Riding in the open plains felt good after three months of nothing but the Soldiers’ City Academy.
Ours was not the only team to accept this mission. There was Feyden and the blonde death twins, who had apparently charged themselves with keeping an eye on me (they probably just accepted the offer before they found out we had too), and two adult teams grumbling about their assignment and the spineless faeries who couldn’t keep an eye on their own eggs.
Coincidentally, both Gwen’s older brother and Will’s sister were included in the party. I hadn’t thought much about Warriors as families like back home. The greetings were familiar, though. Michael immediately swept “Lyn” into a headlock and rubbed Gwen’s head violently in that older brother way. Theresa seemed surprised to see Will, but returned both his hug and his questions about her fiancé, Jeffyry, without hesitation. I missed Gramma.
I felt comfortable in my own skin for the first time since I’d encountered the Warriors. I could breathe easily out in the plains I played in as a kid. And while my fighting may be lacking some sixteen years of development, my horsemanship outmatched pretty much everyone’s.
We stopped in front of a twisted wall I knew only too well.
“We’re going into the Dead Forest?” I asked.
“Scared?” Feyden replied, bringing his horse up next to mine. The lantern light made his face look ghoulish and pale.
“Please,” I snorted, “I’ve been frolicking in here since I could walk.” I leaned over my horse to whisper forebodingly, “It’s you who should be scared.” I rode away laughing before he could respond.
I pulled up between Gwen and Rich as we entered the Forest. With four teams of highly lethal Warriors and at least a dozen fresh lanterns, the Dead Forest seemed a far cry from the ominous and spooky playground of my childhood.
“You know, my friends and I used to dare each other to come in here when we were younger.” I mentioned fondly. “Once, someone got a huge group of kids to go on a troll hunt.”
“Are you serious?” Rich exclaimed with more concern and sincerity than usual. “Trolls are insanely dangerous-even I wouldn’t go looking for one! What were you thinking, you could have been-”
“Trolls don’t exist.” Will said, leaning around Gwen to roll his eyes at Rich. I laughed but no one joined in.
“You’re serious?” I asked. “Trolls aren’t real?” Gwen and Richard laughed.
“Only in bedtime stories,” Will smiled.
“People have told me that before,” I replied, “and you lot seem real enough.” But our laughter laughter was short-lived.
Before us was the Faerie Circle.
I had always thought the home of the faeries would be like the faeries themselves, or at least the ones I saw on Trading Day. I pictured flowering meadows and moonlit groves, and pale, scantily dressed women lying out in on the naked landscape, gazing at their reflections in the shiny objects they bought from us (which I assumed they kept in a giant pile somewhere, because the trading faeries never wore or brought to our village anything we had made in the past sixteen years).
I was wrong.
Well, about most of it. I got lucky on the moonlit grove thing, but that was where comparisons ended.
The Circle was, as implied, a giant circle, or more like a ring around the mountain that sat at the center of the maps in the Academy library. I could not see the end of it around the towering monolith. I was later informed that the invisible barriers, protections, and camouflage enchantments had been lifted for our arrival.
From the outside, the trees were as dead as the rest of the forest, but within was a wealth of green like I could never imagine. Sweet-smelling grass, trees tall and short bursting with leaves and fruit, and flowers like delicate jewels everywhere. The faeries didn’t just have a gift for beauty-they had a gift for life.
And the buildings! I suppose any structures would have impressed me, since I was expecting none, but letme tell you: these buildings were astounding. White and black marble, pink granite veined with gray and gold, smooth limestone quarried to perfection, all of them expertly built and engraved with beautiful carvings. How could they be here, in the home of faeries whose fingers couldn’t comprehend the skills of craftsmanship?
Even the faeries themselves were different, even from the pale-faced, strangely dressed and closed-winged women I had met in my many years of trading. While exotic beauty seemed to be characteristic of all faeries, there was as much variation in skin and hair as there were colors of the rainbow. They wore their wings out as well, both pairs on the back and those little half-wings on the forearms. Faerie wings were like dragonfly wings, but more beautiful: thin and iridescent and veined in rainbows. I saw my handiwork in action in the colorful, warm woolen pants, shirts, dresses, and skirts they wore.
“What do you think?” said a short woman with a peculiar accent-a Warrior, not a faerie. She was standing near a less decorative limestone building to our right, and obviously wasn’t one of our party. I add the obviously because she was the only one not staring open-mouthed at our surroundings.
“Everything I know is a lie.” I said quietly. The woman laughed.
“The faeries love their clichés. They regard pranks and tricks are hilarious. If that’s true, then they’re comedic geniuses.”
“If faeries are comedic geniuses, then I’m a troll,” Rich said. We had pretty much recovered from our initial shock. I, for instance, had the clarity of mind enough to punch Richard in the arm.
The woman led us into the limestone building, which she explained was our bunker, mess, and armory for the next three weeks. After some observation I was able to place her accent, skin tone, and general features as those of someone from the eastern Sunrise City and its surrounding civilian villages.
“The faeries could never have made this,” I said as I traced the swoop of a tidal wave carved in the stone wall. “Do you know which civilian colony built these?” I asked our welcoming woman. Several members of our party looked surprised.
“What makes you think this is civilian work?” Our guide asks with a smile like a test. Shoot. I wanted anonymity here. I don’t think I could stand another furtive glance or poisonous whisper.
“These waves are so realistic,” I lie, “The Cities are all too far inland to account for this kind of detail.”
She smiled. “Wonderful attention to detail. Yes, I was told the buildings in this section of the Circle were built by civilian masons from the southwestern plains.”
Not my village, then. We were in the northwest, I believe. The artwork is as beautiful as anything I’d seen in the City, and I can no longer believe that Sun Soldiers are smarter or more creative or more talented than civilians.
The woman-Pao Ling, that’s her name-shows us around our barracks and introduces us to the other Warriors stationed here. I could tell from the colors of skin and accents that these Warriors come from many different areas of the world. There were people with skin darker than Gwen’s from the City of Blazing Sun and fair people from the northern City of Evening Lights and even a few mysterious elite Shadow Soldiers from Sunrise City like Pao Ling. Many languages floated around the room. I laughed; I had never felt such a mixture of the world. It was beautiful.
The next weeks were like that first day. Our job was simple: stay at your post and watch for trouble. Trouble, of course, always meant nightmares, but I never saw any. In fact, I heard others commenting on the oddity of their being this silent, especially so close to hatching time.
Unfortunately, the rumors about the Cursed One did spread-mostly thanks to my good friend Feyden-but not like at the Academy. I don’t think adults were as big on gossip. Many of them simply didn’t believe Feyden. This was due in part to my effort to make myself useful-I was a vigilant guard, a productive chore-undertaker, and best of all, a decent cook.
We made new friends, and the language barrier dissolved. A woman older than Gramma from the City of Northern Lights told me about her grandchildren in a thick accent as we made beds in the women’s barracks. A man from Sunsrise City taught me how to throw my knife properly. I developed a system of sign language with a pair of twins not much older than me taught me from the City of Blazing Sun in between shifts on guard.
“We need to talk.” I looked up from my supper (bean stew) to see Feyden. His arms were folded over his chest and his lips were pressed into his characteristic I-don’t-like-you-and-I-think-you’ve-got-some-sinister-plot-up-your-sleeve thin line.
“Sorry, pal, but I’m not interested. Arrogant-and-Narcissistic isn’t quite my type.” I continued eating.
“Don’t act like you don’t know what this is about. You and I both know that you’ve been holding back those nightmares. They should be bombarding the Circle but really, we’re hardly needed here. No-I think you’ve been holding them back for a purpose, reining them in until tonight. Don’t think for one second that I’m not on to you, Sensa Ivyne.” We watched Feyden stalk back to the table from whence he came.
“Sheesh. That boy is strung tighter than Gwen’s bow.” Rich said.
“No kidding,” I replied.
“But what was with the ‘until tonight’ thing?” asked Gwen. “What’s so special about tonight?”
“Attention everyone!” Pao Ling’s voice quieted the mess hall. “Tonight, the genesis buds will blossom. For those who do not know, each genesis bud contains the egg of an unborn faerie. Once the flowers blossom, it is only a matter of weeks before the eggs hatch and the young faeries-pixies-are born. The eggs are nearly indestructible after blossom, but for the first few hours they are weak. It is our duty to protect these innocent pixies. Every Warrior will be on duty tonight,” she paused to let the whispers of surprise and excitement-perhaps even dissent-die down. “We must be vigilant. We must be strong where others are weak. We are the Sun Soldiers, and we will protect.”
I cheered in agreement with my fellow comrades, but in the corner of my eye, Feyden grinned.
* * * * *
Crickets chirped. The sound was still strange to me. So was the bright, authentic green of living foliage around me as I kept guard. They usually didn’t position us this far into the Circle, but our leaders were taking no chances tonight. Another ball if unexplained light danced before my eyes. I touched it and it zoomed away as if offended.
Behind me I could hear the dancing music and raucous laughter of a party. I wouldn’t have been remotely surprised a month ago. Civilian and Warrior lore was littered with tales of wild faerie parties, of foods so delicious they could kill you, of kisses from which you could never break free, of people had danced until their feet wore down to stubs, of music that drove mortal men mad.
But like most things concerning faeries, these parties didn’t seem to be typical. Mostly, the faeries were like village girls on steroids, with their exclusive cliques and all-consuming vanity. The faeries mostly wanted to have fun, though they were tasked with cultivating impossible crops in this awful night.
Then my heart stopped. Sight and touch and sound disappeared and only one thing existed in the world:
The smell of sage.
The smell of Gramma.
I spun around so fast I nearly got whiplash. What was there was nearly as shocking as the scent it carried:
No. That couldn’t possibly be right. That smell belonged on calloused hands kneading bread, on the soft shirt I buried my head in as a little girl, in a loud and genuine laugh, in and on everything that was inherently Gramma. There could be nothing more opposite from Gramma than this living, breathing darkness, a shadow that weighed on my soul like a stone, a swath of danger and evil.
So why did it smell like sage?
I reached out to touch it hesitantly, repulsed. I had thought of this nightmare as a real horse before, almost a companion. But now it had the audacity to smell like the person I loved most in the world, and I wanted to vomit.
Just as my fingers brushed its nuzzle, the wicked horse darted into the trees. I looked around. I was supposed to stay here. I needed to stay here. And yet….
I ran into the trees after my nightmare. My nightmare? Yes. I could not separate myself from that monster. It had brought me right here, to the place I needed to be. I knew it was taking me to my Gramma. How else could it /smell/ like her? I would find my grandmother if I followed. But the road it led me on was a one way journey.
I supposed I was a monster myself. I was leaving everything, everyone who had given me their kindness, guidance, friendship…. I may even be risking the safety of the pixies. I couldn’t find it in myself to care. All that mattered was Gramma.
I probably would have run away that night, and I might have even found her, if it were not for the faeries’ insane party.
When the nightmare took me through the central ring of the circle, I didn’t register at first what was happening around me. Only when I was pushed to the ground did I look; what I saw shocked me. My nightmare ran on and left me, but I only thought about the lost opportunity later.
Disaster had fallen.
Tables were knocked over, and the food from them was strewn everywhere. Water was roiling in a giant pond, waves splashing everyone nearby. Plants were torn and crushed beneath feet. Strings of flowers and cloth had been torn from tree branches flew through the air like confetti.
For a moment, I had the sickening thought that a horde of nightmares got into the Circle through the breach in my abandoned post. But the chaos was not the product of malevolent enemies.
The chaos was the faeries themselves.
For once, the colorful women fit every one of their stereotypes-and then some. A great many danced about wildly, knocking things over and crushing them under foot. Some flitted in the air, their wings moving too fast to bee seen as more than shimmering blurs. They laughed and dropped everything from food to small statues on the people below. There were violent waves caused by water faeries-also called selkies or mermaids-who were shrieking with delight as they whipped their pond into a miniature hurricane. Only one faerie looked calm, seated in the middle of a patch of the largest flowers I’d ever seen, her eyes shut tight in what looked like concentration.
The Warriors present were anything but gleeful, however. I saw some faeries trying to force one woman into the dance. Several others were already mindlessly dancing. Some Warriors were frantically trying to avoid being force-fed something orange. One man was lying on the ground, dead or asleep, with the stuff all over his face. A few selkies were trying to pull Michael, Gwen’s brother, into the roiling pond. I saw Richard in a literal lip-lock with one faerie. He looked like he was going to pass out.
I got up to help, but found myself on the ground again. I tried again and was pushed once more. I saw that it was a red-skinned, orange-haired faerie than the refused to let me up. She grinned with impish delight at whatever expression of anger crossed my face. I launched myself at her. I was by far a more skilled fighter, but she kept making thorny vines grow out of the ground to hold me back.
A shriek of terror split the air. Assuming it was just another cry for help from a Sun Soldier, we both continued fighting. It wasn’t until more cries, shouting things in a strange language I didn’t know, rose that we looked up.
Nightmares were everywhere.
Riding in the open plains felt good after three months of nothing but the Soldiers’ City Academy.