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.”
     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.

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