Some said her affinity was the worst to have; at times like this, Firal was tempted to agree.

She wasn’t foolish enough to think the task would be easy. If it were easy, it wouldn’t have been part of their tests. But she did feel she had a disadvantage due to the energy source her power was bound to, one perhaps only shared by earth-bound mages. The others faced minimal challenge at best.

The test was simple: shift the wind just enough to change the direction the leaves on a sapling moved. Most of her classmates achieved it with little obvious effort. The gale Ran created nearly tore the sapling’s roots from the ground, but everything he did seemed easy—when he actually attended class.

She tried not to fret while she watched the students ahead of her perform their task. A more experienced mage than she would be able to sense the way they manipulated the energy around them, but she was still too young for that. When she was strong enough to move up to green robes, perhaps she’d be skilled enough to tell. For now, all she could do was watch and wonder, trying to determine just how she was supposed to accomplish the same feat.

Mages with an air affinity would find it easiest; all they had to do was tell the air to move. Fire and water mages had easy access to air currents, too, relying on heat and humidity to give them power. She didn’t know how earth affinities fit in, but she could always ask a friend later. But the four of them were core elements, stronger, more power available at their fingertips. Firal’s Gift was healing, tying her to the power of life. It sounded good on her written studies, but when she stood alongside her classmates, she couldn’t help but notice how much weaker she was.

Life force was everywhere, but to sap strength from other living creatures struck her as wrong. It meant working with a handicap, leaving her with only her own strength to rely on. Demonstrations left her tired. Sometimes they were beyond her skill completely. More than once she’d wished it possible to change her affinity. She would have liked to be a mage tied to water or wind, able to shift the weather to suit her moods. But it wasn’t a choice, so she’d settled for the next best thing; making friends with other healer mages, hoping to learn from their expertise.

“Firal?” the Master mage beside the sapling called, beckoning her with a finger.

Swallowing hard, Firal strode forward. She looked up at the sapling, convinced it had grown taller and stouter while she walked.

“Move even the smallest branch successfully, and you will pass.” The white-haired Master smiled, inclining her head before stepping back and gesturing toward the tree.

Firal stared, watching the bright leaves fluttering on their narrow stems. The breeze was steady, stronger than she first thought, and would be difficult to turn. Licking her lips and worrying her yellow training robes in her hands, she extended her sense of self to her surroundings. As always, life sprung before her senses with the most strength, flowing from the people around her, the grass underfoot, even the tree itself. Life was the most difficult element to use; despite all their studies, the how and why of what gave things life was a mystery to even the most knowledgeable Masters. They could tap it, manipulate it, even end it, but that was all they knew.

And life had nothing to do with wind.

Nibbling her lower lip, she tried to focus on the feeling of the air against her skin, watching the way it made the leaves dance. She tried to feel the strength within it, searching for some way to anchor herself to it. With water, earth and even fire, touching it was enough to let her find purchase. With air, she felt nothing.

Nothing at all.

“Mageling Firal?” the Master prompted.

She tried harder, her senses finding nothing.

“All you have to do is move a branch,” the woman in white said.

Firal gritted her teeth. Couldn’t the woman see she was trying? She squeezed her eyes closed.

A long moment of silence drew by before the Master mage sighed. “Just shift it with air and you’ll be done, mageling.”

Firal’s amber eyes flashed open and it was all she could do to keep from glaring. “Just shift it with air?”

The Master nodded.

Clenching her fists at her sides, Firal marched to the base of the tree, sucking in a deep breath, her cheeks ballooning as she blew.

The lowest branch swayed and rustled, pushing against the breeze.

The students stared, even the Master gaping. Then, somewhere to the side of the crowd, Ran burst out laughing.

“Will that do for you, Master?” Firal glanced at the woman from the corner of her eye.

For a moment, the white-robed Master sputtered. Then her face darkened and she thrust a finger toward the low building that housed the classrooms. “Not in the least, young lady! You are to go see Master Nondar and tell him of your insolence immediately!

Tossing her unruly black hair over her shoulder, Firal lifted her chin and spun on her heel, marching toward the classrooms.

It wouldn’t be the first time she’d been sent to Nondar for discipline, but she was sure the old man would side with her today.

After all, her teacher never said the wind had to be magic.

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