Chapter 11 Part 3

“I still don’t understand why we’re doing this,” Gwen whispered.

“Do you see anything?” I asked. Will knelt in front of me, staring at the ground.

“Faintly. There’s a thin layer of dirt in some places. Like here,” he pointed, and after a moment, I could distinguish a very faint mark. It was shaped oddly, flat, with three toes.

“What are these things?” I muttered.

“Something we should probably be running from, not toward!” Gwen said.

“Shut up, you’re ruining the excitement,” I said. On the inside, though, I knew she was right.

Will stood and ran in the direction the footprint had pointed. We followed.

“You know, Sensa, this reminds me of a conversation I heard earlier today,” said Rich. “I recall someone was reaming Will for running heedlessly into danger.”

“I was reaming Will for running heedlessly into unnecessary danger,” I corrected. “Think about it. We’ve been wandering aimlessly around the mountains for–what, a month now?”

“Five weeks,” said Will, a yard in front of us. “Five weeks, and this is the first sign of something different. We owe it to the Queen to at least check it out.”

“I contest that,” I said. “The orc forest was the first sign of something different.”

“And the orcs tried to kill us!” Rich said to prove his point.

“And whose fault would that be?” I said.

Rich muttered something under his breath and dropped the issue.

We trekked on further, until Will stuck out his arm. We stopped. He motioned for us to follow him, and began climbing up a large boulder. At the top, Will motioned for us to stay low. Then he risked a look over the top of the boulder, peering over his shoulder with his back pressed against the rock. Will’s eyes went so wide, I thought they might fall out. Will turned around to get a better view, then grabbed Gwen’s cloak and tugged her up beside him, pointing. Rich and I also looked making sure only our eyes were visible. I could barely restrain my initial cry of surprise and disgust.

There was a cave. And outside the cave slept the ugliest creature I’ve ever seen.

It was huge, at least eleven feet tall, and grotesquely humanoid. Its torso was thickly armored with scales like the one we had found–except these scales lacked the luster of age–in a manner reminiscent of an armadillo. The scales grew sparser at the arms and legs, revealing thick, gray skin like a tortoise’s. The creature had three thick, nail-less digits on each hand and foot.

Its head was the worst though–large and hairless and gray, with holes for ears, a thick, protruding brow, a large, lipless mouth with a ridiculously pronounced overbite, small, dark, lidless eyes, and a nose turned up like a pig’s.

It was a troll.

We ducked back below the top of the boulder.

“No. Way.” Rich said.

“I can’t believe it,” whispered Will.

“I TOLD YOU!” I hissed as loudly as I dare. Exhilarating vindication coursed through me. “TROLLS ARE REAL!”

Rich clapped a hand over my mouth.

“It’s here,” Gwen whispered.

“Mmpff?” I asked.

“What?” Rich asked.

“The thing the Faerie Queen wanted us to get,” she said. Her eyes were full of wonder, fixed on an irrelevant spot in the distance to focus on other senses. “The Great One’s talisman. It’s here. Listen.”

The space between us went silent. I closed my eyes, and listened into the night.

Nothing.

“I feel it,” whispered Rich, eyes closed.

“Feel what?” I asked. Rich had released my face.

“Don’t you feel it?” Will asked, eyes closed. “Can’t you feel the–the tugging?”

I closed my eyes and tried again. Nothing but the sound of my straining ears.

“Nothing,” I said.

“Well…” Will grasped for words. “It’s close.”

“It’s in the cave,” Rich breathed, eyes unfocused.

For a moment, I just looked at the three of them, caught up in some magic I couldn’t feel. 

What are we dealing with here? I thought.

Something best left alone, whispered a voice in the back of my head. An unfamiliar voice. Goosebumps crawled up my arms.

We argued quietly over a plan, but this was difficult, because we had no clue what we’d encounter once we entered the cave. The overall plan was pretty obvious:

Step 1: Sneak into the cave. Don’t wake up the guard troll.

Step 2: Once in the cave, locate the talisman, get it, and leave.

The devil was in the details. If we encountered trolls, should we negotiate or fight? Should we steal the Great One’s Tear outright, or ask the trolls for it? Buy it? What could we even pay them with?

Most of these questions relied on the trolls to provide the answers. Somehow, we doubted they would be open to negotiation.

We decided to attempt to get in and out without alerting the trolls at all. If it came to swords, Will and Rich would stay behind to fight, allowing Gwen and me to find the Tear. Gwen protested that she and Will should stay behind, as they were the best fighters. But Gwen seemed to be the best at sensing the talisman, so we needed her to find it, and as the smallest and lightest, Gwen would make the best thief. I would guard her back. If separated, we would meet up behind this Boulder, and if that didn’t work, at the camp.

All this decided, we snuck around the rock and moved toward the cave entrance. I was grateful for the soft leather soles of our boots and our hooded cloaks, helping us blend silently into the night.

The troll, though quite malodorous, didn’t stir from its sleep as we passed. We crept into the cave.

Darkness enveloped us instantly. We stopped, waiting for our eyes to adjust. I could hear strange noises echoing from somewhere else in the cave. Fear crawled up my back, leaving goosebumps in its path. I wasn’t aware I was reaching for someone else until Will’s warm, calloused fingers met mine. After a moment of fumbling, his hand enveloped mine. I reached out with my left hand and found Gwen’s hand, equally rough but significantly smaller. Through our clenched hands, I felt Will reach out for Richard. The four of us stayed like that for a long time, until we could see somewhat properly, and thumping of our hearts quieted a bit.

Silently, Gwen led the way through the cave system. Once, we came to a fork in the road, but the others didn’t hesitate, walking down the left tunnel as if it were the only one.

Eventually, we ended up in a spacious cavern. A dead end.

“It’s here,” said Rich. “But where?”

“There,” said Gwen, pointing to the ceiling.

I looked up. Sure enough, there was a large metal box suspended from the ceiling. Problem: the cavern was a dome. There were a few ledges along the wall, but . Most of the ceiling was smooth rock. It would be impossible to get up there.

“Bet you a pie I can I get it.” Gwen said.

We all turned to look at Gwen, who in turn was looking at the box. Five-foot-nothing, a solid one hundred and two pounds of pure resolve.

“You’re on,” said Rich after a beat.

“I’m going to need rope,” she said, pulling off her cloak and armor. “Will, how much rope do we have?”
“About fifty feet” said Will.

Gwen looked up for a moment, then nodded. “That should be enough.”

Will gave her the coil of rope. Gwen took the end of it and tied it securely to an arrow. She notched the arrow and raised the bow. She shifted her point aim several timed before settling on one, aiming her bow a bit high to allow for the added weight of the rope. Gwen inhaled, and on the exhale, loosed her arrow.

It struck a high point in the wall, above a ledge. Gwen gave us the rope, now attached to the wall. “Pull on it. I want to be sure it will hold.” We pulled the rope hard, but not too hard. It held.

Satisfied, Gwen walked over to the rock wall and began to climb the rope, always keeping one hand on the stone. Gwen’s size actually helped her; I doubt the arrow could hold the weight of anyone much bigger. She was halfway up in no time.

And then her arrow snapped.

In an instant, the rope slipped over the ledge and fell to the floor. I saw Gwen drop and I was frozen and someone screamed her name–and she was clinging to the rock. Gwen had only dropped a few feet.

“Great One, I nearly had a heart attack,” whispered Rich after a moment. It was he who had screamed. Oh. Oh no.

“Gwen, are you okay?” Will shouted. 

I clapped a hand over both boys’ mouths. “Are you out of your minds?” I hissed. “The trolls!” Will’s eyes went wide with his mistake. Richard winced in regret.

“Look,” said Will. “She’s climbing.” I looked up.

Gwen was climbing. She clung to the wall, finding impossible handholds and footholds, inching her way up like a giant spider. Wow.

“Rich,” said Will.

“Got it,” Rich replied. He ran over to the wall and grabbed the end of the rope. Running back, he tied the rope to his spear, picked a spot on the wall and threw it with his whole body. It stuck in the wall with a satisfying crack.

Gwen grabbed the rope with a sigh of relief and scrambled up it quickly. She rested for a moment on the ledge.

“How is she going to–” I was cut off by a sound, faint but clear: footfalls. Heavy. Nearing us. 

“They’re coming!” I said.

“Don’t tell Gwen; it’ll only throw her off.” Will said. He drew his swords anyway, and I, my knife. Rich’s spear clattered to the floor. I looked at Gwen as he snatched it up. She was busy tying the rope to an arrow.

Wordlessly, Gwen lifted her bow and shot an arrow through a link in the chain suspending the box from the ceiling. She then used the rope to pull the arrow back against the chain, the rope attached to it in a T-shape so that the arrow would brace against the chain horizontally instead of slipping back through the link. I realized what she was going to do a second before she did it, and my heart skipped a beat.

Before we could protest, Gwen jumped.

She clung to the rope, falling and then swinging as the rope hit the side of the box. But she’d already proven her arrows could’ hold her weight for long. Gwen swiftly climbed the swinging rope, then climbed on top of the metal box. Pulling an arrow from her quiver, she leaned over the side of the box, holding to the chain with her legs, and used her arrow to pick the lock.

“Positions!” Will screamed, as two trolls thundered into the room. They were just as big and ugly as the first, though their features weren’t distorted in quite the same way. They bore heavy, studded maces. Fighting our way out of this one wouldn’t be easy, especially with Gwen on the ceiling. Will and I sprang into our fighting positions, but rather than fall behind (where he could form the third side of a back-to-back triangle if were surrounded), Richard stepped forward and inclined his head in an apologetic and placating gesture.

“Hello, gentleman, and/or ladies” Richard said. “I’m so sorry if we’ve alarmed you; we’re lost. Could you point us in the direction of the loo?” I looked Rich in horror. Will’s mouth was an O. 

The trolls looked confused. Did they…did they seriously believe Rich? It was possible they didn’t speak our language.

Suddenly there was a loud click from above. All of us, including the trolls, watched silently as Gwen threw open one side of the box, groped around inside, and removed something that looked like a piece of cloth. A bird flew from the box–a raven if I wasn’t mistaken–melded into the shadows on the ceiling, and fled the room. A nightmare, but why didn’t it put up a fight?

I didn’t have time to worry about it. Gwen slid down the length of rope, but there was a good distance between the end of the rope and the floor. Wordlessly, Rich, Will, and I linked our arms and caught Gwen when she let go of the bottom of the rope.

As we helped her down, Will whispered in the lowest tone possible: “Gwen, that might be the single most impressive thing I have ever seen.”

“Are you a burglar in your free time?” I breathed.

Gwen blushed and pressed something into my hand. I looked down. It was a feather, blue and unextraordinary. I looked at her. 

“I need both hands for my bow,” she whispered.

“No bathroom up there, Gwen?” Rich asked loudly. I hid the feather in my hand.

“Nope!” she replied.

Rich sighed convincingly. “Oh, well. I suppose we’ll just have to hold it. Pleasure meeting you, ladies and/or gentleman,” he nodded to the trolls.

And then he walked away, right past the trolls.

The trolls looked at each other and growled something. They seemed confused. The rest of us quickly followed Rich. Once we were out of earshot, we ran like our lives depended on it. Our hearts raced faster than our feet, high on the thrill of getting away with blatant burglary.

“I can’t believe that worked, Rich!” I said. 

“Me either!” he replied.

Just then, the feather flew out of my hands, blown by my speed. I managed to catch it, but I couldn’t risk that happening again. I began braiding the feather into my hair, the way we did back in my village with normal, non-powerful feathers. The feather was warm to the touch. It felt somewhat heretical to wear the Great One’s talisman like an ordinary decoration, but I didn’t really have a choice. I muttered a quick prayer of contrition all the same.

“By the way, Gwen,” Rich shouted as we neared the end of the tunnel, “what flavor pie do you want?”

“Boysenberry, of course!” Gwen replied, voice strained with running and exhilaration. Will laughed.

And then we were out of the tunnel, filling our lungs with the cool night air as we caught our breath. I touched the small braid beside my face with the intention of freeing the feather; it was warm to the touch, even hot near the feather. In fact, now that I noticed, waves of warmth were flowing from the braid into my scalp. It felt wonderful.

“I can’t wait to get out of these mountains,” said Rich, stretching.

A huge, luminous grin spread across Will’s face. “We can go…” His voice trailed off, and his face fell, terribly crushed. I followed his gaze and my jaw dropped in horror. 

Materializing from the shadows and advancing toward us were twelve humanoid nightmares.

“…home.” finished Will, his voice small and crestfallen.

The nightmares were exactly like the one in the Dead Forest where I looked for Gramma all those months ago, hooded, exuding paralyzingly cold and fear. I remembered what Headmaster Darius had told me, about how three of these most dangerous nightmares slaughtered three dozen Warriors and orcs.

Rich, whom I’d never seen pra before, muttered desperate pleas under his breath. Gwen notched an arrow. I could see in the set of her face she was determined to go down swinging.

Will turned to me, his eyes awfully sad. “I’m sorry we never found your Gramma,” he said.

That was the last straw. I dragged them with me on this wild goose chase, and I was not going to let them die.

Acting on impulse, empowered by a rage burning inside me for these monsters, these shadowy half-things, I drew my knife and stormed forward until I was standing in the center of the semicircle of hooded figures.

“Sensa!” called one of the Warriors behind me.

The Great One’s tear burned against my cheek.

I thew the knife aside.

“Leave my friends alone,” I said, my voice a dangerous whisper.

And then the world went white.

Chapter 11 Part 2

It began like the creation story I told to the children, in a time so long ago it felt like someone else’s life.

At first, there was nothing. Cold nothing and darkness.

At some point I became aware of a sound, thump-thump thump-thump thump-thump. It grew louder and louder, until I realized it was not a sound at all, but my heartbeat. This was around the same time I realized I had a body, because the chains that bound it were too heavy, too cold, too tight.

The world began to whisper. I strained to make out words.

Sensa, whispered the darkness.

The word was vaguely familiar.

Sensa.

Perhaps it was not the word, but the voice I recognized.

Sensa?

My name, I remembered. My grandmother is calling my name.

I looked around, straining to see.

There–close and far away all at once, lying on the ground, wearing even more chains than me.

Gramma looked different than I remembered. There was hardly a streak of brown in her gray hair. Wrinkles of pain and worry creased her face. Where before I had thought of my grandmother as strong, not fattened by indulgence or softened by age, I now saw her build as frail.

Sensa! she screamed.

Gramma, I said. I must have whispered, because I heard no sound. Gramma did not notice me.

Sensa, where are you?

Gramma! I screamed. No sound came out. 

Sensa? She called. The despair in 

I’m here, Gramma! She neither heard nor saw me. I tried to move toward her, but with my chains, I could only inch forward.

I thought…I thought Sensa would come for me, said Gramma.

I’m here, Gramma! I’m looking Gramma!

Gramma sobbed bitterly. I was a fool not to see the truth. Sensa has forgotten me.

My heart broke.

Sensa, she cried.

GRAMMA!

Sensa…Sensa has forgotten me.

“Sensa!”

I started awake, sitting up so fast my head slammed into Will’s.

“Ow!” said he.

“Sorry,” I said. I rubbed my face. It was wet with tears.

Will shook his head. “No, it’s okay. It’s just…I was…you were screaming in your sleep.”

“Oh.” I was embarassed. “Did I wake everyone up?”

“Surprisingly, no.” He pointed to the sleeping forms of Gwen and Richard. Rich snored softly. “I have the watch right now.”

I laughed breathily. “Those two could sleep through a troll stampede.”

“True,” Will laughed. But his worried eyes were searching mine. “Seriously, though…are you okay?”

I almost said yes, but hesitated. I resigned myself to the truth. “No.”

Will waited for me to go on.

“It was a nightmare. Not, like, a nightmare, but a nightmare.”

“I thought you said you didn’t get dreams,” said Will.

“This would be the first,” I conceded.

“Wow, okay. So what happened in this dream?”

I told him.

“Sensa, that’s…that’s awful.”

“The worst part is, I bet Gramma actually is thinking all those things. I bet it seems to get like I’m not even looking for her.” I shook my head.

“I’ve got to find her, Will. I’m her only hope. The people in the City may send out search parties, but she’s not a priority. You want something done, you’ve got to do it yourself. I’ll never stop looking, not until I find Gramma or I find her body or I die myself.”

“Whoa, whoa, wait–her body?” said Will. “Your grandma is alive Sensa. You’ve got to believe that. And we will find her. We will, Sensa. We will.”

“We?” I asked.

“We.” Will assured me. I smiled.

I had plenty of determination, and perseverance in me, but I had to constantly remind myself that my search was not in vain. Will’s seemed to have deep, naturally occurring reservoirs of steady faith. My own hope was unyielding, but Will made the endgoal seem real, attainable, inevitable.

“Is it my turn to take the watch?” I asked.

“Yes.” Will said.

I got up and put on my hooded cloak and leather armor over my clothes.

“Sensa?” 

“Yes?” Will was studying his shoes. When he looked up, I couldn’t recognize the emotion on his face.

“I wanted to apologize to you, about…earlier. At the orc camp.” Will was ashamed, I realized. The emotion looked strange and foreign on his face, a word said perfectly in the wrong accent. “I shouldn’t have fought that orc. It was incredibly stupid of me, and arrogant.”

If Will could bear the humility of apologizing, so could I. “Will, I was wrong to say you were arrogant. It’s not exactly true; you’re overconfident in your abilities.”

Will laughed. “And I shouldn’t have said you were selfish. It’s not exactly true; you’re self-absorbed.”

“I’m beginning to realize that.” I muttered.

“So, will you forgive me?” he asked.

“Will you forgive me?” I retorted.

“I forgive you,” Will smiled.

“And I forgive you.” I said.

I bent to pick up my knife, and saw something glittering on the ground.

“What’s this?” I said. I picked up the object and held it up to the moonlight. It was black, shaped like the letter D, and about the size of my palm. It was thicker on the straight edge and tapered off into a razor-sharp rounded edge. Its patina reflected the moonlight like a mirror.

“It looks like a bit like a nightmare scale,” said Will. He drew one of his swords and touched the tip to the surface of the scale. It should have vanished into swaths of shadow.

The scale stayed put, real as ever.

Will and I looked at each other. My own burning curiosity was reflected in his face.

“We should stay put,” Will said.

“We really should.” I concurred.

“Maybe set up an extra guard for the watch.” he continued.

We looked at the scale in my hand again for a long moment, then back at each other. Will bit his lip. Wordlessly, we came to an agreement.

I ran silently over to Rich and shook his shoulder.

“Wake up! We’re going exploring!”

Chapter 9

“Attention, everyone!” Pao Ling shouted. No one heard her. Everyone was shouting; faeries at humans, humans at humans, humans at faeries, faeries at each other. Mostly humans against faeries, though. Each group blamed the other for the events of last night. We had gathered at the Faerie Queen’s request to hold court and decide what measures should be taken after the disastrous nightmare attack.
“Quiet, everyone!” Pao Ling yelled in vain. “I said, quiet down!”
A faerie, the one I had seen seated in the middle of the genesis bud patch, had raised her hand in an obvious gesture of “Stop!”. Silence rippled through the crowd as those who took notice quieted, faeries and Warriors alike.
Though I had glimpsed her last night, my first good look at the faerie told far more. At first glance, she looked like any other faerie. She was tall, with chocolate skin clad in a long white dress that complemented her faerie-like figure. Both pairs of wings were unfolded behind her back. Her gossamer white hair flowed unbound down her back like a waterfall, adorned with a ring of iris blossoms.
But the faerie held herself with stately dignity and grace. Her statute was spoken clearly in her straight back, the way she lifted her chin, and the poise with which she held her wings. Other faeries looked at her with respect-something I’d seen them give no other. She stood no higher than anyone else, but there was no denying this faerie was the Queen.
“We must be patient with each other if we are to sort out all that happened last night.” the Queen’s calm voice carried through the clearing. “Each group will choose three representatives to speak on their behalf.” There was a moment of discussion before each side came to a decision.
Pao Ling stepped forward. “Along with myself, the Warriors have chosen Al Capruk of the City of Blazing Sun,” a short man with skin so dark it was nearly black stepped forward, “and Theresa Madylyn of the Soldiers’ City.” I was surprised to see Will’s sister step forward next to Pao Ling. The Queen relayed this in Feyspeech and a few human languages.
She then translated the words of a faerie who looked almost like a human from Sunrise City announced that a plump, green-skinned faerie and a pink-haired selkie and she would be speaking on behalf of the faeries.
“If there are no objections, I shall serve as judge and mediator,” the Queen said. No one spoke up. “Very well.” She raised her hands and vines burst forth from the ground and twisted themselves into rows of benches. The benches grew in two angled sides, facing inward toward the Queen. Warriors and faeries scrambled to “their” side of the clearing; faeries sat on the right and Warriors on the left. The Queen grew herself a tall chair between them.
“Now,” she said sitting down, “let us begin. The witnesses will answer my questions directly and truthfully, without any embellishment. I will first hear the witnesses from each side who was  farthest from the genesis patch last night.”
Theresa stepped forward, as did the green-skinned faerie.
“Challa,” the Queen inquired if the faerie, “where were you last night?”
“I was seated by the River last night, ma’m, eating peony cakes.”
“One too many peony cakes, you mean,” came a spiteful whisper from the faerie crowd, just loud enough to be heard across the clearing. Some other faeries snickered. Challa blushed deep purple.
“Raeya!” the Queen snapped, “You would not spite your sister if you understood the gravity of this matter. That goes for everyone seated here. You will be quiet or you will leave this place. Am I understood?”
There was a mumbled chorus of agreement.
“Now, if you would continue, Challa,” said the Queen, vaguely exasperated.
“So I was minding my own business out there when I saw something moving in the shadows. I didn’t think it was much at first. But then I started getting nervous, for no good reason. It got colder, too. I thought it was just Raeya or Salle playing tricks, so I went up to confront them…” Challa shuddered, “and a nightmare jumped clean over my head.”
“And where were you on the river, in respect to the mountain?” the Queen asked after translating the faerie’s account.
Challa thought for a moment. “East, ma’m.” I breathed a small sigh of relief. I was in the southern ring last night. My folly hasn’t been the cause of the breach.
“Was the creature you described alone?”
“No, ma’m. It was followed by at least five others. I’d never seen one before, but I never want to relive the experience.” The Queen relayed all this as well.
A hesitant hand was raised on the Warrior side. The Queen nodded and the person stood up, a muscled man from the Sunrise City. He asked a question in his own language. It caused some disturbance among the humans and faeries who understood him.
The Queen silenced them. “Master Huan makes a good point. If our witness had never seen a nightmare, how did she know that was what she was seeing?” Everyone looked to the faerie, who again blushed deeply.
“Well, I-I mean, they felt so…wrong.”
Everyone, Warrior and faerie, seemed to accept this answer immediately. I, however, was confused. Wrong? Sure nightmares had made me feel cold and scared, but wrong? The creatures were unnatural…perhaps that’s what was meant? But I’d never felt anything unnatural around my nightmare. Except…that day in the Dead Forest, when I felt that freezing grip of terror…. Great One, that must have been a nightmare! Maybe the one that took Gramma, considering the timing! Could I honestly have gotten that close to her? And left? 
“Ask Sensa Ivyne. She was posted there.” I snapped back to the world of the living.
Challa and Will’s sister were no longer at the witness stand, and had been replaced by Pao Ling and the human-esque faerie. Feyden was also standing in his seat, grinning back at me like the evil little butt he was.
Every eye in the court was on silly, clueless me.
I stood, drawing myself to my full height, and, like a good witness, said the only intelligent and truthful thing I could.
“Huh?”
Snickers echoed through the clearing.
Feyden’s mouth quirked up at the corner. “I said, in response to the request for witness from the mid-line defense, that you were there. Weren’t you, Sensa?” Oh, you little brat. You little manipulative, sneaking, treacherous little swine.
“I was in the southern part of the fifth ring, your Highness.” My heart was pounding with dread. They would know. They would know now that I left my post to follow one of the creatures that destroyed three unhatched faerie eggs. I was already condemned.
“And what did you see?” asked the Queen, serene patience written across her face like a mask.
“I was guarding my area when a nightmare horse ran toward me. I don’t know how it got there.” I swallowed the bitterness down, down so far I could be convincing. “It kept running, toward the Inner Circle, so I chased it in hopes of killing it before it could do any real damage. But I couldn’t get close enough to stab it. I chased it to the Inner Circle, but when I got there the party was in total chaos. I was apprehended by a faerie-” the orange-skinned girl waved at me as I glared her way, “who tackled me to the ground. I don’t know what happened to the nightmare, but soon after all this, the beasts stampeded.”
The Faerie Queen looked at me like reading the pages of a book. I don’t know how, I don’t know how, but I knew she could tell my truths from my lies, easy as telling porridge from mud.
After a long moment, she spoke. My heart thrilled with fear. But all she said was: “How soon? How soon did you see this creature before its brethren crushed our eggs?”
I calculated in my head. “Fifteen minutes, give or take. Ten of those I probably spent grappling in the Inner Circle.”
Every single eye in the clearing was upon me in that moment. Every single eye. You could have heard a pin drop.
“Miss Sensa…” the Queen looked at me with careful scrutiny, “are you certain of your calculations?”
“Approximately.” I said, reviewing them again.
“Would you consider yourself a particularly fast runner?” The Queen twisted a ring on her finger as she thought.
“No.” I got the feeling I was missing something important. “I mean, I ran more than the other kids in my village growing up, and I’ve gotten better at it since I arrived at my City’s Academy, but I’m still usually in the middle of the pack.”
There was a long pause.
“Sensa…” Pao Ling said at last, “the distance from the fifth ring to the Inner Circle…it’s almost two miles.”
My blood ran cold.
“What?”
No one answered.
“You see?” shouted Feyden gleefully, “She’s lying! She’s a trai-”
“Hold your tongue, boy.” The Queen stared at me, still twisting her ring absentmindedly. “She speaks the truth. Or at least what she believes the truth to be.”
“I did see her in the Inner Circle, Your Majesty.” It was the pink selkie.
“Yes, Lady Casida, we have yet to hear your testimony. Go on.”
The faerie made lazy circles in the water with her finger. “I saw that girl run into the clearing after the nightmare alright. She was running like I’d never seen anyone run before, poor thing. She stopped though, and looked around. And when the nightmares crushed our children, Sensa didn’t lift a finger to stop them.”
I couldn’t believe my ears. “I was attacked. By a faerie.”
Casida clucked. “Excuses, excuses.”
“Do not taint the truth, Casida.” I looked up. The Queen called out her sister on her twisted truths, but not me?
“Where were you when all this happened, faerie?” called a Warrior.
“I was chatting with that handsome fellow, if you really care to know. You forget, human-I’m bound to the water.”
Michael shot to his feet, indignant. “You were trying to drown me!”
“Same difference.”
The clearing erupted in shouting and arguments, chaotic protest flung from one side to the other and back again. Three pixie eggs had been crushed in the stampede. An older Warrior was in a coma. Blame grew like faerie ivy-quick and strong and poisonous.
“IF YOU CAN’T GET OFF YOUR BUM AND PROTECT A FLOWER PATCH-”
“HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO FIGHT A NIGHTMARE WHEN I’VE GOT YOU SHOVING POISON DOWN MY THROAT?”
“OUR CHILDREN DIED!”
“WHAT ARE WE DOING IN THIS GREAT-ONE-FORSAKEN CIRCLE IF YOU LOT WON’T LET US-”
“WE PAID YOU TO PROTECT OUT PIXIES!”
“I CAN’T USE A SWORD IF YOU’RE MAKING ME DANCE!”
“MY BROTHER-”
“OUR DAUGHTERS-”
No one voiced their grievances-they screamed them at the heavens.
All except three.
Feyden stared at me. He didn’t grin. He didn’t sneer. He just stared. He wasn’t exultant, and for the first time since I’d known him, he wasn’t livid. He looked slightly puzzled. Like he was surprised that maybe, all the troll manure he fed everyone about me being Cursed was a little bit true.
The Queen was quiet. She reclined in her ivy throne, body speaking cool indifference. But her eyes were darting about shrewdly, watching-no, reading-the chaos below.
And then there was me. I wasn’t  reading anything or gawking at anyone. I was confused and overwhelmed and there really wasn’t anything I could do. But somehow, without knowing why, I knew where the blame should go for all this.
Somehow, this was my fault.
The Faerie Queen looked up at that. Looked at me. Not like she heard what I said, but like she thought of something. Her eyes went to my arm, and I swear to you, there was something like shock in her eyes before she looked away.
Then the Queen stood.
And the whole court fell silent.
“Well, then.” She folded her hands together, giving the impression of a teacher lecturing on a very important lesson. “Had we started with this, the matter would have been settled hours ago.” She shook her head and laughed softly. “So much for diplomacy.
“But now we have heard the heart of the matter. Faeries blame the human Warriors for not protecting them, as we have hired you to do. And the humans blame the faeries for prohibiting them from doing their work. So it seems a compromise is in order.”
Indignance budded in the Warrior crowd.
“Do you doubt my judgement?” Though it perfectly was calm, there was an edge to the Faerie Queen’s voice that made everyone shut up.
“The compromise I propose is this: business will continue as usual. The Warriors will continue to protect us, and the faeries will continue to pay you generously. As for the damage caused in the attack, the faeries will be held responsible for our losses, as the humans will be held responsible for their own.”
Grumbled assent came from both sides of the court-
“Under one condition. The human Warriors will provide me with several individuals of my own choosing who will perform an important task for me. A task that, while I cannot reveal its nature, I promise will benefit the both of our peoples.”
No one really knew what to say to that.
But then she chose her champion.
“Sensa Ivyne. Walk with me.”
My heart dropped into my stomach.
I stood and awkwardly tried to get out of my plant-bench-row-thing and into the aisle in the center of the clearing.
All eyes were on me as I walked up the aisle. I loathed it. I was so focused on walking and loathing, in fact, that I didn’t notice the small root in front of me.
I tripped.
And fell flat on my face.
Laughter of the loudest and meanest sort practically shook the ground I was now all too familiar with. I felt the blood of embarrassment rush to my face.  When I got up, however, I saw it was only the faeries mocking me. The Warriors just looked away. I wasn’t sure whether that was better or worse than laughing.
The faeries were still laughing when the Queen led me from the clearing and into a courtyard. As we started along the courtyard path, she said:
“You will have to forgive my sisters. They live only for pleasure, and do not care of they hurt someone in their humor.”
I’ll say.
We walked in silence while I worked up the courage to speak.
“Um, your Highness? May I ask you some questions?” I hoped to the Great One that I wasn’t breaking some unspeakable rule in the protocol of Talking to Royalty.
“Rather forward, aren’t you?” The Queen said. “I suppose we have time. What do you wish to know?”
“I haven’t seen any faerie men here.” I blurted. That wasn’t what I meant to say. I meant to ask about Gramma, or this new task, or why she picked me. Curse Katryna and her obsession.
The Queen laughed out loud, a startlingly human sound. “There have not been males in the circle for quite some time, Miss Ivyne. And even then, the drones were not the glorious creatures of lore.”
“Drones?” I asked. I thought of the  faeries’ dragonfly-like wings, and the social similarities to a bee colony. “Are you guys insects?”
“You already know where our eggs come from.”
“Then are you plants?”
“That is a more complicated question than you would think.”
“It’s a yes or no answer.”
“We’ve arrived at our destination.”
“That’s not an answer.”
“Sensa!”
“Sorry.”
We had come to a long, low building, that would not be distinguishable from the others except that it was much, much older. It was weathered, the edges softened and warped by the centuries. What must have been carvings, once, had been worn away to smooth patches on the wall.
“There are things in here that I believe you need to know.” The Queen looked me in the eye with almost painful  intensity. “Can I trust that anything you see or hear with never leave these halls?”
“Yes, ma’m,” I said after a long pause. My voice was so small, I winced.
She turned, satisfied with my answer, and placed her palm against the wall next to the door. A panel slid open vertically, like the one in the library, revealing the building’s interior. The Queen walked through the secret-door thing like it was nothing.
Very clever. I thought. Put a fake door– But then the door opened and the Queen stuck her head out.
“Coming?” She grinned and disappeared inside, closing the door behind her.
I looked between the two entrances. “What the-”
“We haven’t got all day, Miss Ivyne!
I chose the door.
The inside of the buildibg was freezing cold, but surprisingly well-kept. Though the secret panel was nowhere to be seen, I heard it close as if from a distance. Everything about this place was starting to make me nervous, but at the same time, I was sort of jumping up and down in my figurative seat. This was exactly like something from an adventure book.
I hurried to catch up with the Queen, who was already halfway down the hall. The corridor was narrow, lined with faerie lights and all sorts of hanging artifacts and memorabilia. Occasionally, the hallway would empty into a larger room full of objects that were either too important or couldn’t be hung comfortably on a wall, all carefully sorted and labeled. There was everything from stuffed animals to sarcophagi to sticks. Insects pinned to boards. Bloodstained axes. Delicate dresses. Writing tablets. Pieces of flint. Some of the things were impossibly old.
When at last we reached the room we were looking for, the Queen had to drag me away from a painting of Forest Orcs battling with armored faeries.
What she wanted to show me was a library.
It was larger than the one at the Academy. I suspect there was magic involved, fitting all that into one relatively small building.
The Faerie Queen made a beeline for the back of the room. I followed. This library was not cozy and welcoming like the one at the Academy. It was cold, and lit only by hanging faerie lanterns that didn’t seem to catch every corner in their stark pale light. This was a room of barely-hidden secrets.
We stopped abruptly and I nearly ran into the Queen. Taking a step back, I saw what we had come for.
A wall, in all its featureless glory.
The Queen crouched down and removed a brick with surprising ease.  She whispered something into the wall, but all I could focus on for some reason was her bare feet. Weren’t they cold? Did faerie feet even get cold? You couldn’t tell she was a faerie from her feet. I could have been looking at Gwen’s toes. Gwen had stubby toes….
I snapped out of my thoughts and saw an open where before there was a wall.
“My apologies for the confusion.” The Queen said, gesturing for me to join her in the hidden room. “The wander-mind enchantment makes it impossible to remember how to get in. My personal addition to the many precautions in place to protect both the contents of this room and those who think they wish find them.”
I mumbled something unintelligible and entered. The door swung shit behind me.
I felt it change the moment I stepped over the threshold. This room was not cold and foreboding. It was…charged. Goosebumps popped all over me. Something heavy sat down in the middle of my chest, forcing my lungs to choose between hyperventilation and slow, deep breaths. Thank the Great One they chose the latter.
This room was dark and warm, and strangely pleasant. Rich tapestries woven with designs and pictures I could not make sense of lined all walls except for the far one. That side of the heptagon was a stone honeycomb filled with scrolls in varying degrees of age.
In the middle of the room was a scroll.
I don’t mean an ordinary scroll like the ones I had at home, the ones Gramma hand-copied books from the Academy library into. This scroll was ancient, yellowed and frayed and even burned in places. It was by far the oldest thing I had ever laid eyes on, and I had just walked through what was probably the world’s largest and most complete collection of Old Things. And it was huge. Each of the intricately carved stick things was thicker than my thigh with all the paper it had rolled on it.
The Queen approached the podium it sat on and opened the scroll. I didn’t recognize the words or even the letters that I glimpsed, yet I still had a strong urge to look away.
“You’ve heard of the Holy Writings?” the Faerie Queen asked. She was looking for something in it, unraveling with one hand and rolling with the other.
“You mean the Boom if Sacred Legends?”
“That was part of it. The Writings were divided long before my reign. Originally there were three parts in the one text: stories, instruction, and prophecies. The prophecies were really why the writings needed to be separated. The future is a powerful thing. Good words were taken out of context and became the cause of terror.
“So the Writings were split. Humans took the stories. Orcs got the instructions. Only the Faeries could be trusted with the prophecies. At some point the human Warriors acquired the instructions and added them to your Sacred Legends-”
“Wait-the faeries were the only ones trustworthy enough to know the future?”
“Not all the faeries. Just the Queen. None of my sisters even know this book exists.”
“What…?”
The Queen stopped scrolling. She is old I realized. Her face was smooth and her body young. But the way she looked down at the scroll right then….
“Faeries are the oldest creatures of thought on this earth.” The Queen continued scrolling. “We know things the rest of you never will. But you’ve seen my sisters. All they desire is amusement and easy pleasure. So there is a trade. The Queen receives wisdom and the burden that comes with it, and my sisters live in carefree ignorance.”
“Oh.” It was all I could say.
She shrugged. “The arrangement works better than most. Ah, here it is. Your prophecy.”
My prophesy?
That couldn’t be right. My circumstances might be a but odd, but my name could not possibly be in this book of eons past. No.
“The thing about prophecies,” continued the Queen, “is that most of the time we can’t understand their meaning until we are in the thick of whatever the prophesy is describing. But I’m fairly certain about this one. Now listen:”

A blackbird shall come in the dark of night
    And unite the different walks of life.
    When the children of the Blackened One
    Ravage the land, block out the sun.
    With a tear, the Bringer be returned
    And destroy the predecessor spurned.
    But the color of daybreak shall be seen.
    Beware to grapple with the Queen.

The Faerie Queen looked at me expectantly. “Well?”
“Uh, nice rhyme scheme?” I said.

The Queen gave an exasperated sigh. “Do you hear yourself in these verses?”

“No.”

“Well, in recent years, this particular prophesy has become very important. ‘In the dark of night…block out the sun…With a tear the Bringer be returned…the color of daybreak will be seen’.”  I was starting to get the picture.

“The sun.” I answered, even though the Queen hadn’t asked the question yet. “It’s talking about the sun.”

Like everyone else, I’d spent the past sixteen years yearning for the sun’s return. But it was always something to be wished for from afar, like having faerie wings or parents. But now, when the possibility was real, was right here, was right now…. I didn’t know what to think.

“Yes.” says the faerie Queen. “You know as well as I that if there is something wrong with the sun, it means there must be something wrong with the Sunbringer. This awful darkness is no exception. There is no sun, and as far as we can see, there is no Sunbringer. If the Sunbringer were dead, a new Bringer would take his place, but no new Sunbringer has been identified since the last one died sixteen years ago. But praise to the GReat One, because the prophesy mentions a solution: With a tear the Bringer be returned.

“I believe this refers to an old legend, one that might be in your Scared Book.” I don’t think the Queen even stopped for breath. “When the nightmares were born, eons ago, from the fears of humans, the Great One wept for his creation. It is said that a single tear fell to the earth. And the moment it touched the mountain, it turned to stone itself. No one has ever seen the Tear, as far as I know. It was supposedly stolen by nightmares and hidden away somewhere in the mountain. And that is your quest, my dear. To find the Tear of the Great One and return the sun and its Bringer to us. You’ll have your warrior friends to help you, of course, your…team, do you call it? And-”

“Wait. What does this have to do with me? Look, I only came to the Circle to look for my Gramma, and this…quest…is only going to put me farther from finding her than ever.”

“Ivyne is missing?” The Queen seemed genuinely concered. “I was not aware. But Sensa…this is bigger than you or me. You must take up this mission. I’ll make a deal with you, Miss Ivyne. If you fulfill this destiny of yours, I will do everything in my power to locate your grandmother. Alright?”

“My destiny? Are you delusional or something?”

“See for yourself.” The Queen stepped back so I could see the writing on the scroll.

Underneath it was a symbol. A symbol identical to the MArk on my arm.

I stepped back. “But…but how…?’

“Don’t you see?” said the faerie Queen. “Sensa Ivyne, you were born to find the Sunbringer. You were born to bring back the sun.”

Chapter 8

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

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.”