Chapter One - Summoner's Birthright

"A summoner knows her own destiny when it is unfolding… she will follow the path her heart takes without question, and woe betide anyone in her way." - Summoner Alaine, "The Birthright of Summoners," 784 A.C. (After Cleansing)

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Arjah. The village of summoners. Located on the northeastern coast of the Upper Continent, it has been shrouded in mystery for nearly five hundred years. All who have attempted to seek out the village return to where they came from, their memories wiped clean of their entire journey. It is by this that the summoners have remained secret - and safe - for so long. But every so often, a summoner will come along, one who wants to leave the village for whatever reason… and it is at times like that that the greatest changes seem to come to the world.

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A breath, then another. Fresh air. Clean air. /Different/ air. Even now, still so close to her village of Arjah, Liliandry Eiblhlin could sense a change in the quality of air. The village was stagnant. This forest was… alive. Pulsating with verdant green life, the very soul of the world…

Maybe that was a little melodramatic. She smiled and brushed her long brown hair back, setting off once more down the path. How a path remained here she didn't know, because she'd never once seen anyone come to or leave the village. Yet here it was, and she was walking on it.

She used her long metal staff - a fare-thee-well gift from her parents - to help her over rough bits in the ground, where roots or stones snuck in between long blades of grass.

Free.

The feeling hadn't quite sunk in yet, that she was free of the village and free to wander the world to her heart's content. To realize that there indeed was a world outside, and that it was her desire - and her right - to see all that the world had to offer. That she was /free/.

According to the village's headman, if she continued walking along the path for about half a day, she would reach the end of the forest. At that point she would turn west and walk for another candlenotch or so until she hit upon the town of Kolee. Well, it had been nearly half a day and Lily was not seeing the end of the forest anytime soon. But she wasn't going back. Oh no. She'd walk until she hit the end of the world or found what she was looking for.

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*Wake up…*

*Wake up, Bastien…*

"Oy! Outta tha way, 'Bastien!"

Sebastien Ja'an groaned, one hand sliding up to clutch his aching head. Hangovers were a bad, bad thing… and collapsing on the floor of Kolee's least respectable tavern was even worse. The man who had woken him up kicked him, and Sebastien found himself almost reviewing the scant contents of his stomach. After that he hastened to get up so the man could do whatever it was he needed to do.

Sebastien stumbled out into the street and once again wondered why he'd felt the need to get drunk - again. That was what, the sixth or seventh night in a row? He felt like the revelers during the Kurinalia festival, who drank themselves into a stupor one night only to wake up and do it again the next day, for seven days.

But it was that or the dreams, and even after drinking all night the voice had managed to insinuate itself into his mind… that strange, softly compelling voice, whispering things to him at night, showing him images of a place he'd never seen before, a place with glassy white towers and a giant blue ball in the sky…

He shook his head to clear those thoughts and instantly regretted the motion, as pain shot through his skull. He clung to the sides of the buildings and made his way across two city blocks, to the Kurin's Well Inn. The innkeeper knew him, and was offering him a discounted room until he found work. The problem was that no one seemed to need a swordsman at the moment, and Sebastien really had no other skills that he could make a living from.

He nodded briefly to the innkeeper and made his way to his room, where he promptly collapsed on the bed… making way for the dreams to enter his mind.

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*****

White towers, capped in glassy white spires that twisted toward the sky. They were not adorned with any flags or insignia of any sort, and the only color in this place came from above, from a brilliant blue moon amidst a sea-green blanket of sky.

To the right was a pile of iridescent rocks, piled into a neat cairn that rose well over Sebastien's head. The sound of trickling water reached his ears, but there was no river in sight…

"Bastien… where are you? I can't find you…"

*****

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Lily gazed around the city of Kolee with wide eyes. The headman had described it as a town, which to her mind meant "small," but Kolee was anything but. She'd come in late the night before, wanting nothing more than to find an inn and sleep, and thus had not explored much.

Within a candlenotch she had located a weapon shop, full of fascinating items. She was contemplating a belt-purse decorated with embroidered flowers when a dark-haired, dark-eyed woman dressed in blue and black breezed into the shop and went immediately to the counter, where the shopkeeper was reading a book. Lily decided to watch, to see how these people interacted with each other.

"Heyla, I'm leaving town today, going to Novallar for a few weeks. Do you have those gauntlets I ordered?" the woman asked, running a hand through her windblown hair.

"Just finished 'em this morning, missy," the aging shopkeep told her, adjusting his spectacles and reaching beneath the counter to pull out a pair of beautifully-made leather gloves, inlaid with black opals amidst a heavy silver design. "They's lovely, but ye won't get much use of 'em."

The woman smiled, the expression making her look like a wolf. "Not a problem, my friend. They're not for me." From her belt she pulled out a small sack full of coins and set it down on the counter.

"Gods favor your day, missy," the man said, but the dark-clad lady had already left.

Lily stepped out of her hiding spot. "Wow…" she whispered.

"Eh?" the man blinked at her, readjusting his glasses. "Oh, didn't see ye there, young missy. What can I help ye with?"

"N-nothing… is that how all city people are?"

"Like what? Oh, ye mean busy… yeah, city folk are busy. But that one, she's a sharp one. Never sits still for a minute, I tell ye. She's one of 'em… oh, what-ye-call-'em… necromancers, that's it." He reopened his book and settled back into his chair to read.

Lily cleared her throat. "Neck-row-man-sers?"

He glanced up at her, looking somewhat impatient. "The followers of the dark god, Valan. They're all mad, the whole bloody lot of 'em. Ye stay away from them, young missy. Now, then, will ye be buying something, or can I get back to my reading?"

She blinked, surprised. "N-no, I'll be going now. I'm sorry to disturb you, sir."

"No problem, no problem…" But he was already absorbed in his book again, and didn't even notice as Lily slipped out of the store and back onto the street.

The next store she wandered into was a medicine shop. That was more up her alley; at home, she had been somewhat of a gardener, planting and preserving herbs and vegetables. She looked around, fascinated, at large bundles of green and brown herbs the likes of which she'd never seen before.

The keeper of this shop, a girl of about twenty, sidled over to her. "Can I help you with anything?" Her voice was low, pleasant and cultured, and she smiled helpfully at Lily.

"Oh… no, it's just all so lovely," she replied honestly, smiling back at the girl.

She giggled. "It is, isn't it? Are you a gardener?"

"A little," Lily admitted. "Mostly just herbs and vegetables."

"I like growing flowers, but unless they've got a medicinal purpose they're not that practical. But they're pretty." The girl looked for a moment at some of her plants, and then asked, "Are you a traveler, then?"

Lily shrugged. "I guess so. I mean, I haven't done much traveling yet, but that's what I'd like to do."

"Well, if you don't mind me suggesting, Novallar isn't that far from here - maybe four or five days' journey on foot, half that by horse - and they've got larger medicine shops there, if that's what you're interested in. I've got cousins there that run a shop of artifacts. Just tell them that Brielle sent you and they'll give you a discount." The girl paused, looking at Lily and the staff in her hand. "You might also want to see about hiring a bodyguard, if you can afford it. I've heard there's bandits on the road to Novallar, and the city itself can be a little rough at times. Not that I don't think you can handle it, but…"

/Novallar… that's where that necromancer was headed!/ "I'll do that, thank you! Have a lovely day!"

"And you as well!" the girl called, as Lily returned to the main street. A bodyguard… she hadn't wanted to spend her money on such a thing, but if what that girl said was true, then it might be necessary. But where to start looking for one?

She decided to return to the inn. Maybe the innkeeper could help.

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Sebastien woke several hours later and finally felt almost human. Someone had left a washbasin full of water just inside the door; he used that to clean his face and wet his hair, which was no doubt a frightful mess. Bathing would have to wait until that night, when the bathhouses wouldn't be so full of soldiers and day laborers. He took a moment to readjust his clothing before heading downstairs to the common room. It was virtually empty, save for two serving girls, the innkeeper, and a brown-haired girl who must have been a patron of the inn. She and the innkeeper were engrossed in conversation, although they both looked up when Sebastien entered the room.

"Oy, 'Bastien!" the man called, "I got work for ye!"

Dutifully - for he owed this man quite a bit for allowing him to stay at half-rate - he made his way over to their table and sat down. "What is it?"

"Sebastien Ja'an, this here be Liliandry, um…"

"Liliandry Eiblhlin," the girl filled in, nodding briskly to Sebastien. She wasn't bad looking, he supposed - long brown hair, blue eyes, an unmarked metal staff leaning on the table next to her. She was dressed completely deviant from the current fashions in Kolee, which suggested she was an outsider - a dark red-brown, short-sleeved coat over a rather revealing cream-colored top, and a knee-length forest green skirt with a pattern of embroidered pink flowers. Black boots came to mid-calf, and her hands were covered with brown leather gauntlets. "I'm looking for a swordsman to accompany me to Novallar."

The innkeeper smiled. "I'll leave you two to discuss it, then." He clapped Sebastien on the shoulder as he left.

"What do you want to go to Novallar for?" he asked, curious. There was a saying in Kolee and the other northern towns - that nothing came from Novallar except necromancers and scholars. She didn't look at all like the first (a notoriously mad bunch), and somehow she didn't strike him as the scholarly type… so then why?

"I-that is none of your concern, sir. All I want is for you to escort me there. I'll provide generous compensation for your trouble, of course."

"How generous?"

She named a sum that nearly made him choke. Was this girl made of money? The amount she had offered would feed a poor farming family for a year! She sat there serenely while he sputtered and tried to come up with something to say, finally settling on, "When were you planning to leave?"

"Tomorrow? Would that be satisfactory?" She tilted her head at him quizzically.

He shrugged awkwardly. "Whenever you like. I'm just the escort."

"Tomorrow, three notches past dawn." She rose, nodding again to him. "Half payment then and half when we reach Novallar."

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Lily was pleasantly surprised the next morning when she came down to the common room and saw Sebastien already there, shoveling a bowl of questionable-looking meal into his mouth. A longsword in a well-worn sheath rested against the table next to him, and unlike yesterday, he was wearing armor as well - armor that showed wear, but was also well-cared for.

She slid onto the bench opposite him and set down a small leather pouch full of coins. That seemed to be the way business was done in this city, if that necromancer in the weapon shop yesterday was any indication. "Half payment," she clarified, when he looked curiously at the pouch.

Sebastien nodded gravely and made it vanish into an unseen pocket. "So where're you from, kid?" he asked around another mouthful of food.

Lily tilted her head curiously at him. "Kid?"

"Eh, it's street-slang for child. Y'know, a young person. Not a goat. Kid."

She nodded hesitantly. "I'm from around here," she told him vaguely.

"Tell me something I'll believe. A blind man could tell that you've never seen a town bigger than two houses before."

"Now, I'll have you know-"

He shrugged, setting the spoon down in his empty bowl. "Not like it matters, anyway. Are you ready, kid?"

"My name's Lily," she muttered indignantly, following him out of the inn and into the brilliant Kolee sun.

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They had been on the Novallar Highroad for more than two candlenotches already. Lily followed neatly in Sebastien's footsteps, navigating the deeply-rutted road with her staff. The day was warm and humid, without a trace of wind, and her clothes were sticking to her uncomfortably.

Sebastien happened to glance back when she was flapping her skirts, trying to catch a hint of a breeze, and raised an eyebrow curiously. "Why don't you wear breeches, or leggings? That's what most lady adventurers do."

She looked at him as if he were crazy. What would her family think of such an unbecoming thing as a lady wearing trousers?! "I think /not/."

He chuckled. "Definitely a backwater girl. Are you ever going to say where you're from, instead of just dodging the question?"

"I told you, I'm from around Kolee."

"Did you live in the woods or something?"

Stepping delicately around a rock, Lily shrugged. "Sort of. It wasn't just me."

"Well, obviously. You lived with your family?"

"There were a lot of us. A whole village."

He stopped, startled. "I didn't think there were any villages for at least three days' journey from Kolee. No one's ever heard of any."

Lily remained silent, and eventually Sebastien had to hurry to catch up to her. The terrain had changed slightly, the short, tufty brown grass giving way to longer, jade-colored waves, interspersed with gold and violet flowers. For as far as Lily could see, the distance was made up entirely of rolling hills - no trees or other foliage at all.

They walked without talking for quite some time, until suddenly, without warning, something howled in the distance. Lily whipped around, hands on her staff. Where had it come from? Something could be lurking anywhere in that long grass… The thought made the hairs on the back of her neck stand on end.

Sebastien came up next to her, hands resting calmly on his sword-belt. "Easy, there. It's just wolves, or maybe wild dogs. We'll have to be careful tonight when we set up camp."

Lily nodded warily and lowered her staff, but she kept a tight grip on it. The eerie howling continued all afternoon, and seemed to follow them along the road.

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That night, two notches after sundown, Sebastien declared that it was time to make camp. Lily secretly was relieved; she wasn't used to traveling at such long stretches, and her legs were definitely reminding her of that fact, not to mention that she was starving. Breakfast seemed like it had been an eternity ago. They managed to find an area with several large boulders forming a near-circular shape. Sebastien politely ordered Lily to sit on one of the rocks while he cleared out the center of their camp and dug a large firepit. The fire he built within it seemed tiny by comparison, and when Lily asked why, he smiled grimly at her.

"Have you ever seen a grass fire? Especially in an area like this." He gestured around them, to the tall, seemingly-unending grass. "It catches aflame and burns hotter than anything you could imagine. And there's no escaping it. Thus, why we make a small fire in a large firepit."

Lily nodded soberly, imagining the kind of damage that such a fire could do. It would just keep growing and growing, with all the grass as fuel… she shuddered, and hoped she never saw the fury of a fire like that.

Once their campfire was burning sufficiently, Sebastien left to catch their dinner. While he was gone, Lily laid out their bedrolls on opposite sides of the firepit, then sat down on her own and faced the burning fire, eyes slipping shut as she slowly fell into a meditative trance.

Meditation was an important part of a summoner's training. Without the ability to relax one's mind and body, it was nearly impossible to contact the greater spirits. Summoners learned meditation almost even before they learned to walk. By now, it was second-nature to Lily.

Almost immediately, she felt the presence of her two summon-spirits in her mind - Trebuchet, the black-and-gray mix between a panther and a wolf, and Hoziras, a great black stone tower. She spent several minutes communing with each of them, and only came out of her trance when she sensed that Sebastien was returning.

He found her staring thoughtfully into the fire, fingers steepled in front of her mouth. "What's on your mind?" he asked, tossing down a pair of rabbits. They looked rather scrawny, but Lily was so hungry that she was certain they'd taste as delicious as a feast for a king. She watched with interest as he dressed them and built a makeshift spit out of branches stripped of their leaves. The smell of roasting meat made her mouth water, and Sebastien laughed as she watched the cooking rabbit constantly, impatient for it to be done.

The rabbit tasted as good as it smelled, and Lily polished off her half of it in a matter of minutes. "Is there any water?" she asked, and took the waterskin that Sebastien offered. He must have found a river or spring nearby, because it was fresh and bone-chillingly cold.

After supper, Sebastien lay back on his bedroll, hands behind his head, and gazed up at the stars. "What are you going to do in Novallar?" he asked finally.

Lily, who had been lost in her own thoughts, jumped slightly. "I…"

A piercing howl cut into whatever she had been about to say, and now even Sebastien looked concerned. "That sounded a little too close for comfort," he murmured, easing his longsword out of the sheath. Lily clutched her staff nearer to herself and looked around. There was another howl and a series of barks, all of which sounded as if they were mere feet away from where Lily and Sebastien were camped.

"Are those… ordinary wolves?" Lily whispered.

Sebastien shook his head, rising cautiously to his feet. "Stay here."

"I'm not just going to-" she started, hurrying to his side. Suddenly she was caught and held by a pair of glowing eyes in the dark, and she screamed as something huge and dark leaped toward her. Sharp teeth flashed; she couldn't move, those eyes held her paralyzed…

A sword slashed and slashed again, and the thud that followed was the sound of a giant animal hitting the ground, dead and bleeding profusely from various gashes. Sebastien pulled her away from it. "There's more of them out there. Did you notice how you couldn't move when it looked at you? Try not to catch their eyes. These aren't ordinary beasts."

Sure enough, Lily heard more of them moving out there. At least two or three more… could Sebastien handle them all if they attacked at once?

She saw the outlines of two, crouching just outside the light that their little fire provided. Their eyes were hypnotic; she had to force herself not to look. The two creatures leaped at the same time, hitting Sebastien and knocking him to the ground. His sword spun wildly out of his grip, striking a rock and falling into the grass. Lily screamed again, watching her bodyguard desperately wrestling with two animals that were probably each twice his weight.

She couldn't just watch him die. Making a split-second decision, she pointed her staff at the ground and shouted three short, harsh words that made the earth shake. That startled the creatures enough that they stopped their mindless attack, heads coming up in unison as they stared hungrily at Lily… and at what was appearing behind her.

Appearing from nowhere was a dark panther-like animal, whose shoulder came up to at least Lily's hip. The teeth were far too long for a panther, however, and the ears were pointed rather than tufted. The tail was wrong as well - instead of a sleek, thin whip, it was bushy and gray. Deadly claws tore into the ground, and the creature threw its head back and voiced a roar that was somehow part howl.

Then it attacked.

Sebastien had sense enough to get out of the way; a wise decision, because the thing that Lily had summoned tore into the wolves without mercy. It was over almost before it began. All of a sudden Lily realized that the growling had stopped and that there were four dead wolves lying on the ground, and her summon was gazing expectantly at her.

She smiled and walked fearlessly up to the creature, stroking its silky black ears, the soft, fine fur under its chin.

"Lily?! Get away from that thing!" Sebastien shouted from behind her.

She shook her head. "It's okay, it's a friend." To the panther, she said, "Thank you, Trebuchet."

The cat-wolf inclined its head regally and slowly faded from view, as the reason for which it was summoned was now gone. Lily stood still for another moment, then turned to face Sebastien, who was staring at her, slack-jawed.

"What… was that /thing/?" he finally stammered. "How did you…?"

"It's a long story," she sighed. "I would think that we should clean these up first." She touched one of the dead wolves with the toe of her boot. "Elsewise other nasty things might smell the blood and come here."

Sebastien swallowed, nodded, and rolled one of them over to look closer at the face. "I've never heard of anything like this. Have you?"

Lily winced away from the vicious-looking creature. "No. Never."

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They eventually decided to leave the wolves where they were, having no tools to bury them and not wanting to risk a larger fire to burn the bodies. Sebastien insisted that they stop briefly at the spring he'd found before to wash the blood off, to hopefully deter any other animals from catching the scent. The plan was to get as far away from that camp as possible; Sebastien declared that it would be at least two notches past midnight before they stopped again.

They walked side-by-side, Lily gathering her thoughts and trying to decide how to begin. She knew that Sebastien was waiting for an explanation, but oddly, he wasn't pressuring her now. Finally, she cleared her throat.

"I was born in the village of Arjah. It's about a day and a half north-by-east of Kolee. No one's ever found it because any outsiders that come there… have their memories wiped clean of the experience. You see, Arjah is a village of summoners."

"Summoners…?" Sebastien murmured. "I thought they were just a legend."

She smiled faintly. "Oh, no, we're very real. We just like to remain a secret."

"Then why did you leave?"

"I wanted to see the rest of the world. I always knew that there was a world outside of Arjah, and I wanted to see what it was like. Not everyone in the village feels that way, though. They're happy enough to stay their whole lives."

Sebastien ran a hand through his chin-length pale hair. "Man… no wonder you paid me so much to do this."

"I didn't think it wise to tell all of Kolee that I was a summoner. I hadn't planned on telling you, but…"

"You were just going to let me take you to Novallar and then disappear, right?"

Lily shrugged. "That was the plan, yes."

He stopped, making her turn to look at him. "Well, then, milady, there's only one thing to be done. I'll escort you to wherever you choose to go."

"Wh-what? Why?"

A wide grin lit Sebastien's face. "You think I'm going to give up the chance of a lifetime? Just think of how famous I'll be. 'The summoner's personal bodyguard.'"

"Sebastien…" Lily began. "You're not going to tell anyone are you?"

He sobered. "Do you really think you can keep powers like that a secret? I've read stories of what the summoners can do. It's not exactly something you can hide." When she just stared him, he nodded. "I won't tell anyone, but that doesn't mean that people won't find out."

She smiled and impulsively hugged him. "Thank you, Sebastien."

"Hey, hey, now-" he began, embarrassed. "None of that. Let's just keep going, okay?"

Lighter of heart and step, Lily laughed and skipped ahead. "Alright, my guardian! To Novallar!"