A/N: First, I'd like to say thanks for taking a look at this. Okay, so... this is my beloved, ongoing project. I will never abandon it. I wrote the first few chapters when I was 15, so obviously the story is raw and needs much editing. Thanks to all the people who have been reviewing and helping me find mistakes! There will be four books in the series, the second of which I am working on at this moment. So please enjoy, and if you have time, send me a review to let me know what you think!


Guardians

Aithné bounded eagerly through the cobbled streets past the market and various shops, feet bare and long golden hair flowing behind her. The full afternoon sun heated the streets, and she could feel the warm stones tingle against her calloused soles. There were small dome-shaped dwellings around her grouped together in exclusive clans. The shops were all outdoors and consisted either of a simple tent, or stands capped with awnings to protect their goods from the heat. Beyond the people's homes were extravagant stone arches and benches for public parks, and further still was the town temple. Altogether, the urban environment was lively and teeming with busy people.

She turned a sharp corner in the street network, not caring to slow down, and leapt toward the town suburbs, where the streets faded into a dust pathway through small [?] trees and river vegetation. Stubbing her toes on several rocks, she slowed and continued at a steady pace toward a gathering of small domed huts. She could hear the gentle trickle of the [?] river and caught a whiff of the fresh smell of the River Village. A group of huts with thatched roofs encircled a small meeting area, and Aithné dashed, with new interest, toward a particularly large hut, knocking excitedly at the door. Shortly, the door opened, and there stood an old woman with diminished hair, roughly the height of Aithné herself. Her voice was spirited with a hint of defiance, and she invited her in with a smile.

"Aithné, young one, I expected you'd be here soon. Arévis is waiting for you."

Peering around the cozy hut, she spotted Arévis, her best friend, reading an old tome. At the far end of the interior there was a woodstove for cooking, some cushions and a low table to the left overlooking a window, a small kitchen full of hanging meat and other tasty-looking things, and to the right was a rest area with stowed-away mats and blankets, which was where Arévis now lounged on a cushion.

Arévis looked up keenly and presented a relaxed smile. Her silvery hair was pulled back in an intricate bun with wisps of hair falling to the sides of her face. She had a regal look, and was very much taller than the two standing at the door. Her eyes were a striking blue and she had a long, elegant face. Her skin was very pale and Aithné often coaxed Arévis to join her at their favorite recreation place down by the river, trying (without success) to expose her to more sunlight.

Both went to the River Village Academy, where they studied to attain their ideal jobs. Aithné wasn't sure of her preferred area of study yet, but she was assured there was time to sort out her interests. Aithné enjoyed spending time with her many friends in the academy study hall, but Arévis preferred the peace and seclusion of her home. Aithné had just completed a chapter of study, and was ready to continue the day with her best friend. Arévis' voice was calm and smooth as she greeted the exhausted visitor.

"I'm almost finished, Aithné. Stay for a drink; I'll be ready when you're done. Delia, you wouldn't mind preparing a cup of tea for Aithné?"

"Of course not."

Aithné obliged, gratefully accepting refreshment after her hastened romp. Delia prepared an iced jug of peppermint tea for them, and joined her at the table, while Arévis remained enveloped in her book.

"What a day!" Aithné exclaimed, "The instructors really laid out—thank you Delia—the job previews. They even had a local sorcerer, healer, warrior, logician, and a couple more experienced people come in and tell us about their profession! I have to admit I was inspired by a few. You should have come to the academy today, Arévis, you really missed out. They might do it again tomorrow, but I doubt it."

Arévis briefly looked up in acknowledgement and began scribbling something with a charcoal stick on her notepad. Her eyes had slight circles underneath them from hours of perpetual study.

"Anyway, Delia, I think I've chosen what job fields I'll concentrate on."

"Have you studied all the fields available?"

"Oh yes, most of them. It has taken a lot of time this year, but I think I've finally decided…"

"Don't keep an old lady in suspense." Delia remarked with interest, "What job will you take?"

"I'll tell you soon." She replied with a sly smile.

Aithné was ready to burst with excitement, but she had to contain herself until she had told Arévis and Terran.

"Young people!" Delia evoked with amused exasperation.

Arévis had her face almost up against the page and was writing with increasing speed. She looked intensely absorbed in whatever subject her current report was on.

"What are you—" Aithné began curiously.

"Sorcery." Arévis murmured as if reading her mind. She showed no signs of stopping her furious recording.

Aithné could tell sorcery was a major interest of Arévis'. Both girls were nearly seventeen now, and it looked as if Arévis had given much more attention to her future than most of the students, judging by the enthusiasm she showed not only in her current report, but throughout the year. Arévis seemed to reach some sort of conclusion and put away her study materials in a small shelf that contained her belongings. Aithné enjoyed a few more sips of the iced beverage, and then thanked Delia once more, promising her that Arévis would be home at dark.

"Sorcery." Aithné chimed with fascination. "You never told me. I always thought you were interested in being a logician, or a healer."

"Assumptions. They usually mislead my observers." Arévis let out a small chuckle. "I meant to keep it secret, and so did you. This is the most important rite of passage of our lives."

"You're right. This is the most important thing in the world to me…" Aithné sensed that her friend was unconvinced. Why did she always know? Even without speaking it, Arévis had always known her secret—the one she would keep hidden until someone else opened it up. There was no need to expose it yet; things would get… uncomfortable.

Arévis decided to comment no further. They would reveal their final job choices at the last ceremony… definitely the most important of their lives. Thankfully, the subject of their chat lightened as they strolled down toward [?] river.

"I'm in need of a good swim. I've studied so long, the ground looks like it's moving."

Aithné gave her a look of mock-concern. "We need to get you more sun."

The pair slipped off their clothes and dipped in a grove area of their swimming hole. The water was cool and shaded, away from the soon-summer sun. They lapped a few times and then treaded near the middle of the clear river. Nothing could beat the blissful feeling of water surrounding you—Aithné was completely at ease in the midday heat and freedom, and glanced at her friend, disappointed to see an alert face scanning the large rock used for diving, a short way off from their position.

"What is it?" Aithné whispered, wondering what was making Arévis hesitate.

"Shh," was the only answer she got.

Suddenly the rustling of pushed back trees and a wild "WOOOHOOOO!!!" split the uncomfortable silence. Mortified, the girls watched, helpless, as a half-naked Terran bounded off the large rock and made an enormous splash not twenty feet from them.

"Oh… my…" Aithné was dumbfounded. Arévis ducked under water and began to swim in the other direction. She was about to follow suit, but he noticed them…

"Aithné! Arévis! What brings my two best friends down here to the swimming hole? And why didn't you invite me?"

Obviously, Terran was enjoying having them in this position, whereas Aithné couldn't speak, and struggled to keep herself above water.

"Hey Terran," Aithné said weakly. "We didn't have that much time to invite anyone. We were, um, busy discussing, um, AVERT YOUR EYES!"

Terran laughed. "Fine, I'll wait until you ladies get decent." He turned away and feigned wheeling around several times before they were safely out and clothed.

"You are sick. I hope you are aware of that." Even Arévis couldn't hold back an exasperated sigh of amusement while walking to "Fort Arérrenwe."

"Oh yes. I am very much aware of that. What adventure will we have today? Will we sail the open seas, or raid innocent people of their goods as usual?"

The trio comfortably talked about their time spent at the river. They had built small, one-manned rafts, long and buoyant, for use as pirates' ships. Each had a "sea name" and owned land along the riverbank. They often fought each other for this land, and took their other friends on journeys as their crewmembers and allies to war against one another. At least, this is how they used to have fun, before the end of the year closed in on them. Reports, tests, and many other stressful things for their last journey meant one thing: less time for leisure. Normally, they would have just picked up on a heated raid, or continued one of their pointless wars, but today, they would be playing for the first time in two months. Aithné was so happy to be back in her comfortable environment, now that the academy was finally becoming somewhat relaxed. The tension would all be over in four days, when the journey of their hard schooling would be complete.

"Last time I remember, Arévis had just stolen the treasure from Aithné, and then the two of you decided to ally and attack me. How about you guys? Is that how you remember it?" Terran asked brightly.

"Hmmm," Aithné offered, "No… I think that you had stolen the treasure, and Arévis and me allied, only you took me prisoner and Arévis decided she didn't need me anymore: that's when she stole back the treasure, and then we became allies." She finished with a satisfied smile.

"I agree with Aithné. I think your memory is getting a bit faulty, Captain Tear."

As if it were only a day before they were here, they mounted their ships with elaborate flags, and sharpened their wooden swords as they drifted along in a raging war.

"Give up the treasure, Tetra, or we will be forced to kill you!" Aithné said.

"Only in your dreams." Arévis made a sharp comeback and steered her raft away skillfully. Soon, Aithné thought, our ship will corner hers onto the far bank—her land for now—unless she… Arévis turned completely around, narrowing missing the side of the duo's larger and slower raft.

"The slippery maiden has thwarted us again. Have at you now! You're my first mate, Sierra, but I hope you'll be able to abandon ship if we have to!!!"

After a long day's play, and Arévis in possession of the treasure yet again, Aithné couldn't wait to enjoy the summer ahead of them. Finally, they would be free. She enjoyed the setting sun as they detoured through the leafy groves lining the river.

"Are you guys going to move far away once we graduate?" Asked Terran.

Arévis remained quiet, but Aithné wanted to make him feel better.

"Not far. I'm thinking of going nearer to the edge of the river peninsula. You know—it's fresher there. More trees."

There was a moment of silence as the three thought for a while.

"But there are more trees near the forests in the opposite direction." Terran persisted.

"Are you moving to the forest?" Arévis inquired.

"Well, I was thinking about it. I want to be a warrior, and there are a lot of opportunities of apprehending savages throughout Edaj. Plus, it's mysterious. Not everyone has discovered all the parts to that forest. It seems so exciting to live there."

"But it's dangerous! I mean, how are you supposed to live in peace?" Aithné interjected.

"She is quite right. But of course, savages do need to be kept under control, and there is a lot of terrorization in those parts. Unless you went far away… Maybe Larshmandor? It is a bit safer there, with their powerful hierarchy." Arévis said.

"Too far. I want to stay near home where my family is."

"But you'll be getting a guardian. Travel won't be difficult."

"How do we know? Only overachievers get those. Who knows if I'll score in the top five of my study group? No one. Transportation is hard even with one. There are Carniplumes everywhere. They're infesting the River Village."

"Yes, but most are inert. And the most dangerous ones live near the desert and the mountains."

Aithné protested, "Why can't you guys just stay here with me? Is a life of adventure really worth leaving your friends?"

"I won't be leaving you. I'll visit."

"But what if you get hurt?"

"I won't."

"Just go with him." Arévis suggested.

Aithné looked up at Terran, and then to Arévis. "Are you insane?" She barely breathed.

"Look, I know it's hard for you to understand, Aithné, but I can't live in this peaceful little town any longer. It's so easy; too easy, in fact. I need a challenge. Don't you?" Terran asked.

"No. I don't need a challenge. I'm quite happy living peacefully."

Arévis smiled.

"What's funny? Don't laugh at me."

"I'm not. I just think it's nice that you're content."

Aithné's mouth dropped. "You're leaving too, aren't you? Where?"

"Aridia."

"Even farther!!! I don't believe it. How can you two even think of leaving? We've gotten everything we've ever wanted here. Sure, it's not the richest village, but we have free education, beautiful scenery, a—a river! Family. Friends. That's what's important."

"We need adventure, Aithné. That's why we got an education. What are you going to do with your knowledge? Don't tell me you're going to become a healer, and stay here forever." Arévis said.

"I'm not." She spoke softly now. "Don't you realize how happy everyone is when they travel here? How kindness is everywhere, help is around the corner? Won't you miss it?"

"No." Terran and Arévis said at the same time.

Aithné tried to contemplate their reasoning. It didn't make sense that anyone would want to leave this. Not when there are horrible places out there, infested with wild outlandish ways, savages, and dangerous creatures; also there are power-hungry monarchs, cults, and other law-scorning dwellers of this earth they lived in. She decided that she would pray for her friends at the River Temple tomorrow. There time together would have to be cut short. This would be for their safety and good.

Though she had a wonderful time at the river, she needed to think a lot of things over. To her strange realization, it was only four days until graduation, and instead of thinking about her profession, guardian, or academic wonders, her deepest thoughts surfaced as she dreamily walked home.

"Did you have fun at the river?" Asked a short, stocky man preparing dinner. A gentle lamplight flooded the smaller, cozier hut.

"Oh, yes. Our first actual time to have fun in weeks! Wow. Tomorrow is our last official day of study at the academy, and then in two days we'll have tests to determine if we get the jobs we wanted."

"I'm glad." The man sighed. "What have you decided to be?"

"You'll have to see at the ceremony, won't you? Oh, are we having fish? It smells delicious." The man handed her a plate. "Thank you, father."

That night, Aithné's dreams were flooded with painful goodbyes, and her closest loved ones being destroyed forever. She could hear herself pleading in her dreams, "Please, Marissa… Spare them… please…"

Next morning, she got up two hours earlier than her usual waking time to sneak to the temple. She hastily slipped on her light dress, and brushed her long sheet of golden hair, before lacing up brown leather boots, and setting off down the town streets. The air was cool and still, unlike the busy bustle of midday. The pale light of sunrise peeked up beyond the [?] river, bathing everything in a soft pink glow, and letting a hint of warmth lull the quiet path. Weaving through the various shops and cobbled streets, she made her way to the center of the town.

Finally, after half an hour's journey, she beheld the mighty, white marble building that was the temple. The pride and joy of the town lay in Marissa, the Goddess of Water, one of the eight High Gods. Approaching the colossus with apprehension, Aithné heaved open the towering doors, and marched to the statue of Marissa herself. Though lifeless and gray, the powerful eyes of Marissa commanded attention and honor, and Aithné gave it without a second thought. The statue stood on a raised marble dais, surrounded by two pillars topped with large stone basins. She knelt at the stairway dais, and took a deep breath.

"Marissa, protector of the River Village, watcher of its citizens, keeper of water, and all things pure and good… I have a request. My family has always been small and humble, you have always provided for us. I know your great hand is often called upon, but I need your help. My friends… they are… leaving. I need you to watch over them. Make sure they don't get hurt. Please. This is all I've ever asked of you."

Water began to flow into the basins. A sudden chill overtook the chamber, and with a magnificent gleam of light, a voice spoke.

"Child, why do you ask this of me? How do they compare to the others I protect? They've nothing extraordinary about them."

"I—I can't stand it if I were to lose them."

"That is the order of things."

"Please. They're leaving."

"Yes. Leaving. I offer protection only to those in the River Village."

"Can you make them stay?"

"I can't make them do anything."

"Can't you bless them with something???"

Aithné felt the clear, sharp voice offer consolation.

"I will bless your friend. Terran. He will have a guardian."

"What about Arévis?"

"She doesn't need my help for that."

"Wait—that's all? What about—"

The water in the basins evaporated, the temperature returned to normal, and Marissa's presence was gone.

She couldn't complain. Most that asked for help from a High God as powerful as the one she had just summoned didn't get a reply at all. She was lucky to get a fragment of what was just bestowed upon Terran, and very grateful. This didn't, however, take away the horrible distress she felt about her closest friends leaving her forever. She knew she couldn't stop them. Both strong-willed and adventure bound, Aithné knew the most she could do was offer them support, and be happy about their inevitable departure.

Aithné left the temple quite uncomforted. She drudged back home, the usual bounce in her step gone. The pale light of dawn was now bright and yellow-orange, as she approached her tiny hut. She quietly opened the door and peered in. Just as she thought, her father was still sleeping under the protection of the dome, undisturbed and peaceful. Her gaze lingered a while as she thought of change. Deciding that it was about time her father got up, Aithné didn't hesitate in making plenty of noise while starting breakfast.

A little later, Aithné advanced toward the nearby academy, spotting Arévis talking lightly with Terran. For once they had arrived before her. The academy was a dignified stone building, not large, but spacious enough to fit the students of the River Village. Currently, due to the newfound warmth, the students were gathered at the outdoor classroom. Circular tables of the same gray stone were scattered here and there, accompanied by a pair of curving benches and surrounded by a barrier of spaced pillars. New green turf was their ground, and often the ground of special ceremonies of the learning facility. A small, raised stage stood at the front of the "classroom," unoccupied. She took a seat next to Terran on one of the benches, and readied herself with her study material as the speaker rose to the stage.

"Why do you look so worn out?" Arévis asked.

"Oh, me? I didn't sleep well. Don't worry about it." Aithné lied.

"The speakers from yesterday are coming back! They plan on laying out their jobs again. Lucky for Arévis here, since yesterday she was being a hermit and studying at home." Terran said, followed with a mischievous glare from Arévis.

"I don't see why it would matter. I've decided my job choices, and am confident about the test tomorrow." Arévis said.

"Wow. Tomorrow already?" Aithné mused.

"Are you worried? There's no point if you have everything figured out, right?" Terran asked a little tentatively.

"Of course I do, I am just amazed at how everything is coming to an end."

"Yes. It is surprising." Terran smiled at her reassuringly.

She thought, yes, I could use a little reassurance now.

A small woman climbed onto the stage, obviously an advisor, and began to speak.

"Hello, students of the River Village Academy. As you know, today will be similar to yesterday, and you all should be finishing up your final studies. Please submit your career decisions tomorrow so we can test you. The graduation ceremony will take place in three days. For today, however, we will be observing some more interesting people with different career fields. Enjoy, and I hope that they will encourage whatever you wish to be. Remember to turn in all books as soon as you are done studying for the tests. I hope you all achieve your goals this year, and those graduating, good luck in the world."

The students looked up at the brilliant blue sky, delicately clouded and surreally bright—something—or things, were descending… They were large, winged things, carrying humans. Could it really be? Arévis and Terran looked as awed as she imagined her expression, but they seemed less surprised. These people didn't come yesterday! And were the mysterious carriers what she thought they were… Guardians? Never before had she beheld one. They were saved for the most privileged of graduates. Her hungry eyes couldn't stop staring as each unique beast landed gracefully around the barrier of pillars, and waited their turn to present at their humble stage. Aithné finally found her voice to speak, though she couldn't hold back her excitement.

"These people weren't here yesterday." Her timid voice whispered.

"Oh, those, no…" Terran volunteered. "These are different ones. They'll still have interesting advice and backgrounds, though. You can ask as many questions as you want, Arévis. It's really quite inspiring to see how their lives have gone—and how they are so different from us. Maybe, Aithné…" He added a little guiltily, "you might find a different place you might want to live, you know… if you get… well, bored—not bored, I mean, just…" He gave as sigh. "If you ever want a change." He finished resolutely.

"I don not know." Aithné answered a little absentmindedly, not focused enough to talk about this matter.

There appeared to be six visitors total. The advisor gave a flourish as she introduced the first foreigner. A husky man with a rough face and straggled dark hair came forward. He looked in his prime years of age. He wore a basic white tunic, but he was encased in a shell of brown leather, heavy and sturdy. His upper arms and thighs were bare. Aithné could see a sword hilted at his side, and a round shield on his back. It wasn't hard to guess his profession. Following him was a grand dragon; this is what attracted most of the students' gazes. It was extremely sinewy and compact, with rough brown scales, and tattered, leathery wings folded neatly behind it. Its eyes were blazing with power, and its terrible claws scraped at the neat turf as it approached the stage. The reptile stood a head higher than its master, its neck stretched out level with the streamlined spine, tipping at a spiked tail. She noticed that all of the guardians seemed to mimic their master's personality and basic appearance. There was something about the similarity in their eyes that told her this; any person could wear brown leather to match this creature, but even its movements showed likeness. Breaking her dazed admiration, the advisor spoke after what seemed like half a day.

"This is Brek. He is a warrior and Law Enforcer for the kingdom of Larshmandor—I hope you all remember where that is, from geography studies—he and the rest of these people will be sharing their professions, as you know (if you were here yesterday)."

The warrior gave a slight nod, and with his piercing glare, began to brief them on his life.

"I grew up a citizen of Larshmandor, of course, and was interested immediately in the profession of warrior. My ambition, really, was serving my land, under king Garak—his rule brings peace to us all. I always studied, as I'm sure all of you do, and focused all my energies on becoming the best. My class was a bit larger than this one," he peered around the classroom, "and so I had to work even harder to achieve the top five status. Once I had a hold of my dream, I graduated in the top five, acquired my guardian, Gev," he gave the creature a pat, "and was immediately transferred to serve in the king's army. After a few years of devotion, and sincere service, I was promoted to Law Enforcer of the kingdom. I now work on private orders of the king. You could think of me as part of Garak's elite service."

He continued to speak about his job, as Aithné dipped into thoughts of her own. She suspected Terran wanted to be a warrior. He would probably work independently—she couldn't see him serving in an army. Arévis showed a small interest, as she did often train in this field with a group of others on the days she did spend at the Academy. But then, so did she (though not as often), so it could just be for a broader range of knowledge. She had to look up because Brek was now demonstrating the power of his mighty dragon.

With one vast sweep, the creature heaved itself into the air with immense force, and circled the Academy clearing area. He then plummeted back down in a death-defying dive, and smashed, headfirst, right into a boulder about twenty feet away. The quake that shook the earth vibrated her very being, as the boulder was left in crumbled ruins. He then destroyed a nearby tree with his sturdy tail. Strength was the gift of this dragon.

Next, a logician was introduced. He looked younger than Brek, and was taller and thinner. He had light brown hair, and green eyes. There was an indistinct resemblance to Terran. The advisor introduced him as being a citizen of Edaj Forest. He wore very fine clothing, mostly green and white. It was the softest she had ever seen, laced up at the neck of his tunic, and the forearms and shins. He wore light suede boots, also laced. This man was in great contrast to the other, mild and with a look of curiosity and intelligence. On his shoulder was the most beautiful feathered bird she had ever seen. It was also light brown, and was very alert. Its head kept twitching from one position to the next. It had inquisitive green eyes, and its great talons were gripping contentedly at its master's flesh resting place. Aithné vaguely wondered why it was so small for a guardian (though it was rather extraordinary for a bird). The man's name was Adan, and his bird was Zaph.

"My true joy in life was studying, so I decided to take up the position of logician. This is a broad category, as there are many different studies to uphold. I chose to study the vicious nature of the carniplume."

The crowd looked a little taken aback. A student asked, "Why would you want to study that?"

"Simply for the fact that their poison and harmful natures are threatening our lives everywhere. Not just the Forest where they are very active—but even here, in the River Village. I have been studying antidotes and ways to avoid contact, and eventually extinct these dangerous creatures. They have become a cause for concern within the past 17 years. This should be stopped before it becomes an even greater problem."

"Do you think you'll be able to help those that are dying from their poison?" A small, shabby girl asked. Aithné thought she looked a little anxious. Perhaps someone she knew was suffering from the carniplumes' venom.

The man shifted his weight. "I don't know if I'm that close. I'll need the help of healers if I am to develop some sort of cure. I am, however, studying their behavior, and can give you some useful tips about them."

About ten minutes later, after Adan's presentation, his bird followed suit and began a demonstration. The man muttered, "Convert," and the winged creature immediately grew nearly as large as the dragon! The class members gasped. Aithné even jumped when it zoomed past all of them in the blink of an eye. It completed two circuits of the clearing before returning to its original size and perch. The whole spectacle was over before she had even known what happened. Zaph specialized in speed.

The next guest was about to be presented, but a tall, dark-haired boy signaled that he had a question. She recognized him as Evan.

"Yes?"

"I was wondering—is that bird the only one that can change sizes?"

"No." She refocused her gaze at the class and spoke louder. "That's an interesting trait all guardians have. I failed to mention this earlier—I apologize. If you like, I can give you a brief overview of the guardians?"

The group seemed to be in mutual agreement.

"Well, a guardian is sent down to earth from a god, of course, in order to help the master with his or her tasks. Only extremely privileged people receive them. They all have three forms to suit the master's transportation needs: normal, converted, and reverted. The most common type of guardian is a bird, but females may have mammals, and males may have dragons—rarely does that order change. There are different advantages for each, and if Brek or Adan would like to demonstrate before we hear about the others, that would be most appreciated."

Both obliged as Gev, the great dragon, reverted into a sixth-height mockery. It was quite a hilarious sight to watch the once powerful and large dragon crawl around as an oversized lizard with wings. He reverted once more, and a tiny Gev lay curled in the palm of Brek. It was… cute. Its coloring faded to pastel, all its hard angles were softened and ill developed. The wings were papery and weak, almost as if it had just been born. Its timid brown eyes were staring innocently at the crowd—perhaps a little ashamed? Once converted to his largest form, Aithné could have sworn the creature gave his master a look of deep embarrassment.

Next, Zaph reverted once and flitted around as a sparrow-sized chick. This display wasn't as amusing, but the bird did make a shrill squeak instead of its dignified coo, and seemed to have trouble flying as quickly with its shortened wings. This couldn't be fun for the guardians, but she could see how it would be easier to pocket a pet than walk with a hulking creature, especially if trying to be inconspicuous.

The next graduate stepped forward, and Arévis's face lit up with dazzled interest. Terran couldn't stop staring at this amazing spectacle, his jaw dropped a bit. This time, there was a fiery red-haired woman gazing hypnotically at the crowd. Her eyes were hidden with dark lashes and an apparent black line had been applied on the lines above and below her lids. She was exotic and gorgeous, clad in gold, white and red. Her flowing skirt came just above the knees, frayed at the end, and made of a sheer, light material. A crimson linen shirt rose extremely high, and exposed her tanned belly and shoulders. She was wearing a heavy amount of jewelry, all gold. She wore a necklace, belt, wrist cuffs, rings, and her sandals even appeared to be pure gold, cross lacing to her knees. Her long, bright coils of hair draped extravagantly, completing this glittering display.

Before the school could catch its breath, she spoke, "My name is Jasalin, and I am a healer."

Aithné couldn't recall anything more contradictory. She looked more like she was going to kill someone, or enchant them.

"She's Aridian." Arévis said.

"How do you know?" Terran muttered, too mesmerized to speak clearly.

"I can tell. The way she dresses, the hair and eyes… everything. A real Aridian." Arévis mused.

"Well, I don't really see how she's special from the rest of the healers. I'm sure that they could have gotten a more experienced—maybe older—" But the others weren't listening.

"I have been called in by the royal families to heal their sick, and have studied all 37 years of my life to perfect my technique." The Aridian continued. She looked 22 at the oldest. "I can cure any shallow cut, enhance recovery rates, and offer herbs and many remedies I have invented myself. I've studied the oldest tomes of healing, and made sure I had the broadest horizon of knowledge possible before I put others' lives in my hands. I grew up in Aridia, of course, where the overwhelming heat invites fever, heat sickness, and dehydration. After my sister died from a plague carried by a foreigner, I knew I had to intervene in our human illness—no, weakness. A healer's profession was undeniably meant for me. I have found a variety of desert plants useful to my cause, as well. I will be staying at the River Inn for three days if any of you require my services." The shabby girl looked interested.

Aithné wondered if anyone really heard what she said, or if they were just watching her bright, painted lips move. She found it peculiar that she had no guardian. If she was as gifted as she claimed, there was no way she wouldn't have one. And why would the advisor allow her to present if she had no guardian with her? But a small pouch at Jasalin's side revealed the hiding spot of her reverted—bird?

"Convert." She whispered.

Suddenly, a glorious maroon bird blossomed from the frail feathered ball. It had a long neck, and an even longer plumed tail, becoming darker at the tips. Its beak and talons appeared to be golden, and its eyes glowed with a piercing crimson fire. It gave out a penetrating and melodious cry as it blasted a flame into the air from its whole body. No part of the bird seemed burnt, however, and yet it was emanating a heated glow. Its movements were graceful and elegant as it swirled into the clouds, dive-bombing back down in a spear of fire, now ten times its usual size. Dramatically, Jasalin mounted the fully converted phoenix, and soared around a bit more before returning to the ground.

"This is Ditri. She has served me well these past two decades." The magnificent bird obviously preferred its small, resting form, and so reverted back into the woman's pouch. Maybe the amount of energy needed to perform its fiery feat wore the phoenix out.

As the Aridian stepped away to the opposite side of the "room," the announcer came forward again to introduce the next person.

He was an islander, clearly, and turned out to be a translator. His appearance was typical: Deep red skin, black, thick hair. He had a wide nose, and he was almost comically short. If not for his deadpan rugged face, he would have looked like a child. He wore a very colorful and decorative cloak, but Aithné was confused as to why he would drape on such clothing when it was almost summer? She then realized that island's climates were far warmer than that of a small river village on a delta. She also noticed a large amount of heavy tattoos—likely in his town's language.

The thought of another language was so odd to Aithné; Most of the world had converted to Larshmandorian long ago, and only remnants of accents remained. However, she was not disappointed to find, his accent was thick and interesting.

When he was finished with his background, he demonstrated old Aridian, and even some of the seemingly lost language of [?].

His guardian's oddness was twofold. The reverted creature grew to its full height (slightly taller than Junero—as his name turned out to be), and displayed a fat, stubby bird that could just barely carry his weight. It was mainly black, but it had feathers of blue, green, and orange in the wings and tail, and a very strange head. Its beak was orange and thick, contrasting to the phoenix and the sparrow. Its neck was also a bit long, but not anywhere near graceful. The feet were sturdy, perhaps, but otherwise, the bird seemed quite useless. Aithné wondered how it could carry its master—let alone fly. It was an awfully gaudy and clumsy looking thing…

"This is Tod. He is my prized guardian. He may seem a bit strange to you," Junero said in his strong accent, "But he is the most special friend anyone could ask for. His gift is happiness."

Aithné tried to think with more depth, but she could see no benefit in a bird that was blissfully happy.

Tod honked gleefully and dimly at the crowd—sending Evan into spirals of laughter. Aithné herself couldn't suppress a snigger. Arévis and Terran were smiling as well at its completely goofy impression. She thought that maybe happiness and entertainment weren't such a bad thing. Was she being selfish for wanting a guardian with power? She heard that some guardians had more than one power… Junero certainly got the raw end of the deal. But maybe the gods knew what he needed? Maybe he just needed a friend?

At last there were only two visitors left. They were hidden behind the stage, though, and she couldn't get a glimpse at the last one as a majestic blonde woman stepped out. She was from the river village, judging by her fair complexion and height.

Aithné always wondered why she was short with brown eyes and golden skin. Arévis fit in indefinitely: platinum hair, blue eyes, height and elegance. Aithné had her own grace, but she still felt she didn't belong here, somehow. She was afraid to leave, because she desperately wanted to accept this as her home. Terran looked Edajian, and her father looked Larshmandorian. Perhaps more people had migrated here than she thought. Was it human nature to want change?

"I am Queen Theophelia, and I live here." Her musical voice said. She wore a flowing white gown, and looked nothing short of royal.

Aithné didn't see how this was conducive to the academy. You had to be in a bloodline to rule a kingdom. Leadership wasn't usually something you study for—unless it was social climbing, but no one could really get far doing so. Maybe they could achieve a lordship somewhere?

"I have ruled the River Village for seven years now, and I am 21 years old. I am not here to explain to you the glamour or fun of living in a palace, or making important territorial decisions. I am, however, here to help you with your leadership skills and world professions. So, yes, I am going to lecture to you." She smiled.

Terran gave a bored look, and Arévis remained expressionless as usual.

Theophelia told them how to search out what they really wanted to pursue in their life. She spoke on how to travel and stay safe in the world, and she even told them about dealing with relationships. She warned about the wild dangers, and the fine line between magic and logic. As the end neared, which seemed interminable, she concluded with an encouraging word.

So this is why she came—to give them an important speech on how to live. She thought it was a bit feeble to try and gain admiration or something for this public display. Being a monarch is not really a job at all: it is a way of life.

After her ice swan displayed its cool breeze enough to ruin their hot day, the kids were not at all unhappy to see her go.

Terran stopped his false snoring and feigned drowsiness.

"It's over? Wow… Have I been asleep for—how long have I been asleep? A day or two maybe? It got a bit chilly there in the middle of my hibernation, but, hey—I learned a lot"—he yawned.

Aithné tried not to laugh out of respect for her elders, and her queen, but she couldn't contain herself. The speech was of mild importance, so she pretended to be entertained, inspired, or enlightened—whichever the queen felt she accomplished.

As she stepped off the stage, a very handsome man with shoulder-length waving black hair, and the darkest eyes she'd ever seen captured the stage immediately. He was tall and stately, with a look of fierce decisiveness. He had high cheek bones, an angular jaw, and was clad entirely in black. He was wearing a simple tunic, with wrapped shins and forearms, and with black gloves that cut off at the fingers. His cloak swept around his neck, hooded in the back, and to Aithné, it seemed like more of a cape. He held a straight, ebony staff with a rather large blood red stone atop it, glimmering in the summery sun.

"Good afternoon, students." His voice was silvery and commanding, and surprisingly direct. All the other professionals thus far had been somewhat relaxed and content, but he didn't seem to let his guard down for a moment. His black dragon moved with the same grace and ease as his master, and was extremely different from Gev, despite their reptilian qualities. His red eyes seemed intelligent and piercing, and at the top of his skull were two thin, backwards-curving horns. Instead of large scales, the skin was more like a snake's. Neither was the dragon spiked, making it seem a lot lighter, and more agile. Its wings were more compact, ideal for speed. Somehow, Aithné didn't think this was the dragon's gift, despite all its features pointed this way.

"Some of you might already know by my appearance, but I am from Valeria. My studies are independent, but I serve the king, Zebulun, as his right-hand mage. I am considered one of the highest sorcerers in Valeria, even at the age of 23." He paused for a moment and looked at the crowd. She could be mistaken, but Aithné thought his gaze lingered at her table.

Aithné decided to draw his attention to see if she wasn't imagining things. "Sir, what type of magic do you specialize in?"

"Excellent question." He smiled. "Black."

A few of the crowd members looked shocked or concerned.

"I assure you, I use my power for the welfare of the kingdom, not for my own benefit." She wondered who was convinced.

"This field interested me in my early teenage years. The anatomy of the human body intrigued me—its strength, its movement, how it works inside. I studied mainly as a logician, but the profession of Black Magic showed me how to take my interest deeper. I could control things, summon things, and bend the dead to my will." The seriousness in his face was replaced with a friendlier look, noticing the crowd's appall.

"Of course, I do use my necromancy to create guards for the king. They don't last long, but I can enhance them with red magic of their own. They are ideal for menial jobs, or ones that are too dangerous for the king's high soldiers.

"Many of my studies have led to interesting finds in this field, and so if any of you choose sorcery, know that there is always room to expand."

The dark-haired boy in the classroom stated in a demanding tone, "You haven't told us your name yet."

Aithné thought his condescension might anger the sorcerer, but he merely looked amused. She thought the boy looked a bit outlandish. His features were a bit milder, and so he must have been only part Valerian. She did seem to remember him in class being a disturber of the peace.

"My name is Nevic. And this is Zed. My apologies for forgetting to introduce myself." He replied. "The power of my dragon is intelligence. Though this can have many different affects, his mainly deal with telepathy. He also has some fire capabilities."

Without another word, the dragon blasted a fireball into the air. This wasn't quite as impressive as the Aridian's phoenix, but it was substantial. A glance away, Arévis studied Nevic with a strange furrow on her brow. She clasped her hands to her head, and let out a soft cry.

"What is it?" Aithné asked. Nevic was staring at Arévis' strange interruption, his perfect face confused, but concerned.

"Are you alright?" he asked, his features calmed once more. "Did I hurt you?"

"Did you hurt her?" Terran asked, firing up.

"What did you do?" Aithné fumed.

"Don't… do that again." Arévis gasped.

"I'm sorry. Sometimes it can give you a headache." Nevic explained.

"Why would you demonstrate on one of us?" Terran yelled, with utter shock.

"It's safe. I would never damage her."

Aithné was holding Arévis to keep her from falling.

The announcer intervened at last. "I think the presentations are over now." She gave a curt look at Nevic and thanked them all for coming. "Now, if you please, prepare yourselves for tomorrow's tests and good luck to you all. I hope these people have inspired your lives."

The class began to dismiss themselves, and Aithné and Terran helped Arévis up. She seemed to be fine now, but she placed her hand on her forehead and swayed a bit.

"What did he do?" Aithné asked in a hushed but firm tone.

"He tried to get in my mind." Arévis shivered before continuing, "But he went… deep. To things I can't remember. Possibly when I was a baby? I don't know."

"He has no right." Terran said heatedly.

At that moment, Nevic came forward.

"I wanted to apologize. I didn't mean to go that far." Nevic's eyes looked sincere.

"What did you mean to do?" Arévis asked, glaring.

"I was going to pick a random memory. Display how telepathy works… nothing dangerous, I assure you."

"I thought you said your dragon has the gift of telepathy?" Terran asked with suspicion.

"Guardian and master share their gifts. If you are a sorcerer, it is likely your guardian will have the type of magic you do. Both can pick up gifts from each other." He turned to Arévis.

"I would like to make it up to you. I understand you are studying sorcery—if you want, you could come to lunch with me, and I can tell you things that will help you on your way."

"Did you find that out by reading my mind?" Arévis stabbed sarcastically.

"No." Nevic said seriously.

Terran kept scowling at him, obviously waiting for a moment that he could lash out lest he make one unsatisfactory comment, but Nevic stayed cool.

"She is not going." Aithné said, "Unless we come."

"Alright." Nevic looked pleased.

"You failed to gain my permission." Arévis said coldly.

His faint smile dropped, and he composed himself again.

"I see. Well, I am sorry, and I hope your test goes well. I'm sure you'll be quite a powerful sorceress." He bowed and mounted his converted dragon with a sweep of his cloak.

The group decided it was time to go as well, since a few other girls kept staring at Nevic as he left, giving pointed glares at Arévis for "making" him leave.

Arévis told them she'd prefer to study for tomorrow rather than play at the river again. Aithné and Terran were both highly disappointed, but eventually they decided it would be better to do the same.

Aithné watched Terran go west to his dome, and she and Arévis headed down their path home.

She thought that maybe she should be nervous, as her most defining test would be tomorrow, to show everything she had learned about for the past seven years. She slept well that night, and as she got ready and walked to the academy, her mind was as clear and happy as if she had been 10 again.

Reunited, the group began to approach the classroom. They were quite a bit early, but they always came to enjoy each other's company. Aithné could see the building now, and reminisced.

Somebody was walking toward them, though, even at this time of morning. It appeared to be Evan the Valerian.

He strode toward them, as if to make friendly conversation.

"Wow. What a show. Yesterday, that sorcerer really—what's the word? Inspired me. It's nice to have someone from my hometown. Someone who knows how to use power." He burst out.

He edged toward Arévis until he was hand's width away. "Feeling alright, Revi?" He said with a sardonic grin.

"Talk to her again, and I'll beat that smile off your face." Terran said quietly.

"Terran, my friend. I would never insult Arévis here; I was just making sure that she was all right, you know. This Nevic guy seems amusing. I hope he comes back soon. Arévis, did it feel good having your pretty head invaded by a Black Mage?" He laughed.

Terran tackled Evan and started rapidly punching him in the face.

"STOP!!! Terran, NO!" Aithné screamed.

Evan was stronger, with his Valerian blood; he kicked Terran off, his fist connecting with Terran's stomach, winding him. He kicked him several times on the ground and then pulled him up by the hair. He was no longer mocking them, but displaying hatred as he fiercely kneed Terran in the face. The blow nearly knocked him out, as he fell, hitting his head on a tree, and landing on his back.

"Now whose smile is gone?" Evan said lowly, looking, almost pleasurably, at the coughing Terran.

"Don't ever touch me or my kind again. Neither this village, nor any other will ever defeat Valeria. The Larshmandor king thinks he can take everything, but all of you wait. I just hope this Nevic guy destroys as many of you as possible before Valeria completely obliterates this pointless village. Living here depresses me."

"You are contemptible." Arévis spat. "I doubt that's even the remotest intention on his agenda."

Aithné was too shaken to say anything, watching blood poor out of Terran's nose, as he tried to sit up. She wanted to ask if he was okay, but the words wouldn't come out. Only a bruise on Evan's cheekbone, and a little cut on his eyebrow showed any signs of their fight. He smiled horribly at her and Arévis, giving a little bow, and then walked away.

"Terran!" Aithné rushed forward and lifted his form off the ground, so they were both sitting. She hugged him.

"Why did you do that?" Arévis said concernedly.

Terran managed to smirk between heavy breaths. "No one insults my friends."

"You knew he was stronger. When will you learn to stop being impulsive?" Arévis said gently.

"Next time just let him speak his mindless insults! We can always just walk away and ignore him." Aithné reasoned, as she and Arévis helped Terran to his feet.

His clothes were covered in dirt and grass stains, and his nose was bleeding profusely. He was having trouble keeping steady as they put his arms around their shoulders, and helped him walk.

"Hey! The inn… That's where that healer said she would be. Let's go!" Aithné suggested.

The girls agreed it was a good idea, the healing facility being farther into town. They walked, helping Terran, all the way to the River Village Inn.

"My head hurts," slurred Terran.

"Don't talk. You might have a concussion." Aithné said, watching his green eyes struggle to stay open. "And don't go to sleep."

"Right. That sounds simple enough." Terran said sarcastically. "We don't really have to see the healer. I'm fine. He just shoved a few teeth up my brain, that's all." He tried to remain humorous, but they could tell he could barely talk.


A/N: I am aware that the intro is rough and a bit juvenile, but it has yet to be subjected to heavy editing. Please hang in there! It becomes much better (at least, that's my hope).