Chapter 4

What?!” I exclaimed.
“You are a Warrior!” the professor smiled pleasantly, “Congratulations, my dear!
Okay. Okay. Not okay. I had gone through a lot that night. I had willingly accepted that a race I had thought only belonged in stories actually existed. I had accepted that my fears were caused by a bunch of monsters who haunted people in their sleep.  I had accepted that my Gramma, my only family, had been taken by those monsters. I had gone on a wild crusade into the night, fought for my life, and done several supposedly impossible things, and hasn’t questioned any of it.
I was at the end of my believing rope.
“Listen. I’ve gone along with all of this pretty easily. But now, you’re expecting me to believe that I’m not what I’ve been for the past sixteen years, not what I’ve been raised to be, not what I always, with absolute certainly, believed I was, not human-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” Richard stepped in, “‘not human’?!”
“What Master Richard means to say,” Professor Darius cut in kindly, “is that Warriors are very much human; we’re just a bit…extra.
“There is an ancient legend about the origins of the Warriors,” he said, hurrying to one of the shelves and pulling a book off of it, making the others leaning against it fall. He skimmed through the pages until he found what he was looking for and held the volume out to me.
On one page was a vividly painted picture of a dark world, much like the one we lived in now, and people, brows furrowed in anxiety. On the right hand page, there was a picture of a nightmare lurking in the gloom. “Before the Great One invented light, all the races if the earth lived in fear, fear of the darkness and the unknown. He From this fear, nightmares were born.”
He flipped the page, revealing a picture of a hand setting what I assumed was the sun into the sky; its rays illuminated the people, arms raised, rejoicing. In the picture beside it, it was nighttime, and the nightmare towered over the people, who were freaking out again. “To solve this problem, the Great One created the sun and the moon, to chase away darkness and fear. But, unfortunately, the moon was not strong enough to keep away the ever-persistent nightmares, and they came back to terrorize humanity.”
The next pages showed the hand again, this time beckoning, and some of the people raising their hands; the page after that showed a small armed group running to clash with the nightmares. “So the Great One asked the humans to form an army and eliminate the nightmares. He promised them that he would look after them in battle, and promised that with His help, they would defeat every last nightmare, if they would all help. But, despite His assurances, only a small portion of men and women were willing to fight.
“The Great One was appalled and enraged that so many had disregarded His words. ‘Are there no more among you who are brave enough to face their enemy and fight? What need you fear? If I am with you, none will be able to even lay a finger upon your head!’ So he declared, ‘Since you are not willing to help eradicate your threat, it will not be eradicated! I will take this army of willing servants, and I will use them to drive the hordes away, and greatly reduce them in number. But since you would not destroy them, they will remain, to haunt you in your sleep and cause all manner of trouble for you and your generations.’
“So the brave few suited up for battle, mounted their steeds, and, with the power of the Great One, they killed so many nightmares, that their queen ordered them to run away and hide.” Darius flipped the page again. The next two pages depicted the hand from above, first showering some sort of fog over many people, then held over the small group of soldiers, who were kneeling with smiles on their faces.
“When the battle ended, the army celebrated a victory. The Great One separated the soldiers from those who did not volunteer, bestowing upon them different gifts and roles in life.
“For the civilians, He gave the gifts of blindness and the mundane life; always merciful, He spared them the knowledge of nightmares, making them unable to be seen or touched by them, and while they would experience far less honor in life, they would have peace and safety.
“The Warriors had a very different job: to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, to guard against and destroy nightmares and the fear the brought with them. For their bravery and submission, he gifted the Warriors with courage, physical ability, and wisdom to help them through the trials they would encounter. He also put sunlight into their blood, to give them strength against the depths of darkness, and put a Mark upon each of them, that they may be set apart from the other races of the earth, and that nightmares may know their enemy.” The professor snapped the book shut.
I bit my lip, processing the story. It was a creation story I’d never heard before, and parts of it seemed to be fabricated, intentionally or not, to justify the sense of supremacy Warriors seemed to have over civilians. I bet with the right education or training, civilians could do everything Warriors could except see nightmares. But there was truth to the story, as there was truth to the story I told the children around the bonfire.

Then something clicked in my head. “That Mark you mentioned…do Warriors today still have it?”

“Yes,” Gwen smiled, catching onto my line of thinking. “Every Warrior is born with the Mark. Inside the City, we usually try to wear clothes that display our Mark, but we cover it when we’re hunting; nightmares can see a Mark from a mile away.”
She pushed her cloak cloak aside and slid her right sleeve down revealing an X-shaped birthmark with pointed ends. I backed up, hitting the edge if the desk. No, I thought, impossible.
Hand shaking, I pulled own the sleeve of my dress and shirt to reveal what I had always thought was just a really odd birthmark.
It was a a pointed X, identical to Gwen’s in every way except one: around mine was a circle, the outer edge spiked evenly. Whenever I had asked Gramma about its distinct shape, she would get very quiet and serious and a little sad, and told me I must always cover it up. She said she would tell me why when I was older, but it had always wracked me with curiosity.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the Warriors around the room.
“What’s that thing around your Mark?” asked Richard tilting his head sideways to get a better look at it.
“Yes, that is a bit strange…” supplied Will, brow furrowed.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Professor Darius spoke hurriedly, “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes Warriors do have peculiar Marks. Sometimes, they foretell an unusual destiny for the bearer-but not always. I remember a girl when I was younger who had a big dot in the middle of hers. Now she owns a tailoring shop. Who knows?”
We all turned to look at the Professor. His demeanor had gone from calm, composed wisdom to giving frantic explanations in an instant. Strange.
“What I mean to say,” he said more slowly, “Is that Sensa is one of us, in every way. ”
“But…my Gramma…why didn’t she tell me? She must have known, because I had the Mark…” At least now I know why she wanted me to hide it. It would attract nightmares to our area like bugs to a faerie lantern.
“Oh, yes, your lost grandmother. We’ll send out a search party for her immediately. What was her name?”
“Ivene.”
The Professor’s smile froze. “Ivene? Ivene Gregory?” He rushed over to a bookcase and skimmed along the shelf until he found what he was looking for. He snatched up a tall and immensely thick book and thumbed through the pages until he slapped it down to stop the next page from turning. “Here,” he said, handing it to me, “That’s her, isn’t it?”
I stared at the picture on the page. It was a detailed drawing of four kids, a couple years older than me. On the left were two boys who looked very much alike; definently brothers, probably twins. One had the other in a headlock and was messing up the laughing boy’s hair. To the far right was another boy, his arm slung casually around the shoulders of the girl in the middle.
And the girl in the middle was…Gramma. She was younger, of course, and dressed in Warrior clothes, but still obviously my grandmother. She was holding a book, laughing at something the boy had just said. She looked at comfortable, at home…happy.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, that’s her. But I don’t understand. Gramma looks so happy here. If she enjoyed being a Warrior, why would she leave? Why would she keep this from me?”
The Professor grew solemn. “This is a picture of your grandmother’s team, her fighting partners, when they graduated from the Academy. Your Gramma was at the top of her class, you know. She and you’re grandfather-that’s the boy she’s speaking to in the picture, Gregory-were married and had a son, Petyr.
“When he was young, we had a change in government leaders. Every six years, the people who used to be in charge of making decisions for the community leave their positions, and the people of the City choose new ones. Well, unfortunately, the people who were chosen didn’t follow through with what they said they would when we chose them.
“The government was corrupt. They began collecting more money for themselves, charging fees on buying weapons and gear, making people pay a good deal to send their children to the Academy. Warriors were sent out on dangerous missions, and many of them did not come back alive. Gregory  was sent on one of these missions, and-Great One bless his soul-he died.
“Your grandmother was devastated. She decided to leave the City, declaring she would not live under the corruption of the people who had killed her husband . So she and Petyr packed up and left, and no one ever saw them again. Until you came along.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I was her teammate,” Darius pointed to the boy caught in a headlock.

“Oh.”

“Wait-what about your parents? I don’t recall seeing them in your home.” Will frowned.
“They’re dead,” I replied frankly. “My father died in a hunting accident before I was born, and my mother died giving birth to me.” The room fell silent, its occupants solemn.
“That is a very unfortunate thing indeed,” The Professor said. “I assume your mother was a civilian, from the village you grew up in?” I nodded. “Well, I suppose you take after her, then. I see very little of your grandparents in you.”
Just then, a young girl rushed into the into the room. She seemed short of breath, and her face was red, but her eyes gleamed with wild glee.
“Professor,” she said, “all the teams are back. The feast is starting.”
“Oh yes,” Darius said, taking the book from me and shoving back onto its shelf, “I’ve forgotten myself. I have to give a speech tonight. You three,” he turned to look at the Warriors who had brought me here, “would you look after Miss Sensa? Show her the ropes, at least until I can find a team for her?”
“We’d be happy to have Sensa on our team,” Will said. “Wouldn’t we?” he looked at his friends for confirmation.
Gwenolyn smiled. “Of course.”
Richard sized me up, then shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
“Well, that makes things a lot easier.” The Professpr rubbed his hands together. “These three will show you your way around, give you some extra training to make up for what you’ve been missing out on. I’m putting you in charge if that, Master Thomys,” he looked pointedly at Will, who nodded. “Master Willym here is at the top of his class. Excellent fighter, that one.” Will blushed a bit.
“As for Ivene, I will send a hunting party in search of her as soon as I dismiss the students. I assure you, Miss Sensa, you will find yourself very much at home here,” Professor Darius smiled at me. “Now come along, children, to the mess hall! Don’t want your food to get cold!”
As we made our way down to the “mess hall” I looked at Will in a new light. He had just volunteered to take hours out of his time to train a virtual stranger how to fight, and then cheerfully took me under the wing of his group.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” he replied pleasantly.
“Take me onto your team.”
Willym laughed. “Because I want you on our team.  You’ve never even left your village, most likely, and yet you insisted on galavanting off into the night and fighting monsters, without a second thought. And tackling a nightmare to save a girl you’d just met-that takes serious guts.You don’t have the skills yet, but you’ve got the spirit. I can already tell we’ll be friends.”
I looked at the trio of strangers who didn’t really seem like strangers anymore.
“Yes. I think we will.”
*        *         *        *         *        *      *
I don’t know what I was expecting from the “mess hall” but this was not it. It was a huge, spacious room, the sounds of laughter and chatter resonating throughout. The room was dotted with round wooden tables, and most of them were full, four or five students sitting at each. The students seemed to sit with their age group, children that couldn’t be older than seven or eight against the left wall, and young adults looking to be almost twenty sat on the far right. A long table sat on a slightly raised platform in the back, occupied by what I assumed were teachers. In front of the platform was an even longer table, devoid of people and chairs. Instead of being lit by bare house lanterns, as most rooms were, this one had dozens of large hand lanterns hanging from the ceiling on chains. The panes of glass in the lanterns were colored red and orange and purple and green, giving the room a cheerful and comfortable aura.
The Professor made his way to the staff table, where he took his seat in the center of the table. Richard led the way to an empty table towards the right, greeting people along the way. He winked at a blonde girl, but she just rolled her eyes.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Richard thinks he’s a lady-killer. But as you can see, the ladies are still very much alive.” That made Will laugh.
When we sat down, I got my first good look at what was on each table. Atop the plain wooden table was a bowl of fruit. Wait, fruit?! Fruit was something of a delicacy where I lived. You could get it from the faeries, but only for a high price. My stomach grumbled and it struck me that I still hadn’t eaten since early this morning. I grabbed a pear and dug in.
Next to the bowl was a bottle filled with something green. At each place setting was only a tall wineglass, made of dark wood and filled with the green stuff.
As I took my seat I noticed that a lot of people were looking at me strangely, whispering to their friends. Of course; they’d never seen me before in their lives. I ignored them.
“So…what is this?” I asked peering at the strange liquid in my glass.
“Not wine,” said Rich ruefully, his glass already half-drained. “Just a sort of juice. They-” he jerked his head towards the oldest students, “get wine. Not us; apparently it’s “unhealthy” to drink wine at our age.”
“Or, maybe they just want to avoid the tragedies that would occur should you get drunk.” supplied Gwen. I couldn’t hold back a tiny snigger.
“Attention, everyone!” I turned to see Professor Darius, who had stood up to address the room.
“Welcome, children, back from your hunt! I assume you all were successful?” This drew a surge of cheers from the tables around me. “Good, good. Now, on to other matters.
“Some of you may remember that, this night, exactly sixteen years ago, the sun set. The next morning, it did not rise. This eternal night has taken its toll on every race living on this earth. The orcs have no creatures to hunt, and rely on the mercy of their Forest Class for sustenance. The faeries, once free and playflul, must work long and hard to keep the moon in the sky and keep the food growing. The civilians must rely on the faeries completely, working only to make trinkets for them and hope not to starve.
“The only creatures who have benefitted from this endless night are the nightmares. They run rampant through the countryside; the world lives in fear! It has become harder for us to contain them. We must fight constantly to keep the creatures at bay. In a dark world, dark things prosper-but we are the light! We are the Soldiers of the Sun! We must do its work, even when the Great One keeps it from us! It is our duty to our Maker, to the peoples of this land, to ourselves, to continue to fight these monsters in the name of righteousness!”
I listened to his speech through an outsider’s lens. Having just experienced a different anniversary acknowledgement of the sun’s passing a few hours ago, it was interesting to see what it meant to someone else. For the civilians, it was a rare excuse to celebrate, full of desperate hope and prayerful pleading.
But for the Warriors, it was almost a cause for mourning. Another year gone by, another year where the world hasn’t worked as it should. Another year people starve and struggle. I could feel the burden they carried; it was as if they had to replace the sun itself. Where before their work had taken up only the scant hours of the night, it was now a twenty-four hour job. They felt responsible for the suffering of everyone around them. They were the Sun Soldiers-but without the sun, what did they stand for?
“Now then,” the Professor continued, a smile dawning on his face. “Tonight, while hunting, one of our teams found something much more valuable than just a horde: a Warrior, alone amongst civilians.” Whispers broke out all over the room. The people who had seen me looked our way; I swallowed and waved tentatively.
“Her grandmother-also one of our number-has been kidnapped by nightmares; it is urgent that we retrieve her before they do any harm. In the meantime, Miss Sensa will be staying here at the Academy; I expect you will embrace her with open arms?” The students nodded, many of the ones near us flashing warm smiles at me. The tension that I hadn’t even known had been building in my chest subsided considerably.
“And to our dear sister returned to us,” Professor Darius smiled straight at me, “welcome home.”

Author’s Note:

Hi, there, readers! I just wanted to clarify something.

In the latter half of Chapter 2, you may have noticed that I switched to a third person narrative: this is because i switched to Willym’s POV. I realize that I probably didn’t make that clear enough, and I will try to make it more obvious in the future.

Thanks for reading! I will try to have Chapter 4 up as soon as possible.

-Alex

Chapter 3

There is nothing quite like riding a wild horse. The wind whipping through your hair, the feel of hooves pounding beneath you…it is possibly the most glorious, exhilarating feeling in the world. 
  Of course, when I first got on the nightmare, it struggled; I still can’t believe I held on through all of its bucking. But then, when I righted myself on its back, something…clicked. Suddenly, the horse and I seemed to be like one creature, hearts beating in tandem and movements synchronized. I could tell the horse had adrenaline in its blood and let it gallop; it seemed to feel that I was uncomfortable and formed a saddle. 
   The rest of my evening-or was it morning?- was less enjoyable. Mostly, it was just confusing. The Warriors seemed like good enough people, especially that Willym. He was kind to me, understanding. Richard seemed to be that cocky type of boy who carried himself too confidently, the sort of boy that was used to making girls swoon with little more than a look. Gwenolyn was a bit more confusing. When she first walked in, I was unsure of whether she was a boy or girl. She carried herself like a boy, and acted like one, and I had never seen a girl with hair cut that short-girls in the village always grew their hair long in hopes that their beautiful locks would fetch a husband. On the other hand, the lines of her face spoke of femininity, as did her  not-so-generous curves. Girl I had finally decided. Judging by her name, I was probably right. 
  There was also the strange, box-like contraption, the carriage. The ride had been so full of fascinating notions. A school, place where you came and learned things, knowledge always at your disposal, more and more every day! And full of so many people, you had to have two names to distinguish yourself! I could hardly believe I was going to such a place right now…
  And then came the battle. It was completely unlike anything I had ever experienced, the strong, dark creatures lashing out at you, hooves kicking, knife swinging, the desperation of struggling to stay alive. Thank goodness instinct had taken over and told me how to handle my knife-which startled me by glowing the second I collided with the first nightmare-, where to stab the creatures to make them explode into black sand. Truth be told though…it wasn’t all that bad. The rush of battle had been kind of…fulfilling. I felt at home, holding that knife.
  I had so many questions. Why could I see nightmares? How come I could ride one when no Warrior ever could? And most importantly, Where was my Gramma?
  “We’re here!” Will called, snapping me out of my reverie. Since we needed to bring the nightmare horse as evidence for their professor, and the horse refused to be tied behind the carriage, I had to ride it to the Academy. To make sure I didn’t get lost, Will had unharnessed one of the horses from the carriage and was riding beside me, though he had to keep his distance from my wild steed.
  I looked around for the school, but I saw nothing but empty plains. “Where is it?” I called. 
 “In order to keep the Academy a secret from trespassers, the school if protected by a number of magical barriers. Some of them keep nightmares at bay, some ward off those with evil intentions, the list goes on and and on. Anyways, the school is enchanted to be invisible to any part who doesn’t know the password. Richard!” he turned to look at his friend as he opened the carriage door and poked his head out, “What’s this month’s password?”
  “Bhfianaise!” shouted Richard.
  The word echoed throughout the air. I felt a vibration coming from all around me, the air rippling like water. As the illusion peeled away, the most magnificent building I had ever seen came into being. 
  It was enormous, a castle at least the size of my entire village, with turrets and towers brushing the sky. Lights shone in dozens of windows, the dark outlines of people sometimes pacing in front of them. The outer walls were high and straight, an unclimbable barrier broken only by a huge drawbridge that spanned a moat. It was breathtaking. 
   “Wow,” I whispered. This was a school? Compared to this, I’d been “studying” in a clay box my entire life. I could only imagine what the inside looked like.  
  “Who goes there?” shouted a rough voice. I looked around for the source of the question, but no one else was around. Another magic trick?
  “A returning hunting party!” shouted Will, looking up at the wall. I followed his line of vision, and saw a line of people, spaced apart on top of the wall. Sentries, guarding the school. The wall must have some sort of place for them to walk about. The speaker was probably one of them. 
  “Which party?” asked the guard.
  “Willym Thomys, Richard Brent, Gwenolyn Laurya, and a civilian we encountered who must speak to Professor Darius!” yelled Will.
  “A civilian? Why on earth would a civilian need to speak with the professor? They can’t even see this place!”
  “I can!” I shouted. I was starting to understand how much of an anomaly I was. “I see the whole castle: the moat, the wall, the towers, the sentries on the watchtowers!”
  There was a period of silence. I saw one of the guards, most likely the speaker, confer with a couple others, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying. At last: “She can come in. Darius will decide what to do with her.”
  Will gave me a reassuring smile. “Professor Darius is an understanding man. He won’t turn you away.
  “Be sure to keep that nightmare from galloping off into the moat,” he said as he guided his horse onto the drawbridge, “You wouldn’t want to meet the stuff they keep in there.”
  I nudged the nightmare into a canter until I had caught up to Will. “What do they keep in the moat?” 
  “No one really knows,” he shrugged, “But the students tell stories all the time. Some people think they keep rabid mermaids, others say it’s a giant squid. I’ve even heard one story about a hydra-a many headed nightmare dragon-viscously jumping out of the moat and attacking some Warriors who got too close-but that’s probably just a story,” he added quickly at seeing the horror that just have been written on my face. “Most likely, it’s filled with kelpies-water horses created by the faeries. They drown their victims, but  once you know how, they’re easy to fight off; only Warriors know the secret trick.” He winked, a joking wink that wasn’t at all like one I would expect from someone like Rich. Will was so easygoing and friendly, I already felt like he was an old, trusted acquaintance. 
  “Just wait until you see The City,” he said. “If you thought the outside was impressive…” Willym trailed off as we passed under the arch of the City entrance.
  My jaw dropped. It was amazing. Tall stone building lined the twisting cobblestone paths that intersected everywhere; I realized that the place must have been enchanted from the outside so that these buildings weren’t visible. Some of the buildings looked like bigger, more permanent versions of the businesses i was accustomed to seeing: bakeries, coppers, blacksmiths, dairy stalls. Then there were places I had never seen the likes of, shops that sold shields, armor, and all manner of weaponry. I also saw places that sold art supplies, sheet music, instruments, books, paper, ink, maps, and many more things I didn’t recognize. There were grand buildings called libraries and museums, lovely music I had never heard pouring from “art halls” scattered scattered all over the beautiful City laid before me. 
  There were people everywhere, walking in and out of shops. Some went hurriedly, some took their time, some stopped and conversed with friends as they went about your business. The men and women all dressed alike, in dark trousers and sleeveless shirts. Many of them wearing the same leather over-clothing as my companions, and had weapons strapped to their hips and back as often as not. 
  At the center of it all, there was the castle I had seen from the outside. It was taller than I had thought, it’s highest tower spiraling into the night. 
 The whole City had such a lively feel, the sense that life was thriving around every corner. It was feeling you never got living in a tiny village on the plains, miles from any other human settlement. 
  “Welcome to the Soldier’s City,” said Willym.
  “Wow,” I breathed, “This place…it’s incredible! Do all Warriors live here?”
  “Well, sort of. This City is home to most of the Warriors in this part of the world, though some live on their own, making a double living in both Warrior and civilian societies. There are seven more Cities, seven more Academies, each home to the Warriors of a different part of the world.” Will looked at me again. “Shall we be going then?”
  “Hurry up, we haven’t got all night Will!” Gwen shouted out the carriage window. I jumped; I had forgotten they were there.
  “Well,” I recovered, “I suppose that’s our answer. Lead on!” 
 It took us barely fifteen minutes to reach the castle. The city people must have been used to horses and carriages in the streets, for they cleared out a path for us as we approached. I received a lot of strange glances from people. Could they tell my horse was a nightmare?
  At last, the castle loomed tall before us, bigger and grander up close.  The architechture was immaculate. Willym led me to a stable near what I supposed was the side entrance, where a couple of stable boys who were chatting around saw us and ran over to help with our horses and the carriage.
  “Oh, hello Willym!” said the boy who came to help him, “You’re back early; I thought the hunt was supposed to converge again at ten o’clock?”
  “Well, yes, but we had some complications.” Will dismounted and gestured at me. “The lady needs to speak to Professor Darius. Urgent business.
  The boy followed Will’s line of vision and jumped back about four feet. “Holy Great One, is that a nightmare?!”
  “Yes, that’s sort of what we need to talk to the Professor about…” Will rubbed his neck; it seemed to be a nervous habit of his. I just sat there awkwardly. 
 “Uh, John, this is Sensa, a civilian girl we found out in the villages.” Will continued. 
 “A civilian? Then why is she on top of a cursed nightmare?” John gaped at me and the horse. This whole ‘holy horses, the random commoner can do impossible things!’ business was getting old. 
  “Yeah, yeah, I can somehow not only see but ride a monster I didn’t even know existed until today,” I said as I dismounted, keeping a hold of my “reins”. “Can I please just speak with this Professor you keep talking about? I just want to find my Gramma.” 
  John looked surprised at first, as if he hasn’t known I could speak. He must have sensed the fatigue and annoyance in my voice, though, because he motioned a younger boy-probably no older than twelve- over. 
  “May I take your…horse…miss?” the boy asked, looking nervous. I nodded, but when I tried to hand him the reins, my nightmare reared up onto his hind legs and whinnied angrily. 
  “Whoa, boy!” I put my hands on the horse’s neck to steady him. The stable boy jumped back. I shrugged apologetically at him, then looked to Will.
  “Hmm,” he said, obviously deep in thought, then shrugged. “I guess the creature’s as wary of us as we are of it. Is there any way you can keep it with you when we go inside?”
  “I don’t know. Let me see.” I turned to stand in front of my nightmare and looked deep into his eyes, like I could see its soul. It must have understood what I was trying to ask, because a moment later, it morphed into a raven, perched heavily on my hand. 
  “That’ll work,” yawned Richard, who I could see had gotten out of the carriage along with Gwen. “Can we get going? I need my beauty sleep.” 
 “Ok,” Willym said as he opened a door set into the side of the building. It had a twin door to its right, only this one had the word “Headquarters” engraved into it instead of “Academy”.
  “What’s that door for?” I asked as I moved the raven to my shoulder.
  “Oh that?” Gwen replied. “You see, the castle serves a double purpose, as both a school to educate young Warriors and the headquarters of official Warrior activity.The doors are magic: go through that door and the building is the HQ, go through this one and it’s a school. Genius, really.”
  I had to agree. As I ducked through the “Academy” door, I was struck yet another magnificent sight. We were in a long hallway with a high, arched ceiling, faerie lanterns hanging at regular intervals. The walls were covered in tiny pieces if colored glass. As we walked down it, I saw that the glass pieces formed pictures, pictures of people at forges, beating the strange metal the Warriors used for weapons into swords and shields and helmets. The glass blacksmiths were accompanied by leatherworkers, glass makers, tailors, jewelers, and architects. 
  Will noticed me staring, and launched into another explanation.
  “The school has several different Halls, sections dedicated to a different aspect of Warrior life. Right now we’re in the Hall of Craftsmen. These are murals, depicting the craftsmen and women at work.”
  “They’re beautiful,” I said sincerely, “this whole place is.”
  Will smiled. “Thanks. The  whole City is the work of thousands of dedicated Warriors. It’s our pride and joy.”
  “Hate to break up your little friendly chit chat, but we’re at the Professor’s office now.” Richard drawled, leaning against the wall by the door. “Are we going to knock, or just stand here until our feet fall off?”
  “We’re going to knock, of course.” Will smiled, unfazed, and rapped the big brass knocker.
  Almost immediately, I heard a muffled “Come in!” from inside. 
 Will opened the door, and we filed into the office. The room had probably been spacious when it was built, before its current owner had crammed it so full of books and papers that it gave off a feeling of cluttered coziness instead. The walls were lined with bookcases, stuffed to bursting with scrolls and leather-bound tomes, the kind I had only heard about in Gramma’s stories. A desk sat near the far wall; above it hung a lance and spear. Sitting behind the desk with his feet propped up on it was a man, stirring his tea and reading book. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a mop of reddish brown hair, and a very casual look about him. 
 “What brings you three back so early?” the man said without looking up from his book. “Might it be the civilian you’ve brought with you?”
  What? With his nose buried so far into that book, there was no way he could have seen us. How did he know I was even here, much less that I was not a Warrior?
  The man looked up, revealing a pair of sharp but kind brown eyes. “Oh, don’t look alarmed dear, I heard an extra pair of footsteps. Much lighter than the others’ too, not made by the standard Warrior hunting boots; obviously civilian.”
  He stood, hand outstretched. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor Conrad Darius of the Warriors’ Academy. And you are?”
  “Sensa,” I shook his hand, “just Sensa.”
  “I say, that is one exquisite bird you have there,” the Professor remarked. 
  “Well, that’s sort of why I’m here, Professor. My bird…he’s sort of…” How was I supposed to explain this if I didn’t even understand it myself?
 “A nightmare.” Will finished for me. 
  The professor’s eyes widened. “Explain.”
“Today, while we were tracking our designated horde, I came across Miss Sensa here, whose grandmother had gone missing earlier that day. Amazingly, she was able to see the nightmare tracks I had been observing in her home. We put two and two together and realized that her Gramma had been kidnapped by the nightmares, and so she came with us on our hunt. When we found the horde, she ended up fighting with us-and did a fine job too, may I add. Unfortunately, we came across a second-class nightmare and-“
  “It knocked me to the ground, and would have eaten my face off, had it not been for Sensa,” Gwenolyn chimed in, her freckled face stony and unreadable. Odd, she didn’t seem the type to easily admit defeat. “She tackled it with her bare hands, knocked the beast clean off me. I didn’t see much of what happened next, but next thing I know, the nightmare’s galloping across the plains, with miss Sensa sitting atop it as if the creature’s a regular farm pony. Magnificent, it was.”
  All eyes turned to me, looking for answers that I didn’t have. “Hey, don’t look at me. I know as much as any of you. I saw that Gwenolyn was going to get hurt, and I just did what came naturally. Once I was on that nightmare, it was like something slid into place, and then we were galloping. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.” The raven on my shoulder squawked. No one said anything. 
  Just when the silence was starting to become uncomfortable, the professor spoke up. “Well, this is a very interesting situation.” Darius sat down again, fingers templed.”You say that everything you did was instinctive?” 
  I nodded. The professor closed his eyes, obviously deep in thought.
  “You said she fought beside you, Master Willym. Did her Lightweapon glow?” 
  “Yes,” a look of realization dawned on Will’s face. “Yes, it did. It glowed gold. Do you mean to say that-“
  “Yes, I do.” Darius opened his eyes and leaned forward onto his desk, this time looking intently at me. “Miss Sensa must be a Warrior.”

Author’s note:

I just want to apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes. Ususally I’m pretty good about those, but i write on my iPhone, and autocorrect can be a total pain in the rear.

Also, I need help with coming up with a title for this book. I really can’t think of anything. If anybody has an idea, please comment below.

Thanks! -Alex

Chapter 1

     I was woken by the sound of wind-chimes. The faeries. I had forgotten they were coming today.
     I threw on my leggings and shirt, silently cursing myself for not remembering about the trade. I bet Gramma had been awake for hours, preparing all the wooden trinkets we had made over the past year, all the clay beaded necklaces, string bracelets, and brightly colored fabrics, and here I had been, sleeping while she did all the work.
    Not that Gramma minded work much, I thought as I pulled on my shoes, simple and black as the rest of my modest clothing. Gramma had always been very hands-on, loving to roll up her sleeves and get things done. But still, I’d hate to leave her to do everything.
     I rushed into the next room of our little cabin, and sure enough, a big sack was sitting on the table, right next to a bowl of steaming carrot soup.
     “Good morning, Sensa,” smiled Gramma as she tucked the last pouch into the bag. My grandmother wasn’t really all that old, her back still straight and strong, her brown hair only beginning to be streaked with gray, but there was a kindly wisdom in her eyes that had gained her respect around our little village. “Sleep well?”
     “I’m so sorry,” I said around a mouthful of soup, “I completely forgot.”
     “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Gramma smiled as she picked up an orb from our counter and shook it. As she shook, it began to glow, growing brighter and stronger, though not as strongly as it should have been. The magic in it was fading.
     That was the trick of faerie magic: it always had to be renewed. The faeries made sure we would always be making things for them, always be in their debt. It was the entire reason why the trading today was so crucial.
      I shoveled the last of the soup into my mouth and slung the sack over my shoulder.
      “Don’t forget your dress, Sensa!” Gramma held out a light slip of fuchsia cloth.
      I groaned as I dropped the sack and threw the flowing material over my head and shoulders, belting it on with a thin cord. “You know I hate these things, Gramma. You can’t run in an overdress!”
      “I just want you to look your best, dear. After all, you never know if you’ll meet a handsome faerie lad, now do you?” Gramma winked as she pushed me out the door with the last of our faerie lanterns.
    “There you are, Sensa!” Katryna’s high voice called across the clearing in the center of the village as she stormed over, her pale face lit by the glow of her lantern . “What on earth took you do long?”
     “I slept in.” I muttered, tucking my messy black braid behind my ear as I shouldered the bag. “Aren’t you selling anything?”
     Katryna looked at my bag as if just realizing that it was trading day. “What? Oh, no, Felyx’s taking care of all that.” She gestured over to her house, where her brother, Felyx,  was indeed setting up their kitchen table in front of their house to display their goods on.
     “Aren’t you going to help him?” I asked.
     Katryna scoffed. “Why would I?” She tossed her impeccable blond curls over her shoulder. “Felyx can handle everything, and besides, I want to talk to the faeries.”
     She nodded toward the advancing caravan of traders, still rather a far way off, but close enough that their windchime-bearing carts could be heard clearly.
     “I wore my good dress today,” she continued, holding out the shimmering orange material, “I mean, faerie boys are supposed to be so gorgeous, I want to make sure I look my best…”
      Oh, Great One, I’m in for it, I thought. More of Katryna’s endless nonsense… I had known Katryna since childhood, and she was something like my only friend, though I had never understood her much more than I understood the other village girls. All they did was talk about boys and clothes and boys and hair and boys. It got old after a while.
     Something flickered in the corner of my vision, pulling me from my trail of thought. I looked over my shoulder, in the direction of the movement. Nothing. But…if I looked just right, I could almost make out a shape in the shadows behind my house, where dark sky was met with something darker.
     “Katryna…,” I shook her shoulder, still looking at the hut, “do you see that?”
     Katryna craned her neck, looking over my shoulder. “See what?”
     “That dark spot over there. Behind my house…”
     “News flash, Sensa,” she stopped searching for the shape and looked at me like I was the one who couldn’t see something right in front of her. “The whole world is a dark spot! No one our age has ever seen the light of day! The sun hasn’t risen since before we were born, or have you forgotten about the ceremony tonight?”
      “Of course not…,” I peeled my eyes away from the wall, “I just thought I saw something.”
      She was right about the dark. There had been no sunlight for sixteen years. Every year, on this day, everyone in the village gathered at what would have been sundown, to pray to the Great One, asking Him to send the Sunbringer. But Katryna was wrong about one thing. I had seen the sun, though I don’t remember it. The last day the sun shone was the day I was born.
     And of course, Katryna forgot about it. I can’t blame her, though. She has much more reason to look forward to the Sun Festival than my birthday. Tonight, the elders would all recount the ancient tales, there would be dancing and music, and and the very end, the whole village would gather for the prayer ceremony.
     “Sensa, did you hear anything I just said?” Katryna waved a hand in front of my face, snapping me out if my reverie.
    “What?” I asked politely.
     Katryna gave an exasperated sigh. “I was just talking about how in some other villages, I’ve heard that women wear overdresses all the time. Only their overdresses.”
     “What?! Wouldn’t that be a bit…immodest?” I asked, looking down at my own dress, the loose material cut off at the knees and upper arms, so thin and light that you could see my clothing underneath.
     Overdresses were really just decorative, a way for girls to be more appealing to the eye than they would in just their pants and shirts. Young girls and elderly women usually never even wore dresses, and some women never wore them, claiming they were useless and bothersome. I wouldn’t wear dresses myself, if it were not for Gramma’s insistence.
     “Of course not,” Katryna rolled her eyes, “they make them out of thicker material, so you can’t see through. They’re heavier too, so they won’t blow around as easily in the wind. As if there was any wind to worry about.”
     “Katryna, I don’t think-” I was cut off by the cry of a young boy.
     “The faeries are here!”
     All heads turned to the eastern edge of the clearing, where the procession of wagons, seemingly drawn by nothing, had stopped. The wind-chimes mounted on the fronts of the carts could barely be heard over the whispers that had broken out all over the village. There were no faeries in sight.
      “This is always my favorite part,” I whispered to Katryna, keeping my eyes on the carts.
     She nodded. “Me too.”
     In front of the lead cart, a shimmering light appeared. As it grew brighter, several more joined it, all of them coming to a cresendo bright enough that, for a moment, my lantern wasn’t necessary.
     Then that moment ended, the light fading until the faeries could be seen.
     The village children, who had rushed forward to get a look at the mystical strangers, stopped short, their gleeful cries hushed by the faeries’ cold, commanding beauty. They were all females, tall and slender, their wings still flashing sparks as they folded them behind their backs. The faeries were beautiful, with delicate features, long, pointed ears, skin even paler than that of us humans, who hadn’t seen the sun in sixteen years. Their hair, colored red and pink and blue and green, flowed down to their waists. They wore only overdresses made of some material I had never seen before, like a leaf that gleamed in the moonlight, much shorter than the one I was wearing and without sleeves at all.
     “Aww,” Katryna grumbled next to me, “they sent all girls again!” Though faerie men were rumored to be even more beautiful than their female counterparts no one had ever actually seen one.
     The first faerie, the one who had materialized first, stepped forward.    “Humans,” she began, her voice high-pitched but authoritative, “we have come to your village in observance of the annual trade that has been established with your people for the last fifteen years. Are you prepared to trade your goods for ours?”
     This was when Gramma-who had been established as the village ambassador since she first proposed that we trade with the faeries-would step forward and say that we were ready. That was how it has been every year since that rain had stopped coming and the plants had stopped growing, with no sunlight to evaporate the water and to feed the crops.
     But there was only silence.
     After a while of unexpected waiting, people started looking around, whispering. I could feel their stares on my back. Where was my Gramma?
     “Sensa…” Katryna pulled on my sleeve, voicing my thoughts, “isn’t your Gramma supposed to…?”
     “Yeah…” I looked back at our little cottage, where I had seen Gramma last. It was dark.
     I was about to go inside and look for my grandmother when a man, a village elder, stepped forward, apparently deciding that Gramma wasn’t going to show up.
    “We are prepared to trade,” he said in a loud but hoarse voice, “What have you brought to sell to us?”
    “We have brought the items that you cannot provide for yourselves,” the faerie woman replied, unfazed by the change in ambassador. “We bring lanterns, orbs lit by our magic. We bring food, our crops that grow by the light of the moon. We bring wood, harvested from trees that were grown likewise. And what do you have that we would want?”
    “We have the items that you cannot make yourselves,” the man called, “We have cloth, made of wool and colored with dyes. We have items carved from wood: dishes, barrels, and furniture. We have items forged of metal: weapons, pots, pans, plows, shovels, and more. We bring jewelry, bracelets and necklaces made of the finest string, clay, metals, and gems.”
   At the mention of jewelry, the faeries seemed to get excited. They formed a huddle, whispering in a language I didn’t recognize. After a moment, they must have reached an agreement, because the huddle disbanded, and the faeries went to get sacks from their magic carts.
     “Let the trading commence!” the lead faerie called, sending the villagers scrambling for their goods, myself included. Though I still had no clue where Gramma was, we couldn’t afford to miss this trade.
     “Have fun trading!” Katryna called as she walked away to where a small group of other girls were, whispering about who knows what.
     I ran up to the carts, where faeries were pairing off with humans to bargain. I flagged down a tall faerie with purple curls.
     “What do you have?” she asked, her voice thick with an odd accent.
     I opened my sack and pulled out a roll of yellow fabric. “I have…cloth. Made of the finest wool.” Okay, that may have been an exaggeration. But we did get the wool straight from our own two sheep; it was all Gramma and I had to work with, so lying didn’t bother me much. “It is much warmer than cotton or…the fabric you wear. Oh, and the wool is dyed…I have red, yellow, green, pink, and violet. I believe that starting price should be three bushels of wheat per roll of cloth.” The wool wasn’t worth nearly that much-aim high, hit low.
     The faerie scoffed. “Three bushels? No, little girl. I will give you one bushel for each roll.”
     I pretended to consider. “One bushel, and one lantern, and you have yourself a deal.”
     “I will give you one bushel of wheat per roll, and one lantern.”
     “A house lantern, not a hand lantern then.”
     “Agreed.”
     She bought all of the pink, yellow, and green cloth, claiming the red and purple “would clash terribly with my hair”. I ended up with sixteen bushels of wheat; not nearly enough to last the year.
     “Anything else?” The faerie girl peeked at my bag.
     “Yes,” I replied eagerly, hoping my excitement would spread to my skeptical customer, “I have jewelry. Bracelets and anklets and necklaces.”
     The girl perked up considerably at the mention of jewelry. “Let me see!”
     I let her look at the different trinkets, starting with the string anklets and saving the good, copper-beaded necklaces and bangles for last.
     As the sight of the metal jewelry, her eyes grew wide with a trance-like awe and greed. Shiny or sparkling objects always had this affect on the faeries, and they always fetched the highest prices.
     I snapped the bag shut as she began to reach for the jewelry. “Ah-ah-ah! Not before you pay,” I chided.
     The faerie made a low growling sound from the back of her throat, deeper than I would have thought and intimidating enough that I had to force myself to stand my ground. “Name your price, little girl,” she hissed, her eyes fixed greedily on my bag.
      “Two barrels of carrots or onions for each bracelet. Two barrels and a bushel of wheat for each necklace.”
      “That is outrageous!” she exclaimed.
      “That is my price. Take it or leave it.” I shook the bag temptingly.
      She took it, however reluctantly. When the faeries disappeared and the carts rolled magically back where they came from, I was left with twenty-three bushels of wheat, fourteen barrels of onions, nineteen barrels of carrots, and a bag full of faerie lanterns, some small and meant to be carried in one’s hand, and some large enough to be strung from the ceiling to light whole rooms. I also had the remaining rolls of wool and string and clay jewelery that hadn’t been sold. The faerie bought all the copper pieces.
      As I lugged the heavy supplies back to my home, my mind wandered again to Gramma. Where was she? Trading was arguably the most important event of the year, and Gramma was the one who had established it! She was the ambassador, the one who communicated with the faeries, a role she had always taken very seriously. Gramma never missed trading.
    When I had dragged the last barrel to the cellar, I set out to find her.
    “Gram-ma!” I called as I searched the house, “Where are you?”
     Not in her room. Not in mine. Nor in the village as far I could tell. It was unlike her to just disappear like this without telling me where she was going. I sighed and ran out into the village commons, brightly lit by new faerie lanterns. The lanterns were strung up with brightly colored ribbons, decorations for the festival. Some men were already building the big bonfire in the center of the village square.
     I weaved my way through groups of people until I reached a tall wooden building and knocked on the door.
     It was answered by a little man with wild hair and a short beard, a friendly smile on his face.
     “G’morning, miss Sensa. ‘Ow’re you?” he asked in that rough way of speaking that wasn’t too uncommon around here.
     “Quite fine, Gylligan, but I still can’t find my Gramma. Have you seen her anywhere?”
     “Ah’m afraid not, Sensa,” he deflated a little at the disappointment that must have been written all over my face. “Ah was wond’ring what was up when that little issue came up this mornin’.”
     “Well, in that case, I was wondering…” I glanced past him to the stables I knew were inside. “Could I borrow Jaya?” I blurted.
     “Borrow Jaya?” Gylligan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “That beauty’s me prize mare. Ah’ve been trainin’ ‘er all year for the races today; Ah wouldn’t want to wear ‘we down…Ah’m sorry Sensa, but your joyride will ‘ave to wait until tomorrow.”
     “I don’t want a joyride, Gylligan, not today. I need her to look for Gramma. She might have wandered into the Dead Forest. Please?” I implored.
     Gylligan stroked his beard, a sympathetic look on his face as he considered. At last he stemmed to reach a conclusion. “You can borrow ‘Enry. He’s not as fast as Jaya, but ‘e’ll do.” He opened the door wider, so I could come inside.
     I sighed with relief. “Thanks, Gylligan.” I walked into the stables, which smelled of hay and manure, a familiar combination that I had grown to like long ago.
     Gylligan led the way-though I knew my way around the stables well enough-past stalls with cows, goats, and, towards the end, horses.
     I love horses. When I was younger, Gramma insisted that I learn to ride, a hobby that I instantly became obsessed with. I could ride better than anyone else my age, boy or girl. Gramma also thought it was important for me to learn to read-a very rare trait amongst common people. I don’t know how she learned, but she taught me from a young age, with a trunk of books she had brought with her when she came with my mother-rest her soul-to this town. By now, I had read every scroll in the trunk at least three times. I loved books almost as much as I loved riding.
     We stopped at a stall towards the end if the building. Inside was a pretty bay, his coat a beautiful gray spotted canvas. I reached out and stroked his nuzzle, making the horse whinny softly.
     “‘Enry’s gettin’ on the older side ‘a things, but ‘e’ll do the job,” Gylligan said as he got a saddle out of an empty stall.
     A few minutes later, I was galloping towards the Dead Forest. A long time ago, it used to be a real forest, before the sun went away and the trees died. Now it was nothing more than a dark shape on an even darker horizon.
     “Whoa, boy,” I pulled the reins up gently, coming to a stop in front of the dark mass of trees towering over me. Henry whinnied nervously.
     “Graaaaaaammaaa!” I called, “Are you in there? Gramma?”
     Not a  sound came from the forest. Nothing but the whistling of the wind.
    “Come on, boy,” I nudged the horse with my foot, and he nervously cantered into the line of trees.
      I held up my lantern as I called out to my grandmother that might or might not have been hidden amongst the trees. My guiding beacon cast eerie shadows across the twisted limbs, creating the illusion of things hiding everywhere, watching me. I could feel fear rising in my chest. I shoved it down, urging my horse deeper into the forest, shouting louder.
     “Gramma! GRAMMA WHERE ARE Y-ah!” My horse had stopped abruptly rearing back on his hind legs. As he stamped his feet back to the ground, I searched the ground for a snake or something, any clue as to what had spooked him.
     But there was nothing. Nothing but the dirt ground and shadows.
     I looked around me. The trees, twisted unnaturally, their branches like long fingers reaching towards us. The shadows, looking like unholy ghouls, in every nook and cranny. This place was giving me the creeps.
     I couldn’t help it; the old legends started to tell themselves in my mind. Stories whispered around campfires, about how these woods were inhabited by trolls, huge, viscous monsters that would boil you for supper if they got the chance. About how orc tribes went hunting here, on the prowl for human blood and flesh and how they could lure you in with their-
     No. I clamped down on the memories and pushed the to the back of my mind. Don’t let fear get the best of you. You owe it to Gramma.
     “Come on Henry…” I urged my ride forward, but he refused to move.
     “What is it, boy?” I sighed, “what’s scaring you?”
      The horse just neighed nervously, cantering backwards a little.
      Now I was getting frustrated. “What could possibly be-“
      In the corner if my vision, something moved.
      I whipped my head around, peering into the darkness. Something was definitely there. A shadow, something a little bit darker than everything else, shifting slowly behind the trees. I leaned forward, trying to make out its shape.
     “Hello?” I called, “Who’s there? Is that you, Gramma?”
     No reply. But whatever if was was getting closer. It might have been my imagination, but the air seemed to be getting colder.
     “Who are you?” I called. Henry was getting really freaked out, I could tell, he kept whinnying and stepping backwards, obviously wanting to make a run for it.
     The stranger still said nothing, just kept walking towards us. This was definitely not my grandmother.
      I knew I should probably go now, snap the reins and tell Henry to move it, but I didn’t. I just had to know who was lurking around the Dead Forest, spooking my horse. As the figure approached, close enough now that I could almost make out their shape against the other shadows of the trees, a stark fear gripped my heart. I was suddenly frozen in place, unable to move even if I wanted to. There was a cold hand around my lungs, stopping my breath and chilling my bones.
     That was all my horse could take. Henry let out a terrified shriek and bolted back the way we came. I held on tight until we were out in the open again. By then, the deathly terror had subsided and my heartbeat slowed. Still, I let Henry gallop all the way back to the village, where I could finally breathe easy again.
     “Did you find your Gramma?” Gylligan asked as I returned Henry to his stable.
     I shook my head. Looking back on it, I don’t know why I went to the Forest at all. Gramma wasn’t senile; the likelihood of her wandering off wasn’t that great.
     But then where was she? If she wasn’t in the house, and not in the Forest, then where? The plains (which lay to the east of our village, just as the Dead Forest lay to the west)?
     I sighed and patted Henry’s nuzzle, as if to say Goodbye, sorry for scaring you out of your wits. “I’ve got to get going, or I’m going to miss the festival. But thanks anyway, for letting me borrow your horse,” I said as I started to leave, “And give that old boy some extra oats. He’s been through a lot.”
     Out in the village square, the festival was already in full swing. Travys-a  boy who lived a couple houses away from me-was strumming a lyre as his father played the flute, setting a tune for the group of dancing children near the well. The children were accompanied by a bunch of pre-teen boys, trying to get girls to dance with them. Unfortunately, those girls were too busy fawning over Travys’s good looks and excellent lyre skills.
     Nearby, some men had broken out their stashes of homemade beer, toasting the new year and the return of the sun. Their wives were talking, laughing about who-knows-what as they ate food from the bounty-table to the side of the party. In the center of the village was a huge fire, so high its smoke seemed to tickle the stars. It lit up the night, bringing us as close to daylight as I had ever seen.
     And in front of the blazing bonfire, the storytellers: the elders of the village were each entertaining a group of young children, telling stories of the Sunbringer and the Great One and heroes of old. I searched that group hopefully; it was where Gramma was certain to be every festival. She always told the best stories, some that I now recognize as tales from the books she owned.
     But Gramma wasn’t there. Deflated, I scanned each group, holding on to that thin thread of hope, which faded when I saw nothing.
     I didn’t have time to linger on my discouragement, because then, a familiar pair of hazel eyes were up in my face.
     “Sensa!” Katryna squealed while hugging me forcefully, “Where have you been? After the trade, you just disappeared, and-“
     “I was looking for Gramma,” I told her as I pried her off of me, “in the Dead Forest.”
     “In the Dead Forest?!” she gasped, “You went in the Dead Forest? Alone?”
     “Well…yes…” I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. Kids, especially boys, dared each other to go there all the time. One time, we’d even gone troll hunting there; it was a fun and thrilling escapade that involved almost every kid in the village. Every one of us got a good hiding for it, but the fun was worth the scolding, even if we didn’t find a single troll.
     “Did you find her?” my friend inquired.
     “No,” I frowned, “Have you seen her?”
     “No, I haven’t seen your Gramma since this morning. Maybe we can get a search party together tomorrow.” She glanced over at the bonfire, then back at me. “Say, you know all your Gramma’s old stories, right?”
     “Yes…” I replied. Where was Katryna going with this?
     “Well, the elders are having a hard time without your grandmother’s excellent tales. Do you think you could…?”
     I thought about it for a moment. I did need a distraction from the stress of not knowing where my grandmother was, and the elders did seem to have too many kids to handle at the moment…
     I nodded. “Sure.”
     Katryna sighed with relief. “Thanks Sensa,” she grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards the bonfire, “They were going to make me do it, and you know how I’m terrified if public speaking…Hey kids! Sensa’s going to tell her Gramma’s stories!”
     The children who had been listening attentively to the elders before now swiveled their little heads around. There were excited intakes of breath as I waded through them to sit on a log with my back to the fire, laughs, whispers, and even cheers. I couldn’t blame them. A lot of the elders were boring storytellers.
     I motioned for the kids to quiet down. “What story do you want to hear?”
     I was assaulted by at least thirty little voices, shouting out their favorite tales. Above the din, one little girl who somehow made herself heard: “Do the puppet show!” Her request was met with a dozen cried of agreement.
     Katryna, who was standing to the side, quieted the kids down.
     “You want me to tell you the puppet show story?” They shouted their enthusiasm.
     Katryna quieted them again as I turned sideways and raised my hands in front of the fire. The “puppet show story” was basically just the story of creation, but with a shadow puppet routine my Gramma had made up to go with it, capturing the kid’s small attention spans immediately. I put on a voice, whisper-like and mysterious.
     “Long ago, many eons before you or I were born, the only things that existed was the ball of nothing that was the universe,” I raised one hand in a fist, “and the Great One.” I made a sunburst motion with the other.
     “Until one day, when the Great One decided to make the ball of nothing into something beautiful. First, He flattened the universe of into land,” I moved the starburst across fisted one, unclenching it as the hand moved along its length. “Next, he melted some of it into water, forming the great seas.” I wiggled the fingers on my “land” hand to give the impression of waves.
     “The third thing He did was to decorate the earth with all sorts of plants,” I raised my arms up, hands unclenching from fists to look like a flower blooming, “and fill the land and sea with animals, fish, and birds.” I made with my hands, a rabbit, a fish, and an eagle.
     “Fourth, He made the faeries, to cultivate beauty and nature,” I made a pair of butterfly wings, fluttering them lightly, “and then the orcs, to hunt and tend the beasts of the earth.” My fingers formed big, hulking shapes for the feared creatures.
     “And then, at last, His sixth creation: the humans,” for that, I gestured around at the children, who were watching wide eyed, “who were to be creators themselves; shaping metal, carving wood, inventing always.”
     “But something was missing. The world was still cloaked in the darkness from whence it came. So the Great One made, from himself,  great orbs of light: the brighter one to reside over the day, and the lesser one to reside over the night.” I made my hands into two open circles before the fire, one larger than the other. “And to make sure that their cycle was unbroken, the Great One took a piece of each of them, called The Light, and placed it in a human being, and when the human should sleep the sun would set, and when he should rise, so would the sun. This person was called the Sunbringer.” I overlapped the circles and let the last three fingers on both hands burst around them, like the rising sun I had never seen.
     I put my normal voice back on as I turned to face the children again, hands back in my lap. “And that, kids, is how the world began.” They clapped vigorously, whispering to their friends.
     But one boy raised his hand tentatively into the air. “Miss Sensa, what about the Warriors?”
     “The Warriors?” I was taken aback. “What about them?”
     “Your Gramma used to tell us stories about them!” shouted another kid in the back, “She said they were they were the bravest people on Earth!”
     “When did the Great One make them?” asked the first little boy.
     “I don’t know,” I said, “they aren’t usually included in the Spiritual Records. Legends tell of a race of Warriors, the Sun Soldiers (because the Great One put a drop of sunlight in their blood) who protected us against fearsome creatures. I guess they were created with the Sunbringer, then.” I shrugged. Better to pretend the legends were true, for the sake of the children. The kids were still listening raptly, nodding as if that made perfect sense. But once one boy brought it up, they all wanted to hear about the Sun Soldiers. Curse that kid.
     “That’s enough for now, kids,” Katryna chimed as she waded through them to grabs my wrist and pull me away, “we’ll be starting the prayer ceremony soon.”
     “Thank you,” I sighed as she pulled me towards the food table, “If I had to tell another story about Olyve the Orc Slayer-.”
     Katryna stopped abruptly, making me almost crash into her. “Wait here,” she said cryptically, “and close your eyes.”
     “Why would I need to close-“
     “Just do it,” she sighed.
     I covered my eyes, waiting for something to happen.
     “Okay, you can open them now.”
     I opened my eyes to find Katryna standing in front if me with a plate in her hands. “Happy Birthday!” She tilted the plate to reveal a round loaf of sweet cake, the number sixteen carved into the top of it.
     The gesture touched me. I had been so worried today about my Gramma, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that it was my birthday. I pulled my friend in for a hug. “Thank you so much.”
     Katryna smiled. “Your Gramma and I were going to keep it a surprise until after the ceremony, but you seemed like you needed something sweet.” She handed me the plate.
     “It looks delicious,” I said, sniffing, “and it smells heavenly, too.” Smelling the sweet bread, it struck me how hungry I was. I hadn’t eaten anything since that carrot soup this morning.
     Before I could dig in, the bells on top of the community chapel rang loudly.
     “Time for the prayer ceremony,” I sighed as I set the cake down on top of the table.
     Everyone was converging in the village square, holding hands to form a circle around the perimeter. Katryna and I quickly joined, just as an elder stepped into the center of the circle, near the bonfire.
     The last stragglers joined the circle, and a hush fell over the people. Nerves were running high, boosted by hope and anticipation. This was when we poured out our desperate longing for light, for plants and beasts and food and life. And Great One was it fun.
     Then, the elder began to hum. It was low and one note, but when it caught on, it became a harmony, spreading along the circle. When every person, young and old, had joined in the song, the elder began to hum out a melody, a simple and hymnal tune. When that too had spread to each person, the circle began to move.
     But when I took my first step forward, something was wrong. I felt…queasy. Was it my lack of food? Something about the song was off, too. It was ringing too loudly in my ears.
     “Mighty Great One!” shouted the elder, his face to the sky as the humming turned to wordless singing, “We come to You in prayer, Your children, the humans! You set the sun in the sky, and gave its Light to the Sunbringer! But it has been sixteen years now since the old Sunbringer died, and still a new one has yet to replace him, as is the cycle! Sixteen years since we have seen the light of day!”
     We were running now, the circle spinning faster and faster as our voices climbed higher. I was getting seriously dizzy, stumbling as I ran. The prayer was a shriek in my ears.
     “Please, oh Great One!” the elder continued to shout, “Come into our midst and restore balance! Restore light!”
     I cried out. It was like the song was reaching inside if me, its holy words like poison in my ears and gut. I could no longer see straight, and I could feel myself swooning like a drunk.
     “Restore the sun!” the elder shouted desperately to the sky, arms outstretched.
     And then the world went black.