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…”
“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.
“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-“
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.”