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Finally! I have a (temporary) cover the book! This is obviously self-made, and really not very professional at all, but at least it’s something!

I know, I know, it’s been apart two months since my last update. I’m sorry if my posting today gave anyone else false hope. I will be finishing chapter 9 soon, though, and I promise it’s worth the wait.

Until then, go outside and enjoy your yearly season of warmth!

Temporary Cover!

Finally: Chapter 8!

You can see I’ve finally published Chapter 8! *sigh of relief* I’d been looking forward to that chapter for a while, so I hope you all enjoy it! No spoilers, but the action really picks up from here, and I’m really excited about it all. Let’s just hope I can be more prompt with my next chapters!

This chapter is highly unedited, as are chapters 3-7. Bear with me-It’s hard to write and edit simultaneously and still publish regularly. I know I accidentally left “chamber potty mouth” in the published seventh chapter. I’m not sure whether to be embarrassed or laugh. I hadn’t even really meant to put it in the chapter in the first place-it was the product of a mild bout of writers’ block. Oh well. I’ll leave it for anyone who finds it amusing.

Happy spring!

-Alex

Chapter 8

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:
My nightmare.
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.

Edited Chapter 2

Quick Note: I finished editing Chapter 2. If you’ve already read it, you don’t need to read the edited version (everything essential is the same) but I’d recommend you do. I’ve changed a lot in terms of dialogue, and I feel some of the edited material sheds new light on character personalities. Personally, I like the edited version far better.

In other news, I’m so sorry about not having Chapter 8 finished by now. I’ll try to write as often as possible, but I can’t set an official date-trust me, I feel guilty enough about failing the last deadline. But I can promise it will be a very interesting update and will be worth the wait.

Until next time:

-Alex

Chapter 2

Chapter 2

Something clanked loudly, jolting me out of a dreamless sleep. I was in my bed, still in my clothes from last night, though someone had taken my shoes off. Probably Katryna.

I couldn’t remember much of what had happened the night before. Sluggishly, I remembered of the prayer ceremony, how the sacred ritual had made me sick and pass out. That was weird. Really weird. Usually, the prayer circle was my favorite part of the night; it was the only time I could ever be sure that other human beings would engage in actual physical activity with me since my peers had outgrown games like tag.

Another crash brought me back to my senses.

Someone is in the house, I realized. Who could possibly be smashing around my kitchen like a bull in a china shop at this hour?

As quietly as I could, I climbed out of bed and slipped my shoes on, grabbing a heavy scroll off my nightstand (a book about astronomy I’d been re-reading for the thousandth time-star gazing was pretty easy when they shone twenty-four/seven).

The noises sounded like they were coming from the kitchen. I crept there silently, cautious of the creaky floorboard. As I entered the kitchen, I saw a tall figure in a black hooded cloak bent toward the ground near the table. I raised my scroll, ready to whack the stranger on the head.

Before I got the chance, the stranger (I could tell by his shape that it was a man) righted himself and turned around, pointing a long, gleaming silver something at my face. A sword. No match for my puny book. I swallowed, fear coursing through my veins.

The stranger suddenly dropped the sword. He scrambled again for the blade, as if he had dropped it in surprise. When he stood up again, his hood fell back, revealing a surprised face with two startlingly blue eyes.

“Very sorry for alarming you, my lady,” he said sheepishly, “I thought you were a nightmare. How foolish f me.”

“Wait…what?” I asked, scroll still raised. I had so many questions. We were under attack? From whom? And why was he blundering about my house? But what actually came out of my mouth was: “What did you think I was?”

“A nightmare,” he replied pleasantly, before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you must be so confused. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Willym. Willym Thomas.” He extended his hand with a smile, as if we were old friends.

As I lowered the book and hesitantly shook his hand, I looked him over. I realized now that he was a boy of about my age, rather than a full-grown man. He had pale blond hair that was just a bit too long, a genuine smile, and clear blue eyes, creating an overall impression of good-natured-ness. I wasn’t getting any overtly evil vibes from him, but one could never be too careful about crazy strangers breaking and entering.

The boy, Willym Thomys (an odd name, I thought), was dressed very strangely. Under his cloak, I could see he wore loose clothes, under strange plates of tough leather. He wore steel bracers on his forearms and shins, and boots made of the same leather as the plating. Clothes made for movement and protection. Crossed over his back were two sword sheaths, one of which was empty at the moment.

The swords reminded me that I was talking to a trespasser. I released his hand and crossed my arms. “What are you doing in my house at this ungodly hour of the everlasting night?” I asked with more than a hint of annoyed sarcasm.

“Well…I don’t know how to explain it to a civilian…”

“Civilian?”

“A civilian is any human who isn’t a Warrior, who can’t see or fight nightmares.” Willym glanced at the floor he had been examining before, his hand rubbing his neck nervously.

“Wait….” I said as the impossible truth of the situation dawned on me. “You’re a Warrior? A Sun Soldier? Like the childrens’ stories?”

“Childrens’ stories?” He replyed, bemused as he bent to examine my kitchen floor again.

“What were you looking at?” I leaned over the table to see the floor. I was surprised to see a trail of black animal footprints, leading to the stove, and coming from…the wall.

“Whoa! What made those? What, did it just walk through the wall? Is that why you broke in to my house? Are you looking for that thing?

Why-” I looked at Willym Thomys, who looked back, surprised.

“Wait,” He stopped me, “You can see the nightmare tracks?”

“Not yet, Sir Fancysword. It’s not every day a character your bedtime stories walks off the page and break into your house. I get answers first. What are nightmares? I get the feeling you’re not just talking about bad dreams.”

The boy sighed. “Ina way, I am. Nightmares are fear embodied. They terrorize humans for food. Most feed off fear, but some have developed a taste for flash and blood.” Williym Thomys looked at me, sheathing his sword. “They project terrifying images on your mind as you sleep, extorting fear from unsuspecting humans. There’s a reason bad dreams are called nightmares.”

I’d never even thought of that. My fear must be really delicious, because I had never had a happy dream in my life. I didn’t even know good dreams existed until my friends talked about theirs. All I ever dreamt of, if I dreamt at all, was always an endless darkness, cold and disturbing.

I nodded. “That actually makes sense. But what did you say about-what was it? civilians?-not being able to see them?”

“That’s the confusing part. Civilians aren’t supposed to be able to see nightmares…” Willym Thomys looked at me, confused. “Is this stuff familiar to you?”
He pointed to the swaths of shadow on the floor.

“Not that I can remember…” I shrugged. Then it dawned on me: the shadow behind the house earlier, lurking near the place where apparently the shadow had come in. “Wait! Earlier, I saw a shadow moving behind my house, and when I asked my friend about it, she thought I was crazy. And there was another one like it, in the Dead Forest,” I looked at Willym Thomys for a sign that what I was saying made sense. “When it got close to me, the air got colder, and I seized up with fright.”

He nodded. “That sounds exactly like nightmares. Wait, why were you in the Dead Forest?”

“I was looking for my Gramma.”
 Willym Thomys’s eyes widened. “What happened to your grandmother?”
  “I don’t know,” I sighed, sitting down at the table and resting my chin in my hand, “She just disappeared.”

He looked from me to the tracks and then back. “Was this before or after you saw the shadow behind your house?”

“I don’t really know. I saw the nightmare after I left the house, but before she didn’t show up to speak with the faeries…” The boy looked confused about the faerie part. “We have this annual supplies trading thing with the faeries, and Gramma is usually our ambassador to them. But today, when she was supposed to step forward, she didn’t. And no one has been able to find her since.

“And actually,” I gestured at the place where the tracks met the wall, “the shadow I saw was right about there, except outside.”

Willym Thomys looked alarmed. “I hate to say this, my lady, but I think your grandmother…was taken.”

*            *            *            *            *

The girl shot up out of her seat. ” You mean those creepy things have my Gramma?! What are they going to do to her? How-”

Will put his hands on her shoulders gently. Panic was never good when nightmares were involved “Don’t worry; these things happen. Besides, we know the position of the only horde (meaning a group of nightmares) in this area. There was only one, and even nightmares can’t move that fast. We can track them down and get your Gramma back.”

The girl looked at him very seriously. “She’s the only family I’ve got, Willym Thomys. You’d better be right.”

“What’s your name?” Will asked. He could tell this situation wouldn’t be so easy to diffuse.

“Sensa,” the girl replied, pushing her dark hair out of her face. “And who is ‘we’? Are there other Warriors with you?”

“Oh, right-my team!” he smiled, “Right now they should be making sure the rest of the village is clear of nightmares.”

Just then, the door burst open, and a tall, lanky boy with dark hair and dark green eyes entered.

“Speak of the devil…” Will shook his head. Richard has got to learn some stealth skills, he thought..

“What are you doing in here, Will, making breakfast? Did you find- Wait, who’s she?” said the boy as his eyes found Sensa.

“This is Sensa,” Will stepped aside and gestured to the tricky girl. “She lives here, and she’s provided me with some valuable information about their recent activity in the area.”

“Sensa,” Willym walked to where the other boy was leaning against the doorframe and put his arm around him, “this is my good friend Richard. He’s one of my partners who’s been helping search for the horde I was telling you about.”

“Pleasure,” Rich smirked at Sensa in that way he did that mysteriously made girls blush and giggle amongst themselves. Sensa didn’t look impressed.

“What’s the hold-up, boys?” a slight figure appeared in the doorway next to Richard. The girl was nearly a head shorter than Rich and dark skinned, with a curly head of super-short hair and steady eyes.

“Made a new friend, Will?” she asked, nodding at Sensa, who looked especially perplexed.

“Oh, yes, this is Sensa. Sensa, meet Gwenolyn.” Gwen nodded hello.

Will smiled at Sensa, to say it was all right, that his friends were her to help, but the words died in his mouth when he saw her face. She looked like a lost puppy, more confused by the minute.

Poor girl, he thought, first she’s lost her grandmother, then someone breaks into her home while she sleeps, and now all of this to take in.

Richard, however seemed to have no empathy for the girl at all. He sauntered into the room, looking around at everything the simple cabin.

“What’s this?” he asked, picking up a plate on the table and sniffing it, “Hmm, smells good. Can I eat it?”
Will knew from experience that Rich wasn’t asking for permission. Thugh Will was prepared to stop the wild Richard from attacking his prey, it was Sensa who stood and snatched the plate from him before he could dig in.

“Not a chance. That’s my birthday present from my friend and my Gramma. Seeing as how it’s the only one I’v got, I would prefer if you didn’t eat it.”

Gwenolyn snickered beside Will. “I like this one. She’s got fight,” she said approvingly. Gwen was as stubborn as a stone mule, and approved of strength as a crowning virtue.

Will was surprised. “It’s your birthday?” he asked.
Sensa nodded.

“Well, that explains the big 16 in the middle of the cake,” Richard mused.

“So, not only did your Gramma get kidnapped, forcing you to spend the rest of your day in the Dead Forest, but it happened on your birthday?” Will’s eyes widened. Sensa nodded wearily. He gave her a sympathetic smile.

“That has to be the worst birthday present the universe has ever given.”

Tell me about it,” she sighed. Sensa set the cake down next to her book scroll. Will wondered where she got that. He hadn’t met many civilians yet who had any sort of education, much less written works. Could she read, even?

“What’s this about a kidnapped Gramma?” asked Rich. Sensa explained her story to the newcomers. Richard looked from Will to Sensa and back.

“Well, it looks like you certainly taught her the basics. Soon Miss Sensa will be riding into battle with us.” Gwen rolled her eyes.

“Perfect. When do we leave?” Sensa smiled.

The room went silent. The three Warriors looked at each other in surprise. Encounters with civilians were infrequent, and when they occured, the people usually backed off when told that the strange people had very important businesss fighting off their very fears. But this-a civilian wanting to accompany a team of Warriors-was at the top of the list of Things That Didn’t Happen.

Finally Gwenolyn shrugged. “Come along then!” she said, grabbing Sensa’s arm as if they were sisters. Sensa smiled and hurried to match her pace.

“All done here?” Richard asked Will. Will nodded, looking around to make sure he has forgotten nothing. This place was just teeming with surprises.

Richard took an apple on the way out.

“What is this?” asked Sensa as the group arrived at the carriage, parked just outside the village, near the Dead Forest.

“It’s a carrige, faerie girl,” said Richard, gesturing to the bright pink thing Sensa was wearing. “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“Of course she hasn’t, you idiot,” Gwen rolled her eyes at Richard, “these are villages we’re talking about.” Sensa looked like she wasn’t sure if she should be offended.

“This,” she continued, talking to Sensa now, “is a a carriage. It’s basically a box on wheels so you don’t have to walk everywhere or ride a horse.”

“Do you always ride in carriages?” Sensa asked. Will saw that she was no longer confused as much as curious. Willym liked curiosity; it was hard to find in people these days.

“When we go out on missions like this, it’s usually best to ride in a carriage, because you can bring extra supplies as well.” Richard took a bite of his apple and went on: “Bandages, food, extra weapons, the works.” He looked around furtively before leaning down to whisper with a wink, “It’s also a great place to hide a body.”

Will opened the door. “We can explain everything on our way to meet the horde.”

Sensa’s dark eyes looked up at the carriage, then back at Will, staring long and hard. “Can I trust you, Willym Thomys?” she asked at last.

Will nodded with smile that he hoped came across as warm and not creepy. She nodded then and stepped into the carriage without looking back. The others followed suit, Richard bringing up the rear and closing the door.

The inside of the carriage was bigger than it seemed on the outside, with plenty of room for both the supplies that lined each wall and two benches that faced each other. As Richard had said, there were plenty of bandages, gauze, splints, and other medical supplies, dried meat and fruit, and an entire wall of weapons. Axes, swords, bows and quivers of arrows, knives, all made of an iridescent sliver, almost white metal, gleamed in the light of the faerie lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
  Sensa’s eyes widened as she sat down, taking in everything. “You weren’t kidding.”

“You’d best sit down, my lady,” Will advised, “the carriage ought to start moving soon.”

“I didn’t see a driver,” she said as she sat next to him across from Richard and Gwen.

“The carriage is enchanted. It will take us wherever we need to go, even if we don’t know where that is, or if the location is constantly changing, as this nightmare horde will be. Faerie work.” Will smiledy.

“Do the faeries do a lot of work for you, Willym Thomys?” Sensa inquired.

“Sometimes. We guard their lands in exchange for food and magical items like this.,” he shrugged. “Say, why do you keep calling me by my full name, my name?”

“Full name?” she looked blankly back at him.

“You forget, Willym Thomys,” Richard said through a mouthful of apple. “Civies don’t use surnames.”

“Surname?” Sensa asked.

“A surname is a Warrior custom used to keep people from getting confused with others of the same name,” Richard continued around another mouthful of apple, “You tack another name, a surname, onto the one your parents gave you at birth. A boy takes his father’s first name and girl takes her mother’s first name, and when you meet someone of the same name as you, now you have a backup name for clarification. But you usually don’t call a person by both his names. Much too long and formal.”

“So you can just call me Will,” Will concluded.

“And I assume you all have surnames?” Sensa asked.

“Yep! Mine’s Brent, but use it,” Richard replied, “I don’t like bring associated with that old fool.”

Gwenolyn rolled her eyes. “Rule Number One of Richard: Thou shalt never mention his father or he shall throw a raging hissy fit. My last name’s Laurya.”

“Rule Number One of Gwen: Thou shalt never let Gwen near hot water unless ye has a death wish.” replied Rich.

“It’s your fault-you stole my bow. I’d just fixed the strings and everything.”

“So!” Will interrupted quickly, “Any other questions Sensa? We’re on a roll here.”

“Loads.” she sighed. “To start, why would you need surnames? Shouldn’t everyone in your village know that that name is already taken?”

“Well, yes,” said Will while Gwen and Rich continued to bicker in the background, “But our…village is really big. We actually stopped calling it a village a while ago (it’s a City now). But last names really come in handy at school; like, there are four girls named Elynor in the fifth class, and three of them are friends.”

“School?” Sensa leaned forward, intrigued. “Like, with books and stuff?”

“Yes, like with books and stuff,” Will said “We live there full time, except during our bi-annual holidays.  Most children begin school at age eight, and you get assigned to your team at age twelve.” He gestured to his friends, who were still having their arguing about the same old nothing.

Sensa had lit up, her big eyes wide. Will wondered how such dark eyes managed to look so bright.

“We learn all sorts of things,” he went on, “We learn how to use weapons, how to be stealthy, how to track and kill nightmares. We also learn more technical things: how to read and write, how to figure numbers, the science of how the world works, historical events and such.”

A smile breaking out on Sensa’s face. “You mean you all know how to read?”

“We can read, but can and will are entirely different concepts.” Richard cut in, considering the uneaten half of his apple as if it fully understood the uselessness of reading.

The carriage lurched to a halt. “Here already?” said Will, “That’s unusual. Normally we have to chase them around for a bit.”

“A mystery? I think I can shed some…” Rich asked, reaching behind him to grab his Lightspear, which glowed with soul color-green-the moment he touched it, “light on the subject!” Everyone else just stared at him for a moment. Gwen was the first to voice what they all were thinking.

“Never, ever make a pun as awful as that again.” She snatched up her Lightbow-now glowing faintly violet-and pushed past him to jump down onto the ground. Rich followed her.

“It wasn’t that bad-“

Ever.”

Will was about to tell Sensa to wait here and they would back soon with her Gramma, but she was already ducking through the door, holding a knife from the weapons wall. Will caught Sensa’s arm.

“Where are you going, my lady?” Will asked.

She looked back. “I’m going to get my Gramma back. Coming?”

Will smiled wryly. Gwen was right; this girl had spirit. “Whatever you say.”

Sensa grinned. “Come on then, Gwen and Richard are having all the fun!” She spun on her heel and ran to catch up to the others, her dress swishing behind her. Will quickly followed.

Outside, The carriage was surrounded by nightmares, forming a wall of cold blackness around them.

“Stay near me,” Will hissed to Sensa under his breath, “and follow my lead. I assume you know how to use that knife?” She shook her head. “Instinct will take over soon enough. Now about the nightmares: they are extremely dangerous. Can kill you in a heartbeat. The less deadly ones look like horses,” he gestured quickly to the creatures in front of them, most if which could be recognized as wild horses, braying in an eerie shriek-like pitch.

“Nightmares?” Sensa snorted. “They must have a sense of humor.”

Will ignored that. “The horses are also the most common. Since this is your first time, engage those only. If you come across any larger ones, stranger ones, or more lethal-looking ones, yell for one of us.  The worst ones look like people.” Will looked Sensa in the eyes. Hers were big and nervous, but excited, like a warrior would be. He was struck by the thought that were she really a Sun Soldier, he would want her on his team.

“Above all,” he said, “be very careful. Any questions?”

“Plenty,” she whispered, gripping her knife, “For one, why aren’t they attacking?”

“The nightmares don’t know we’re a threat yet. They wouldn’t want to kill civilians; that would be throwing away a free snack.”

Suddenly, from the other side of the carriage, there came a whooping battle cry and a flash of green light, followed by the angry neighs of horses.

“And genius Richard has just us away,” sighed Willym. He reached behind him and drew his own weapons, a pair of long, slightly curving blades. “Follow me and take care! If you feel like they’re overpowering you, get back in the carriage immediately.”

“Not a chance.” Sensa smiled, then charged at a nearby stallion with a battle cry and horrible knife form. Will shook his and raised his swords to meet the first oncoming nightmare. The blades came down in a blue arc, slashing through the nightmare’s ethereal head.
As   soon as the weapons made contact, the beast became nothing more than shadow, dispersed by the light.

He spun, slicing expertly at anything he could see, mildly aware of Sensa a few feet away, holding her own despite her lack of training. This was his favorite part of Warrior life: the battle, actually doing good, the rush of adrenaline that came with the fight.

All at once, the horses stopped kicking and rearing at them and retreated, galloping around the carriage to the other side.

Will lowered his still-glowing swords catching his breath.

“Where….where have they gone?” Sensa, too was panting. Her knife was glowing gold. Will’s eyes widened: Lightblades were only supposed to glow in the hands of Warriors. Gold was a new one, too. He made mental note to discuss the topic later.

“They retreated,” Will panted, “surrounded Rich and Gwen most likely. They’ll want to take out as many of us as they can before they die. Nightmares are stubborn like that.”

“Shouldn’t we go help them?”

“Richard and Gwenolyn can handle themselves. There weren’t that many of the beasts left anyways.” Will wiped his brow. That had been a viscous fight, short and hard.

Just then, there was a high scream, far too girly to be Richard, though it wasn’t a sound Will would usually associate with boyish Gwen.

Sensa’s eyes widened. “They are in trouble,” she half-whispered, then took off toward the other side of the carriage. Willym ran after her, not only because he was terrified for his friends but because he felt an inexplicable responsibility for the odd girl.

Around the other side, there were only a few nightmares left-half a dozen horses and one that looked like a mountain lion.

The puma had pinned Gwen to the ground, her glowing purple bow out of her reach.

Richard hacked defensively at the nightmares that tried to lunge at the prone girl, his back to her. Her shoulders were bleeding where the big cat’s claws dug into them, and Rich sported a large gash on the side of his face. The nightmare growled at Gwen, clearly getting ready to snap her neck in its huge jaws. 
  Will immediately raised his swords, about to launch himself at the puma, but Sensa had beaten him to it. She ran at the monster-much faster than Will had ever seen a civilian move-poised to tackle the thing and stab it with her glowing knife.

But then she cast the blade aside.

She tackled the nightmare with empty hands, her hands thrown around its neck and her body slung across its back. The nightmare roared and tried to shake her off, but the girl held fast. Her fingers dug into its black coat to keep from falling, and her legs had wrapped themselves as securely as they could around its belly.

“Sensa!” Will yelled, racing towards the endeavor.
  The puma reared up, morphing into a horse as it did. Gwen rolled out of the way, immediately, just before its hooves slammed to the ground again. Sensa shifted herself so that she was no longer clinging to the nightmare for dear life, but sitting as if she were going to ride it, clutching its thick black mane like reins.

The horse reared and bucked, trying to throw her, but the girl clearly had experience with horses, and held fast. Will had to back away from the pair of them to avoid being trampled.

“Are you all right?” he said as he quickly helped Gwen to her feet.

“Yeah, this just needs a bandage or two,” she rolled her shoulder and winced. “Is Sensa alright? That was either bravest thing I’ve ever seen or the most stupid.” Sensa had saved her life. Will wondered if life-debts applied to civilians.

“I think she’s ok.” Will picked up his sword to kill the nightmare before Sensa got hurt.

“What in the Great One’s Name is that?” asked Richard with obvious astonishment. His spear was no longer glowing green; he must have killed the remainder of the nightmares.

Will turned and saw what Rich was looking at, and nearly dropped his swords when he saw it.

Sensa was riding the nightmare.

It had galloped a good distance from where they stood, farther than a normal horse could get in that time. Sensa was sitting atop it, still clutching its mane. The nightmare seemed to be letting her ride it. Even stranger, the nightmare was morphing again: its dark matter seemed to be forming a kind of saddle for her, with reins and foot loops. Her feet in the loops, Sensa stood up in saddle, bent at the waist.

Sensa gave a loud whoop of exhilaration. They seemed less like a horse and it’s rider than one machine, pounding hooves and flying black hair and  pink dress and mane and tail, a dark streak across the plains.

For a moment, Will had lost the ability to think or speak or breathe. He felt as if a wall had slammed into him. He had never seen anything so wild and free and beautiful in all his life. He had never seen or heard of anything like what he was seeing.

The others, too, were speechless. The trio of nightmare hunters watched in dumbfounded silence as the horse cantered back towards them and Sensa brought it to a stop.

“Good boy,” she patted the horse’s neck affectionately, then looked up at the Warriors, smiling. Her face fell when she saw their expressions. “What? Did I do something wrong?”

“No…no, it’s just,” Will sputtered, “it’s that nightmares-no one’s ever ridden one before. It’s never even been a plausible possibility.”

Gwen turned to him, excited. “We have to show this Darius.”

“Darius?” Sensa asked.

“The headmaster of our school-you, know, with the books and stuff?” Richard said.

“If anyone can figure this out, he can.” said Will.

“Wait, what about my Gramma?” asked the girl atop the un-horse. He voice was defiant, but Will saw fear in her eyes. He reached out to her, but had to retract his hand when the horse tried to bite it.

“I’m sorry, Sensa, truly sorry, but I don’t know what happened to your grandmother. I was so sure this horde would have her. They can’t kill civilians…” Will sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration, then looked back up at Sensa apologetically. Hate was a word Will rarely used, but he hated being unable to help. The emotion was unsuited to Warrior. “The only person who might know what to do is Professor Darius, at the Academy. I understand the misgivings you must have; we’re almost total strangers and we’re asking you to come to a place you’ve never been for more strangers to make sense of a phenomenon strange to us all. But everything we’ve said so far has rung true hasn’t it? Don’t you want answers?”

After a moment, Sensa nodded slowly. “Yes. I do want answers. Take me to your school.”
She smiled. “The one with the books and stuff.”

Chapter 7

 “It’s my fault,” said Will, “I should have seen it; the knife isn’t right for you. Great One….”
    I wasn’t listening. I was re-living the events of the past hour in my head. 
    Back, before we were dragged to the headmaster’s office…there was the fighting. Great One knows how I won all those first matches. And then the weapons round. I played back the terror and panic I felt when I realized Feyden was going to kill me (whether that was his intention or the product of unrestrained anger, I had yet to determine).
    That was it. My fear. Terror. Panic. The nightmare felt it, responded to it. It had protected me. How ironic. 
    Then Feyden had fallen back in terror as the nightmare reared. He nearly killed it-once the whole room recovered from the shock of a nightmare, stamping angrily in front of me, here in the “safe” City. Only my protection kept them at bay long enough for it to disappear into the shadows once more. And even that seemed to be a bad move. 
    Darius re-entered the room, obviously repressing distress. “I’ve managed to calm the staff. They’ll take care of the students. It’s the Council we’ve got to worry about, however. They will not be so easily pacified. What will I tell them? Nightmares in the City? Safe nightmares in the City? Harmless?  It’s my fault, not thinking to kill the blasted thing the moment I saw it in my office-“
    “No, Professor,” said Richard-Richard of all people! “I had plenty of opportunity to kill it, before Sensa jumped on its back. I was too busy saving my own skin-“
    “To save mine,” finished Gwen, staring miserably at her boots. “It’s pathetic, really. I’m a Warrior and I couldn’t kill a nightmare. A bloody nightmare! I-“
    “Gwen, stop.” Will said, his usual compassion in his voice. “No one could have foretold the events that happened that night. No, we were all taken by such surprise…and then it disappeared. No sight of the beast for weeks. 
    “What happened today was no one’s fault but mine. The horse was protecting Sensa. She wouldn’t have needed protecting if I had seen-“
    “SHUT UP, ALL OF YOU!” I shouted. I didn’t know I was going to stand up until I did. The Warriors looked up at me, probably surprised both by my outburst and by the fact that I was actually there, in the room with them.
    “I am so /sick/ of this! Stop treating me like a child, all of you! I can take full responsibility of my own actions!” I closed my eyes and took a moment to compose myself. When I spoke again, my voice was raspy, barely louder than a whisper.
    “It never went away. I see it, in the shadows sometimes. I wanted to get rid of it…. I should have told everyone. They wouldn’t think I had something to hide. But now…” My breath caught. The numbness holding back any real emotional reaction had subsided; dread, despair, relief and resignation ran through my veins in a torrent. 
    “But now they’ll hate me.” I finished.
          *         *         *         *          *
    I was right, that day. Over the course of the next two months, I had more dirty looks, whispers behind my back, and outright meanness directed at me than I had in my previous fifteen years. I felt the suspicious glares on my back at every waking moment: in class, in the mess, in our dorm room. 
    It was worst in the Halls, where students of every class whispered as I passed. It was always the same things they said: “That’s her, the girl with the nightmare…” “…tried to kill a boy in her sparring class…” “…the bloody thing is still here!”  “…my sister heard her whispering things in the dark…” “…parents were arguing, Mother doesn’t think the Academy is safe anymore…” “…destroy the bloody City…” “…cursed, I tell you, she’s cursed!”
    Cursed. That was a big one. Feyden came up with the idea. Hayla and Natyly broadcasted it to the whole school, slight whispers that multiplied exponentially. Everything lent to the explanation: my nightmare, my strange Mark, my ability to read, my missing Gramma, my black eyes. 
    I was feared and hated. And I was alone. My friends took my side of course. They told everyone in full detail exactly what happened the night I was found. But the part about my riding the nightmare backfired-people either marked it as a lie or used it in the “Cursed” campaign. For the most part, though, they didn’t receive the same treatment I did. I tried to spare them, really; spending less and time with them so others wouldn’t think of them as conspirators in my diabolical plots for world domination. 
    I found myself in the library more often during my spare time. I buried myself in the stacks where no one could see me and disappeared into books for hours. I ventured deeper into the shelves each day; the library was far bigger than I had originally thought.
    On one such afternoon, I got the brilliant idea to go as far back as I possibly could, find a corner, and literally build up a wall of books around myself. No sooner had I carried out this stroke of genius, completely enclosing myself in my little book fort, than I remembered a very important fact:
    I am deathly claustrophobic.
    It was like I flipped a switch in my head, from Angry-and-Depressed to Frantic-and-Panicky. I found myself hyperventilating as I pushed against the walls of my leather-bound prison. Then I realized that the collapse would make enough noise to draw attention to myself. I didn’t want that, even in my panicky state.
     I turned to the bookshelves instead. I foolishly pulled and pushed, looking for a crack between my book-walls and the actual walls. There wasn’t any. I scrambled against my paper cell frantically, thinking I was suffocating. It took my a while later to figure out exactly what happened next.
    I slammed my palms up, against the underside of a bottom shelf. I must have hit it at exactly the right right angle to both pull it out and push it up in one motion. I looked down and there was my escape; a black hole in the wall, square, only a few feet tall and wide. It was beautiful. 
    A cold breath of air blessed my face as I crawled in. Once through the opening, I found I could stand up, if I crouched a bit. I was in a tunnel. The walls were cold stone.
    I ran through the tunnel blind. After a but of running  free, the dark mood that had followed me for weeks melted into the thrill of exploration, of finding my own secret place. The passageway took several twist and turns before I realized it was sloping slowly upward. I raced on, following the secret tunnel to its end. I took a spiraling staircase three steps at a time and was flushed and out of breath when at last I climbed through latched door at the top.
    The first thing I was aware of was darkness, as far as the eye could see. Back home this wouldn’t have surprised me, but after three months of colorful, lit corridors and classrooms, the night swallowed me whole. 
    Then I looked down and my breath was taken from me again, this time by the City below me, the whole of it stretched out and tucked inside its Wall. The patchwork of rooftops I saw amazed me with their number and complexity and diversity, like the people who lived beneath them: big and small, squat and towering, wood and stone, rainbows of paint or bare walls. Even at this hour (I knew it must be late), the City teemed with people, with life. The streets glowed with lantern light, flowed with the ebb of humanity, connected everything like the veins and arteries of a magnificent beast, and I was perched atop the heart. 
    I was standing on the roof of the Academy and the Headquarters, holding fight to the building’s only steeple, pointing to the sky. I was, at the moment, the highest person in the whole, great, Soldiers’ City. The irony. I was closest to heaven while those below claimed I came from hell.
    But then I looked up and felt small once more. Above me was the expanse of the sky, thousands of stars shining lightyears above me. They were truly the only beautiful thing about the night. Sister Moon looked tired. I would be, if I were her. Governing over the stars with no rest. Each star trying to make up for the lack of light, trying to shine bright enough to be a sun. All the loneliness I’d kept at bay crashed in on me at once and found myself sitting. 
    The wind was blowing, I realized. It never did that. How, I didn’t know it care. I clung to the steeple of the school that I felt didn’t really hate me as much as the people inside did and breathed it in, the first wind of my life.
    “Sensa?”
    I looked behind me and saw a star, or what a star would be if it were a person. After a moment I realized it was just Will, with his white-blond hair and pale skin and very bright blue eyes, cut against the night like one if the diamonds above me. Unfortunately for him, I was rather angry with the stars at the moment. I sighed flopped on my back, hoping I wouldn’t have to deal with an Actual Human Being. 
    Surprisingly, he said nothing. I didn’t hear a sound from behind me. He could have gone back down the stairs for all I know. Somehow, though, I knew Will wouldn’t do that.
    “What made you come up here?” Those words that broke the silence were spoken by me, surprisingly. Says a lot for my patience, doesn’t it?
    “You were gone.” Will said. He sounded confused, like it should be obvious. There was another long pause. “And, you know, a gigantic, closed-off book fort in the back of the library doesn’t exactly speak well for one’s emotional wellness…”
    I sighed. That idea grew more idiotic to me by the moment. I felt heavy footsteps as Will walked over and sat by me. I still said nothing. 
    “Wait a minute,” Will said after a long moment, “it’s windy! There is a /wind/!” I could hear the wonder in his voice. He stood up, and since curiosity got the best of me, I sat up too. He was facing the wind, arms outstretched, laughing. When he looked at me, his huge smile was contagious. “Actual weather! How-why? What do you think?” 
    “Who knows?”My hair kept flying annoyingly into my eyes and mouth. That side effect of wind had never occurred to me in my imaginings. “Great One got bored? Faeries?”
    Will sobered. “That was the other thing I wanted to talk to you about. The faeries have some big egg blooming thing coming up, and they want extra protection-nightmares  try to destroy their young or something. 
    “Long story short, Darius offered us the mission. Three weeks in the Faerie Circle under the command of a Captain Pyrsylla, doing whatever guard duty thry need. Gwen and Richard are willing to go, as am I.”
    That was-excuse my chamber-potty mouth-crappy work. Away from home, monotonous guard duty, rough hewn Warrior bunkers, bad food. I couldn’t wrap my head around their excitement to go. “Wait, why would you want to-” Then it hit me. My team-my friends-were going for me. They knew how badly I needed to find Gramma, and if this would get a step closer, they willing to do it. For me.
    The gesture touched me, really touched me. They’d respected me when they saw my Warrior spirit, took me in when they discovered me as kin, and treated me like a friend ever since. But the reality that Will, Richard, and Gwenolyn were really my friends had never been apparent until now.
    “Thank you.” I said at last, my voice almost lost in the wind. I felt I should have said something more, but I just…couldn’t. 
    “When do we leave?” I asked.
    Will smiled. “Now.”

Chapter 6

     And thus began my new life at the Academy. It took some major adjustments, but eventually I settled into the rhythm of school. 
     I learned more in the first month of classes than I had in the past three years combined, and improved my physical condition until it nearly matched those of my classmates (vigorous training five hours every day can do that to you). I had Gwen cut my hair, too-not nearly as short hers, just a few inches below my shoulders, where it wouldn’t get in the way.
    There were lots of other things I picked up, little quirks about the Sun Soldiers’ lifestyle. No spoons, for instance. Everyone drinks soup right out of the bowl, and everything else is eaten with a fork. And Professor, Master-or Mr., as I learned to abbreviate it-Miss, and Madame were all titles of respect, for people you didn’t know, or those older than you (though I don’t know where that puts the my lady Will continued to use for the first week or so he knew me. It must be some weird civilian formality). I also realized that people were self-conscious, just not in the way I was used to. Here they fretted over their skills, in fighting or knowledge or whatever career they wanted to pursue, all of them striving to become a prodigy. It made for some really talented kids, but also for fierce competition. 
    That was another thing I learned: not all Warriors were actually…well, warriors. Though everyone was taught how to fight, many of people chose to become Keepers of knowledge or crafting skills or the arts. There were whole rooms, just full of paints or musical instruments or leather-working supplies or paper and ink, for the students who wanted to become artists or shopkeepers or scholars some day. 
    Not that I forgot why I was there in the first place. Every day I made my way to the headmaster’s study to ask Darius if there was any news of Gramma. There never was. Eventually, the professor just told me to stop, that he would tell me if there was any sign of her. 
    My nightmare kept showing up too, more and more frequently the longer I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Nothing but a shadow on the walls,  invisible to everyone but me, weighing on me like a dark secret.  I tried several times to sneak it out if the City, but it wouldn’t come when I called. The stable boy, John, had assured Will he would tell no one, for the sake of our whole team’s honor. 
    I started thinking things were alright. I learned to enjoy myself, and I found friends in Will and Rich and Gwen. In fact, I was with them when it all went wrong. 
                                                                                    *     *     *     *     *
   “So…what do you say? You, and me, tonight, in the faerie garden?” Richard quirked his eyebrow in a way that was probably supposed to be enticing, but only succeeded in making me laugh.
    Today at lunch, Gwen bet Rich her dessert couldn’t get Hayla to go on a date with him. By the ways things were going, Gwen was keeping her pie.  
    Hayla looked up from her book with a mix of cold un-amusement, mild curiosity, and a dash of what-in-Great-One’s-name-are-you-doing?. 
    “If you’re implying that I would even consider courting an idiot like yourself, you are extremely mistaken,” she stated simply. 
    “Aw, come on, you know you want to…” Richard coaxed.
    “You have ten seconds.”
    “But it only takes one to say ‘yes’.”
    “I really wouldn’t want to do any permanent damage to the pretty face of yours.”
    “Oh, so you do find me attractive!”
    “Five seconds left.”
    “He ought to walk away while he still can,” I muttered to Gwen. 
    Rich leaned in really close to her face and grinned lazily. “Bring it.”
    “..two, one.” Hayla nonchalantly slammed her knuckles into his emerald eye before looking settling calmly back into her book.
    Richard’s head snapped back, his hand flying to his face as he lost his balance.
    “Great One!” he swore. “Geez, woman, didn’t know you were so adverse to midnight picnics. But thanks for the polite “no”. By tomorrow, this shiner will be as black as your soul.” He turned on his heel and walked indignantly back to the three of us, who were cracking up uncontrollably.
    “Glad my pain amuses you,” Rich muttered leaning against a mess hall table, “but hey, boysenberry is the king of all pies…”
    “Oh, no,” cackled Gwen, “You’re not laying a finger on my dessert. I bet that you couldn’t get a date with Hayla, not that you could annoy her into hitting you.”
     “What?” Richard exclaimed, “I just got punched in the face, and you still refuse me what is rightfully mine? Like that’s going to happen…”
     “What do you-ACK!” Richard had swooped in and thrown Gwen over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. 
     “Put me down!” she shrieked. If our laughter hadn’t already caught the attention of everyone in the hall, that sure did. By now, Will was doubled over laughing; I had to clutch the table for support, barely able to breathe.  
     “This is very undignified, Richard!” Gwen tied to punch him but ended beating her fists on his back like a child. “At least face me like a man!”
     “Why? So you can black my other eye?” Rich calmly folded his arms over Gwen’s legs and pretended to check his nails. “Not likely!”
     Though a crowd had started to form, teachers weren’t doing anything to break up the fight; in fact, I’m pretty sure  there were teachers in the crowd. 
     Gwen tried kicking at him; fortunately for her, her feet were at the perfect height to kick his knees. Richard tried to lock his legs up, but that just threw him off balance when the next kick came. 
     “If I go down, you’re coming down with me!” he called over his shoulder. 
     “All the more reason for you to put me down!”
     “Say the magic words…”
     Gwen sighed. “Put me down please.”
     “Wrong. The magic words are “You can have my pie, Rich”.”
     The circle of onlookers laughed. Before people could start cheering for a fight, the afternoon class whistle blew. Richard sighed and dropped Gwen unceremoniously on the ground as the students and teachers dispersed.
     “We will continue this in sparring,” yawned Rich. 
     “I thought you said you didn’t want any damage to your face,” retorted Gwenolyn as she dusted herself off.
     “Oh, please, like you could ever-” I didn’t catch the rest of his comeback, for John-the-Stable-Boy had come up behind us was tugging on my sleeve. 
     “Professor Darius would like to have a word with you,” he said in low tones. 
     “Alright,” I replied. “I’ll meet you in class,” I told my friends. 
     I followed John through the Hall of Craftsmen. My friends had informed me that the stable boys were civilian orphans that Darius had found in the outer villages and brought to the Soldiers’ City for a better life.  Besides caring for horses, the stable boys apparently ran errands for the headmaster and office people at Headquarters.
    Despite my best efforts not to, I found myself becoming hopeful as I approached Darius’s office. Why would he call me here if not to tell me news about Gramma? Perhaps to throw you out of the school, said that pessimistic little voice in the back of my head, they’ve found your nightmare and they’re throwing you out for fear you’ll destroy their City.
    While these thoughts fighting for attention in my head, I hesitated upon reaching the headmaster’s door, then reached up and banged the large dog-shaped knocker. A muffled “it’s unlocked” came from within-typical Darius, being so blatantly casual-, so I opened the door and walked in.
    The professor was sitting on the floor in a nest of old books, skimming the contents of a scroll while polishing the shaft of his old Lightlance. One leg stretched out awkwardly while the other was bent as if he meant to cross his legs at some point.
     Brows furrowed, Darius muttered to himself as if I was not there. 
     “Miss Ivene, what is the most dangerous type of nightmare?” he asked out of the blue. 
     “Er, humanoid ones, sir.”
     “Correct. Nightmares have the mental capabilities of the creatures they take the form of. Almost all of them look like common animals-or more rarely, monsters particular to the nightmare species-so we have the advantage of intelligence. Not here though,” said Professor Darius, turning to face me as he tossed me the scroll.
     The paper was smaller than I had thought; a hastily-written letter, not a book. The message was written in a language I did not recognize-the characters were comprised of series of vertical lines slashed through horizontal ones. 
     “Um, sir, I can’t read this…what language is this anyway?”
     “The written tongue of the Mountain Orcs,” he said, taking the scroll back. “It’s a border report. Last week, the Warriors guarding their borders and some Orc hunters were lured into a trap. They were hunting a small horde, chased them into the Dead Forest. The group was ambushed in a clearing.”
     “By a human nightmare?”
     “By three.”
     “Three!” I exclaimed, “They didn’t stand a chance!”
     “It was a massacre,” Darius shook his head. 
     “No survivors? Every one of them was killed?”
     “All thirty-six of them,” sighed Darius, rubbing his temples, “Seventeen were Warriors.”
     “Is that…is that why you called me here?” I asked, somewhat disturbed. 
     “What? Oh, no,” the professor said, shaking himself out of his mournful reverie, “I apologize for burdening you with this knowledge. I actually called you here on a much happier occasion.”
     “Gramma?” I asked, hardly daring to be hopeful.
     “Precisely,” Darius smiled, “patrol Warriors found a shoe near faerie borders: sturdy, definently City-made, and, best of all, her family crest was stitched into the sole. We’ve directed our search party to the area.”
     Finally, after weeks of worry, there was a chance at finding Gramma. A small chance, but hopeful nonetheless. And I knew the nightmares had taken her alive. I could have cried for joy. 
      “Your welcome,” the professor grinned, “now get to your classes before Trysha gets angry at me. I’ve seen that woman with a fork before, and I’m not particularly anxious to repeat the experience.”
                                                                            *          *          *           *          *
      I flew into the training room, grinning like an idiot. I was lucky enough to miss our “warm up” period, as well as most of nature tactics. Settling down with my team to help them finish their camouflage leaf net, I told them the news. 
      “And to top it off,” said Gwen with great bravado, after the trio expressed their gladness, “you get to watch me beat the daylight out of Rich!”
     “I talked to Madame Trysha,” said Will, ignoring her, “and she agreed that your private training is sufficient for you to join everyone else.”
     “Welcome to the fun classes!” smiled Richard, whose eye was now officially purple-black and swollen, “where no one leaves without a bloody nose or a fractured bone!”
     My day couldn’t get better. Well, the pie at supper would be great, but that was just the icing on the sweetbread, so to speak. 
     After drilling with Will for weeks, I was ready for some real fighting. I had the basic stuff down, was as good as I felt I’d ever get at unarmed combat, and had even learned to use that Lightknife pretty well. I guess Will could tell I was itching to get out there, since he convinced our instructor I was ready. I gave him a fist-stack of unspoken appreciation. I could tell he got the message. 
     Two classes, three headlock techniques, and one falling-apart camo-net later, I finally got to see sparring. Sparring was a special class that we only got once a week, a crossover between hand-to-hand combat and weapons training.    
     Basically, you challenged anyone in the room to a duel-with or without weapons, the challenger got the pick-and beat each other up until one of you lost. Since there was no real guidelines as to what “losing” meant, the fights tended to be long and bloody; no one ever wants to surrender. There was also a pretty general “anything goes” policy, so there were lots of creative moves and low blows. Bones were broken fairly frequently, and I’d even heard one story about a kid who got beat so badly he was in a coma for a month. 
      It was everyone’s favorite class. 
      First up was our very own Gwenolyn Laurya and Richard Brent (he cleared his throat loudly at that), a match everyone had been looking forward to since the scene in the mess hall. Their weapons were incompatible-Gwen used a Lightbow while Rich sported a Lightspear-so they chose to go unarmed. 
     Our classmates lined up along the wall to give them space. A number of people, I could see, were placing bets. Will and I were no exception; I had money on Rich, and Will was betting on Gwen. 
     They bowed ceremoniously to each other and slipped into their fighters’ stances, concentration etched on both faces (along with more than a bit of playful cockiness).
     Madame Trysha blew her shrill wooden whistle. “Fight!”
     And fight they did. In moments, the pair was a blur of yellow and black uniforms, kicking and twisting to the beat of a drum only they could hear. 
     Gwen attacked first, running at Richard as if she were going to punch him and slipping beneath his arm as he went to block. 
     Rich used the momentum of his useless block to spin around and catch Gwen’s arm, yanking her behind him in a reverse judo-flip. 
     Gwen recovered quickly, jumping to a crouch and sweeping her leg in a circle to topple her lanky opponent.
     Unable to regain his balance, Rich instead re-directed his fall so he fell directly on top of Gwenolyn, pinning her arms with his hands and his her legs with his knees. 
     Gwen head-butted Rich, and took advantage of his momentary surprise by freeing her arms.  With a strength that belied her small size, she shoved Rich off her and carried the momentum all the way over, until he was pinned the way she had been not a moment before. 
     “Great One!” I shouted to Will over the noise of the crowd of classmates, “they fight they talk!”
     “More like they talk the way they fight,” he remarked, neither of us taking our eyes from the match for a moment. 
     Despite their differences in size and speed, they were quite evenly matched. Clearly, they both had put tremendous amounts of work into developing their hand-to-hand fighting skills-a fact you never would have realized with their long-range weapons. 
     Back on their feet, Rich attempted to get his opponent into some sort of headlock. Gwen dove between his legs as he lunged forward, rolled to her feet, and jumped onto his back like some sort of monkey, earning whoops and laughter from the crowd.
     Rich tried everything to shake her: jumping, shaking, attempting to pry her arms off his neck, and generally making a fool of himself while she laughed and held on easily. It was questionably the funniest thing I’d seen in a week (and with those two, that’s saying something). 
     “You know, earlier, when you threw me on your back?” shouted Gwen, “Well, this is payback! Get it? Payback?”
     “Haha, really punny,” grunted Richard. 
     “Touché,” she replied. 
     “You know, I didn’t want to resort to this, but here goes,” said Rich as he reached around his back and started tickling Gwen. 
     “Wha-no!” Gwen shouted, squirming as she cackled with laughter, “Stop, stop! Tickling…tickling is cheating!”
     “Anything goes…right?” said Richard. He had to contort himself now, as Gwen was writhing with tickle-induced laughter on his back. I was wrong. This was the funniest thing I’d seen all week. 
     In moments, Gwen was off Rich’s back and on the floor, giggling as he continued to tickle her. The class roared with laughter. Tough, stubborn Gwen, brought to tears by the power of tickling. 
     “Do I win?” he asked over his shoulder.
     “N-never!” Gwen yelled. 
     “Well, I’ve never seen an attack like this before, but your opponent has been down for quite some time…” said Madame Trysha, trying not to crack a smile.
     “You hear that?” Rich shouted over Gwen’s laughter, “that, my friend, is the sound of VICTORY!”
     “You-you are an awful person,” Gwen panted as Rich stopped tickling her.
     “Of course I am. How else did you think I’ve acquire so many admirers?”
     “Oh, I usually put that down to your general stupidity.”
     “Well, you-“
     “Moving on,” Madame Trysha interrupted, “who’s up next?”
     Before anyone else could respond, Feyden jumped to his feet.
     “I challenge Sensa Ivene to a duel!” Feyden looked me directly in the eyes. I didn’t like what I saw.
     “Weapons?” I asked; thankfully, I managed to keep my voice devoid of emotion. I stood up to face Feyden more openly. I hadn’t realized before that we were exactly the same height.
     “No,” the boy said with a smirk. Then, more quietly,  “I don’t need a sword to beat you, peasant.”
     “Of course not. You could kill a man easily with that face of yours.” Feyden turned an amusing shade of purple, which he managed to hide from the class as we bowed.
     “Begin!”
     And then we were on each other like wolves. He attacked fast and hard, I dodged and counter-attacked and attacked again. The ferocity of the match was not helped by the fact that we both had something to prove. The crowd which had been laughing and exchanging bet money minutes ago was now silent. 
     I launched myself at Feyden in a tackle. I succeeded, but not without getting a fist to the stomach. He landed awkwardly, one leg pinned between his chest and mine. I thought I must have caught Feyden really by surprise-I’d learned how to fall properly, so he must have-until that same leg kicked me out from on top of him with a hard heel to the gut.
     I fell back, the wind knocked out of me. Feyden took the opening and stomped on my right arm as soon as he could scurry to his feet. I yanked myself back to my feet before he could claim a win. 
     “So you’re the sort that kicks a man while he’s down,” I hissed at him through clenched teeth, “I bet you tear the wings off fireflies, too.” He either ignored those comments or got angry (I believe the latter was more likely), because the next moment Feyden’s foot was flying at my face.
     Faster than a whip, my hand shot out and grabbed his leg. I twisted it so that Feyden was slammed to the ground, then hit hit him with a series of fast, hard punches that left him groaning.
     I stood up, breathing hard. When he didn’t get up after a moment, Madame Trysha declared me the winner. 
    “Wait!” Feyden shouted, getting up. “Rematch! I want a rematch!”
     I looked at Madame Trysha. “Can he do that?”
     Our instructor rubbed her time-creased forehead. “Usually people don’t, but it isn’t unheard of…”
     I heard someone murmur that he must really hate my guts. 
     So we went again. I won, though it was close. He wanted another go. I won again. His fighting style was becoming more clear to me: mostly cold, calculated blows, followed by quick hot flashes where he would lash out and was liable to make mistakes. 
     We ended up going five rounds before he called it: weapons. This round we would fight with weapons. He used a Lightkatana, a long, slightly curved blade first developed by an elite brand of Warriors in the Sunrise City to the east. I had my knife. His blade glowed a strange shade of ochre. My soul color was definitely yellow-Lightweapons burned gold at barely a touch from me. It was strange at first; I had always pictured myself as a sort of magenta persona. 
     “Begin!” our instructor shouted, clearly tired of our seemingly endless rematches. 
     By now, I was exhausted. Five intense sparring matches leave your bones feeling like putty and your muscles like lead. Feyden must have been fueled by rage, because he swung at me with as much energy as ever. 
     I dodged, I ducked. I tried to fight back, but I could never get close enough; his long-range weapon far outmatched mine. The scales were tipped, this time in Feyden’s favor. 
     Feyden moved like the Lightkatana was an extension of his body. My Lightknife, which seemed balanced before, was now far too small and light. It was all I could do to parry the oncoming attacks, much less advance my own.
     Soon, my back bumped into something solid. The wall. I tried to maneuver to the right, but Feyden turned my evasive moves  into a trap, pressing my into the far corner of the room. 
     Cold fear crept into my chest. He was not backing up as most fighters would. Feyden continued to swipe and slash, at my legs, my abdomen, my face. The fire in his eyes told me my opponent might not even be in his right mind. He was blinded by anger-perhaps not even directed at me.
     His next stab to my knife arm-also the arm he had stomped on earlier-drew blood. That would be enough for a win, but Feyden still advanced. My mind and limbs became clouded by panic, I couldn’t block his blows, and-
     My vision was blinded by a seething mass of darkness. An unnatural shriek pierced the room. As the terror left my vision, I recognized the black mass as a rearing horse, the shriek as an unearthly whinny. 
     It was my nightmare. 
     Great One help me.