… and so the major error of the past was discovered. In order to have full control of the world around us, there must be a Blending not only of Air, Water, Fire, and Earth, but of Spirit as well. That fifth aspect, so important and yet overlooked for so long, completed the magic necessary for dominance, which in human terms meant rule.

When the first Fivefold Blending, comprised of Elmin Ofgin, Azelin Rays, Widia Almoy, Summia Kamb, and Failin Jarl, came together to defeat the tyrannical Four, our Empire was saved from the dark time of oppression that seemed destined to continue on forever. The Four were each High-level practitioners, and had they Blended with one of Spirit - but they did not, and so met their downfall.

When the Five took their place as the rulers of our Empire, they were first to speak of the Prophecy and then they announced the laws made necessary thereby. Where the Prophecy came from is unclear, but none doubted when it was first spoken of three hundred years ago, and none doubt it today. The Four will attempt to return to reestablish their tyranny, and should we stray from the laws laid down for our protection, they may very well succeed.

For this reason the competitions are held every twenty-five years, and the strongest of the new Blendings takes over our rule and protection for the next quarter century. No Blending is permitted to compete a second time after having won the first, and no Blending may simply be appointed without having competed and won. During each rule comes a crisis, which cannot be bested without the laws having been followed to the letter. What causes these crises to arise is another question which seems without answer, and yet most believe them linked directly to the Prophecy.

The crisis faced by the Second Five…

… mentioned in the Prophecies. There will be Signs to show that the Chosen Blending has arrived in our midst, but nowhere are the signs detailed. It has been promised that they will spring from all corners of the land, that their might will be seen clearly by all those about them, that they will blend as well in their ordinary lives as they do in the Blending of their aspects. There will also be "subtle happenings" surrounding them as well as "obvious signs," but many of the more obvious signs are to appear "out of the sight of the Five's enemies." Who those can be is not clear, as the only enemy of the promised, Chosen Five is the Dreaded Four. Therefore…

It was the time the Prophecy spoke of, but naturally none of us was aware of it. No one in the whole Empire knew, and if they had, what could they have done about it? But such questions are futile, I'm told, and now isn't the time to dispute that. My purpose is to speak of what happened, as though I had been everywhere at once. I find the idea extremely foolish, but the others insist that only I can do the narrative justice. A more likely guess is that they don't want to be bothered themselves, and so put it onto me.

Well, the choice is made, so I suppose I'd better get on with this great "honor." You must know the people who comprised the two Blendings which came into ultimate conflict not once but twice, but you have no need to meet them all at once. I'll first introduce the members of the Blending I, Tamrissa Domon, became a part of, and the way in which we "happened" to come together. The others will need to wait their turn, until the narrative advances a bit farther. Too bad for them.

We've discovered that the first of our Blending to begin the journey was Lorand Coll, who was born in the aspect of Earth magic. His birthplace was the bucolic environs of Widdertown, located almost atop the western border of the Empire. Widdertown is surrounded by farms and ranches, which supply many of the western duchies with delicacies their own farms are unable to produce. Some of those delicacies have even found their way, suitably protected by preservation methods, to the capitol, but there I get ahead of myself. This is meant to be Lorand's story.

The Blending: Convergence

Chapter One

Lorand Coll-Earth Magic

Lorand stood in the farmyard just at dawn, watching the sun rise like the great ball of Fire magic that it was. The roosters had already crowed and the birds were still calling out their morning welcome, the air was clean and fresh, and life was beginning anew. Lorand, tall and husky with blond hair and mild brown eyes, could remember a time when the renewal of the day had renewed him as well, but that time now seemed long past.

"Up already, Lorand?" his mother called from the house, glancing out at him from behind the mild spell of screening that kept insects from entering. "Your Pa'll be pleased t'see ya so eager t'start the day's work."

Lorand made no effort to answer her, but that was perfectly all right. Every time she found him standing outside in the morning she said the very same thing, then continued on her way to begin breakfast. Not once had she even commented on how often he'd been out there of late, doing nothing but staring at the sunrise. Or apparently staring at the sunrise.

"Out there agin, Lor?" his father's voice came next after a moment or two, not as wearily uncaring as his mother's had been. "Somethin' botherin' you, boy?"

Lorand watched one of the barn cats jump up to a fencepost before beginning its bath, the cat being too fastidious to sit in the dirt of the yard like lesser animals. In a strange way Lorand knew exactly how it felt, and the time had come to speak to his father about it.

"Pa, have you ever wondered which practitioner of Fire magic was strong enough to create the sun?" he asked without turning. "Or what the world would be like if most people couldn't do magic? How would we live and get things accomplished?"

Lorand heard his father's heavy footsteps leave the house and approach the place where he stood, so he finally turned to look at the older man. Camil Coll wasn't quite as tall as his son, but was just as husky and had the same light hair and dark eyes. He, too, had been born under the aspect of Earth magic, as had the woman he had married. Neither of them were High or even Middle practitioners, which made them suited only for farmwork. Camil's weathered face usually wore an expression of satisfaction that said the condition suited him, a state his second-born son found it impossible to agree with.

"Boy, who created th' sun is somethin' we ain't meant t'know," he told Lorand shortly, making no more effort to speak properly than he ever did. "What th' world would be like if'n most folk couldn't do magic's a foolishness question, an' I ain't got no time f'r fantasy. You ain't got th' time neither, since tomorra's when you'll be helpin' y'r brothers an' me Encourage thet field a corn our workers planted last week. Th' day after we'll be Encouragin' the rice bog, but t'day we gotta try our hands at that new crop a fancy furrin beans. Let's us have breakfast, an' then we c'n get started."

His father began to turn back to the house, but Lorand couldn't afford to let the moment pass. He had to say what was needed, and he had to say it now.

"Pa, I won't be helping with the beans, because I'm leaving today." His words stopped his father short, so Lorand hurried to get it all said. "Last week when I went into Widdertown, the guild man told me that I qualified as a Middle practitioner."

His father hesitated for a long moment, then turned back to him with what the older man obviously thought was a smile.

"You know I don't b'lieve in all thet nonsense, but I ain't too mean t'give ya congratulations," he said, offering a large, blunt-fingered hand. "If'n y'mean t'go back t'town t'celebrate alone, there's no need. Soon's we see t'th' beans, y'r brothers 'n me'll go with ya."

"Pa, I'm not going for a celebration," Lorand said slowly after deliberately taking his father's hand. "I'm going to Gan Garee to test for High practitioner."

"T' th' capitol?' his father demanded, his thick fingers closing uncomfortably tight around Lorand's own. "Whut they been tellin' ya, boy? Thet ya'll pass th' test real easy? Thet th' Empire's short a High practitioners, so they'll give ya welcome an' make ya one of 'em? Din't I allus tell ya it don't work thet way? Onct they get ya t' th' capitol ya'll be all alone, easy pickin's fer-"

"For those who take advantage of honest countryfolk," Lorand interrupted wearily, freeing his hand with one sharp pull. "Yes, Pa, you have always said that, but what you never said was how you knew it was true. Give me the names of people around here who had that happen to them, and I'll ignore the law and go right now and talk to them."

"You sayin' my word alone ain't good enough, boy?" his father returned in a growl, broad face darkening with anger. "Don't give a damn 'bout thet there law. Whut I wanna know is, you really think y'r big 'nough t'say thet t'me?"

"In other words, there isn't anyone around who had that done to them," Lorand answered evenly, refusing to be drawn off into a different argument. "What you've said has been nothing but opinion. I know you love this farm, Pa, but I don't and that's why I'm leaving. Will you wish me good luck?"

The older man stood stiffly, glaring at Lorand as if trying to change his son's mind through sheer willpower. Lorand could feel the vibration of anger-magic rumbling through the ground under his feet, but that wasn't unexpected. Almost automatically, he calmed the rumblmg with his own talent. He'd hoped the effort would also calm his father, but that would probably have been beyond even an Adept's ability.

"Never shoulda let ya go t'thet there school," his father growled, and the ground vibrated again with this new subject causing anger-magic. "Shoulda spit on th' law, an' kept ya here an' none a this would a happened. Filled y'r head with mindless dreams an' barefaced lies, they did, an' you swallered it all right down. Well, if'n y'r thet much of a damn fool, go on, then. Who needs ya here? Get out an' stay out, an' don't never come back."

"Pa, I haven't said goodbye to Ma or my brothers," Lorand called after the broad back stomping away from him toward the house. "It will only take a minute or two-"

"Ya don' have a Ma 'r brothers no more," his father shouted without stopping. "All y'got's th' clothes on y'r back, so get 'em outa here b'fore I claim them along with th' rest. If'n I paid fer it, I get t' keep it. Now, get off'n my land!"

And then the door slammed, closing painfully and finally on the only life Lorand had so far known. Lorand felt as if somebody had taken a stick to his insides, although nothing had happened that hadn't been expected. Camil Coll had never been an understanding man, and didn't take kindly to being balked. And he never changed his mind once he made it up, so there was no sense in standmg there hoping that this time it would be different…

Lorand went to the barn and through it, pausing just short of the doors on the far side to reach behind the bales of hay stacked there. He'd worked on the farm for years without more than token - and minimal - payment, so last night he'd packed the clothes and possessions that were his by right of having earned them. He'd hoped the precaution would be unnecessary, but-

"Lor." Lorand turned fast at the sound of his name, but it was only his older brother Mildon. The two of them were very much alike to most people's eyes, but that was only on the outside. Inside they were so different that they barely knew each other…

"Lor, I can't believe you're really going," Mildon said now, his soft, dark eyes deeply troubled. "Pa didn't mean what he said, he was only feeling hurt. He has such big plans for all of us, and now you've disappointed him…"

"And what big plans are those, Mil?" Lorand asked bluntly when his brother's voice trailed off the way it usually did. "To be treated like field workers on this farm until he dies? We do exactly as much work as he does, but how much of a share of the profits have you gotten? Don't you ever want to marry and have a family and place of your own?"

"But this place will be mine, Lor," Mildon answered with an unaccustomed frown. "I know that, and so do you. And as far as a family goes, I'm still too young to need to worry about that."

"Mil, you're almost twenty-five," Lorand said slowly and clearly, for the first time trying to get through to his brother. "Most of the people you went to school with are already married with their families started, and even most of the girls I went to school with are spoken for. When are you going to stop repeating what he says, and start thinking for yourself?"

"That's my Pa you're talking about, and yours as well," Mildon pointed out with mild reproof. "He only wants what's best for us, Lor, and he even agrees about the girls I've been considering. Allia is my first choice, along with Vadra and maybe even Suso. As soon as I'm ready to take a wife…"

"Mil, wake up!" Lorand interrupted sharply, more upset than he cared to think about. "Allia was married six months ago, and Vadra even before that. You never liked Suso and she couldn't stand you, but even she's promised. The only ones who might be left are Widdertown girls, and most of them would rather live with their mothers than out on a farm. If you keep listening to him you won't ever have a wife, and you'll have this place as your own in about forty or fifty years, when he finally gets around to dying. But if you don't already know that you probably never will. Say goodbye to Ma and the boys for me."

"How can you go anywhere without coin, Lor?" Mildon asked as Lorand reached behind the bales for the case he'd packed. His voice was somewhat uneven, as if part of him wanted to think about what his younger brother had said, but he obviously still had his orders. "I know you can't have more than a few coppers, so how do you expect to live? If you were hoping Pa would help out…"

"Tell Pa that's something else he was wrong about," Lorand interrupted again, slinging the full leather case under his left arm. "They don't charge you to test for High practitioner, they pay your way because testing for High is something all Middles are required to do by law. And they give you fifty silver dins to live on, which should last a while even in Gan Garee. If I happen to run short, I can always hire out to Encourage someone's garden or litter of pets. There aren't that many who can work with animals, I'm told…"

Lorand let it trail off when Mildon looked away. They were supposed to have pretended that Mildon had come out to talk to his younger brother on his own, but that had never happened. Mildon didn't seem capable of doing anything but echoing their father, reinforcing whatever the eldest Coll said by apparently agreeing with him. Lorand had still been very young when he'd first understood that, and it was almost as if the realization had caused Mildon's death. After that Lorand no longer had an older brother to look up to, and at times he still felt the pain of that loss.

"Look, Mil… Let's just say goodbye," Lorand offered after a long and awkward moment. "If you're comfortable and happy as you are, I have no business telling you you're wrong. I'd just like you to understand that I can't do it your way, and don't even want to. If I wasn't leaving to test for High, I'd be going for another reason. Take care of yourself."

Mildon hesitated before taking the hand Lorand offered, as though he felt he might be betraying their father by doing it. But he still took the hand, shook it soberly, then turned and walked away. Going back to report, Lorand thought with a sigh as he went on his own way.

The farm road leading to the main road was maintained in good repair, but Lorand felt strange walking it rather than riding. He hadn't walked any real distance since boyhood, not with horses available, but luckily he also hadn't bonded with any of his mounts. He watched the dirt of the road as he scuffed along, knowing it would have been impossible to leave behind a horse that loved him, picturing his father using a charge of horse-stealing to get the horse - and him - back. Or trying to. He'd already bid farewell to the scenes of his childhood, and had the strongest conviction that he'd never be back. He wanted to turn for a final look at the farm, but something kept him from doing even that little. As though some Wild magic had taken over his destiny, and now swept him along before its undeniable strength…

The idea was silly, and Lorand dismissed it with a headshake just as he spotted Hat Riven and his father Phor waiting for him down where the roads met. Phor drove a small farm wagon to take his son Hattial into Widdertown, an act that made Lorand both jealous and angry. Phor Riven didn't want Hat to leave any more than Lorand's father wanted him to go, but the elder Riven had insisted on seeing his son off. Why couldn't his own father have been like that…?

Some questions aren't meant to have satisfying answers, and Lorand knew that was one of them. The question might come back to him again and again on dark and lonely nights, but right now it was early morning and people were waiting for him. He picked up his pace a little, suddenly very anxious to be in Widdertown and really on his way.

"Morning, Lor," Hat called as soon as Lorand got close enough. "Looks like we got the nice day we were hoping for."

"Sure does, Hat," Lorand agreed. "Morning, Mr. Riven. I really appreciate your stopping for me like this."

"Won't mince words, Lorand," Phor Riven answered, his long, thin face cold with disapproval. "No man enjoys seein' his son go off on his own, not with th' world bein' the way it is. But a real man sees that son off with love an' support, lettin' him know he'll be missed. One who don't ain't worth thinkin' about, not by others and not even by his blood. You climb on up here, and we'll get along t' town."

Lorand nodded and put his case in the wagon, then climbed up to the seat. Hat looked almost as angry as his father, and Lorand felt warmed - but also bleak. Sometimes it helps to think you might be wrong, that there might be reasons for someone doing something painful that you just haven't seen. Now…

The ride into Widdertown was silent, and by the time they got there things had already begun to come awake. People stood outside of the shops sweeping their brand new wooden walks, proud that the growth of the town now demanded such big city additions. There was talk of cobblestoning the main streets to make them more passable during the spring rains, but so far it was no more than just talk. Laying the stones would require the hiring of strong Middle practitioners of Earth magic, and probably even the services of a Middle in Spirit magic to smooth it all out. The town wasn't quite ready for an expense like that, but one day…

"They could have had us laying the stones for next to nothing," Hat murmured to Lorand, obviously thinking along the same lines. "By the time they get around to realizing that, we'll be Highs and beyond menial jobs like that."

"And since we're the only two in the district who even came close to qualifying for Middle, they won't have local talent when they do make up their minds," Lorand agreed. "Some of the younger kids might strengthen as they get older, but there's no way of knowing it now. I wonder how much bigger Gan Garee is than Widdertown?"

"Probably twice or three times the size," Hat answered with a dismissive shrug. "Not that I really care. It's the positions available that I care about, and that's what I mean to check on first. As soon as I pass the test for High, of course."

Lorand nodded and let the subject drop, preferring not to think about Hat's chances of passing the tests for High. Master Lugal, the district representative of the Guild of Magical Aspects, had let slip that he considered Hat a strong Middle talent, but didn't believe Hat would qualify for High. He'd certainly told Hat the same thing, but Hat tended to dismiss anything he didn't care to hear. Lorand ran a hand through his hair against the beginning discomfort of the day's heat, wondering if Hat might not have the right of it. Make up your mind to do something and then go after it, wasting no time at all on doubts and worries. Being like that would make life a lot more pleasant.

"Master Lugal ain't here yet," Phor Riven observed as he guided his team closer to the Guild building and then pulled them to a halt. "Th' man tends to keep big city hours, but I 'spose he'll be along in a little while. Hat, you take care and don't let 'em fox you none. Lorand, good luck to you, boy. Time for me t'be gettin' back to th' farm."

Phor solemnly shook hands with his son and Lorand, waited until the two of them had climbed down and gotten their cases from the wagon, then turned the team and headed back the way they'd come. Hat looked ready to wave if his father happened to look around one last time, but Phor never did. The wagon moved along the street until it disappeared, and then Hat sighed.

"I wish he'd done this because he really wanted to," he muttered, still staring in the direction the wagon had gone off in. "He told you what he believes, that it's a man's duty to see his sons off, so he did his duty. I still don't know if he'll really miss me, or just resent the fact that I'm gone."

"Well, at least I don't have to wonder about that," Lorand said with his own sigh. "I hadn't thought knowing it would be a benefit, but I guess it is. And I hope Master Lugal shows up soon. The coach to Hemson Crossing will be getting in in less than an hour."

Hat glanced up at the sun to confirm that, then shifted his case to his other arm. Hat's case looked heavier than Lorand's with more things packed into it, but that was only to be expected. Hat had been given regular wages for the work he did on his father's farm, while Lorand-

"What in the name of Chaos is that?" Hat demanded just as Lorand began to feel the tingle that meant magic was being worked. "If this is somebody's idea of a joke-"

By then Lorand was staring at the wide ball of flames rolling at them, clearly the work of someone with Fire affinity. Joke or not, that fireball was coming fast, and there was no guarantee it would stop just short of them. Lorand shoved Hat one way and dived the other way himself, preferring to look foolish to standing there and being burned. He hit the ground and rolled, half expecting to hear the laughter of whoever had sent the fireball, but there was no laughter. Nothing but the fireball speeding through the place he and Hat had just been standing - and slowing to come around for another pass.

Shouts came from all around, but Lorand paid no attention to them. He felt blistered from the heat that had passed so close to him, and now the thing was coming back to try again. Most people with Fire affinity could light a lamp or a stove without much effort, but something like that ball-! Someone with strength had formed and sent it, and only strength would stop it - if he could just manage to do it right.

Lorand climbed to his feet just as Hat did the same and started to come close, but he waved Hat back and jumped out of the way again. The fireball roared by a second time, almost acting annoyed, and now it was moving even faster. If he didn't do something just as fast, it would soon be too late to do anything but burn. Blocking out fear as well as the distraction of shouting people, Lorand reached for his Earth magic.

Touching it was more than effortless now. For the last few years magic had stopped being something he could do and had started to be something that was part of him. Time slowed almost to a stop as he and the magic glowed together, one entity greater than the sum of its two parts. It was right and it was wonderful, but above all it was powerful - especially when under attack.

The large and hungry fireball roiled toward him, flames eager to consume everything there was. Lorand raised his arms and extended his fingers, fingers made much longer by the magic he had merged with, and thrust into the dirt of the street. Earth, everything of the earth, was his to employ, and the packed earth of the street leaped to comply with his desires. The dirt formed a whirlwind that spun around the fireball, surrounding it more and more until there was more earth than fire.

And then the earth began to close in on the fireball, merging with the flames while giving them nothing to burn. After a moment or two of that swirling, the fireball was denied air. Earth needed no air to survive but fire did, and that was the beginning of the end. The fire struggled and fought, striving to the end to reach living flesh. It died reluctantly but completely, and Lorand's "fingers" held the earth around it for another minute just to be certain. Not a single spark could be left, else the fireball would come alive again from that seed alone.

When it was finally over and Lorand withdrew, the first thing he did was take a deep breath. The air smelled of sifted earth and burning, and was filled with the shouts and exclamations of onlookers. But none of that disturbed Lorand as much as how hard it had been to sever himself from the magic. The stronger he got, the harder it grew, as though he were an adult constantly being forced to return to the life of a child. No one had ever mentioned that happening to them, but Lorand knew the time approached when he would have to speak about it to someone

"Lorand, Hattial, what's going on here?" a voice shouted, and Lorand looked up to see Master Lugal hurrying toward them. Right behind him came Jeris Womal, the town's resident Water talent, which finally let everyone relax completely.

"Somebody has a really bad sense of humor, Master Lugal," Hat complained to the Guild man, his voice still shaky. "We were standing here waiting for you, and suddenly that thing attacked us! If we hadn't been able to fight back it would have gotten us, so you'd better find out who's responsible real fast. If they try it again with those who can't fight back…"

Hat suddenly seemed to realize he was babbling and let the words trail off, but no one standing around laughed and pointed at him. Being attacked by magic like that was no laughing matter, but it was highly unusual. And Lorand saw no reason to correct Hat's use of the word "we." If Hat had tried to use his own magic Lorand would have felt it, so Hat had just let Lorand take care of them both. It made no real difference what other people thought; only he and Hat had to know the truth, and as long as they did there was no reason to speak of it.

"I should think a Fire talent with that much strength would already be on his or her way to the capitol," Lorand said just to change the subject, making sure the words could be taken only as an observation, not as a criticism. "Is it possible to hide that kind of strength?"

"I don't know exactly how much you're talking about, but offhand I'd say no," Master Lugal answered with a frown. He was a tall, spare man with thinning brown hair and very dark eyes that never gave his thoughts away. He always wore the tight breeches and colorful, wide-sleeved shirts popular in the capitol, and had told Lorand he would have to trade in his loose trousers and drab cotton shirts when he got there, else everyone would know him for a hayseed. He also wasn't quite as large as Lorand, and now looked up at him soberly.

"There hasn't been anyone with a strong Fire talent around here in twenty years," Master Lugal continued, still looking disturbed. "I'll need a little help to do a proper Search, but as soon as I get you two on that coach I intend to get started with it. Get your cases and we'll go."

That last was directed to Hat as well as to Lorand, and they both lost no time in complying. The coach would be there very soon, and only the suddenly building excitement over where they were actually starting to go kept Lorand from being disappointed over having to miss the coming Search. He had never seen those like Master Lugal - rare individuals who had a touch of all five of the talents, rather than just one - spread their senses out to locate a strong talent they'd somehow overlooked. Master Lugal couldn't use any of the five aspects, but he was able to locate those who could.

The coach to Hemson Crossing was coming up the street by the time they reached the depot, but Master Lugal had already bought their tickets.

"Now, don't forget," he told Lorand and Hat as he handed over those tickets. "Your fare is paid all the way to Gan Garee, but if you lose these tickets you'll have to walk - or dip into the silver in these pouches. If you do dip into the silver for anything but modest meals along the way, you won't enjoy your time in the capitol. The prices of everything there are sky high, even tiny attic rooms in falling-down hostels. Food is even worse, so don't forget what I told you to do."

Hat nodded dutifully as he put the pouch of silver in his shirt, but Lorand had the feeling his friend had dismissed all warnings of danger. Lorand put away his own pouch, but later he would distribute the silver into little pockets he'd painstakingly sewn into his clothing. It had been hard keeping the stitches from showing, briefly making him wish men wore dresses and petticoats like women. But he'd finally managed to do it right, swearing to himself that he would not get to the capitol penniless.

"Well, here it is," Master Lugal said as the coach pulled up, only a single passenger already inside. "Have a good trip, and best of luck with the tests."

He shook hands with each of them, watched them climb into the coach, then waved until he was out of sight. Actually having someone wave goodbye made Lorand feel considerably better, but not so much so that he could ignore the jouncing of the coach.

"By the time we get to Gan Garee our teeth will be loose," Hat grumbled, shifting around on the hard seat. "I never realized these coaches were worse than farm wagons."

"That's because you've never been in one," Lorand pointed out, then gestured to the third passenger. "But it has to be possible to get used to the bouncing, otherwise he wouldn't be asleep."

"He's probably just as tired as we'll be before the week is out," Hat answered, looking out the window on his side. "But I don't intend to be tired once we actually get to Gan Garee. I've heard you can find willing females on just about every street corner, and that's the first thing I'll be looking for."

Lorand smiled, but didn't comment on his own viewpoint. Girls were fine and he'd enjoyed the few private times he'd had with them, but right now he had no interest in women at all. The tests he would face were most important, and after that the position he would find. His father had turned his back on him, and one day he would show that man just how wrong he had been. He would come back to visit Master Lugal and say a proper goodbye to his mother, and then he would turn his back on his father.

But first he had to make something of himself, and he would … he would…