Chapter 2
Safe and Sound and Secrets

Zandra, despite her status as a smutsig, had grown into an attractive youngling in the short time Aurelia knew her. She had long, black hair that was smooth and shiny, glinting a nearly blue color in the sunlight, it was so dark. She had light toffee colored skin, and big deep brown eyes that widened with her incessant curiosity and thirst for knowledge. If things were different she could have easily been a Castus. She was intelligent, witty, and kind – the one thing that set her apart from the Castus families, aside from her anomaly that made her a smutsig. She was also fiercely loyal, whatever Aurelia said was law, as far as she was concerned, never mind the actual law. Aurelia took care of all of that for them and Zandra trusted her with every fiber of her being. When Aurelia said they, Zandra, Finnian, Lennox, Mathias and Kenji were safe, and they were home, Zandra felt happiness for the first time in her life. She wasn't a dumb girl, despite not having words like the rest of the Kingdom, she knew what the world was like around her. But if Aurelia said they were home – then she trusted that.

The cottage in the woods was, indeed, very homey despite its outward appearance. Anyone that happened upon it would think it was just an old, dilapidated relic. It stood barely erect deep in the middle of a small clearing of a vast forest that surrounded Sterraeonia. It was built of beautiful grey stones which were covered in vines from ground to roof. The wooden steps leading up to the door were so badly deteriorated that they really were quite unsafe – not only chipped, sagging and unsightly, but rotted in more places than not. They would have to learn where to be able to step to avoid falling though. The windows were boarded, and it appeared they had been for a very long time. The shutters still showed behind the cheap, processed wood that covered the broken glass, and flecks of paint still showed despite the years of weather that chipped away at it little by little. Zandra quickly made it a game, hunting for the little specks of the deep sapphire blue amongst the ugly, greying wood that remained. For Zandra – it was the most wonderful place in the world she had ever seen – it was magical. It wasn't the orphanage.

From as early as Zandra could remember at the orphanage, she didn't question much about the world. It was just the way it was. They all had varying degrees of misfortune, except Aurelia. She was different, she was a Castus. Despite that, she was like their surrogate mother. She was more than that, really, but mother is the closest word there is to what she was to such a band of misfits. She was their savior, their protector, their teacher and their friend. She was the reason they were all together, even from the very beginning. It was Aurelia who encouraged them learn to read and write and brought them closer in doing so. Zandra was grateful for that, honestly. Their life had always been quite pitiful before Aurelia's bright presence in their lives. Zandra and Finnian new nothing but the orphanage in which they were raised. Finnian had obvious defects about him that deemed him unworthy. It, to Sterraeonian society, meant that he was a smutsig. His family gave him up to the orphanage without a second thought immediately upon birth. He was born with clubbed feet. He would never be able to hide that from society – well to do Castus families wouldn't try to hide it anyways. They needed to be able to keep their station in life. For Zandra, it was slightly different. She didn't have anything about her at first glance that would deem her smutsig, and her official status as a smutsig wasn't defined until she was three, when physicians said she either could not or would not be capable of speech, as she hadn't yet made any kind of progress. From what she was able to gain about her background from the matron at the orphanage, she was just simply an unwanted problem– probably a bastard accident of a high ranking official.

The others, Lennox, Mathias and Kenji, they grew up on the other side of the veil, living in comfort, until their identifiers began to show. Mathias and Kenji, twins, were only just shy of two years old when they came to the orphanage. Kenji can't hear– some high pitches, like the screech of animals or chirps of birds he can just make out. But anything else … he lives in silence. Mathias has no sight. It was suspected that he wasn't born that way, but no one can be sure. Zandra always thought it was quite odd that although Kenji and Mathias are twins, with their differences in their identifiers. Either way, though – they were indeed, smutsig. And once the physicians caught it – they were sent away. Maybe they don't' remember their life before, but at least they had it, and that was more than Zandra could say for herself.

Lennox was different. He was already nine when he came to the orphanage, two short years ago. Zandra remembers hiding beneath the kitchen table to eavesdrop and learn of the new addition. His family said he didn't look outwardly smutsig, but his inability to be excellent was the biggest indicator. They threw him away because he didn't have the desire to be their little trophy. It disgusted Zandra, but it's just the way it was. What could she – a smutsig – do? It wasn't even worth asking. It's not that Zandra was weak, but it was just the world she grew up in. It had been ingrained in her since birth. She was a smutsig. The matron at the orphanage reminded her of that several times a day. The bright and shiny Castus were simply the worthy members of society. She understood her station in life and she accepted it.

As it stood now, kids like her – they didn't stand a chance. There was no more orphanage, Brennus saw to that. Aurelia said that it was likely that Brennus was furious that he didn't have them to put on for a show for his new Kingdom. Aurelia reported back the truth to them, upon her return, repeating and writing word for word the decree she committed to memory, sharing the news with the younglings. Infants and elderly would be condemned to die because it was forbidden to care for them, and the Castus wanted it that way. Brennus's campaign for power focused on redirecting resources to the people of the kingdom that could help improve it. Aurelia continued her report and after what seemed like an eternity of repeating the same questions and answers, both oral and written, everyone finally seemed to understand the gravity of the situation. They sat in silence for a while, contemplating what these changes meant for each of them. Finally, Zandra's curiosity and intrigue returned, as a thought flickered across your golden, brown eyes – she was reflecting on their strange and unexplained escape.

"Aurelia…" Zandra began scribbling furiously on the chalkboard she always carried with her "How is it that we got here? From the Orphanage I mean? And how is it that you were able to go into the village and gain this news? I thought they would be missing you by now!"

Aurelia's eyes pulled at the corners with her smile as she ready her sloppy scrawl, delighted that Zandra's normal curiosity was finally returning.

"That, my child, is precisely the question I've been waiting for" She nodded to Zandra in understanding. When she would volunteer at the orphanage and tutor the children, Zandra had taken to writing lectures and notes for Kenji, once Aurelia taught him to read, so he wouldn't fall further behind than he already was. He knew how to read lips, but it wasn't always accurate, and so Zandra began writing with a furious desire to drink in all the words as Aurelia began.

"First, understand this. This knowledge can and will lead to death and destruction. If some day you should leave this Cottage and go your own ways, you are not to speak of it, nor are you to speak of me in connection to any of this" she said this with a stern finality that left no room for questions.

She continued, "Now. There are many words for what it is I can do, however, the truest and most sincere of them all is Sorcery. It is called magic, too, which is a broader term for it, as there are several kinds of magic. I am, as I always have been, a Sorcerous. I was taught my craft by my grandmother, as she was by hers and so on and so on. When I was young, my mother was still considered to be in training – it takes many, many years to fully understand and master this craft, both of which are necessary to be able to teach it to someone else."

"What about boys, can they do Sorcery?" Zandra scribbled again, shoving it towards Aurelia in urgency.

Aurelia sighed - "Please, child, if you want to hear this, let me get through it. There is a lot to tell. But yes, to answer your question, men, and boys for that matter, have it inside them as well, but it usually only manifests in a singular form of magic - I do not know why. It is traditionally women who carry on Sorcery, and it is traditionally only women who can even become a Sorcerous. There have been men Sorcerers in history, but it has been centuries since there has been one."

She took a breath, contemplating where to continue and began again. "Sorcery is the complete understand and knowledge of our worlds. Yes worlds. There are two. Light and Dark. Some people call it heaven and hell, some call it good and evil. But it lives here, among us in everything and everyone. A Sorcerous with this knowledge and understanding, will develop a complete set of skills and training in all forms of magic. As I said before, there are many forms. To get us here, to this cottage – I used traveling magic. This allows me to travel from one place to another with concentration and focus – I envision myself – I envisioned us – here at this cottage, which I had already scouted long ago. And so, we came to be here. I also used weaving magic – which allowed me to give the illusion of someone else. This part gets a little confusing, so listen closely. If I weave myself, I do not actually change. I can give the appearance of a smaller or larger frame; however, I still take up the same amount of space as I always did. So, if I weave myself into a tall, wide, man, and I brush up against someone, they can and will walk through my illusion. And it works the other way too. If I weave myself into a small, thin child, and walk too closely to someone, they will run in to a solid mass (me) that shouldn't be there. This is important to know, because it can break the illusion. There are other, more accurate ways to change your appearance, but I'll get to that another time. I used weaving because I used so much magical energy in traveling all of us here. It was the quickest, easiest, and less demanding form of magic I could use to be able to get into the village unnoticed. There are other forms of magic I will tell you about another time, but this is a sufficient explanation for now, as these are the two I used for our escape." She finished at last.

Zandra stopped writing abruptly, looking to Aurelia and then resumed writing, showing Aurelia her question "Can I be a Sorcerous, Aurelia?" and the others chimed in almost simultaneously, repeating the question with vigor, as they each envisioned themselves as something different for the first time in their lives.

Aurelia laughed, though not cruelly, she had expected this question from Zandra, but it surprised her coming from the others as well. "That, I do not know. It is a possibility, but I will not and shall not speculate."

Kenji tugged on Aurelia's sleeve to get her attention focused on the paper he scribbled on, he had written quickly and sloppily in a hurry to ask his question – "you will teach us?"

Aurelia smiled kindly at him. She had also expected this from Zandra and was surprised that Kenji was the first to ask. Kenji hated tutoring sessions. He was bright, but he would always rather be playing. She couldn't count the amount of times he pretended to be sick to get out of it. The others looked at Aurelia, waiting for her reply.

"I don't know that I can TEACH you magic. But yes, I do think it would be beneficial to teach you theories. I must warn you though, that theory of magic is quite boring until we discover if any of you have any talent."

Next was Mathias and Finian, who blurted out almost at the same time, echoing each other "When?!"

Aurelia laughed again, "Not tonight – not yet. In a few days when we get settled we will begin."

At last, Lennox asked quietly – as if he didn't want the others to hear "What about me, Miss Aurelia? Do you think… do you think I could have it to? You know- considering that, that I'm not all that great at anything" he said quickly, spilling the words out before he could lose his courage.

Aurelia eyed him, considering for a moment before she answered – "Yes, Lennox, I believe you have as good of a chance as any of the others. You are not a dumb child, you just never had the desire to excel. But something tells me, you will have the desire to excel at something as exciting as magic. However," She said holding up a finger to silence him once again as he started to interrupt "I will warn you that magic is dangerous, and no matter how strong your desire, you must promise me, you must all promise me" she said looking at each of them "that we learn only together when I am here. I do not want you meddling with this on your own. There are dangers in the magic itself, and other dangers I can't yet explain."

Lennox's eyes widened, and he nodded solemnly in understanding. He was determined to not be mediocre for once in his life, and he set himself with a quiet resolve to do everything she said so he could learn.

"Now then" Aurelia said in the lull that had fallen over them, while the chewed over this new, marvelous world "That's quite enough of that. We have a long day tomorrow, and a foreseeably rough night in a new, strange place. Let us retire and go to bed."

She knew they wouldn't be able to fall asleep any time soon with a new world right at their fingertips, but her magic was depleted, and she needed rest, so she insisted. She had given them much to think about. She looked to Zandra, and she could almost see the wheels turning inside her. She wondered if she'd given them enough of fear mixed with wonder – this was unknown territory and so she asked "Zandra, child, what are you thinking?"

Zandra chewed on her bottom lip, something she did when she was nervous, she began writing, slowly this time, "I'm thinking – I'm thinking about how ordinary today was, and what a strange turn of events everything took. And-and I'm thinking that I'm grateful for you, and for our new home, and that we're all together – but, I guess I'm just worried" she finished, keeping the rest of the thoughts to herself.

Aurelia heaved a tired sigh, "I know, Zandra. This is the way of life, and why we never take anything for granted. Everything can change in an instant. I am glad we're all together, too. Now, lets get some rest, shall we?"

Zandra rose, and followed the others into the back room. She couldn't bring herself to tell Aurelia what else was bothering her. It worried her that the world changed so quickly, but it also worried her that it had changed so long ago with magic – and she never even knew. She would never admit it, but she was afraid of the power Aurelia could wield. She had only now just begun to understand the dangerous depths of Sterraeonia.