Primed and ready to cast the most magnificent spell of her career, Aetria strode confidently to the crest of the hill overlooking the battle that raged below. To her right the 23rd Kelrossian Lancers cantered, preparing to charge. On her left were the elite Royal Guard, ready to supply the crushing blow to the Hermanian front lines. In front of her was the bespelled squadron of cavalry she had previously conjured for this most grand diversion of hers. She turned and looked behind her at the small group of black-robed Magi watching her from a not too distant hill.
Raising her arms, she summoned the Power and cast the spell, pouring every ounce of energy she could into the illusion. She felt the surge go through her as the Power shot out and the spell blossomed into being. In horror, she watched the glamour fall from the bespelled squadron as it became the herd of cows that it was. The glory and grandeur disappeared from the assembled armies, and the power of truth exposed all for what it was. She looked down at her body and saw a sad, frightened little girl clutching a stuffed toy dragon, and she began to cry.
The Hermanian army sent up a wild cheer and attacked. The Kelrossian Lancers wheeled in anger and ran. Their leader chargeddirectly for her, his lance pointed at her heart. She hugged the dragon to her and begged him, "Save me, Rajii, save me." The thunder of the horse was upon her, the gleaming silver of the lance point at her heart, and...
* * *
Aetria sat up in bed, the nightmare dissipating back to whatever dark corner of her mind it had come from. Her night robe was soaked, and she pulled it off over her head and threw it down on the floor. She walked over to the washbasin and picked up the towel she had placed there earlier for the very purpose of wiping off the sweat. She was tired of these nightly visits and longed for a decent night's sleep. For the past week she had relived, in one strange form or another, her loss of control at the battle fought four years ago. The dreams were never too near the reality, but not absurdly far away either.
She spoke a calming spell to slow her hammering heart. She began a litany that helped to slow her mind down and bring her back to normalcy while she dressed in her student robe and prepared for this important day in her life, her rejoining the Sorcerer Corps of the Delmathian army.
"I am not a child, but a woman," she said to herself. "I am not a helpless waif, but a magic user of the Sorceress rank, one step away from Adept, and two steps away from Mage. I am a skilled artisan in the use of illusion spells, one of the best in the sorcerers' training lodge of Inhestia. I am not a child, but a woman..."
* * *
Aetria glimpsed a figure dressed in the deep-purple robes of an Adept entering the Weapons Training Hall main door. She called her recruit company to attention. Their less-than-precise response to her command was embarrassing enough, but when she recognized the Adept Commander striding swiftly towards her, she braced herself mentally and physically for the acidic remarks she knew were coming.
By the Power, why, of all the officers that could have been sent from the Corps to accept this company, did its commander, "Crusher" Pleates, have to come himself?
The very tall Adept's arrival directly in front of her placed her in the position where her rigidly locked-forward eyes were staring at his prominent Adam's apple. Many a subordinate had watched in fascination and horror as the Adept's slow swallow before delivering a reprimand caused the large lump in his throat to rise slowly, then move downward sharply as he tore into his victim. The similarity between this movement and that of a smith's hammer stroke to an anvil had created the nickname "Crusher".
"It seems your period of 'retraining' here at Inhestia has taken the edge off your military skills, Aetria. This company bears little resemblance to any you and I have ever served with."
The utter lack of any warmth of recognition or welcome in his first words to her in four years matched the chill of the cold night air trapped within the confines of the stone walls of the training hall. A colder line of nervous sweat slid down her spine, leaving her thoroughly numb, inside and out.
"Begging the commander's pardon, Sir, but this company has only been in existence for one week. It does not mean to dishonor you, or our Order, by its lack of military training. I fully accept that dishonor for my role as its commander."
"Apology accepted, and the discrepancy noted. I am sure in your future role as sub-commander of this company that you will make up for your errors and have it well trained by the time we reach my regiment's encampment. You only have two weeks, Sub-Commander Aetria."
"Two weeks, Sir? At most, the army is a week away by transport. Will you be remaining here at Inhestia for a week? That would certainly be convenient for conducting the Novices' training."
"We depart tomorrow after the morning meal, Sub-Commander. We will start out from Inhestia heading due west towards the Hermanian border, instead of northwest to the army. I have promised the general a survey of the borderlands to the west. He is worried about their security and was going to dispatch a cavalry squadron to make the survey. We can do that simple job for him, and it will only add a week to our transit. Be thankful for the time, Sorceress Aetria. From the looks of these Novices you have thrown together, you will need it. Why are there so many Provisioners? I need Aggressors, not more commissaries."
The arrival of Headmaster Kelristo saved Aetria from having to answer Pleates' question. The elderly man, dressed in the flowing black robes of a Mage sorcerer, had been visiting with his Healer students among the recruit company while awaiting the arrival of the Sorcerer Corps officer. He reached up to touch Crusher's shoulder with a long, thin hand speckled with age spots.
"Commander, welcome to Inhestia! What a pleasure it is you have come to accept this year's company into your regiment. Let me introduce you to my students."
Pleates was ever mindful of his station in life and respectfully held back the retort he normally would have made to someone interfering with his business. "I am very pleased to be able to make this journey back to Inhestia, where I received the training and skills with which I have humbly served the Order and the army. I would be most honored, Mage Kelristo, to meet such a promising company."
The headmaster guided the commander towards the awaiting students, glancing briefly at Aetria as they passed, his eyes filled with sympathy and understanding. She made no move to follow.
Aetria watched Crusher moving amongst her charges as they eagerly awaited their introduction to the commanding officer of the famous General Mythrian's First Sorcerer Regiment. The war had aged him noticeably since she had seen him last. He was only thirty years old when he led Inhestia's first volunteers into Delmathia's army.
Now, at thirty-five, a perfectionist who believed only he could do anything right, the stress of command had lined his face, and a frown of disapproval seemed etched into it. As he approached the Novices, he made the effort to put a slight smile to his lips. At least this time her Novices would be spared his acid tongue. The next time would be entirely different, as she knew only too well. They would have to adjust, even as she was making that adjustment now.
The company of twenty-four novice sorcerers did not even begin to fill the main training arena of Maknos Hall. The hall was among the first buildings raised by the Mage sorcerers when they started the training facility over two centuries ago and was named for Delmathia's most famous warrior sorcerer. Maknos never had to fear attack from non-sorcerers because of his reputation as a master of weaponry, but few sorcerers had ever achieved his skills. Relying on one's skill with magic alone had proven through the centuries to result in a short life.
Inhestia's founding Mage sorcerers had made it a requirement that students be proficient with some form of self-defense before they graduated and left the training lodge. The choice of weapon was left to the individual. For Aetria, it had been an easy one. Adoptive daughter of a Tierian merchant, from her earliest memories, she had been trained in what the Delmathian people called the "Tierian Thief" skills. She mused over the hundreds of hours she had practiced those skills here at Inhestia; endless hours sweating through flexing exercises and throwing countless numbers of daggers into the targets that were now stored away in the equipment rooms at the back of the hall.
She had chosen the hall for the swearing in ceremony because, of all the training facilities at Inhestia, it had the closest tie to anything military. The hall's stark interior with weapon racks lining bare walls, a sand-covered stone floor, and the faint, but noticeable odor of exercised bodies reminded her most of life in an army camp. She would have liked battle flags adorning the rafters, but the Sorcerer Corps was so new that the only ones in existence remained within the regiments.
Aetria scanned the faces of her week-old command. The soon-to-be sworn in officers were all well known to her: some had been students of hers; most had shared housekeeping chores of one sort or the other with her; a few she had shared sleeping quarters with. While not properly attired in the uniform of the service they were about to be accepted into, they were dressed alike in the soft white robes worn by all student sorcerers. Their newly achieved status of Novice sorcerer, awarded only last week after years of training and study, was proudly worn by each as a pale blue sash running from shoulder to hip.
The twenty-four men and women represented over half of the graduating Novices of the Order's oldest training lodge. This was double what Aetria's, the first class to enter the army, had put into the service five years prior. The war had just started then. It had not been expected to last very long, but it still raged on, calling for even more recruits to swell the ranks of the king's armies.
The Novices had separated into groups by discipline. The Healers were slightly apart from the Provisioners; the Provisioners apart from the Illusionists, her own field; the Aggressors haughtily off by themselves. It was not something the Order had taught them, but rather the gathering of like minds and similar personalities. It was so, even before the students arrived at Inhestia to begin their training. Like all children of Delmathia, they were tested for magic skills at the age when their bodies had stopped changing rapidly from child to adult, but their minds were still pliant and innocent. The local sorcerer culled out those whose minds proved capable of controlling the Power, the magical force that energized their spells, and offered them the chance to become sorcerers. Only five out of a hundred children passed the tests. No child had ever turned down the opportunity.
Upon their arrival at Inhestia, the students were quartered with other new students of like minds because their future fields of sorcerer expertise were very closely matched to their personalities. Aetria smiled at the adage that flashed into her mind. I am, therefore I spell.
The two leaders moved swiftly through the ten novice Provisioners, making warm but short conversation with each. The Novices responded with sincere smiles to the two and excitedly talked amongst themselves as Crusher and the headmaster moved on to the Healers.
There were only four Healers this year, fewer than any other year. Perhaps the low number spoke of a lack of candidates amongst the common people from which Inhestia drew its students. The war caused the shortage of Healers to be even more strongly felt. Mage Kelristo, being a Healer, clearly wanted to linger amongst his favorite students, but Crusher's polite impatience moved them on. He would have gone directly to the Aggressors, but her Illusionists were in the way.
The six Illusionists received polite nods and painted smiles from the commander. They were about as far from the Aggressor's way of thinking as one could get. They were schemers, dreamers, humorists, fanciers, far-seeing, playful tricksters. As Crusher and Kelristo moved on, Aetria wondered who was most relieved, Crusher or the Illusionists. The four Aggressors were more than happy to see the famous Adept Pleates. He was, in their eyes, a hero who had been held up to them as the standard all novices were to try and emulate. They were like him--sullen, angry, hot-tempered, brooders, planners, capable of killing, and willing to do so. For the Aggressors, their killing instincts were tempered by extensive training, infused with the strongest possible belief in justice and right. They became the enforcers of the law, upholders of the righteous. At one time, nobody dared cross an Aggressor, for they could kill with Power. Now, crossing one invoked the law as well as the Power. Crusher was one of them; he remained in their presence, enjoying their company. "The man's an ass."
Aetria started at the woman's voice harshly whispered in her right ear. She turned to the source of the rude comment and found herself looking at the top of a closely cropped head of black hair. Moving downward, her eyes locked with the bluest eyes she had ever seen, piercing and hard. The woman's face was middle-aged, tanned, with no trace of the plumpness common in women of that age. Squint lines were etched into the corners of her eyes. It was a face that had seen too much of weather and harsh conditions. A warrior's face. Breaking lock with those extraordinary eyes, Aetria quickly looked over the rest of the woman and had her first impression confirmed. The shorter woman's torso was covered with fine chain mail, a short sword hung from her narrow waist. Small breasts barely made the chain mail rise from the chest; the bare arms were muscled and lean. Well-worn cavalryman's boots protected the feet and calves. Her insignia told it all.
"For a sergeant in the king's own Cavalry Regiment you certainly have a way with words," Aetria retorted.
"Don't have to mince words like an officer, Ma'am. I don't like that strutting cockatrice and am not afraid to say so. My officer is of a different opinion."
"And who might that be, Sergeant?"
The hardened soldier's eyes stopped following the purple-robed Sorcerer and looked full into Aetria's.
"General Alenso Mythrian. I am one of his horse holders. Sonja Borlock's my name."
Horse holders are normally officers, Aetria thought, remembering the common soldier's name for an aide-de-camp. How unusual. "I take it you are not part of Adept Pleates' entourage."
"Just traveled down with them. I stay as far away from that womanizer as I can. I'm delivering a message to the headmaster from the general. As soon as I can, I'm heading north away from this place. You sorcerers give me the chills."
For someone who objected to sorcerers so much, the sergeant certainly looked relaxed, Aetria thought. "Perhaps someday I can make you feel more comfortable with us, Sergeant. I will be joining the general's army soon."
"Perhaps, Ma'am. If you are traveling with him, watch your back. Goodnight, Ma'am."
As the sergeant slipped by her to the door, Aetria saw Mage Kelristo was guiding Pleates back to where she stood. The Mage finally had to nudge him physically along with a guiding hand. The students, noting the movement of their seniors, stopped their conversations and turned their attention back to the front of the room.
"My fellow sorcerers," the headmaster began, "now you have had a chance to meet your new commander, I know you share with me the confidence I have in his experience and knowledge. You will be serving in the finest regiment of the Sorcerer Corps. We, the Magi of Delmathia, acting through the Council of Magi, now entrust your welfare, training, and development to Adept Pleates, a responsibility that he is more than qualified to take on. We expect from you, ourgraduates, superior service to your Order, and to your country, by continuing your performance to the highest standards you have learned here at Inhestia, the birthplace of your new life in sorcery."
Pleates politely thanked the headmaster for his kind words and turned to face the company. "I will now accept your commissioning oath. Fingers to your brow." Pleates waited until all had raised their hands to their heads. "Repeat after me, I, say your name, do hereby swear by the Power that gives me strength and purpose--"
Although still a member of the Corps, Aetria repeated the words she so vividly remembered from years ago. "--to obey the rules and regulations of the officers appointed over me, both sorcerer and non-sorcerer, and to pledge my loyalty to the Order, to my regiment, and to my sovereign King. I will--"
Aetria found she still hesitated at the loyalty line, wondering why she should be loyal first to her Order instead of to her king and country. "--endeavor always to bring honor to my regiment, and to my training lodge. So let it be."
As she dropped her hands, she was startled to see Crusher watching her, as if he could sense the questions in her mind. "You are now members of the First Sorcerer Regiment. Sorceress Aetria, take command of the company until we depart tomorrow morning."
"Yes, Sir. Company, attention!"
The Commander Adept turned to leave, stepping quickly over to the aged headmaster and offering his arm in assistance. Aetria waited until they passed through the door of the weapons training hall before addressing the company.
"Company, stand easy for now. Tomorrow your military training begins in earnest and must be complete by the time we reach the regiment. Here are your assignments for tonight. All officers will proceed to the main hall and use the central Power source to get fully energized before retiring. You will be turning in your training sources along with your student apparel. You should each have an issue of gray novice robes awaiting you in your rooms."
The change she observed in her recruits was phenomenal. They were actually listening to her. "Provisioners, before going to the main hall, check with Adept Pleates' provisioner to ensure all is ready for the march out. Assist in any way possible.
"Healers, Adept Pleates has submitted a list of herbal medicines and needed potions to the Healing Mentor Mage. Since he has not brought a Healer with him, I am commissioning Novice Verdilan to take charge of the novice Healers and ensure that list is filled.
"Illusionists, think creative thoughts and stay out of trouble. Aggressors, take care to get a full night's rest and no nightmares. Being fully charged, the spells you throw will be deadly, so I don't want any novices killed in the night. Any question?" Her attempt at humor worked for all but the Aggressors who looked chagrined she should think such a thing possible. A whispered, "She should talk," drifted past her ears. She ignored it.
"One last thing. I am no longer a teacher, a sister, or a roommate. I am your superior officer. When I give an order, I expect it to be obeyed instantly. Do you understand?"
The bobbing of heads and a few yeas brought a rigor to her spine and a firm, loud response of her own. "The proper reply is 'Yes, Ma'am.' Do you understand?"
"All at once, and louder!"
* * *
Kelristo looked at Pleates, as they stood just outside the door of the Weapons Training Hall, where the Commander Adept had halted them moments before. "I assure you, Adept Pleates, that Magess Trelana has fully certified Sorceress Aetria for continued duties in the Corps. Shehas shown no ill effects from her grid burnout four years ago. She is a very gifted Illusionist and a very powerful one also. You look like you still have doubts."
Pleates shook his head as the chorus of responses from the Company reached his ears. "Perhaps not, Mage Kelristo, perhaps not. Before her incident, Aetria was my most promising officer. I was afraid she might have lost her interest in the army after her return here. I think her interest is now awaking again. But rest assured, I will be watching her."
* * *
The cool dawn air brought the smell of blossoming flowers into Aetria's room, and she paused to draw a deep breath. Spring was her favorite season at Inhestia, and she would miss the sweet, fragrant mountain air, so unlike the heavy, moist air of the plains upon which the armies presently fought. She finished folding her student's robe and laid it down on the corner of the bed, where a first year student would collect it for cleaning in a few hours. She removed her dark red Sorceress rank sash from its peg on the wall, and as she walked over to her small storage trunk to put it away, the tears began again. She let herself collapse down onto the trunk and felt the hot droplets stream down her face.
Now why am I crying? I had all of last night to get this out of my system. I am not a failure! I just have to prove I have control of myself one more time.
The soft knock at her door startled her and she hastily wiped her eyes with the sash, shoving it quickly into the trunk. "Enter."
Felora gently opened the door and stuck her head in. "Magess Trelana wants to see you right away, Aetria."
Aetria waved her fellow instructor away with a stifled groan. She did not want to visit her mentor with reddened eyes and anger, or maybe it was sadness, in her heart. Felora retreated from sight. Aetriapicked up her new dark red uniform robe of a Sorceress and donned it quickly. She ran her fingers through her newly cropped hair, and without looking at the mirror on the wall, walked quickly out of the student women's quarters to the house of Magess Trelana.
* * *
Trelana stood looking out her study window, watching for the arrival of her senior student. She spotted Aetria immediately when she left the students' quarters, her red uniform robe standing out from the other students as they moved upon the commons. Aetria had taken on the persona of a military officer, and she was now unconsciously marching instead of walking with her normal, pensive stroll. The set look in her face hinted at emotions the young woman was trying to hold at bay. Trelana's student page immediately answered Aetria's knock at the front door and left the two women alone.
"How striking you are in uniform, Aetria. And so very proud. So proud you were going to leave without one last good-bye?"
"No, Mentor, I was putting off our last farewell, not avoiding it. I didn't want to leave with my eyes as red as my robe, but I can't seem to stop the tears."
Trelana folded her oldest student into her arms and silently held her as the younger woman's tears flowed again. She spoke no words of comfort; words were not what Aetria needed now. The Magess knew Aetria had spent the night characteristically pacing her room, arguing with herself. She had heard all the words she could stand. Only time and confidence would heal the mental wounds Aetria had foolishly inflicted upon herself when Trelana had told her she was not ready for candidacy to Adept. Aetria insisted she had failed her mentor and was unworthy. Trelana had tried to convince her that returning to the army would increase her experience, build confidence, and restore her reputation. To no avail.
"Pleates told the Mage Council that the war was going to end very soon. General Mythrian was getting ready to execute his latest campaign, and Pleates had complete confidence he would succeed. You will be returning at a most exciting time, Little One!"
"Returning to what, Mentor? Do you really believe the army is going to entrust me with any duties beyond the most mundane?"
Trelana gently pushed Aetria away to arm's length so she could look into the young woman's eyes. "I have certified to the Mage Council that you are fully qualified to do Sorceress level work. I also made the case that, until you are subjected to the same pressures that caused your loss of control, we will never know if you are fully recovered. You know I have tested you far beyond what is normal for a Sorceress and I have not been able to break your control once."
"I'll grant you that, Magess Trelana. You've certainly put me under a lot of pressure," she said with a wry smile.
"It was for your own good that I did. You know the stigma that suffering a grid burnout puts on the victim. For those who don't die from it, it may cause insanity. That is why you have been so carefully monitored to see if you exhibit the least change in your spell-castingabilities. The Sorcerer War taught us the bitter lesson that, left unabated, sorcerers who break the bounds of their abilities by practicing wild magic will cause great suffering and pain.
"The Council's main reason for existence is to guarantee to the world that our sorcerers stay within the bounds of their training. Know that Adept Pleates will be watching and reporting your progress. He has assured me of that. I am not sure if his reason for doing so is more to find a way of embarrassing me before the Council than it is the efficient operation of his command."
"The commander's delight in causing me unhappiness is not something he would do for duty. He is ruthless when it comes to executing a plan, counting no one's cost except his own."
Trelana let Aetria go and walked to the study's window, looking out but not seeing anything, debating telling Aetria what she had learned last night. Since Aetria was the sub-commander, if only for the journey back to the encamped army, she had the right to know.
"Adept Pleates pressured Headmaster Kelristo into letting him recruit more Aggressor Novices. He has coerced three more into joining the company. I fear they did not volunteer, although they said they did. You are going to find members of your recruit company less willing to be soldiers than you had thought."
Aetria did not appear to be shocked at what Trelana had told her. "Then the pressure begins immediately, Mentor. Willing or not, once they face the enemy, they will fight or die. I will miss you, Trelana. May the Power keep you well until we meet again."
Trelana gave her favorite student one last, long hug, and then let her go. "May the Power return you to me very soon, my Aetria, alive and whole."
* * *
Aetria left Trelana's cottage feeling a lot better than when she had arrived. She had dreaded the final farewell only so much as it represented a turning point past which she was committed to this new path in her life. Now that this journey had begun, her internal drive was in place to move her past her fears of the uncertain future.
The morning sun had burned the chill of the night away, and its warmth penetrated her body, providing a lift to her spirits. As she retraced her path to her room, the lodge's students were making their way towards the main hall where the morning meal awaited them with smells of honeyed bread. Aetria did not feel hungry; her energy was focused towards departing. As the company was scheduled to leave after the morning meal, she hurried her pace to reach her room and pick up her campaign kit.
She deliberately forced herself not to make one last check of the room; she had checked it too many times the night before--each time interrupted by memories of her past four years living here. She felt a little foolish whispering goodbye as she closed the door, but that act cleared away any returning heartache. With purposeful stride, she set out for the lodge's main entrance.
Pleates' escort had set up his encampment outside the walls of the lodge. The tents that had been erected were now broken down and stowed in their transporting wagons. The Novice Provisioners had taken to heart their new duties in the army, and under the supervision of Pleates' Provisioner, Sorcerer Meloses, were finishing up the last minute details as she approached the caravan. She noticed a work party of Sorcerer Guards carrying bundles of what looked like spears to the back of the command wagon. Crusher stood outside directing their storage.
Curious, she thought.
She walked to the vanguard of the column. The mounts belonging to the Sorcerer Guards, Crusher, and herself were tethered at a picket line. Two transport wagons led the caravan, and each Novice's personal baggage was loaded onto four carts that would follow. The requested healer's supplies and provisions for the march occupied five more carts. Crusher's command wagon brought the total of wheeled vehicles to twelve.
Aetria shook her head in wonder, knowing that a full company of one hundred infantry soldiers traveled with half that number. An equivalent squadron of cavalry used even less. Only the engineers andsorcerers somehow managed to carry more baggage than the real fighting corps. It was no wonder the common soldiers sneered in disdain at their own support troops.
Aetria secured the one extra bag she allowed herself in a baggage cart and tied her saddlebags onto her horse. She stood for a moment stroking and talking with the horse, an idea forming in her mind. She looked up and scanned all of the sky she could see.
Not a cloud in sight, a warm spring sun above, just the perfect weather for a stroll. Best take advantage of the clear weather; spring showers will soon be upon us.
She made a decision, untied her horse, led her to the rear of the first transport and secured her in trail. Having accomplished that, she set out to find Crusher.
She found the commander eating in his covered wagon. His curt wave of a hand to enter was as warm a greeting as she had learned to expect from him. She began to brief him on her plans for training the company, but he cut her off before she had gotten very far.
"Sorceress Aetria, I don't care how you plan to accomplish the task, I am only interested in results. If I come to believe you will fail, then I will relieve you and do it myself. I warn you that I have provided for more interesting endeavors to occupy my time, and I will not take being distracted from them lightly. The only interference you can expect from me is my intention to use the Aggressor Novices in my latest project. This will take up their evenings, and they will not be available for any other duties."
"That will create an air of favoritism in the command and hurt morale, Sir."
An angry frown flashed onto Crusher's face, and he slammed his eating utensils down sharply on the table. Aetria had already braced herself for the expected tongue lashing, and was quite surprised when he sat back in his chair, rubbing his face for a moment before answering, "I have no objections to you using them for normal camp duties, including guard detail. I want them free from the end of the evening meal until final formation. I, of course, don't want the morale of my sorcerers to be anything but high. One last thing, Aetria. I will have daily riders coming from the regiment and Inhestia. Alert your sentries to their expected arrival and departure. I do not want them delayed in any way. You will see to that."
"And Sub-commander, I will ride in my command wagon during the day. Have my horse tethered behind."
"Yes, Sir. Anything else, Sir?"
Crusher waved a hand in dismissal. Aetria turned and exited the command wagon via the short flight of steps at the back. A small and unexpected victory, but a victory all the same. The Novices would learn soon enough that, in Crusher's regiment, the Aggressors had always enjoyed the better of any situation. And Crusher was surely going to remind her. He would justify it by saying the Aggressor sorcerers paid a high price for their privileges. The fact that their lives were shorter due to the way he used them was not one she would ever point out to him. Others had tried, and they no longer had any influence in the regiment.
The Novices had gathered near the transport wagons, having said their last good-byes to friends and teachers among those of Inhestia who had gathered to see them off. When they saw Aetria coming out the back of the command wagon, the Novices arranged themselves in the formation they had been in the previous evening and stood at attention. Aetria ordered the Sorcerer Guards to mount and assume their escort positions. While they were doing this, she ordered the wagon drivers into their seats. Finally, she marched to the front of the company and addressed them.
"We will begin our journey on foot. When you have learned to route march properly, then we will see about riding in wagons. Company, left turn. March."
* * *
The sun was settling on the horizon as Aetria watched, through the door flap of her tent, the company assembling for the last formation of the day. The fledgling officers looked completely worn out with the ten-mile hike she had just put them through. Aetria herself was exhausted, but she swallowed the last sip of wine from her dinner cup and got wearily to her feet. After a deep cleansing breath, she squared her shoulders and walked purposefully out of her tent to the awaiting officers.
"Good evening, Novices!"
"Good evening, Ma'am."
"Starting tonight, you will participate in the ritual of the evening light salute. This tradition started six years ago when sorcerers first joined the army. It was noted then that not everyone was ensuring they had energized their grids prior to turning in, as ordered. The practice of trading time before the Power source for sleep is not new. Everyone hold out their right hand." Aetria demonstrated by raising hers. "Now produce a candle size flame above your palm."
Since every sorcerer knew the spell, teaching it to the Novices was not necessary. Predictably the Aggressors' flames were torch size, all but blinding in the growing darkness. "I said, for those hard of hearing, a candle flame!"
Smugly, the Aggressors damped down their lights to the proper size. "Now, without increasing the size of the flame, make it more intense."
A few grew slightly. The Aggressors looked frustrated. "At the conclusion of each and every evening's Power meditation, all junior sorcerers are required to seek out their superior and present their light. There is purpose to this ritual. Despite the fact that presenting a light is a very simple spell, the intensity of the flame is directly related to your personal energy level and your training."
Aetria intensified her light, which flared out like a tiny star in her hand. The gasps from the Novices were satisfying, as was the shielding of their eyes from the glare. She dampened her light. "As some of you can't see, the return of the salute by a superior is usually given at the lowest level. Your light, until you reach such a status, is to be at full strength. This tells your superior without words that you are both energized as expected, and doing the meditations necessary to increase the strength of your grids."
Novice Recanlin blurted out, "That is not allowed! Only Initiates to higher training are taught those meditations."
Aetria smiled at his confusion. "At Inhestia, your statement would be correct, Novice. But this is the army. The Council has allowed the army to stretch some of the rules. One of the benefits of putting your life in danger is that we teach you skills useful in keeping yourself alive. It is in our best interest that sorcerers strive to increase the strength of their spells as quickly as possible. Tomorrow I will begin to teach you those skills."
Aetria could feel the excitement her words generated amidst the young officers, tired as they were. She remembered so well the thrill of the prospect of gaining forbidden knowledge, without the drudgery of formal training.
Holendal, one of the Provisioner Novices, called out, "A question for the Sub-commander!"
"Yes, Novice Holendal."
"I am very glad to be able to increase my grid strength, but why can't we stay under constant Power charge, like we did as students?"
"A fair question, but one that shows you are not yet thinking in terms of military strategy, as I have been endeavoring to teach you all during our stroll today. As a student, you wore an exposed source all the time. That relatively weak source was given to you for two reasons; it provided you with a continuous energy source for you to keep your magic grids energized, and it made it easy for instructors and mentors to keep track of your presence." Aetria looked at her students.
"But the army sorcerer can't do this. You do not want to give away the presence of your sorcerers to the enemy until you have to. Once your sorcerers are encamped and properly protected by support troops, they can use exposed sources. This will still pinpoint their presence to the enemy, but by then they are not as vulnerable to attack when surrounded by friendly troops. By avoiding the use of individual Power sources and drawing our energy from one or two larger sources, the enemy can only guess at the number of sorcerers present. Any further questions?"
There being none, she dismissed them with a reminder to seek her out after meditation. She returned to her tent and collapsed into her chair. A polite knock on her front tent pole brought her back from the sleep that was closing her eyes, and she called for the visitor to enter. It was Novice Healer Verdilan. He looked very worried.
"Pardon the intrusion, Sorceress, but I am very concerned about teaching meditations to increase grid Power. I--"
Aetria stopped him. "Let me remind you we have been given special authorization to conduct this training by the Mage Council. I am fully qualified to do this instruction. Is any of that an issue?"
The Novice Healer looked even more distressed. "Oh, no, Ma'am. I have the highest regards for your teaching ability. It is just, well--dangerous."
"I share your concern, Novice. In ten days, I want you to be prepared to give us all a lecture on the dangers of expanding one's Power grid--specifically, grid burnout."
Verdilan sputtered, "You demand too much, Sorceress! I am far and away not an expert on grid burnout. Perhaps someone with more experience--"
Staring directly into his eyes, Aetria said, "Are you implying I should be the one to talk about grid burnout?"
Almost fainting, the Novice clearly wanted to flee this unpleasantness. "No, I'm so sorry. I know you have had problems with it, but--"
"Relax, Verdilan. I will gladly help you with the lecture. These people need to feel they are hearing from the Healer community what they consider is accepted knowledge, and you are the Healer here. I am the victim and can give that point of view. We will do this as a team. Fair enough?"
"Excellent, now get on with your own meditations. See you in a few hours." The Healer fled into the night.