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.”

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