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The city loomed in the distance, tall spires reaching for the sky and columns of smoke rising

from the factory district. They raced along the road adjacent to the cliff edge, which fell away to jagged rocks and dangerous sea currents two hundred feet below. Over the expanse of water, Natiska could just see the outline of another metropolis; The Eastern city of Saratha. The capital consisted of two cities, separated by a thin strip of sea just over two miles wide. The Kings palace lay across the sea, on the large island. They approached a small forest on the right hand side of the road. As they drew closer, Natiska could feel a familiar tug deep in her chest. Can we stop here? she asked. They slowed the horses and Garret gave her a questioning look. Something wrong? he asked. She shook her head, steering the horse towards the trees. The others followed in their curiosity. They tied up the horses, leaving them to graze and began to make their way through the tangled under growth. The trees leaned in closer, blocking out sunlight but still Natiska crashed on. Eventually they walked into a clearing. Natiska heard all three men suck in their breath. She spun towards them, grinning as she stretched out her arms. To Natiskas eye the glade glowed with an ethereal light. She knew the men wouldnt see it. Sunlight spilled down through the gap in the trees, glinting off fluttering butterflies, whose wings were a mix of brilliant rainbow hues. Life seemed to spring out of every inch of ground with beautiful wildflowers covering the forest floor. Small animals darted around, seemingly oblivious to their presence and birds dove towards the pond in the centre of the glade, snatching insects from the rippling, clear waters. What is this place? Natiska heard Dan whisper. Natiska seated herself on a moss covered log, marvelling at the natural beauty that surrounded them. Just a glade, but it is so full of life that I could feel its presence, she answered. She arranged herself so she was sitting comfortably and then closed her eyes. What are you doing? Garret asked, prompting her to open her eyes again. I have used so much magic in the last week that my stores have been running low. It naturally fills again, over time. But here, it will recharge quicker,

She noted Garrets brow wrinkle.

The Way of The One teaches us that we are all connected by energy, it is that energy that we Way Mages use. But we are not like Soul Mages, who kill and rob animals and indeed people of their souls, they steal the energy indefinitely. Way Mages are simply conduits, like every other creature, but we are able to store some of the energy and shape it to our will. When we expend it, the energy returns to the great cycle. We, more than others are attuned to the network of energy, able to feel it and tap it subtly for our needs, Natiska explained. She closed her eyes once more. Even without seeing the glade she could feel it, the raw life force painting a picture in her head. In her minds eye she watched as a rabbit hopped past and a doe drank from the pool of water, unperturbed by the presence of the humans. She felt the energy run from them to her and connecting every living thing in between. As the energy flowed through her it split, like a fork in a river; some flowed onto connect with other streams of energy and a little welled inside her causing her internal store of energy to overflow. A warmth grew in her belly and chest. It comforted her and she allowed herself to drift deeper into the trance. She stopped being herself, she wasnt simply Natiska anymore. The enormous network of energy stretched before her, carrying her higher as if she were floating. Something within her melted away. No longer an individual, there was just One. One whole energy, flowing through millions upon millions of tiny conduits. Larger conduits, the Gods, influenced the flow in response to smaller manipulations prayers. As one conduit died, another took its place and so the great cycle continued. Slowly she returned, remembering who she was; an individual but also a part of a larger whole. She gradually separated from the little life forces of the forest that she had merged with, now only connected by the constant stream of energy. Natiska became aware that she still sitting on the damp, mossy trunk. She allowed herself a minute to revel in feeling of completeness she had experienced. She blinked her eyes open. The men sat a few metres away from her, eating a light lunch. Garret noticed she had returned. He pushed himself up and moved beside her.

We got worried, you wouldnt respondWhoa! Your eyes! he exclaimed as he noticed how vibrant they now looked. Natiska glowed with life, her lips rosy and her hair glossy, her skin shone with an inner luminescence and her eyes even more remarkable than before. It will fade soon, she said smiling.

This place isamazing. You are amazing, Garret stuttered out, colour flooding his cheeks as he realised what he had just said, I dont know much of magic, just the little my father and tutors told me of. You magic folk are very protective of your secrets. Natiska smiled at the compliment and nodded, Magic, all forms of it, is dangerous if not taught properly. If our knowledge was available for everyone, those who have a natural ability for it could attempt to teach themselves, which could have disastrous effects. Do you remember that young squire who almost blew the south wing of the palace to bits? Dan laughed. Garret joined in, remembering the event clearly, Yes, what was his name Squire Richard. He was carted off to the City of Mages for training, he chuckled. Here, Natiska said, throwing each man a bundle of fabric from a sack she had brought with her, This would be a good opportunity for you three to change. The three nobles stared incredulously at the simple clothing they now possessed. Nobles, Natiska muttered to herself, an eyebrow raised at their reaction to her gifts, I asked our friend Orad if he could spare some clothing. We will need to be discreet when we enter the city. Even on the west side, people may recognise you. I thought these outfits would help make you less conspicuous. Huh, why didnt we think of that, Dan marvelled. Natiska turned her back as the men undressed and changed into the woodsmans clothes. She stifled a laugh when she finally laid eyes on their transformation. Baralds and Garrets outfits looked ridiculously small and Dan seemed drowned in his. Their now plain garb clashed with their regal poses, adding to the comedic value of their appearance. She joined them, no longer able to hold back her fit of giggles. All three scowled at her. What is so funny? Barald said, frustration lacing his tone. Natiska controlled her face.

Nothing, you all just need some tutelage on how not to look soroyal, she answered, a giggle threatening to boil out of her throat. She grabbed at their shoulders, moulding their pose until they lost a little of their ever present regal qualities. Now, clothes are one thing, but people are still likely to recognise you, Natiska said. The men knew she was right and Garret had been worrying about the risk the whole day, but they couldnt leave their allies and friends in danger.

I know, but there isnt much we can do about that, is there? Garret said solemnly. A smile crept onto Natiskas face, causing Garrets frown to deepen. What are you planning? he asked, he eyes narrowed in suspicion. She placed her hands on Garrets chest, feeling the firm muscles underneath the rough cotton shirt. Her sudden touch made Garret jump back, breaking the contact, uncertainty written on his face. Come here, she said with only a hint on impatience. He took a hesitant step towards her, allowing her hands to rest back on his torso. Close your eyes, I am going to tap into your energy manipulate a few fine details, she told him. Reluctantly he closed his eyes and Natiska copied. She concentrated, feeling the wave of energy from the forest flow through her. Like before the current split in two but instead of storing her additional little trickle she diverted it towards Garret. His breath caught a second and she knew he could feel the extra power now flowing through his system. Natiska concentrated on the power she had lent the Prince, sculpting it to her needs. She heard Barald and Dans intake of breath as they watched in wonder. She knew they could see Garrets beard growing. She pictured his serious blue eyes, surprising herself at how clearly she could remember them. Again she twisted the energy to her will and she knew that his eyes would now be a deep brown when he opened them. The men were amazed by the transformation. Natiska stepped towards Dan who began giving her instructions on how he would like to look. The others laughed.

What? the squire asked. The idea is to make you blend in, not have every needy woman in the area fall about your feet, you scoundrel of a squire, Barald quipped. Natiska altered his hair, making it a few shades lighter and helped him grow his first full beard. She also gifted him with a dusting of freckles and cursed him with a couple of pus filled blemishes. Garret and Barald howled with laughter, barking their approval. At least we will not have to worry about you being distracted by some bakers daughter. No girl is going to fall willingly at your feet now, said Barald, a tear from the laughter sliding down his cheek. Dan found his new appearance less than amusing.

Now missy, just dont be getting any smart ideas, Barald said, taking a wary step backwards as Natiska approached. Baralds hair gradually changed until it was completely grey. Natiska deepened his fine wrinkles, making Barald look ten years older in the blink of an eye. She stood back and examined her handy work. They spent some time formulating back stories and new names should they be questioned and then set off once more through the thick woodland. They covered the remaining distance to the city in little time and soon came across other traffic both entering and exiting the city. Garret tried to calm his racing heart as he observed the guards who stood vigilant at the city entrance, trying in vain to figure out if he recognised any of the men. They began passing under the large stone edifice, a large double portcullis ready to drop at a moments notice. The group were almost through when a large, familiar looking guard barred their way.

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