You may be wondering why I broke off the story so abruptly, so I'll tell you: things have been happening. Those early days didn't seem quiet and peaceful when they were happening, but compared to what's going on now… Well, letting you know what happened is one of the reasons I'm writing this, but telling you things out of order will just confuse you.

Whoever you are, whenever you're reading this … and however things turned out. I'll just continue on as if I really believe we'll succeed in the end … and that we'll all survive…

I'll remind you who the five of us are, and then I'll introduce you to our major opponents.

The Blending: Competitions

Chapter One

Lorand Coll, Earth magic

The day had warmed considerably, but it was still moderately cool under the canopy stretched across the area. Lorand sat at a table alone, finishing the last of the excellent lunch he'd been served. He'd worked hard all morning and had felt tired when he'd sat down to the meal, but now he felt a good deal better. And more confident, something that was much more important than simple physical comfort.

Lorand poured himself another cup of tea and sat back with it, looking around while giving his food a chance to settle. There were thirty or forty people sitting in or moving around the area, some of them grouped together like friends but most as alone as he was. They were all practitioners of Earth magic like himself and were supposed to be there to qualify for the competitions, but he'd been the only one practicing this morning.

A bird trilled happily from its perch atop the resin wall of one of the practice areas, and Lorand looked up to see that it was the same bird that had kept him company all morning. The feathery practicing-supporter had appeared right after Lorand's Adept guide, Hestir, had left him to his solitary practice, and it had really seemed to be there to support Lorand. It had chirped encouragingly when he'd hesitated, crooned reassurance when he'd made his tries, and had sung for all it was worth when he'd succeeded. It was as though it knew he needed support to get through the time, and had come just to give that support…

"Well, Lorand, all finished with lunch, dear boy?" a voice asked suddenly, and then Hestir, his Adept guide, was sitting down at his table. Hestir was a man in his middle years, not as tall as Lorand and considerably rounder, with a round and friendly face, brown hair, and mild brown eyes. "Was the food as good as I said it would be?"

"It was better," Lorand answered after sipping from his teacup. "Truthfully, I was expecting the same sort of food served us during the qualifying sessions, and regretted how hungry I was."

"I don't blame you in the least, dear boy," Hestir replied with a laugh of true amusement. "They know that most of the applicants still attending the sessions won't qualify for the competitions, so they tend not to waste decent food on them. So tell me, are you ready yet to qualify in the areas where you've been practicing? You've been at it all morning, after all."

Lorand could see that Hestir was joking, teasing him in what he considered a gentle way. That meant it wasn't usual for people to qualify so quickly, but Lorand had very little choice. He had to get past what he had no trouble with, to give himself more time with what he would find hard.

"As a matter of fact I am ready to test in the first three practice areas," Lorand said, pretending not to see how quickly Hestir's amusement disappeared. "The silver din I get for each of them will let me pay for my food at the residence for another week, so I'll have the time to work on the last two areas. I don't expect those two to be mastered quite as easily as the first three."

"No, the last two aren't nearly as easy as the first three," Hestir agreed, as though reminding himself aloud that he himself had mastered them. "Well, then, let's go and see what you can do - unless you'd rather finish your tea first."

"I would like to finish the tea," Lorand said, telling himself he wasn't really stalling. He was still in the process of regathering his strength, something he'd be wise to finish along with the tea if he expected to move on to the more advanced practice areas. Hestir smiled and nodded and settled back in his chair, silently pleased with Lorand's hesitation. So showing a bit of nervousness might be the best thing Lorand could do…

The conclusion wasn't a terribly certain one, but it would be typical of these people who worked for the testing authority. Lorand hadn't yet found one of them that he liked, but his likes and dislikes were secondary to the aim of staying alive. He and the others at the residence had noticed that none of them knew or even knew of anyone who had gone through the testing for High practitioner and had come back to talk about it. Failed applicants were … done away with? Sent somewhere to never return? No one knew, so he and the others had decided they had to succeed. Even though success itself wasn't all that certain to save them…

"I'm ready now," Lorand said after finishing his tea in a single swallow and then standing. The more he thought about what might lie ahead, the more disturbed he became. And he couldn't afford to be disturbed, not when he needed the gold he could win at the competitions. Getting there in the first place would be far from easy, and that would provide enough disturbance for three or four people.

Lorand let Hestir lead the way to the first practice area, which contained nothing but a pile of soil. The Adept stepped aside to give Lorand room to walk in, and then it was time. After two or three false starts Lorand had found the key to handling the mound of soil properly without needing to draw in more power than he'd already been using, a discovery that had come as a great relief. Using larger and larger amounts of power was very dangerous, and Lorand couldn't seem to get around picturing himself burned out and mindless, just as that little girl had been so many years ago…

"You may begin at any time, dear boy," Hestir prompted, now back to sounding amused. "Of course, if you've changed your mind about trying for mastery right now, that's perfectly all right. Some of us are a bit more shy than others about performing in public, but it's something you do eventually get beyond. Would you like to postpone this until tomorrow?"

"No," Lorand replied after taking a deep breath. If he let himself postpone the test today, tomorrow there would be a different reason for postponing it again. He had to do it now, and get it quickly behind him.

So he looked at the mound of soil even as he reached out to it with his ability. Earth magic was his realm, everything and anything to do with the earth. Soil was the most basic part of that, and the first step to handling this practice problem was to spread his power around the entire area. Trying to contain things afterward just didn't work, and that was what it had taken him a while to realize.

Once his power filled the entire cubicle, Lorand used a portion of that power to grasp the mound of soil. Making it explode in all directions looked impressive, but basically he simply tore the soil apart with his strength. That caused the tortured grains to fly away from each other with great force, but they weren't allowed to go far. The net of power he'd spread out before starting caught the grains and contained them, especially keeping them from flying at Lorand with the force of their explosion. The first time he'd nearly blinded himself, and had had to waste some strength cleaning himself up afterward."Dear boy, that was marvelous!" Hestir enthused, his tone nevertheless sounding faintly hollow. "And not a single grain has escaped you. A true mastery without doubt."

"And the first of the three silver dins I need," Lorand deliberately pointed out. "If not for that, you can be certain I would be taking a good deal more time. Well, we might as well get on to the next one."

Even as he spoke, Lorand automatically gathered the scattered soil back into its original mound. Basically he tended to be neat, and leaving the soil scattered every which way as Hestir had done after demonstrating the practice problem wasn't Lorand's way. Hestir muttered something Lorand didn't hear as he followed Lorand to the next cubicle, but it couldn't have been anything important. If it had been, the Adept would have repeated it, but he didn't.

Which meant there was no excuse to put off trying the second practice problem. An iron ingot stood in the middle of the cubicle, and Lorand reached to it with the fingers of his talent. He could feel everything about the metal that way, every smoothness and flaw, almost every grain of it. Of course, metal didn't come in grains, at least not after it was worked, but the memory of being ore seemed to be part of even a molded ingot. Strange, but not something to be worried about now…

Instead he reached to the flaws in the ingot, exerted his strength, then watched the ingot fall to pieces just the way it was supposed to. As a boy he'd found the flaws in bent nails to crumble them in an effort to impress the girls, but here in the practice area his efforts were apparently even more impressive.

"That's really quite good," Hestir said softly, and Lorand could feel the tail end of the Adept's use of his own power. "You're considerably stronger than I'd realized at first, and I'm no longer surprised at the progress you've made. You've now achieved a second mastery, and I'm ready to witness the third."

Lorand nodded and walked to the third cubicle, faintly disturbed by Hestir's new attitude. Had he blundered by passing the tests so quickly, or was the other man simply impressed? It was so damned hard knowing which way to jump, or even if he should jump at all. He could feel the agitation making his control over his ability begin to slip, and then-

And then he heard the birdsong again, causing him to glance up. That bird was still there, a pretty little gold, black, and white chickadee, and it seemed to be encouraging him again. Silly or not its presence did hearten him, and that made him glad that the practice area was generally out-of-doors. If it had been in a building the bird wouldn't have been able to get in, and he might not have had the heart to continue what he'd started.

"Number three," Lorand said, now looking at the cage of rats in the middle of the cubicle. Again he reached out with his power, but this time much more carefully. The rats were living creatures, and were meant to stay that way. Very gently he began to urge the rats to leave the center of the cage, and just as they'd done earlier they responded more quickly than he expected. Once the center of the cage was empty he had to choose a single rat to return to it, and that was harder. Holding back all the others while coaxing just one to where he wanted it to go…

But after a couple of minutes it was done. The single rat stood alone in the center of the cage, and despite the sweat covering Lorand's face, he wasn't all that tired. Every time he repeated a new undertaking it became easier to do, just as if practice did make perfect.

"Number three mastery, just as promised," Hestir said with a sigh, a comment Lorand took as his cue to release the rats. "You're really quite accomplished, sir, and I look forward to watching you climb to the heights. Please believe that I feel honored to be your guide during these first days."

Lorand was certain that the Adept was being sarcastic, but when he turned to look at the man he was even more disturbed than he'd been earlier. Hestir no longer looked him in the eye, and his stance was all but subservient. Lorand had been fairly certain from the first that he was stronger than the Adept, and somehow he'd apparently proven it. He was no longer "dear boy," but "sir."

"I think I'm ready for another cup of tea now," Lorand said lightly, trying to ease the tension he could feel far too clearly. "Would you do me the favor of joining me, Adept Hestir?"

"The honor would be mine, sir," Hestir returned, clearly refusing to return to his former attitude. "And allow me to ring for a servant for you…"

Hestir hurried ahead to call a servant and get the tea ordered, and Lorand followed rather quickly in order to add a request for a sandwich or something. He'd expended enough strength to be hungry again, and he wanted to get the food swallowed before Hestir's attitude ruined his appetite. It was obvious the round little man expected Lorand to become rather important, and wanted to start ingratiating himself as soon as possible.

Lorand sighed at that, having the distinct impression that he would hate being important. He hadn't expected to feel that way and it was disappointing, almost as disappointing as the fact that his little bird supporter had apparently flown away. The chickadee was nowhere to be seen, which left Lorand all alone among strangers … and possible enemies…