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.