looking for anywhere defensible.

“Where the hell are we supposed to plan the next attack?” she muttered, glaring at the featureless plain. The mist was visible as a ring, enclosing them, with a ruined castle at its center. “No cover. No cover at all. No people visible, true, but still... no cover. Now what?”

“Now we ride on the castle,” Marlan said, face pale. She'd had a few close calls with demons that slipped past Kesh and Larissa's guard. “I can see no other alternative. Can you?”

“Not really. We should do what we're supposed to, lair up somewhere until I can scout out the advantages and disadvantages, but that's obviously not going to work. I guess the books don't cover every situation, just like they told us.”
Aurora grimaced. This was only their second mission as a full Cluster. How could they be expected to handle something this difficult? She stomped on the whiny self-pity in the thought and doused the light-globe. She kept the distortion field, though. Although it made everyone else's stomach uneasy to look at each other, shifting around as they were, it was about all she could do to help until the enemy mage showed himself.

“Off we go, then," Kesh said. "Our goal is to get Aurora inside and to the mage, so she can kill him and get us the blazes out of here.”

The Cluster closed up and rode in tight formation without even discussing it. They'd found that their normal spread-out mode of travel was very vulnerable to demon attack, another thing no one had mentioned in lessons. Nothing happened as they crossed the open land, except a mounting feeling of being watched.

“This is too easy,” Marlan complained, looking at the unguarded, uncovered opening into the castle. “We're heading right into a trap. But what else can we do?”

“At least we know it's a trap,” Kesh shrugged, then rode through the open gate. Immediately, his horse rocked back on its heels and screamed. The others kicked their mounts and rushed to his aid, causing a minor traffic jam in the doorway.

Swirling chaos met them on the other side. Ghosts, Aurora thought, and plunged into the fray, finally able to do something useful. Ghosts bound to a purpose were nowhere near as impervious to magic as demons made real. She started firing energy balls, flashy bursts of energy drawn from her surroundings and boosted by Meeplar. The ghosts burst with satisfying pops when she hit them, but they were incredibly hard to target. They moved constantly, shifting in and out of visibility, and scared the horses into near-panic. Aurora freed a corner of her attention to re-cast the horse calming spell. It didn't work fully, because the panic had a pretty solid grip on them, but at least they stopped plunging and shrieking.

Under cover of the ghost attack came the humans. Aurora's first clue that humans were involved came when a boar spear whizzed past her face, narrowly missing her head thanks to a quick, jerky movement from her horse.

“Ware attackers!” Kesh shouted, spinning his horse in a tight circle, looking for targets. Marlan, calmer than the rest of them, fitted an arrow to her bowstring and started shooting. Aurora trusted her Cluster to keep her safe and concentrated on blowing ghosts back into their proper dimension.

Then all the horses were running. Aurora urged hers after the others, wondering what was going on. She found out when Kesh shouted and pointed at a half fallen wall. They all ducked behind it, horses and humans alike.

“I think we're good for the moment,” Kesh said, panting. He dismounted and tossed his reins to Aurora without looking. He peered around the wall cautiously. “I see three—no, four dead out there. Somehow, I thought there were more of them attacking than that. Must have been the ghosts. I see a door diagonal across the courtyard from us. It must lead into the inner castle. That's where we need to go.”

“Anybody else think this assault is insane without proper scouting?” Larissa asked.

“Yes, but what choice do we have? You saw this situation doesn't follow the rules. We can't go by the book this time.” Marlan ran a hand over her face, wiping away sweat. “Let's leave the horses here. Aurora? Can you spellbind them?”

“Of course.” Aurora pulled some ambient energy out of the rocks and used it to convince the horses they were tied. “Done. Let's go find this mage.”

They all dismounted and moved quickly across the courtyard, feeling horribly exposed. Nothing happened. They moved into the castle itself, noting signs of fresh construction where people had begun shoring up the old ruin.

Then they spent a very, very long time wandering through an illusory maze.

Aurora seethed with frustration. She knew some of the maze was illusion, but it wasn't all illusion, and once again this spell had been cast using death to power it. Her attempts to counter it or dispell it slid off like rain on a stained glass window, not just ineffective, but ludicrously so. In fact, she suspected the spell was sucking in the energy she expended and using it to strengthen itself. Someone really needed to discover a way for mages of the Light to counter the power raised by blood and death. This was getting ridiculous.

What saved them and released them from the maze was a fortuitous accident. Kesh, frustrated, struck a stone wall with the hilt of his sword. A rock flew out, knocked free by the force of the blow, and the entire wall crumbled, showing a wide open hall beyond.

“Good job, Kesh!” Marlan congratulated. “Guess that temper of yours is good for something after all. Come on, let's go.”

They broke free of the maze with massive relief, tired, dirty, and frustrated. Aurora felt a blister inside her boot where her sock had slipped down and she couldn't get at it to pull it back up. Larissa took the lead, moving cautiously but rapidly through the open space, followed closely by the others. They ran into a few pockets of human fighters, nothing they couldn't handle, but nothing else.

And then all of them stopped dead in their tracks.

“What are you people doing here?” asked a voice, a familiar voice.

“Janx?” Marlan gasped, the first to identify that familiar face.

“In the flesh,” he said, and bowed.

Aurora got her shock under control. She knew Janx. She'd met him early on in her stay at the Hall, the first person she'd seen other than herself with a familiar. Then she noticed something missing. “Where's Hilo?”

“Oh, I remember you,” Janx said, and his face twisted with pain. “You've still got your familiar. The Circle hasn't killed her yet.”

What?” Aurora wasn't the only one to cry out in disbelief. Meeplar felt her distress and pressed close to her ankles.

“You heard me. That's why all of you should just walk away from them right now, come join me. They're a bunch of lying, power-mad hypocrites, and you'd be far better off breaking with the Circle now, before they destroy your lives.”

“Janx, what in blazes are you talking about?” Kesh asked.

“It's like this, folks. The Circle exists solely to maintain control and power in this region. They tell you all you're in the service of the Light, right, but what you really serve is them. And sometimes they send you into an impossible situation, just because it's a politically important maneuver. They got my entire Cluster killed. Worse yet, they got my familiar, my lovely little Hilo, killed, and they didn't even apologize.” Janx's voice rose to a shriek, then he visibly calmed himself. “So I broke away. I'm in the real world now, with a real job, and I serve myself and my king. You should walk away from the Circle, join up with me, and help set my king on his rightful throne.”

“Janx, are you insane? You cast all those spells? You've been messing with death magic? And you've left the Circle?”

“So will you, when they kill Meeplar.”

“You are insane,” Larissa stated. “The Circle isn't what you said. If they sent you into a dangerous situation, it's no more than they do to the rest of us, and you know it.”

“Is that your answer, then? All of you?” The red-haired mage pushed away from the wall he'd been leaning on. Aurora felt him gather his strength and hastily threw a shield around her Cluster.

In response, the Cluster closed up together, Kesh and Aurora in front. “You're mad. We're not,” Kesh said, shaking his head sadly, but flexing his sword arm. “Let's take care of this, then.”

Janx attacked with magic, of course. Aurora shut off her conscious mind and settled into the focused state she needed to fight a mage-duel. Meeplar helped, boosting her power and feeding her ambient energy. She had no idea how long the fight lasted. All she knew was sometimes she felt sure she was losing, and sometimes she felt sure she was winning, and Meeplar gave her a slight but definite edge even against magic tainted with death.

Then, so abruptly Aurora blasted the wall with a fireball she couldn't stop, the fight ended.

“What happened?” she said, blinking against the dazzle of her own spells and rubbing at her ringing ears.

“I got him,” Kesh said grimly. “You had him distracted enough I got in beside and stuck him. Can we get out of here now?”

“No reason why not,” Aurora said, shaking her head to try to clear it. “The spells he cast are broken now. Not even death magic survives the death of its caster.”

“I think we should look around,” Marlan said, emerging from where she and Larissa had gone to ground behind a pile of rubble. “See if we can find this so-called king of his. I imagine the Rangers might be interested in that.”

“More than likely,” Aurora said vaguely, gathering Meeplar into her arms. Now that the danger was over for the moment, her head hurt, and she was so tired she just wanted to fall down and sleep on the floor. “But can we survive any more conflict? I feel like I'm done for now.”

“Maybe not,” Marlan agreed, looking at Kesh and Aurora. “You two, sit down and rest. Now. Larissa, out you go. Make a quick circuit of the castle, find out what you can, and get back here on the double. I'm going to go go check the horses. And remember, don't let anyone see you!”

Aurora didn't argue, just found a semi-protected spot and collapsed. Meeplar let out a wilted sounding mrrp and joined her. Kesh chose to stay standing, doing some slow stretches and keeping a sharp eye out for more trouble. Larissa and Marlan departed on their assigned tasks.

Aurora had no idea how much time passed before someone shook her awake.

“Come on, Aurora, we've got to go now. Quickly.”
She scrambled to her feet, swaying, and noticed her Cluster was all present, plus an extra. “Who're you?” she asked the newcomer.

“Ansha. Now could we please get moving? They'll be after us in no time.”

The Cluster set out, following Marlan, with Ansha in tow. Aurora's head cleared as she walked. She was disgusted to notice the perfect square of footprints on the dusty floor. She'd known some of the maze was illusion, but she'd never even suspected the whole thing was contained in a single room.

As the lightest of the Cluster and the only one with a pillion pad, Aurora got to carry Ansha behind her on Stripe, in Meeplar's place. Meeplar perched instead on Larissa's saddlebags.

“Sorry, little fuzzling,” Ansha said, then smiled when Meeplar cheeped.

“You have mage-talent?” Aurora asked, as the horses, released from their binding spells, moved across the courtyard, now deserted except for the dead bodies they'd left behind.

“Some. Enough to see your familiar, anyway.”

“Wonderful. Not many people can see her, and she likes to be noticed.”

“She's a cute little thing. I can't blame her for liking attention. If I was that adorable, I'd want all eyes on me, too.”

Aurora laughed.

They returned to the village of Greentree at a rapid, magic-supported pace. Although tired, Aurora felt refreshed enough to boost the horses so they could run all the way back, making the return trip much faster than the approach.

They stopped once again at the common house, this time greeted by a few curious townsfolk who'd been having a meeting of the Knitting Club. Socks, mittens, and sweaters were put aside so the women (and one brave young man) could gather around the Cluster and gawk at the adventurers.

“We're back,” Kesh announced needlessly, dismounting with a groan. “Anyone feel like making us dinner?”

“You can come join us,” the village midwife announced promptly. “You lot did us a great service. No reason why we can't feed you a good meal in return.”

This touched off an impromptu squabble over who exactly would get to host the guests, resulting in a decision to throw together a quick celebratory dinner for the group at the common house. Keely, a childhood friend of Aurora's, sent off her little daughter to spread the word, and the Knitting Club dispersed. Soon excited villagers began gathering, holding pots, bowls, and plates of whatever they'd been making for dinner, with families in tow. The evening became a festive occasion, where Aurora and her Cluster told the story of the day's adventures over and over again, and the newcomer Ansha also told her tale repeatedly.

She'd been travelling the main road between Trade City and Caissa when someone attacked her with a spell. She'd fought the best she could, taken completely by surprise, but been utterly overwhelmed and knocked unconscious by a powerful spell she'd never encountered before. She woke up in a stone room, not knowing where she was, with another mage less powerful than she. Then Janx showed up and took the other mage, who didn't come back. Ansha had felt the unknown mage's death, though, and known she was next.

Fortunately for her, though, the Cluster came for her before the fallen mage could and she left with them, more than willing to ride to freedom on the back of a horse, who also happened to belong to someone going where she wanted to go. She talked to Aurora before the villagers left for their beds, and got her agreement to travel to Caissa with them.

“So what are you going to Caissa for, anyway, mystery mage?” Aurora asked, leaning back against a wall. None of the benches in the common house had backs. She'd solved that problem handily by shoving a bench to the wall and sitting on it, comfortably full, relaxed, and with a lap full of fuzzling.

“I wanted to travel,” Ansha shrugged, glancing away. “Caissa seemed a good goal. What about you? Obviously, you got sent here with your group, but why are you with them?”

“With who, my Cluster?” Aurora cocked her head, considering. “Or do you mean the Circle of Lights, in general? The Cluster's easy. I got assigned to them. Simple, easy, end of story. The Circle, now, they were the closest mage school to Greentree, where I was an apprentice baker. So that's where I got sent when Meeplar showed up.”

“What do you think of the Circle?” Ansha asked casually.

“It's a good group,” Aurora shrugged. “I like the idea of defending good. That part's fun. I also like the Clusters, and the way we work as a whole instead of a few individuals forced together by circumstance.”

“What about the mage training you received? How do you think it compares to other schools?”

“What other schools?” Aurora sat upright, disrupting Meeplar. “I don't know anything about them, although I did definitely learn that the training I had is not really equal to fighting someone who's turned to death and blood magic.”

“That's no surprise,” Ansha said. “Not many mage schools teach how to counter that kind of negative energy, because it's such a negative process in itself.”
Aurora grinned, looking at the dusky-skinned, dark-haired mage as she found herself a perch on a corner of occupied bench. “You sound like a teacher yourself. Are you?”

“Not really,” Ansha denied, shaking her head. “I'm more of a magical historian. The history of our powers and the different schools of thought on using them fascinates me.”

“And what school were you trained in?”

“I learned from a wandering witch, originally, and have been picking up bits and pieces of other stuff as I go along.”

“Is that why you travel?”

“Part of the reason, anyway. I—I like to travel. I should have been born a Seeker.”

“Why do I get the feeling you're not telling me something?”

Ansha smiled, warm and intimate. “Perhaps because there's a lot more to me than I feel like telling you at the moment. For now, what about that mage school of yours? Let's compare methods.”

That touched off a debate that ran on into the next day. Ansha had strong opinions about the methods the Hall taught young mages, and they weren't very flattering.

“Look, this debate is ridiculous,” Ansha finally said. “Pull over the horse right here and I'll show you the truth of what I'm trying to tell you. Go on, do it. And get off the horse.”

“Ive heard of people telling others to get off their high horse before, but never literally,” Kesh joked. The rest of the Cluster had been listening to the animated debate with amused interest. They all stopped and Aurora dismounted, leaving the stirrups free for Ansha to use. Of course, Ansha didn't, just threw her leg over the horse's rump and slid down to the ground.

“Come on, over here.” Ansha moved to a particularly green patch of grass along the roadside. “Now. I want you to make a ball of light, no bigger than the palm of your hand, bright enough that you'd be comfortable using it on a dark and stormy night. Got that?”

In reply, Aurora held out her hand and made light. It glowed. Ansha copied her. Both balls of light looked the same, both glowed cheerfully despite the sunlight, and neither gave off heat.

“So? Where are these negative effects of yours? I'm not feeling anything.”

“I am,” Ansha grimaced. “Step to the side and look down.”

Aurora did so and gasped. There, on the ground where she'd stood, were two brown footprints where the lush green grass had died under her feet. She dismissed the lightball and dropped to her knees to examine them. “How did that happen? That's never happened before!”

“Yes, it has,” Ansha disagreed, dismissing her own lightball. “Every time you pull ambient energy from the environment, something's going to suffer for it.”

“Why didn't they tell us about this?” Aurora ran her hands through the lifeless grass. Brown, crunchy... dead. And it had been vibrantly alive a few moments ago. “What kind of harm are we all doing, just by using our powers?”

“I don't know why they didn't tell you,” Ansha said, running her hand through her hair. Sometimes she didn't like being right. “I do know, though, that every time you pull energy to cast a spell, there will be damage to everything around you. That's just the way things work. You can't escape the natural order of



The fuzzling hopped off Larissa's pack and investigated the ground with an inquisitive chirp. “Do you know anything about this, little fuzzling?”

Meeplar twisted from side to side, her version of a head shake. She touched the dead grass and made a sad feeling.

“I agree, little one,” Aurora said. Her heart felt suddenly heavy, all the joy she'd taken in magic suddenly dimmed. She looked up at Ansha with troubled eyes. “What do you suggest I do differently?”

Ansha made a face. “I knew you hadn't been listening. Here. Look this over.” She dug in her pocked and pulled out an oval lump of white quartz.

“It's a rock.”

“With your othersight, nitwit.”

Aurora switched to her othersight, making certain that the energy to power it came from within. The lump of quartz suddenly lit from within with a violet glow. She switched her gaze to Ansha. Sure enough, her personal power glowed violet as well.

“You make the energy yourself, then store it in here?”

Ansha nodded. “It's the best way I've found in all my studies to make sure there's a lot of energy available without damaging the life around me.”

Life... “Ansha, what about healers? Where do they get their energy from?”

“They should do the same, pull it from within. Why?”

“Because... Larissa, aren't you all taught the same way I was? Pull energy from around you?”

Larissa suddenly looked a few shades paler. “So we are. You mean we've been harming as much as we've been healing? That's—that's disgusting!”

She dropped to the ground too, to run her hand through the dead footprints in the live grass. “Can I do what you do, Ansha? Store energy in an object for later use?”

“Of course,” Ansha nodded. “If you have the ability to take, you can also give.”

“I need a rock. Now. And you need to show me how to use it.”

Larissa set about looking for a rock immediately, with almost frantic haste. Marlan and Kesh glanced at each other, then nodded and dismounted. Kesh took the reins of Larissa's and Aurora's horses, then held his hand out for Marlan's as well, and led them all well off the roadway. Without bothering to consult anyone, he unclipped the bits from their travel bridles and hobbled them, loosening their girths. He looked around, but couldn't find any sign of water. They'd be fine, though, for a little while.

Meanwhile, Ansha was explaining the intricacies of external power storage to her suddenly avid pupils. She went over the types of items that worked best, and pointed out that each individual person preferred something different, so they didn't need to limit themselves to her choice of white quartz. Nearly every rock found on the entire continent of Anarill had some potential for energy storage, as well as a wide variety of woods and even (very rarely) some fabrics.

Aurora found a rough hunk of green malachite that buzzed in her hand when she picked it up.

“I think I've found my—what did you call it again? Focus?”

“Yes. What have you got there?”

“It's malachite. And it buzzes. And look at Meeplar!”

The fuzzling stretched up on tiptoe, trying to reach the rock with her tiny little hands. Aurora offered it to her, ready to catch it if the weight proved too much, but Meeplar just held it close to her torso and purred.

“Well, I'd guess if your familiar loves it, the rock will be a good match for your resonances,” Ansha grinned. “Hang on until your healer finds one, and I'll show you how to make the stone work for you.”

“I just can't believe this,” Aurora said, shaking her head. “Why would an entire organization dedicated to light and life allow its mages to suck life out of the very world? And why did I never notice the effect until you made me do that test?”

“That part's easy,” Ansha replied. “It's like this. Unless there are a lot of you in an area casting spells, the effect is probably going to be widespread. You won't notice it every time. But here, look at it this way. Your Hall of Light: How many growing things are in there?”

“Lots of them,” Aurora said promptly, picturing the lush courtyard. “Why? If more mages suck more energy, shouldn't there be nothing growing there?”

“Wait a moment... now tell me, how many of those growing things are actually in the ground? And how many gardeners does it take to keep the things alive?”

“Oh.” Lydia thought about that for a moment. Most of the plants at the Hall were indeed in pots, and had a small army of gardeners to tend them. “Does it affect things, then, if they're in the ground or not?”

“I've not studied the effect myself to know for sure, but I suspect it does. It makes sense, after all, that the earth itself would have more energy to draw on than an individual plant.”

Aurora had a sudden flash of insight: all the older mages, concentrated in the Hall, where the students were... “Ansha. Does this drawing effect pull energy from people as well? Like, from the students? Could that be why all the senior mages stay in the hall, to suck the youngsters clean of energy, knowing they won't even miss it...”

“That's a sobering thought. I wonder if you're right? We'll probably never know the answer to that. It's not something you can ask of a group that denies they do any harm in the first place, after all.“

Larissa approached them then, cuddling a rock of her own rather like Meeplar with the hunk of malachite. She'd found a pale rose quartz, nearly translucent, that already lit from within with the sunlight striking its surface.

“This must be the one,” she said, offering it to Ansha.

“If it works for you, than it definitely is the one. Aurora? Retrieve your malachite and we'll get them started.”

Ansha walked them through setting up the stones to receive and store energy, then showed them how to project energy into the stone for storage.

“Do this every day,” she cautioned, “or the stone may never properly charge to its full potential. You'll know when it's full because the energy will feed back into you, and not stay in the stone. Tomorrow, after they've got a bit of charge on them, I'll show you how to work with them. Then you two will be well on the way to being safe for your surroundings.”

“Good,” Aurora said, wrestling gently with Meeplar. She really didn't want to think about the effect her magery had on the life around her, but she made herself face the truth squarely and without flinching. The way she'd been taught to draw energy from the life forces around her was, if not outright evil, at least a very grey area. By taking life force from other beings, she affected them, and not in a positive way. Why had no one told her about this? Aurora felt extra bad about the situation, because she was so much stronger than any of the other Circle mages, and therefore drew more power from everything around her. If she'd known... What was the difference, really, between her and Janx? No wonder it had been so easy for him to cross over into true power theft. He stole power by killing. She stole power by just taking it and leaving the donor diminished. In all, his way was more honest. Probably caused less long-term suffering, too. Why? Why did those smug and supposedly light-oriented Circle mages not teach this method of using a focus instead of ambient life energy? And why, above all, did no one ever point out that the ambient energy all of the Circle mages drew on was the same energy that gave life itself?

“Don't be too hard on yourself,” Ansha said, dropping down to sit beside Aurora. She rubbed the young mage's shoulders. “Nobody told you what to look for.”

“I just feel bad. They teach us to be good people, to fight for the Light and life, yet we do this by taking life away from innocents... What is the difference between power theft for good, and power theft for evil? None. I might just as well start killing people to power my spells, because that's more honest.”

“In a way, you're right,” Ansha agreed, still rubbing the tense shoulders beneath her hand. Aurora wished she'd not agreed so quickly. But the rubbing felt good... no one ever rubbed her shoulders. “Just taking what you want without a thought for the consequences is a hallmark of dark magicusers everywhere. But you have to consider intent, as well. Do you intend to cause harm?”

“Of course not!”

“Then be a little easier on yourself. You know the dangers now, and the consequences of your actions. If you continue to suck life force away from living beings, even plants and trees, you will be knowingly causing harm, and this is an evil act. But if you refuse to damage those around you, and use alternate methods to power your magic, this is a very good thing and will bring no harm to others or yourself. See my point?”

“Yes... But that doesn't make me feel any better for all the people and living things I've sucked life away from. Why did I never notice the energy I need is the same that makes life possible?”

“Most likely because you were taught to just use, without questioning the source. That's how most mage-schools work. Anyway, you're on the way to being safe for others now, so that's what counts.”

“I hope you're right.”

“I know I am. Now get up, and let's get moving again. Your partners have been more than patient with this little break, but I'll bet they want to get back on the road.” Ansha gave Aurora's shoulders a final squeeze, then stood up.

The group moved on, although in a much subdued mood. Larissa and Aurora both drifted off into their own thoughts, riding quietly with the others and not contributing much to any conversation that happened to spring up. Finally Ansha got tired of the glum silence and poked Aurora in the ribs.

“Hey! What was that for?”

“Trying to see if you're still alive. I'm beginning to feel I'm riding with a corpse.”

“You shouldn't complain, you know. You're the one that made me start questioning the things I do.”

“And you should, particularly if the things you do affect others. But that doesn't mean you should ignore all the people around you. That leads to boredom, and frustration, and becoming a crazy cat lady.”

“A what?”

“A crazy cat lady. You know, one of those old women that live in a cottage all by themselves, with a dozen cats to keep them company?”

Aurora laughed. “I don't think I'm in any danger of that happening any time soon. I just have a lot to think about, thanks to you.”

“Good. Now do it later. I'm your guest on this horse, and as such, it's your responsibility to keep me entertained.”

“If you say so... Where are you from? I know nothing about you, other than that you travel around.”

“I was born in a place with no name,” Ansha intoned dramatically, then laughed. “Which is seriously true. I was born in a tiny little village that no one ever got around to naming. It's located up in the Hollow Mountains, so I'm used to cold, and I got out of it as soon as I could. I like to travel, and I like to do magic, and I really like to study how magic works and where it came from. There. How's that?”

“Where are the Hollow Mountains?”

“Way up north from here.”

“I've never even seen mountains. What are they like?”

“Um... almost impossible to describe to someone who hasn't seen them. They're big. Very, very big. And beautiful. But you'd have to see them for yourself. I don't even know where to begin describing them to someone who hasn't ever seen a mountain.”

“Too bad, I doubt I'll ever get very far north. Most Clusters stay down here in the south, where we're sent by the Circle.”

Aurora lapsed into silence again, until Ansha prodded her. “You're doing it again. What's on your mind this time?”

“The Circle of Lights. Are they keeping important information from us all the time?”

“I don't know. Why don't you tell me about this Circle? I don't know much about them, except I've seen Circle diplomats and they're very sharp dressers.”

Aurora laughed. “Larissa's our diplomat. They dress that way because it's our dress uniform. Otherwise, they're stuck in the same uniform as the rest of us.”

“Which still isn't that bad. You all look like you belong together, and like you mean business. I don't think I've ever seen a magicuser or a healer in armor before.”

“It's very practical,” Aurora shrugged. “Okay, you asked about the Circle. There's two parts, the ones that stay at home and run things from the Hall of Lights, and the ones that go out in the world and do what they're told. That's us. The Clusters consist of four people. Each has a primary specialty, and at least one secondary duty. We have a mage, obviously, a healer, a fighter, and a loremaster. These people make up every active Cluster out there. We get sent out by the Circle to do their works. This can mean anything from helping save a village from floods, to negotiating treaties with neighboring countries, to fighting evil mages. And of course we do everything else, too. It seems like a good life so far. I thought I was one of the good people, safely on the side of Light and right. But now... now I feel, I don't know, dirty. Like I've betrayed my calling, and my familiar, and everything the Circle is supposed to stand for, just by doing things the way they taught me.”
“Enough with the recriminations,” Ansha suggested. “Tell me about the Circle and what they do at the Hall of Lights.”

“Those Lights are the ones that guide the rest of us. They're really hung up on protocol, and procedure, and doing things by the book. Somehow, when people make the transition from an actice Cluster to the actual Circle, they get stuffy and... well, kind of boring. I hope I survive the transition without becoming a fuddy-duddy. But boring as they are, the different ranks of Lights in the Hall are the ones that determine what the rest of us do. There are instructors, and researchers, and arbiters—they serve the common people as well as the Circle—and the actual governing body of all of them, the Spectrum. You can tell someone's rank by what they wear, which makes it easy to tell who you really have to listen to. Right now, as an active Cluster, no one in the Circle has to listen to us, except the students. But some day we can hope to reach the higher levels of service and have opinions that really count for something.”
“That sounds... interesting,” Ansha said thoughtfully. “So you all are the grunts, the common laborers, that go out and do the will of your elders, and hope it's the right thing to do. I don't think I could exist in that environment. I've never been willing to do what other people tell me to do without questioning it extensively. I think I'd be kicked out before the end of a week.”

“Possibly,” Aurora nodded. “The Lights don't much care for insubordination. When I first got there, I didn't want to be a mage, and I questioned everything. I got in trouble for it a lot. But they wouldn't send me away, because they didn't want my power to go untrained. Now I almost wish they had.”

“You said the Hall of Lights was the closest mage school to your home village?”

“Yes,” Aurora nodded. “Not a very good criteria for making such an important decision, is it.”

“Not... really. I've heard of worse. But I think, with your devotion to doing right, you would bave been better off in a more open-minded group that teaches different methods.”

“You may very well be right.”

Aurora lapsed into silence, fiddling with Stripe's mane. Ansha sighed.

“Don't think you're getting away with that,” she cautioned. “Tell me more about the spells you use.”

“That's not a very comfortable topic right now.”

“Too bad. I really want to know. Historian, remember? I need to know more about the Circle and its methods.”

“Why not tell me more about other schools? I know nothing about them. Everything I learned from my mentor was all oriented towards the Circle. How do other people do things? What are the names of the schools, even?”

“Well. There are only a few formal schools. Let's see... you know the Circle, obviously. Then there's the Magicmen of Larantyne, who are, as the name implies, a bunch of men from Larantyne. They're really standoffish and won't accept students unless they swear on to fight against the Dark One, an immortal mage-lord that's been trying to overrun Larantyne for a very long time. Then there's Tyragon, which trains both fighters and magicusers. And off in Friseia I've heard they have a school for magical art, but that's not really spells. Hmm... there are way more independents out there than actual schools. There is a small school in Trade City, but it only teaches elementals. Then there's the Wise Witch Coven, where an awful lot of common witches go at least once a year to visit each other and trade spells. That counts as a school, I suppose. And of course, you can't forget all the various priests' colleges. There are maybe a total of three orders out there that don't teach some kind of magic. Most of their magicusers are like you, only dedicated to their particular deity instead of Light in general. They serve where their orders tell them to serve.”

“What do the rest of the mages do?” Aurora asked, really curious now. “If there are so few schools, how do people learn to use what they're born with?”

“Oh, the same way anyone else in the world learns anything. They find a Master and apprentice. Or they get taken by a dark mage and lost.”

Aurora shuddered, and reflexively tried to reach for Meeplar. The fuzzling chirped at her from Larissa's saddlebag. “That almost happened to me, once. I was stupid, and went out alone. A dark mage abducted me. It was very scary.”
“I can imagine. I'm glad you got away. Someone with your strength, serving the powers of darkness, is just a horrible thought.”

“The Circle thought so, too. That's why they never sent me away when I was young and rebellious. They thought I'd get taken by an evil mage and they'd wind up fighting me at some point.”

“Wise decision on their part, to not send you off.”

“Maybe. Maybe not.” Aurora chewed her lip. “if they had, maybe I'd have found a different mentor.”

“And maybe you would have died horribly with your brain sucked out through your nose. There's not much you can do about your past. Focus on the future.”

“I am. Problem is, I know nothing of life outside the Circle or a small-town bakery. It is difficult to make an informed decision with my knowledge so limited.”

“The world is a crazy place,” Ansha said. “Do they really send out you Clusters unprepared?”

“All we are taught is how to do things the Circle's way. The general assumption is that other ways aren't worth bothering with. What if they're wrong about that, too?”

“That is something you'll have to decide for yourself. This is the reason why the All-Creator gave us free will, so we can make our own decisions and live our own lives.”

“All I've ever wanted is to know the rules.” Aurora rubbed her head. “It's like baking. There's a certain set of steps you follow, and a cake happens. Do something a little different, and cookies happen. But either way, you apply the proper method and get the proper result. That's how life should work. That's the simplicity of life within the Circle. Follow the rules, you'll do well. Simple. End of story. But the rules are bringing harm to others...”

“And you need to decide what to do about it, but not right now. Look, it's getting late. Why don't we start looking for a place to camp?”

“That's Larissa's job,” Aurora said automatically, then shook herself. “But it wouldn't hurt to help.”

She nudged her horse into a slightly faster trot to catch up to the Healer and the fuzzling. “Any ideas where we'll camp tonight?”

Larissa glanced at the westering sun. “I hadn't realized it was so late. No, no ideas at all. I'd best get looking.”

The healer sounded subdued, not at all her usual serene self. Aurora wondered what the knowledge Ansha had forced on them would do to the group. Already, she wanted out, although that might just be the kind of knee-jerk reaction that caused major problems at a later date. From the looks of her, Larissa wasn't doing any better with the circling doubts, guilt, and anger than she was, and might want out as well. But the other two... Kesh and Marlan had dropped back, chatting cheerily among themselves. Nothing had damaged their worldview this day, oh no. Their lives were far more simple and straightforward. If Kesh brought harm to another living being, he did it with the blade of his sword, with full awareness of what he did and why. And nothing under the sun could be harmed by Marlan's primary occupation of reading books. Maybe her knowledge could be used to bring harm to someone somehow, but if so, she would again know precisely what she was doing. None of this unintentional death and suffering.

Just then, Kesh broke off what he was saying and whipped out his bow and arrow so fast his hands and arms blurred. By the time Aurora could blink he'd fitted an arrow to the string and launched it into the stand of trees off to the side of the road. Following the flight, Aurora caught a brief glimpse of a large game bird standing in the undergrowth before the arrow hit in a burst of feathers and gobbling. Kesh let out a triumphant whoop and urged his horse forward to claim his prize, dismounting and holding the still twitching body up by the long neck. “Dinner, everyone! Why don't we camp here so I can clean this bad boy?”

“Is there water?” Larissa asked, in that dispirited tone.

“I don't know, ask your horse.”

“Smartass,” Larissa muttered, and Aurora blinked. She'd never heard the healer utter even the mildest of profanity before. She must really be upset.

“Meeplar?” Aurora called. The fuzzling winked out of sight, then appeared in her arms for a cuddle. Aurora smiled and rubbed her ears. “Can you check for water, please?”

Meeplar cheeped and slid down the side of the horse, hopping off into the stand of trees with a businesslike tilt to her little round body. She returned a few moments later, trilling her success.

“There's water,” Aurora called to the others. “Looks like this is as good a campsight as any.”

“Good,” Kesh grunted, splitting the bird's body open down the middle. He hadn't waited to start preparing it. “Someone want to make a fire?”

That night, the camp split into two groups, one festive and one gloomy. Aurora watched the divide sadly. It represented perfectly how she felt inside, torn between duty to the Circle and duty to herself. What would happen to her if she left? She tried to get more information out of Ansha about what the real world was like, but didn't learn much, only what she already knew: travelling could be damned hard, especially for a lone female. Nothing informative there.

Morning brought an unpleasant surprise, although not all that unexpected to Aurora. At some point during the night, Larissa had packed up herself and her horse and left. They looked for any signs of struggle, as though they could have slept through such a thing, but only a trail of walking hoofprints led to the road. Obviously, she'd gone willingly.

“Now what?” Marlan said, tugging at her hair. “What do you do when one of your Cluster sneaks off in the night?”

“We let her go,” Aurora said. “And wish her well wherever she ends up. There is nothing else to do.”

“You people and your consciences,” Kesh grumbled, but he gave Aurora's shoulder a squeeze while he did. “I do wish her well. I hope she finds someplace to be happy and at peace again.”

“Easy for you to say, you're not the one that has to explain why I lost one of our Cluster.”

“And neither do you,” Aurora said, a decision suddenly springing to life inside her. Her eyes lit from within. “I'll take care of that. I want to talk to the Circle about exactly why Larissa left. They have some explaining to do. Anyone feel up to riding hard today? I'll feed the horses from my own damn reserves, but I want to get to the Hall. Now.”

So they did. Ansha gave her the day's magic lesson on how to pull stored power from her new focus stone as they raced across the countryside on horses speeded by magic. It was a bumpy and uncomfortable way to teach the technique, and Aurora was distracted by the constant power drain to the horses, but she grasped the technique successfully.

At the pace the magically supported horses maintained, they reached Caissa in the middle of the afternoon. The horses weren't even sweating as they slowed to a walk outside the gates, but Aurora felt nearly exhausted. But she held herself together with grim determination, because she would confront the Circle, and she would do it now. Today. Before one other night could pass without knowing the answer why they taught their supposed mages of light how to suck life from everything in the world and not even question it.

The Hall of Lights loomed in front of them before Aurora had properly organized what she wanted to say. She had dozens of questions and comments stored up, but every last one of them boiled down to the same thing: why?

And that was precisely what she decided to say when she confronted the Circle. She walked right into the Spectrum Chamber, shocking everyone present, and stood right in front of Elmene, at the center of the horseshoe-shaped table.

“Your Eminence, I have learned that the methods this Circle teaches to mages are irreversably harmful to all living things near a spellcasting mage of the Circle of Light. Why?

“I beg your pardon?” Elmene regarded her coolly, her calm demeanor unruffled. “What gives you the right to disrupt this meeting with such a meaningless accusation?”

Meaningless!?” Aurora shrieked, then clamped down on her fury. Meeplar growled at her feet. “I am a servant of life and the Light. Why did you teach me to suck life from others to serve my own ends?”

“There is no harm done by pulling energy from your surroundings, and if there is, does it matter? You serve the greater good.”
“You mean we serve your good,” Aurora spat, disgusted. “I refuse to bring harm to those I am trying to help. Can't you see how counterproductive that is?”

“I see that you are young, and not sensible enough to do as you are told without question, which is the way of the Circle. Now go, and reflect upon why your accusations are pointless and mean nothing. I will deal with you later.”

The Spectrum Chamber doors blew open then, the heavy wooden doors slamming into the walls. A shining figure stood in the doorway. Aurora gaped, barely recognizing Ansha in the fantastic emerald and dark brown costume. A huge gem gleamed on a chain around her neck, set in a golden sunburst.

“You will not find me as easy to send away,” Ansha said, voice amplified to carry throughout the room with magic. “I am Anshardranelle Megrartha, High Priest of Bel, and my deity has charged me with holding the Circle of Light accountable for its careless and destructive actions. What reparations are you prepared to make for the wanton destruction of my sacred forests?”

Elmene shot to her feet, visibly trembling with sudden rage. “Abomination! How dare you enter these hallowed halls and pollute them with your presence! And you,” she transferred her ire to Aurora, “The snake in our midst, the traitor who has brought this foul perversion into our very heart. How dare you?”

“How dare I what? Bring someone here with the same question I asked? How dare you, Your Eminence, to not answer for your actions? As head of the Circle, you are responsible for us all, remember?”

Aurora moved to stand beside Ansha, feeling very small and grubby next to the priest, but still furious and ready for battle. Or so she thought, until the other mages of the Spectrum ranged themselves behind Elmene and let loose a blast of raw power, as contemptuous as a slap to the face, that bowled Aurora off her feet. Ansha met it without flinching, with only a flare of green shielding. Head ringing, Aurora drew heavily on her link to Meeplar to try and put together a protective shield of her own as the magic started flying.

She probably should have done that in the first place, but how was she to know what would happen? Nobody ever started flinging around the great battle magics indoors, it simply wasn't healthy! Or safe. She had a momentary vision of the roof and heavy marble walls collapsing atop herself and Meeplar, and shuddered. Bad thought.

Aurora finally dragged herself to her feet, fully shielded now, and stood behind Ansha, feeding her power. In her current blasted state, that was all she felt capable of doing.

“Feel the wrath of Bel!” Ansha proclaimed, over the sound of battle. Her next blast of power broke through, actually broke through, the shielding of six of the most powerful mages on the continent, and knocked them all ass over teakettle. “The Circle of Light has proven itself a rogue, outlaw organization, operating outside the laws of Light,” she announced into the sudden quiet. The Spectrum mages began picking themselves up again, but seemed incapable of further attacks. “Bel will watch for you now. Forests are closed to your mages. Any spellcasting in or near a forest or any stand of trees will be met with punitive response. Should you choose to change your ways, approach us in the Temple of Bel and make amends.”

Then, with a regal swirl of her emerald cloak, Ansha turned her back on the Spectrum and left. Aurora and Meeplar hurried after her. That elegant glide covered distance rapidly, and Aurora's head still hurt. She deeply regretted her lack of Meeplar's ability to transport herself in the wink of an eye.

Once out of the Chamber, Ansha slowed to let Aurora catch up. “I think you'd better come with me,” she said, scanning the hall warily. Where were the people that should be responding to a mage-duel right in their midst? “And fast. There must be people coming to see what the disturbance was, and I think we'd better be well gone before they get here.”
“Good idea,” Aurora croaked, rubbing her head. “Ahh, I hurt. Who ever thought they'd do that? But I can run, if need be.”

“Then do so,” Ansha said curtly. “I hear them now.”

Together they pelted through the Hall of Light and out into the courtyard and freedom. Ansha led the way to an unpleasant alley and called a halt.

“Let's see what happened to you,” she said, and put her hands on Aurora's head. Her gem glowed, and Aurora's head tickled. “Ah... pure power damage. Not much I can do about this for you, I'm afraid. You must have been completely unshielded.”

“I was,” Aurora nodded, wincing. “Other than the little bit of shielding I always carry. That wasn't equal to the power they flung at you.”

“Consider it a lesson learned, then. Never accost a group of powerful mages without proper shielding in place.”

“Yes, Master,” Aurora said meekly, with a wobbly grin. “So now what? I don't think I have a home to go back to anymore.”

“Certainly you do. You just don't know where it is yet.” Ansha smiled, then tousled Aurora's hair, already loose from its short braid. “So come with me, at least until you have a different plan.”

“Where are you going? I gather from this,” she reached out and pinched at the rich velvet of Ansha's cloak, “you're more than the simple wanderer you claimed to be.”

“Not really,” Ansha shrugged, then grimaced. “Now that you've mentioned my vestments, though, I see a big problem. I left my pack back there, and I really don't want to go get it. And there's nothing inconspicuous about this outfit. Blast.”

“Nor about mine. Everyone here knows what the uniform of an active Cluster looks like. I wish this were a tale, so we could just make new clothes out of a spell.”

Ansha laughed. “Me too. But real life never works that way. Fine. I kept my coinpurse with me, because i'm not crazy enough to leave that laying around, so why don't you just show me where we can find a marketplace? There's always more common clothing available at one of those.”

Aurora led the way to a marketplace, where they did indeed find less remarkable clothing, and a pack for each of them, and even food for the road. Their funds stopped well short of purchasing a horse, though.

They set out from the city at a time when most people were heading in for the night, with the sun balancing precariously on the horizon. Aurora felt odd, walking out of the gates on foot and wearing the kind of ordinary commoner's clothes she'd arrived in, a simple homespun tunic and loose flaxen trousers. So much for the glory of the Circle. Her uniform, rolled up and shoved unceremoniously in her new pack, seemed to glower malignantly at her through the leather. What a waste of eight years of her life. She'd wanted nothing more than to excel in the Circle once the mage-power took hold of her, and now she'd exiled herself instead. What a mess.

“Tell me about yourself for real,” Aurora said abruptly, hoping to distract herself from her crazed, circling thoughts. “Who are you? Who is your god? And why did Elmene call you abomination?”

“That part is easy. She's a narrow minded fool. People like me are all sacred to the deity Bel, who is neither male nor female, but a blending of both. And so am I. My top half is female, my bottom half is male. Some people think that's enough to label me abomination and cast me out, but really it's a mark of Bel's favor. My deity chooses some people, not many, but a few in every generation, to be physically like himmer, and I'm one of them.”

“Oh... my,” Aurora said, blankly. “Both male and female? How is that possible?”

“With Bel's blessing, anything is possible. My parents thought I was a boy until I grew breasts and they knew I was destined to serve Bel.”

“Remarkable,” Aurora said, still feeling stunned. Male lower half? A deity that was both sexes at once? Strange.

“And as for the rest, that's what I do. I serve my deity. I travel about when heesh commands me to, and the rest of the time I stay home and mind the Temple, so to speak. Bel is a forest god, not very well known but ancient and powerful all the same. There are the usual sacred duties for a High Priest to perform, plus running errands, like I mentioned, and training new priests. Not a tremendoulsly exciting lifestyle, which is why I started studying magical history.”

“So that part is real. You really are a historian.”

“Yes, I really am. Magic fascinates me. I like learning all I can about it.”

“And now you're traveling with an unemployed vagabond mage.”

“Yes,” Ansha smiled, “a mage with a conscience, of whom I am very proud. You changed the mindset of a lifetime and moved on in a very brief period, which speaks well for your future.”
“I'm glad you think so. Right now, my future looks rather bleak. What do wandering mages do, anyway?”

“They wander,” replied Ansha, with a mischievous grin. “And so shall you, until you find a new calling.”

That's what I'm afraid of, Aurora thought, then bent down to scratch Meeplar quickly before moving on, one foot ahead of the other, for an unknown future somewhere down the road.