“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?”
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.
“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.”