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. 

Chapter 5

As we left the mess hall, I got lots if looks from the other students. Not bad looks, really, just curiosity. At first, I wondered how they all knew I was the new kid; there had to be at least seven hundred kids in this hallway, goofing off and bouncing off the walls with excitement. Then I realized: my dress. Everyone here was wearing the same black hunting clothes, and I was wearing a bright fuschia overdress. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Wait, where was my nightmare? I hadn’t even realized it, but the bird’s weight had left my shoulder long before I entered the mess hall.
I tugged on Will’s shirtsleeve. “My nightmare,” I whispered urgently, “it’s gone.”
Will’s blue eyes widened, then looked around. I searched with my eyes for my raven, but saw nothing. Had it taken off somehow?
My worry was short-lived. “There,” Will pointed to where he had spotted the bird, up in the rafters above us. The nightmare blended in almost completely with the shadows. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was about whistle to call it to me when Will put a hand on my arm.
“I don’t think anyone should know about the nightmare yet,” he said in hushed tones, “They might see you as a spy for them or something. I know you’re not; there’s no way could have been, but still…I’m sure some people would interpret it badly.”
I nodded slowly, still looking at the raven. For now, I think it would stay out of sight; something told me the nightmare’s instincts would tell it to keep away from the Warriors. I suppose the Professor would figure out what to do with it in the long run.
I noticed a riff in the way the crowd was moving. All the girls were turning down a hallway to the left, and the boys continued on down the corridor.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“This is where we part ways,” Gwen smiled and turned on her heel to follow the rest of the girls, “G’night, boys!”
“Goodnight!” they replied. Will turned and shouted, “And make sure you show Sensa her way around the dormitories!”
Gwen rolled her eyes and grabbed my arm, pulling me down the hallway. “Like I was just going to leave you to puzzle things out alone.”
Seeing the look on my face, she launched into what had to be the hundredth explanation of my night. “This is a dormitory, or a big room where people live together. To save space, instead of each student having his or her own room, all the people of each age group share a bedroom. They keep the boys and girls separate, of course. That’s why the boys kept walking; their dormitory is a bit farther down.”
We passed several rooms, which younger girls were filing into. They were numbered as well. By the time we got to the sixth door, the number of chattering girls had halved.
“Each age level at the Academy is called a class,” said Gwenolyn “The youngest children are class one, or first years, since this is their first year here. We,” she said, pushing open a door with a large number right on it, “are class eight.”
Inside was a cozy space. The right and left wall were lined with beds, five on each side. Though there was a sense of uniformity about it, each person’s space was somewhat personalized. Some sported homemade quilts, others old dolls, and most girls had pictures pinned to the walls, drawings of their families or friends or even what I suspected were boys they fancied.
The girls themselves were very different from what I was used to as well. For one, they seemed to be less beauty oriented; shorter hair, rougher skin and callouses from fighting, not an overdress in sight, yet these girls seemed much more comfortable in their own skin. And though they laughed and chattered away like the village girls I knew, there was something different about it. More casual? No, more confident. Almost boastful. But what really caught my attention was the far wall of the room. The entire surface was made of some sort of silvery, reflective glass. In it, I could see everything in the room perfectly. Including myself.
“What are you ogling a-oh. I forgot, they don’t have mirrors in the villages,” Gwen said, following my line of vision. She pushed me closer to it so I could see myself more clearly. “Go ahead. It must be strange, seeing yourself for the first time. Pity though, you’re really rather beautiful.”
I  had never thought of myself as particularly beautiful, but looking in the mirror, it was hard to deny that Gwenolyn had a point. I was willowy and tall, though not nearly as muscular as the girls who had been fighting their whole lives.
My pale face was a stark moon against the night, with low cheekbones, a round nose, and thin, lips that were full but pale. My black flyaway hair that was always so bothersome actually looked quite good, cascading in loose curls down my back.
But what startled me the most was my eyes. They were black, to totally black, so dark that I couldn’t separate pupil from iris. They made me look so different than I felt, all deep and commanding and sure. I looked almost…regal. It scared me a little. I looked at Gwen’s reflection next to me in the mirror. Compared to what I had just seen, she looked rather plain: she was short and rather skinny, built like a child, and I still couldn’t fathom why she would cut her hair so short and close to her head. I also noticed  she was the only dark-skinned girl at the Academy. This struck me as odd-my village was populated by people of colorings all over the brown scale. Gwen didn’t seem to care-she just smiled with twinkling eyes. Yes, Gwenolyn was contented with her lot, and, I suppose, I with mine. It was still unnerving, though.
That’s when I noticed the silence. The girls in the room had stopped talking and were watching now watching us. Gwen must have noticed too, because she spun around and smiled warmly at the group.
“I see you’ve all noticed our new friend Sensa!” she said as she clapped me on the shoulder. I felt uncomfortable under their gazes. At least these girls seemed nice, and they didn’t look like they were judging me too harshly.
That impression was shattered quickly.
“She doesn’t look like a Warrior,” sneered a girl from the back of the room. My heart plummeted. I felt Gwen tense beside me. The speaker and the girl on the bed next to her in the corner got up and walked over to us.
The speaker stood with her arms crossed with her friend-or probably sister, I realized as I looked at the pair of them-at her side. The two both had blond hair, the first girl’s chopped short at her neck and the second’s tied up high on her head. They both wore contempt plain on their faces.
“Sensa, this is Hayla,” Gwen said slowly, nodding at the girl with the short hair, “and this is Natyly,” nodding at at the long haired one.
“Who asked you, sir?” sneered the one called Hayla. Ouch. At least when Richard had called Gwen a boy, he had been just been teasing, the way friends do. But Gwen just smiled at Hayla. “Who asked me? No one asked. I was just being polite and introducing you to our new friend. Or did you not read that in the context of the moment? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten that you lot probably can’t read, and I’m sure you haven’t a clue what the words ‘polite’ or ‘context’ mean either. Silly me.” Wow. And she said that all with the same politely cheerful face, too. There was obviously bad blood between the sisters and Gwen, and I was caught in the crossfire.

Hayla scowled, obviously a bit ticked off that her insult had done squat. The second half of the duo recovered more quickly. Natyly circled the two of us, scrutinizing me from head to toe. She was seriously starting to make me feel uncomfortable.
“Too bad politeness won’t help your new friend tomorrow when we start drills,” she said as she held up my arm, which looked flabby compared to her corded muscle. “She’ll be killed out there.”
“Stop talking about me as if I’m not here, all of you!” I snapped, snatching my arm back.
“Ooh, she speaks!” mocked Hayla. “Tell me, what’s it like to live in caves, civie?”
“Yes, do you have to feel around in the dark all the time, or has your kind figured out how fire works yet?” asked Natayly.
“I’ll bet you aren’t a Warrior at all! I bet Darius saw how pitiful you looked and decided to take you under our wing. He always did have a heart for sad-looking dogs.”
Gwen’s hand flew from my shoulder to Hayla’s face faster than you could say the words “shut up”. The girl staggered back. When she took her hand away from her face, I saw that her nose was bleeding. Her face flushed scarlet with anger, but before either she or Natayly could pounce upon the redhead, another girl had launched herself between them.
“Break it up, break it up!” shouted a girl not much taller than Gwen, with mousy brown hair that whacked me in the face as she scrambled to keep the girls apart. “What is your problem? Hayla, Nat, is that any way to treat our guest?”
The girl turned around, revealing a round face, bangs, and kind gray eyes. “My name is Sabryna,” she said, shaking my hand with a rather strong grip, “and most of us here try not make new students feel like a pile of nightmare poo on their first day. You’ll have to forgive these two, they’re absolutely insufferable.”
“No, no, it’s quite alright, I’m sure they were just poking fun…” I said as I glanced at the sisters, who certainly did not look like they were only teasing. Though I’d never quite fit in at home, with either the boys or girls, I’d never been straight-out insulted to my face, not like that.
“I still dob’t belieb she’s a Warbior,” said Hayla through her bloody nose.
I yanked my sleeve down to show her my Mark. I was done with these girls and their taunting and accusations and better-than-you sneers. Just shut up already, I thought.
As soon as the twins caught sight of my shoulder, I cut of the questions that were obviously coming. “Yes, I am aware that most people don’t have that little spiky ring around their it, but I really don’t believe it’s of consequence at the moment.”
“You tell it to ’em, sister,” Gwen whispered, grinning.
The twins looked taken-aback. Natayly stammered for a retort, or maybe something mean to say, but I guess she decided she couldn’t refute my Warrior-ness, and settled with a glare that perfectly mirrored the one I was getting from Hayla. They walked back to their beds, apart from everyone else, and I’m happy to say that they left me alone for the rest of that evening.
Ayva introduced me to the other three girls in the room, who apparently were all on the same team. They seemed to be perfectly nice girls, albeit ones that could probably snap my neck in an instant and not bat an eye.
We chatted for a bit, learning about each other. They had so many questions about my village. Apparently, civilian life was rather primitive in comparison to what the Warriors were used to.
Eventually, they wanted to know about how I was found. I say back on the bed I had been given and let Gwen tell that story, and soon, I drifted into the dark recesses of sleep.
*        *        *       *       *
Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong.
I started awake, thinking at first that I was in my cot at home. My eyes focused on the face leaning in front of me and I remembered everything.
“Rise and shine, my friend,” Gwen smiled. “You’re in for a day like you’ve never seen before.”
Groggily, I looked around. The other girls seemed to be in a similar state, yawning and dragging themselves out of bed. Gwen dropped a change of clothes into my lap, the same black pants and yellow sleeveless shirt that everyone else was changing into. Good. I couldn’t wait to get out of the dress.
Gwen showed me to the washroom, and soon I was sitting in the mess hall again, wearing my new-and surprisingly comfortable-uniform. I stared at my plate, trying to figure out what was on it.
“Um, do you know what this is?” I asked, pointing at something white and yellow.
“Eggs,” said Rich through a mouthful of potatoes. “You’ve never had eggs?”
“No. Do the faeries grow them? They’ve never sold us any.”
Richard nearly spit his food out. “Do the faeries grow them? Great One, woman, have you ever seen a chicken?”
“Richard means to say that eggs are laid by chickens,” Will explained,  “There are people in the City who breed chickens and other animals for food. I suppose you might not have that, back at your home.”
Ohhh. I had heard about chickens and goats and pigs from adults in our village, as well as in my books. I was told that they used to be kept around for their milk, or eggs (though until now, I hadn’t quite understood what those were), or their meat. Since we became dependent on the faeries, however, people had been too busy trying to keep themselves from starving to care for animals. If the Warriors could afford meat, they must be very rich indeed.
As I ate, I looked at the trio of my newfound friends. They were so…contradictory, their own ways. It was interesting to watch the ways in which they acted towards each other.
Gwen was unlike any girl I had encountered before, in more ways than just her looks. Though she spoke frankly, she was funny and witty, comfortable to laugh and talk with openly. She seemed to see everything simply, in black and white, and wouldn’t take trouble from anybody. Gwen ate twice as much as one would think her small body would allow, and she didn’t try to impress by appearing more pretty or well mannered than she actually was. No words, compliment or criticism, seemed to touch her, and the result was this content, laid-back toughness, like Gwen knew she could break your arm in an instant, but wasn’t going to, because you were a friend.
Richard, on the other hand, was all attempted wit and easy swagger. The way he carried himself, with such confidence, you would have thought that he, not Will, was the best nightmare hunter of his age. He acted like the world was one big crazy mess, to be joked about, or flirted with, or sometimes punched in the face if it was being a jerk.
With personalities like that, it was easy to see how they butted heads. In another world, the two of them would probably have ended up as deadly rivals, but as it was, they were something between siblings and an old married couple. Gwen would say something, and Richard would turn it into a playful jab, and she would flip it right back onto him, and they would end up with one or another of them in a headlock with Will laughing and breaking it up.
Now Will-Will was entirely the opposite. He just smiled and watched his friends feed off each other’s words. Unlike Rich, Will wasn’t all that handsome-not that he was ugly or anything either. He just seemed…ordinary. Will was kind though, I could tell that. While we were eating, he tried to give me a little bit of background information for what we would learn today, so I wouldn’t be completely behind.
“In our science classes, were studying different types of vegetation and how you can use them. I’ll point out the useful ones to you when we-”
“So, the civie knows how to use a fork! I’m surprised!” drawled a voice behind me. I turned to see a boy with dusty hair and an expression dripping with sarcasm standing behind me, arms folded. Behind him smirked Hayla and Natayly. I hadn’t even heard them approach. I tried to gauge whether the new kid was their ringleader or their evil spawn.
“Of course I know how to use utensils,” I shot back calmly. “I also know how to use my inside voice.”
“Inside where? Your cave?” Hayla and Natyly laughed. Defintiely a ringleader. “I wish you luck in our classes today. Are they putting you in with the first years, or are you just going to figure out how to read on your own?”
“Wait, a second,” said Richard, looking like he was straining to hear something. “You hear that, Feyden? It’s the sound of nobody cares!
“Yes, the Spite Sisters showed well enough where you lot stand on the matter last night,” Gwen continued for him, “Now go plot our demise somewhere else. My eggs are getting cold.”
“I’d have to agree,” smiled Will, “Sensa is a part of our team now, and if you’re going to insult her, you aren’t welcome here.”
I got a warm sort of feeling inside, almost melting away the worry for my Gramma that had been nesting inside me since yesterday.
Before Feyden could say anything else, a whistle blew, and across the hall, students stood up and started to head towards the door. Feyden glared at us than turns on his heel and left, twins in tow.
Rich sighed. “Glad those freaks are out of our face. Come on, time for class!” He grabbed my wrist and pulled me out into the hallway, Gwenolyn and Will chatting behind me.
We passed through a section of corridors that the girls had told me the classes were taught in, called the Hall of Knowledge. The walls were decorated with mosaics of scholars and books, geometric shapes and mathematical equations, astronomers and stars.
When we entered the classroom, I was immediately greeted by a funny little man with graying hair and very large spectacles, apparently the teacher.
“Oh, you must be the new student!” he said, shaking my hand vigorously, “Miss Sensa…?”
“Ivyne,” I said. Gramma raised me, so it only seemed fair to take her name, not my mother’s. The man didn’t question it.
“My name is Professor Alden. Headmaster Darius has informed me about your situation. I understand that you will only be here temporarily, but I do hope you will study hard. I assume Miss Laurya, and Masters Thomys and Brent will help you?”
“Yes Professor,” they chimed.
“Good. Take your seats, then.”
We sat as books were passed around. There were only about twenty people in the class, and all appeared to be about my age. Will pointed out the boys I hadn’t met and told me their names. One boy had dark skin like Gwen’s; Will said thier families had moved here from a different City a couple generations ago, in a situation similar to the one that led Gramma to move. It was amazing how big the world was, and yet we all had the same problems.
“Settle down students,” called the teacher from the front of the room. “Now, today we start a new chapter of our history studies. But before we begin, I would like Miss Sensa Ivyne to stand and introduce herself to the class.”
What? What kind of cruel trick was this supposed to be? The tiny man was still smiling merrily, however, so I guessed it wasn’t a malicious gesture. I could feel all twenty pairs of eyes on me, waiting. I wished I could just get this new-student thing over with. Better yet, I wished Gramma had never gone missing and I was back home, where I didn’t feel so foreign.
Slowly, I stood, hoping I looked more confident than I felt. “Um, hi. My name is Sensa.”
“Tell us a little bit about yourself, Sensa,” coaxed the teacher.
“Well…I like to ride horses. And read stories.” At that, the class erupted in whispers. I knew what they were saying. She can read? I thought the civies didn’t have books. Maybe she’s lying to make herself look better. I felt myself flush deep red as I sat down. Why did those stupid monsters have to take my Gramma?
“Quiet down everyone, quiet down!” called Professor Alden. “Thank you, Miss Ivyne. Now, for the next month or two, we will be studying the Orc Wars. Please open your books to page 118. The Orc Wars originally stemmed from a feud between the  orc clans, Mountain Clan and the Forest Clan…”
It went on like that for a while. The professor chose someone to read out loud from the book, and then they chose a person, and so on. At least the history lesson was fascinating.
“…and after a three day seige, the clan lord Zeb surrendered the tree fort to Mountain clan army,” finished Feyden. Then he turned around and gave me a very fake smile. “And how about we let Sensa read next?”
Most people tried not to make it noticeable, but they were all looking at me, curious. They still didn’t believe I could read. They didn’t believe I was really Warrior. Well, I would show them. Angrily, I picked up my book.
“Advantages and disadvantages of Forest orcs. The Forest clan’s most obvious disadvantage is their size; most Forest orcs reach a maximum size of about three feet. This makes them prone to the overhead attacks of Mountain spears and bolts. The Forest orcs also tend to attack wildly and savagely in little to no formation or pattern, whereas the Mountain clan will form organized armies and use more strategic attack methods.
“However, the Forest orcs are remarkably nimble, and as such they are able to swiftly penetrate the enemy lines, primarily by using their double rows of sharp teeth to incapacitate the larger orcs. Another of their advantages is their faerie-like ability to alter their environment. This skill makes ambushes-a common Forest clan strategy-especially effective and easy.”
I looked up to see everyone staring at me openly. Some were grinning, like my teammates. Feyden looked like he wanted to kill somebody. Probably me. Professor Alden motioned for me pick someone to continue.
“Um, Rich, you can read next,” I said.
As Gwen started on the next paragraph, Will  held out his fist to me. Noticing my blank expression, he leaned over and whispered, “It’s a sign of respect.  Like saying ‘good job’ when you’ve done something  right that was very difficult. You put your fist on top, see?” Hesitantly, I made a fist and stacked it on top of his. “Exactly,” he smiled, then turned back to his book before we got in trouble.
*          *         *         *         *
The rest of the day passed the same way. I understood more of what we learned than I had thought I would. Gramma’s books had taught me a lot. I thought I was going to be fine, until we started our afternoon classes.
While the morning had been all book learning, the afternoon was all physical training. First, we ran laps around the entire Academy, which killed me. But I was far more dead when we arrived at our next class, improvised fighting, where I learned how to kill people, nightmares, and six different types of dangerous animals with a twig. Third was nature tactics, in which we had to start fires with deadwood and flint.
Just when I thought my day couldn’t possibly get any harder, the instructor announced we would be moving on to weapons practice. Before I could groan, I felt a gentle squeeze at my elbow.
“Headmaster Darius has given me clearance to hold your training during this period,” whispered Will. I nearly sighed with relief. The instructor-a tall woman named Madame Trysha-nodded her permission, and we left, catching our breath as we hurried down hallways decorated with mosaics of legendary Warriors and Lightweapons.
“After you, my lady,” he said holding open the door to an empty room. Inside was a simple training space, simpler than the classroom we had just left: hard padding covered the floor, there were practice dummies lined against the wall, and a rack for weapons was  hung in the corner.
Will walked in and turned to face me. “Punch me.”
“Wait…what?” I didn’t know what to expect from my tutoring, but this certainly wasn’t it.
“Punch me,” he said, that same pleasant smile on his face. “In the face, stomach, shoulder, anywhere. Groin shots are off-limits, though. So are neck hits and fatal blows to the head, but I don’t think you can manage those yet, so have at it.”
“Why?”
“Just do it.”
Why?”
“It doesn’t matter why.”
“Yes it does! I’m not about to punch someone who has been exceptionally kind to me in the face if I don’t know why!”
Will studied my face for a moment, carefully, like trying to make out the tiny details of a painting. Then he broke into a big grin. “Alright then. It’s a common thing they do for the first years, to get them to learn to follow orders. They give them strange directions like this randomly until they all learn not to question the instructor and just go with it.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit insulted and the smallest bit guilty I had pressed him so when he was only trying to teach me. “So I suppose I failed that test?”
Will laughed. “Not really. It was a bit unfair of me to spring this on you, since you didn’t know anything about it. The kids, at least, know its coming and what it’s about. It won’t be a big deal.” I certainly hoped so; obedience had never been one of my crowning virtues.
“Do you still want me to punch you?” I asked, already preparing a fist.
“Yes. I’m going to teach you unarmed fighting first, so you can develop your reflexes. Alright?”
“Perfect,” I smiled. Better than making a fool of myself with a knife again.
For the next hour or so, Will taught me the proper form for punches, solid stances, and blocks, until I felt I could knock out a man in my sleep.
“And now we are back where we started,” he said, lowering into a fighting position.”Punch me.”
This time I didn’t hesitate. I threw a left hook-which he blocked- followed by a right clip to the jaw, which he caught. Wow. He couldn’t expect me to beat him, with reflexes like that. Oh, I see, I thought, it isn’t about that at all.
I would have to catch him off guard if I were to ever land a hit. So I punched towards Will’s face, over and over, at least a dozen times building a rhythm. Then, I threw a sudden, hard jab to the stomach. He didn’t anticipate it, and his suprise gave me an opening for a harder punch to the face.
He smiled as he rubbed his nose, fist outstretched. I stacked mine on top. “Knowing how to fight is only half the battle,” said Will, “you also need to be able to apply yourself in the situation. And that, my lady, is much harder.”
We sat for a couple of minutes to catch our breath. “So,” he said after a moment of silence, “We have some extra time this afternoon. Is there anything you want to do? I could give you a tour, or whatever.”
“Thanks, but I think it would take a lifetime to explore this whole place.”
He laughed. “True. I’ve been living here for the past eight years,  discovered dozens of secret rooms and passages in my time, and I still haven’t even scratched the surface of the secrets this place hides.”
“Sounds nice,” I said, “having a place like this to grow up in.”
“You probably would have loved it.” said Will. “The games we played, exploring after bedtime. I saw how you fought the nightmares last night. Very messy knife work, but the raw talent was obvious. You would have flourished here.”
Would have. There was a moment of silence as I imagined what it would be like, growing up here. I would have learn to fight, learned about the world, grown up with people like myself, lived my entire life in this thrill that I had somehow walked into. It was like something straight out of a book.
Again, Will broke the silence. “….You said it was your birthday yesterday, right?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Funny, with everything else, I’d forgotten about it completely.”
“Come with me,” he said, jumping to his feet and holding out his hand, “Everyone should get a present on their birthday.”
At this point, I figured nothing would surprise me, so I let Will lead me back down the corridors of the Hall of Knowledge. I kept thinking about that cake Gramma and Katryna had made me, and how it would probably be inedible by the time I returned. We stopped in front of a set of double doors. On them was a carving of a huge, twisting tree laden with fruit.
“Now close your eyes,” said Will. He looked like he could barely contain his smile. I wondered what on earth could be behind those doors, what he was so excited to show me.
I closed my eyes. After Will made certain I wasn’t peeking, I heard a loud creak, what I could only assume was the doors being pulled open. As I was led blindly inside, I felt the whole atmosphere change. And was that musky smell…the scent of paper?
“Okay,” said Will, “you can look now.”
At first, I opened my eyes slowly, but when I caught my first glimpse, my eyes nearly popped out of my head,  my jaw on the floor.
The room was huge, so large I couldn’t see the end of it. The floor was covered in worn carpet, and directly in front of me, there was a cozy circle of armchairs and tables and lamps, where students were poring over homework and talking in hushed voices.
But none of that compared to the books. Everywhere I looked, I saw shelf after shelf, all of them filled with what had to be thousands of books. They were made of dark wood, reaching all the way to the ceiling, like a labyrinth you could get lost in and never want to find your way out again.
I stood there, speechless, just trying to take everything in.
“Happy birthday!” said Will. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“I…I mean yes…thank you,” I stuttered.
“Come on, let’s go get you one,” he said. “What kind of books do you like?”
“My favorites are the ones containing fact,” I said, still in a daze as I followed Will into the stacks, “I like learning about the world, the way it was before.”
“Then you’ll probably want something about science, and maybe some history as well.” We sifted through the shelves for hours-though it seemed to be minutes-, finding books about ecology, astronomy, sociology, wars and Warriors, politics, how the races coexist and a work together, everything. After years of my only knowledge about the world beyond my life coming from a few scrolls in a box, it felt like heaven.
“Wait a moment,” said Will. “There’s one I bet you’ve read. It’ll only take a moment; its section is pretty close to here.”
“Yes, you go on ahead,” I said, engrossed in a book about the nature capabilities of faeries and Forest orcs and not really paying attention.Will left, and all was silent for a moment. I was very deep in the book; I didn’t even know the boy was there until he spoke.
“That was quite the performance, in class today,” he said, making me jump. Feyden was leaning against the bookshelves opposite me. “I was almost impressed.”
I sighed. “Just say what you will and let’s all move on with our lives, shall we?”
“We can’t move on with our, lives, because of you!” he hissed, trying to maintain the quiet of the library. “Everything was going along fine, and then you pop up out of nowhere! And not only does Darius let you, a total stranger, enter the haven of the Soldiers’ City and the Academy, but he expects us to teach you and train you, like a show pony learning how to walk halfway through the show!”
“No one asked you to do anything for me, Feyden!” I said. “If you’re so opposed to the idea of my being here, then why dont you leave me alone?”
“Because, Miss Sensa,” Feyden leered, pushing off the wall and closing the distance between us until we were nose to nose, “there is something…off about you. You aren’t like the rest of us. I can feel it. And no amount of nightmare killing or reading or showing off your strange Mark is going to convince me otherwise.”
I let those words sink in while trying to keep my face neutral. He hated me for no reason at all, nothing but a hunch. What was his problem? I stared defiantly up at him.
“Look, all this is new to me, too. I never asked for this to happen, never asked the nightmares to take my Gramma away from me. All I know is that she is gone, and I’m going to do what I need to do to get her back. I’m sorry if that somehow interferes with whatever agenda you have going on, but it really isn’t my problem. Now back off.” I pushed him away from me, hard. Feyden stumbled back, looking both surprised and livid.
Before he could do anything, Will came waltzing around the corner, a fat book tucked under his arm.
“Here, Sensa, I found the-,” his face fell as he fought sight of Feyden. “What’s going on here?”
“I was just telling your new friend that she has no place here,” said Feyden, eyes narrowed. “Why did you bring her back here, Will? Bringing a stranger into this place without knowing a thing about her-she could be a spy! You would be responsible for the downfall of hundreds of years of Warriors’ hard work. How thick can you get?”
“Sensa is not a spy,” Will replied calmly. . “You know the Soldiers’ Code: ‘When brother or sister be in need, thy help shall be given them in the fullest’. You would have me leave Sensa orphaned, alone in a world where she doesn’t belong?”
“She doesn’t belong here!” Feyden nearly shouted, “She never will!”
She is right here!” I said indignantly.
She shouldn’t be!”
“Stop it, Feyden!” said Will. “It’s enough that you mess with Gwen and Rich, but Sensa hasn’t been here twenty-four hours! Leave her be!”
Feyden laughed hollowly. “Strangers in the Cityare never a good idea, Will. You’ll see.”
“What’s his problem?” I asked as the boy stalked away.
Will sighed. “Some people just need a reason to be bitter.” But he brightened quickly and handed me a thick tome
I took it gingerly, and immediately noticed the silver words embossed on the front cover. They seemed an oddly extravagant touch, since none of the other books had them, and those were the special, bound books that had to be written out by hand. But what the words said explained it:
“The Book of Sacred Legends,” I read, smiling at Will. “My Gramma had a scroll copy of this, read it with me every night! The tales of the Great One’s miracles, heavenly guidance and such, right?”
“Yes. But for the Warriors, it’s also history text, and a key guide for life, so much that it’s often referred to as the Soldier’s Code. Every significant event that ever happened for any of the races is in here, and specific instructions about how to fight both the darkness out there,” Will nodded to the window, “and in here,” he tapped his chest, right where his heart would be.
“Plus, there’s all sorts of stories about ancient Warriors.” He thumbed fondly through the yellowed volume. The pages were filled with pictures, like the one the headmaster showed me. I saw snatches of the battles for Mount Speur. The tale of the Speaking Ocean. Olyve the Orc Slayer. “Every kid loves stories about monsters and the heroes that defeat them.”
“Do you think yourself a hero, Will?” Did fighting monsters automatically make you one? Or perhaps not the fighting, but the good that came of it.
“I think we’ve all wanted to play the hero at some time or other,” Will shrugged, “but heroes live the loneliest lives, and suffer the most hardship. It almost seems better to just be average. The unnamed people don’t get hurt.”

I wasn’t sure if that was quite true. Honestly, I didn’t care. Not yet, anyway.

Chapter 4

What?!” I exclaimed.
“You are a Warrior!” the professor smiled pleasantly, “Congratulations, my dear!
Okay. Okay. Not okay. I had gone through a lot that night. I had willingly accepted that a race I had thought only belonged in stories actually existed. I had accepted that my fears were caused by a bunch of monsters who haunted people in their sleep.  I had accepted that my Gramma, my only family, had been taken by those monsters. I had gone on a wild crusade into the night, fought for my life, and done several supposedly impossible things, and hasn’t questioned any of it.
I was at the end of my believing rope.
“Listen. I’ve gone along with all of this pretty easily. But now, you’re expecting me to believe that I’m not what I’ve been for the past sixteen years, not what I’ve been raised to be, not what I always, with absolute certainly, believed I was, not human-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” Richard stepped in, “‘not human’?!”
“What Master Richard means to say,” Professor Darius cut in kindly, “is that Warriors are very much human; we’re just a bit…extra.
“There is an ancient legend about the origins of the Warriors,” he said, hurrying to one of the shelves and pulling a book off of it, making the others leaning against it fall. He skimmed through the pages until he found what he was looking for and held the volume out to me.
On one page was a vividly painted picture of a dark world, much like the one we lived in now, and people, brows furrowed in anxiety. On the right hand page, there was a picture of a nightmare lurking in the gloom. “Before the Great One invented light, all the races if the earth lived in fear, fear of the darkness and the unknown. He From this fear, nightmares were born.”
He flipped the page, revealing a picture of a hand setting what I assumed was the sun into the sky; its rays illuminated the people, arms raised, rejoicing. In the picture beside it, it was nighttime, and the nightmare towered over the people, who were freaking out again. “To solve this problem, the Great One created the sun and the moon, to chase away darkness and fear. But, unfortunately, the moon was not strong enough to keep away the ever-persistent nightmares, and they came back to terrorize humanity.”
The next pages showed the hand again, this time beckoning, and some of the people raising their hands; the page after that showed a small armed group running to clash with the nightmares. “So the Great One asked the humans to form an army and eliminate the nightmares. He promised them that he would look after them in battle, and promised that with His help, they would defeat every last nightmare, if they would all help. But, despite His assurances, only a small portion of men and women were willing to fight.
“The Great One was appalled and enraged that so many had disregarded His words. ‘Are there no more among you who are brave enough to face their enemy and fight? What need you fear? If I am with you, none will be able to even lay a finger upon your head!’ So he declared, ‘Since you are not willing to help eradicate your threat, it will not be eradicated! I will take this army of willing servants, and I will use them to drive the hordes away, and greatly reduce them in number. But since you would not destroy them, they will remain, to haunt you in your sleep and cause all manner of trouble for you and your generations.’
“So the brave few suited up for battle, mounted their steeds, and, with the power of the Great One, they killed so many nightmares, that their queen ordered them to run away and hide.” Darius flipped the page again. The next two pages depicted the hand from above, first showering some sort of fog over many people, then held over the small group of soldiers, who were kneeling with smiles on their faces.
“When the battle ended, the army celebrated a victory. The Great One separated the soldiers from those who did not volunteer, bestowing upon them different gifts and roles in life.
“For the civilians, He gave the gifts of blindness and the mundane life; always merciful, He spared them the knowledge of nightmares, making them unable to be seen or touched by them, and while they would experience far less honor in life, they would have peace and safety.
“The Warriors had a very different job: to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, to guard against and destroy nightmares and the fear the brought with them. For their bravery and submission, he gifted the Warriors with courage, physical ability, and wisdom to help them through the trials they would encounter. He also put sunlight into their blood, to give them strength against the depths of darkness, and put a Mark upon each of them, that they may be set apart from the other races of the earth, and that nightmares may know their enemy.” The professor snapped the book shut.
I bit my lip, processing the story. It was a creation story I’d never heard before, and parts of it seemed to be fabricated, intentionally or not, to justify the sense of supremacy Warriors seemed to have over civilians. I bet with the right education or training, civilians could do everything Warriors could except see nightmares. But there was truth to the story, as there was truth to the story I told the children around the bonfire.

Then something clicked in my head. “That Mark you mentioned…do Warriors today still have it?”

“Yes,” Gwen smiled, catching onto my line of thinking. “Every Warrior is born with the Mark. Inside the City, we usually try to wear clothes that display our Mark, but we cover it when we’re hunting; nightmares can see a Mark from a mile away.”
She pushed her cloak cloak aside and slid her right sleeve down revealing an X-shaped birthmark with pointed ends. I backed up, hitting the edge if the desk. No, I thought, impossible.
Hand shaking, I pulled own the sleeve of my dress and shirt to reveal what I had always thought was just a really odd birthmark.
It was a a pointed X, identical to Gwen’s in every way except one: around mine was a circle, the outer edge spiked evenly. Whenever I had asked Gramma about its distinct shape, she would get very quiet and serious and a little sad, and told me I must always cover it up. She said she would tell me why when I was older, but it had always wracked me with curiosity.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the Warriors around the room.
“What’s that thing around your Mark?” asked Richard tilting his head sideways to get a better look at it.
“Yes, that is a bit strange…” supplied Will, brow furrowed.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Professor Darius spoke hurriedly, “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes Warriors do have peculiar Marks. Sometimes, they foretell an unusual destiny for the bearer-but not always. I remember a girl when I was younger who had a big dot in the middle of hers. Now she owns a tailoring shop. Who knows?”
We all turned to look at the Professor. His demeanor had gone from calm, composed wisdom to giving frantic explanations in an instant. Strange.
“What I mean to say,” he said more slowly, “Is that Sensa is one of us, in every way. ”
“But…my Gramma…why didn’t she tell me? She must have known, because I had the Mark…” At least now I know why she wanted me to hide it. It would attract nightmares to our area like bugs to a faerie lantern.
“Oh, yes, your lost grandmother. We’ll send out a search party for her immediately. What was her name?”
“Ivene.”
The Professor’s smile froze. “Ivene? Ivene Gregory?” He rushed over to a bookcase and skimmed along the shelf until he found what he was looking for. He snatched up a tall and immensely thick book and thumbed through the pages until he slapped it down to stop the next page from turning. “Here,” he said, handing it to me, “That’s her, isn’t it?”
I stared at the picture on the page. It was a detailed drawing of four kids, a couple years older than me. On the left were two boys who looked very much alike; definently brothers, probably twins. One had the other in a headlock and was messing up the laughing boy’s hair. To the far right was another boy, his arm slung casually around the shoulders of the girl in the middle.
And the girl in the middle was…Gramma. She was younger, of course, and dressed in Warrior clothes, but still obviously my grandmother. She was holding a book, laughing at something the boy had just said. She looked at comfortable, at home…happy.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, that’s her. But I don’t understand. Gramma looks so happy here. If she enjoyed being a Warrior, why would she leave? Why would she keep this from me?”
The Professor grew solemn. “This is a picture of your grandmother’s team, her fighting partners, when they graduated from the Academy. Your Gramma was at the top of her class, you know. She and you’re grandfather-that’s the boy she’s speaking to in the picture, Gregory-were married and had a son, Petyr.
“When he was young, we had a change in government leaders. Every six years, the people who used to be in charge of making decisions for the community leave their positions, and the people of the City choose new ones. Well, unfortunately, the people who were chosen didn’t follow through with what they said they would when we chose them.
“The government was corrupt. They began collecting more money for themselves, charging fees on buying weapons and gear, making people pay a good deal to send their children to the Academy. Warriors were sent out on dangerous missions, and many of them did not come back alive. Gregory  was sent on one of these missions, and-Great One bless his soul-he died.
“Your grandmother was devastated. She decided to leave the City, declaring she would not live under the corruption of the people who had killed her husband . So she and Petyr packed up and left, and no one ever saw them again. Until you came along.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I was her teammate,” Darius pointed to the boy caught in a headlock.

“Oh.”

“Wait-what about your parents? I don’t recall seeing them in your home.” Will frowned.
“They’re dead,” I replied frankly. “My father died in a hunting accident before I was born, and my mother died giving birth to me.” The room fell silent, its occupants solemn.
“That is a very unfortunate thing indeed,” The Professor said. “I assume your mother was a civilian, from the village you grew up in?” I nodded. “Well, I suppose you take after her, then. I see very little of your grandparents in you.”
Just then, a young girl rushed into the into the room. She seemed short of breath, and her face was red, but her eyes gleamed with wild glee.
“Professor,” she said, “all the teams are back. The feast is starting.”
“Oh yes,” Darius said, taking the book from me and shoving back onto its shelf, “I’ve forgotten myself. I have to give a speech tonight. You three,” he turned to look at the Warriors who had brought me here, “would you look after Miss Sensa? Show her the ropes, at least until I can find a team for her?”
“We’d be happy to have Sensa on our team,” Will said. “Wouldn’t we?” he looked at his friends for confirmation.
Gwenolyn smiled. “Of course.”
Richard sized me up, then shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
“Well, that makes things a lot easier.” The Professpr rubbed his hands together. “These three will show you your way around, give you some extra training to make up for what you’ve been missing out on. I’m putting you in charge if that, Master Thomys,” he looked pointedly at Will, who nodded. “Master Willym here is at the top of his class. Excellent fighter, that one.” Will blushed a bit.
“As for Ivene, I will send a hunting party in search of her as soon as I dismiss the students. I assure you, Miss Sensa, you will find yourself very much at home here,” Professor Darius smiled at me. “Now come along, children, to the mess hall! Don’t want your food to get cold!”
As we made our way down to the “mess hall” I looked at Will in a new light. He had just volunteered to take hours out of his time to train a virtual stranger how to fight, and then cheerfully took me under the wing of his group.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” he replied pleasantly.
“Take me onto your team.”
Willym laughed. “Because I want you on our team.  You’ve never even left your village, most likely, and yet you insisted on galavanting off into the night and fighting monsters, without a second thought. And tackling a nightmare to save a girl you’d just met-that takes serious guts.You don’t have the skills yet, but you’ve got the spirit. I can already tell we’ll be friends.”
I looked at the trio of strangers who didn’t really seem like strangers anymore.
“Yes. I think we will.”
*        *         *        *         *        *      *
I don’t know what I was expecting from the “mess hall” but this was not it. It was a huge, spacious room, the sounds of laughter and chatter resonating throughout. The room was dotted with round wooden tables, and most of them were full, four or five students sitting at each. The students seemed to sit with their age group, children that couldn’t be older than seven or eight against the left wall, and young adults looking to be almost twenty sat on the far right. A long table sat on a slightly raised platform in the back, occupied by what I assumed were teachers. In front of the platform was an even longer table, devoid of people and chairs. Instead of being lit by bare house lanterns, as most rooms were, this one had dozens of large hand lanterns hanging from the ceiling on chains. The panes of glass in the lanterns were colored red and orange and purple and green, giving the room a cheerful and comfortable aura.
The Professor made his way to the staff table, where he took his seat in the center of the table. Richard led the way to an empty table towards the right, greeting people along the way. He winked at a blonde girl, but she just rolled her eyes.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Richard thinks he’s a lady-killer. But as you can see, the ladies are still very much alive.” That made Will laugh.
When we sat down, I got my first good look at what was on each table. Atop the plain wooden table was a bowl of fruit. Wait, fruit?! Fruit was something of a delicacy where I lived. You could get it from the faeries, but only for a high price. My stomach grumbled and it struck me that I still hadn’t eaten since early this morning. I grabbed a pear and dug in.
Next to the bowl was a bottle filled with something green. At each place setting was only a tall wineglass, made of dark wood and filled with the green stuff.
As I took my seat I noticed that a lot of people were looking at me strangely, whispering to their friends. Of course; they’d never seen me before in their lives. I ignored them.
“So…what is this?” I asked peering at the strange liquid in my glass.
“Not wine,” said Rich ruefully, his glass already half-drained. “Just a sort of juice. They-” he jerked his head towards the oldest students, “get wine. Not us; apparently it’s “unhealthy” to drink wine at our age.”
“Or, maybe they just want to avoid the tragedies that would occur should you get drunk.” supplied Gwen. I couldn’t hold back a tiny snigger.
“Attention, everyone!” I turned to see Professor Darius, who had stood up to address the room.
“Welcome, children, back from your hunt! I assume you all were successful?” This drew a surge of cheers from the tables around me. “Good, good. Now, on to other matters.
“Some of you may remember that, this night, exactly sixteen years ago, the sun set. The next morning, it did not rise. This eternal night has taken its toll on every race living on this earth. The orcs have no creatures to hunt, and rely on the mercy of their Forest Class for sustenance. The faeries, once free and playflul, must work long and hard to keep the moon in the sky and keep the food growing. The civilians must rely on the faeries completely, working only to make trinkets for them and hope not to starve.
“The only creatures who have benefitted from this endless night are the nightmares. They run rampant through the countryside; the world lives in fear! It has become harder for us to contain them. We must fight constantly to keep the creatures at bay. In a dark world, dark things prosper-but we are the light! We are the Soldiers of the Sun! We must do its work, even when the Great One keeps it from us! It is our duty to our Maker, to the peoples of this land, to ourselves, to continue to fight these monsters in the name of righteousness!”
I listened to his speech through an outsider’s lens. Having just experienced a different anniversary acknowledgement of the sun’s passing a few hours ago, it was interesting to see what it meant to someone else. For the civilians, it was a rare excuse to celebrate, full of desperate hope and prayerful pleading.
But for the Warriors, it was almost a cause for mourning. Another year gone by, another year where the world hasn’t worked as it should. Another year people starve and struggle. I could feel the burden they carried; it was as if they had to replace the sun itself. Where before their work had taken up only the scant hours of the night, it was now a twenty-four hour job. They felt responsible for the suffering of everyone around them. They were the Sun Soldiers-but without the sun, what did they stand for?
“Now then,” the Professor continued, a smile dawning on his face. “Tonight, while hunting, one of our teams found something much more valuable than just a horde: a Warrior, alone amongst civilians.” Whispers broke out all over the room. The people who had seen me looked our way; I swallowed and waved tentatively.
“Her grandmother-also one of our number-has been kidnapped by nightmares; it is urgent that we retrieve her before they do any harm. In the meantime, Miss Sensa will be staying here at the Academy; I expect you will embrace her with open arms?” The students nodded, many of the ones near us flashing warm smiles at me. The tension that I hadn’t even known had been building in my chest subsided considerably.
“And to our dear sister returned to us,” Professor Darius smiled straight at me, “welcome home.”

Author’s Note:

Hi, there, readers! I just wanted to clarify something.

In the latter half of Chapter 2, you may have noticed that I switched to a third person narrative: this is because i switched to Willym’s POV. I realize that I probably didn’t make that clear enough, and I will try to make it more obvious in the future.

Thanks for reading! I will try to have Chapter 4 up as soon as possible.

-Alex

Chapter 3

There is nothing quite like riding a wild horse. The wind whipping through your hair, the feel of hooves pounding beneath you…it is possibly the most glorious, exhilarating feeling in the world. 
  Of course, when I first got on the nightmare, it struggled; I still can’t believe I held on through all of its bucking. But then, when I righted myself on its back, something…clicked. Suddenly, the horse and I seemed to be like one creature, hearts beating in tandem and movements synchronized. I could tell the horse had adrenaline in its blood and let it gallop; it seemed to feel that I was uncomfortable and formed a saddle. 
   The rest of my evening-or was it morning?- was less enjoyable. Mostly, it was just confusing. The Warriors seemed like good enough people, especially that Willym. He was kind to me, understanding. Richard seemed to be that cocky type of boy who carried himself too confidently, the sort of boy that was used to making girls swoon with little more than a look. Gwenolyn was a bit more confusing. When she first walked in, I was unsure of whether she was a boy or girl. She carried herself like a boy, and acted like one, and I had never seen a girl with hair cut that short-girls in the village always grew their hair long in hopes that their beautiful locks would fetch a husband. On the other hand, the lines of her face spoke of femininity, as did her  not-so-generous curves. Girl I had finally decided. Judging by her name, I was probably right. 
  There was also the strange, box-like contraption, the carriage. The ride had been so full of fascinating notions. A school, place where you came and learned things, knowledge always at your disposal, more and more every day! And full of so many people, you had to have two names to distinguish yourself! I could hardly believe I was going to such a place right now…
  And then came the battle. It was completely unlike anything I had ever experienced, the strong, dark creatures lashing out at you, hooves kicking, knife swinging, the desperation of struggling to stay alive. Thank goodness instinct had taken over and told me how to handle my knife-which startled me by glowing the second I collided with the first nightmare-, where to stab the creatures to make them explode into black sand. Truth be told though…it wasn’t all that bad. The rush of battle had been kind of…fulfilling. I felt at home, holding that knife.
  I had so many questions. Why could I see nightmares? How come I could ride one when no Warrior ever could? And most importantly, Where was my Gramma?
  “We’re here!” Will called, snapping me out of my reverie. Since we needed to bring the nightmare horse as evidence for their professor, and the horse refused to be tied behind the carriage, I had to ride it to the Academy. To make sure I didn’t get lost, Will had unharnessed one of the horses from the carriage and was riding beside me, though he had to keep his distance from my wild steed.
  I looked around for the school, but I saw nothing but empty plains. “Where is it?” I called. 
 “In order to keep the Academy a secret from trespassers, the school if protected by a number of magical barriers. Some of them keep nightmares at bay, some ward off those with evil intentions, the list goes on and and on. Anyways, the school is enchanted to be invisible to any part who doesn’t know the password. Richard!” he turned to look at his friend as he opened the carriage door and poked his head out, “What’s this month’s password?”
  “Bhfianaise!” shouted Richard.
  The word echoed throughout the air. I felt a vibration coming from all around me, the air rippling like water. As the illusion peeled away, the most magnificent building I had ever seen came into being. 
  It was enormous, a castle at least the size of my entire village, with turrets and towers brushing the sky. Lights shone in dozens of windows, the dark outlines of people sometimes pacing in front of them. The outer walls were high and straight, an unclimbable barrier broken only by a huge drawbridge that spanned a moat. It was breathtaking. 
   “Wow,” I whispered. This was a school? Compared to this, I’d been “studying” in a clay box my entire life. I could only imagine what the inside looked like.  
  “Who goes there?” shouted a rough voice. I looked around for the source of the question, but no one else was around. Another magic trick?
  “A returning hunting party!” shouted Will, looking up at the wall. I followed his line of vision, and saw a line of people, spaced apart on top of the wall. Sentries, guarding the school. The wall must have some sort of place for them to walk about. The speaker was probably one of them. 
  “Which party?” asked the guard.
  “Willym Thomys, Richard Brent, Gwenolyn Laurya, and a civilian we encountered who must speak to Professor Darius!” yelled Will.
  “A civilian? Why on earth would a civilian need to speak with the professor? They can’t even see this place!”
  “I can!” I shouted. I was starting to understand how much of an anomaly I was. “I see the whole castle: the moat, the wall, the towers, the sentries on the watchtowers!”
  There was a period of silence. I saw one of the guards, most likely the speaker, confer with a couple others, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying. At last: “She can come in. Darius will decide what to do with her.”
  Will gave me a reassuring smile. “Professor Darius is an understanding man. He won’t turn you away.
  “Be sure to keep that nightmare from galloping off into the moat,” he said as he guided his horse onto the drawbridge, “You wouldn’t want to meet the stuff they keep in there.”
  I nudged the nightmare into a canter until I had caught up to Will. “What do they keep in the moat?” 
  “No one really knows,” he shrugged, “But the students tell stories all the time. Some people think they keep rabid mermaids, others say it’s a giant squid. I’ve even heard one story about a hydra-a many headed nightmare dragon-viscously jumping out of the moat and attacking some Warriors who got too close-but that’s probably just a story,” he added quickly at seeing the horror that just have been written on my face. “Most likely, it’s filled with kelpies-water horses created by the faeries. They drown their victims, but  once you know how, they’re easy to fight off; only Warriors know the secret trick.” He winked, a joking wink that wasn’t at all like one I would expect from someone like Rich. Will was so easygoing and friendly, I already felt like he was an old, trusted acquaintance. 
  “Just wait until you see The City,” he said. “If you thought the outside was impressive…” Willym trailed off as we passed under the arch of the City entrance.
  My jaw dropped. It was amazing. Tall stone building lined the twisting cobblestone paths that intersected everywhere; I realized that the place must have been enchanted from the outside so that these buildings weren’t visible. Some of the buildings looked like bigger, more permanent versions of the businesses i was accustomed to seeing: bakeries, coppers, blacksmiths, dairy stalls. Then there were places I had never seen the likes of, shops that sold shields, armor, and all manner of weaponry. I also saw places that sold art supplies, sheet music, instruments, books, paper, ink, maps, and many more things I didn’t recognize. There were grand buildings called libraries and museums, lovely music I had never heard pouring from “art halls” scattered scattered all over the beautiful City laid before me. 
  There were people everywhere, walking in and out of shops. Some went hurriedly, some took their time, some stopped and conversed with friends as they went about your business. The men and women all dressed alike, in dark trousers and sleeveless shirts. Many of them wearing the same leather over-clothing as my companions, and had weapons strapped to their hips and back as often as not. 
  At the center of it all, there was the castle I had seen from the outside. It was taller than I had thought, it’s highest tower spiraling into the night. 
 The whole City had such a lively feel, the sense that life was thriving around every corner. It was feeling you never got living in a tiny village on the plains, miles from any other human settlement. 
  “Welcome to the Soldier’s City,” said Willym.
  “Wow,” I breathed, “This place…it’s incredible! Do all Warriors live here?”
  “Well, sort of. This City is home to most of the Warriors in this part of the world, though some live on their own, making a double living in both Warrior and civilian societies. There are seven more Cities, seven more Academies, each home to the Warriors of a different part of the world.” Will looked at me again. “Shall we be going then?”
  “Hurry up, we haven’t got all night Will!” Gwen shouted out the carriage window. I jumped; I had forgotten they were there.
  “Well,” I recovered, “I suppose that’s our answer. Lead on!” 
 It took us barely fifteen minutes to reach the castle. The city people must have been used to horses and carriages in the streets, for they cleared out a path for us as we approached. I received a lot of strange glances from people. Could they tell my horse was a nightmare?
  At last, the castle loomed tall before us, bigger and grander up close.  The architechture was immaculate. Willym led me to a stable near what I supposed was the side entrance, where a couple of stable boys who were chatting around saw us and ran over to help with our horses and the carriage.
  “Oh, hello Willym!” said the boy who came to help him, “You’re back early; I thought the hunt was supposed to converge again at ten o’clock?”
  “Well, yes, but we had some complications.” Will dismounted and gestured at me. “The lady needs to speak to Professor Darius. Urgent business.
  The boy followed Will’s line of vision and jumped back about four feet. “Holy Great One, is that a nightmare?!”
  “Yes, that’s sort of what we need to talk to the Professor about…” Will rubbed his neck; it seemed to be a nervous habit of his. I just sat there awkwardly. 
 “Uh, John, this is Sensa, a civilian girl we found out in the villages.” Will continued. 
 “A civilian? Then why is she on top of a cursed nightmare?” John gaped at me and the horse. This whole ‘holy horses, the random commoner can do impossible things!’ business was getting old. 
  “Yeah, yeah, I can somehow not only see but ride a monster I didn’t even know existed until today,” I said as I dismounted, keeping a hold of my “reins”. “Can I please just speak with this Professor you keep talking about? I just want to find my Gramma.” 
  John looked surprised at first, as if he hasn’t known I could speak. He must have sensed the fatigue and annoyance in my voice, though, because he motioned a younger boy-probably no older than twelve- over. 
  “May I take your…horse…miss?” the boy asked, looking nervous. I nodded, but when I tried to hand him the reins, my nightmare reared up onto his hind legs and whinnied angrily. 
  “Whoa, boy!” I put my hands on the horse’s neck to steady him. The stable boy jumped back. I shrugged apologetically at him, then looked to Will.
  “Hmm,” he said, obviously deep in thought, then shrugged. “I guess the creature’s as wary of us as we are of it. Is there any way you can keep it with you when we go inside?”
  “I don’t know. Let me see.” I turned to stand in front of my nightmare and looked deep into his eyes, like I could see its soul. It must have understood what I was trying to ask, because a moment later, it morphed into a raven, perched heavily on my hand. 
  “That’ll work,” yawned Richard, who I could see had gotten out of the carriage along with Gwen. “Can we get going? I need my beauty sleep.” 
 “Ok,” Willym said as he opened a door set into the side of the building. It had a twin door to its right, only this one had the word “Headquarters” engraved into it instead of “Academy”.
  “What’s that door for?” I asked as I moved the raven to my shoulder.
  “Oh that?” Gwen replied. “You see, the castle serves a double purpose, as both a school to educate young Warriors and the headquarters of official Warrior activity.The doors are magic: go through that door and the building is the HQ, go through this one and it’s a school. Genius, really.”
  I had to agree. As I ducked through the “Academy” door, I was struck yet another magnificent sight. We were in a long hallway with a high, arched ceiling, faerie lanterns hanging at regular intervals. The walls were covered in tiny pieces if colored glass. As we walked down it, I saw that the glass pieces formed pictures, pictures of people at forges, beating the strange metal the Warriors used for weapons into swords and shields and helmets. The glass blacksmiths were accompanied by leatherworkers, glass makers, tailors, jewelers, and architects. 
  Will noticed me staring, and launched into another explanation.
  “The school has several different Halls, sections dedicated to a different aspect of Warrior life. Right now we’re in the Hall of Craftsmen. These are murals, depicting the craftsmen and women at work.”
  “They’re beautiful,” I said sincerely, “this whole place is.”
  Will smiled. “Thanks. The  whole City is the work of thousands of dedicated Warriors. It’s our pride and joy.”
  “Hate to break up your little friendly chit chat, but we’re at the Professor’s office now.” Richard drawled, leaning against the wall by the door. “Are we going to knock, or just stand here until our feet fall off?”
  “We’re going to knock, of course.” Will smiled, unfazed, and rapped the big brass knocker.
  Almost immediately, I heard a muffled “Come in!” from inside. 
 Will opened the door, and we filed into the office. The room had probably been spacious when it was built, before its current owner had crammed it so full of books and papers that it gave off a feeling of cluttered coziness instead. The walls were lined with bookcases, stuffed to bursting with scrolls and leather-bound tomes, the kind I had only heard about in Gramma’s stories. A desk sat near the far wall; above it hung a lance and spear. Sitting behind the desk with his feet propped up on it was a man, stirring his tea and reading book. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a mop of reddish brown hair, and a very casual look about him. 
 “What brings you three back so early?” the man said without looking up from his book. “Might it be the civilian you’ve brought with you?”
  What? With his nose buried so far into that book, there was no way he could have seen us. How did he know I was even here, much less that I was not a Warrior?
  The man looked up, revealing a pair of sharp but kind brown eyes. “Oh, don’t look alarmed dear, I heard an extra pair of footsteps. Much lighter than the others’ too, not made by the standard Warrior hunting boots; obviously civilian.”
  He stood, hand outstretched. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor Conrad Darius of the Warriors’ Academy. And you are?”
  “Sensa,” I shook his hand, “just Sensa.”
  “I say, that is one exquisite bird you have there,” the Professor remarked. 
  “Well, that’s sort of why I’m here, Professor. My bird…he’s sort of…” How was I supposed to explain this if I didn’t even understand it myself?
 “A nightmare.” Will finished for me. 
  The professor’s eyes widened. “Explain.”
“Today, while we were tracking our designated horde, I came across Miss Sensa here, whose grandmother had gone missing earlier that day. Amazingly, she was able to see the nightmare tracks I had been observing in her home. We put two and two together and realized that her Gramma had been kidnapped by the nightmares, and so she came with us on our hunt. When we found the horde, she ended up fighting with us-and did a fine job too, may I add. Unfortunately, we came across a second-class nightmare and-“
  “It knocked me to the ground, and would have eaten my face off, had it not been for Sensa,” Gwenolyn chimed in, her freckled face stony and unreadable. Odd, she didn’t seem the type to easily admit defeat. “She tackled it with her bare hands, knocked the beast clean off me. I didn’t see much of what happened next, but next thing I know, the nightmare’s galloping across the plains, with miss Sensa sitting atop it as if the creature’s a regular farm pony. Magnificent, it was.”
  All eyes turned to me, looking for answers that I didn’t have. “Hey, don’t look at me. I know as much as any of you. I saw that Gwenolyn was going to get hurt, and I just did what came naturally. Once I was on that nightmare, it was like something slid into place, and then we were galloping. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.” The raven on my shoulder squawked. No one said anything. 
  Just when the silence was starting to become uncomfortable, the professor spoke up. “Well, this is a very interesting situation.” Darius sat down again, fingers templed.”You say that everything you did was instinctive?” 
  I nodded. The professor closed his eyes, obviously deep in thought.
  “You said she fought beside you, Master Willym. Did her Lightweapon glow?” 
  “Yes,” a look of realization dawned on Will’s face. “Yes, it did. It glowed gold. Do you mean to say that-“
  “Yes, I do.” Darius opened his eyes and leaned forward onto his desk, this time looking intently at me. “Miss Sensa must be a Warrior.”

Author’s note:

I just want to apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes. Ususally I’m pretty good about those, but i write on my iPhone, and autocorrect can be a total pain in the rear.

Also, I need help with coming up with a title for this book. I really can’t think of anything. If anybody has an idea, please comment below.

Thanks! -Alex