That’s a Wrap!

Wow. I can’t believe this is happening. I finally finished the first draft of my book!

In the Dark of Night (the working title for this book) has been a labor of love these past two years, and will continue to be as I revise the book in the second draft, and ultimately, seek publishment.

I’m very grateful to all of you who have read my blog: a whopping 1,256 views, and more importantly (at least to me), forty-one followers! Seriously, it boggles my mind that forty people read this books and thought I want to read more of this thing, sign me up! 

In particular, I want to thank Hannah, whoever you are. You may have thought you were annoying when you kept asking me when I’d publish the next chapter, but believe it or not, your comment were what gave me the drive to keep writing. Without the knowledge that someone, even a stranger, was personally invested in my work, I bet I would have stopped writing a long time ago.

The other person I can’t thank enough (other than God, of course) is Steve Johnson. Your suggestion to publish my book to a blog was quite possibly the most practical writing advice I’ve ever received. I owe all this *gestures to the roomy caverns of my blog and the posts within* to you.

But I want you all to know that the end of Draft 1 is certainly not the end of In the Dark of Night. I’ve got big plans for the second draft, an I’ll be sure to update you all on those plans, and I’ll continue to post news to this lovely blog I’ve grown so fond of.

Keep on keeping on, readers.

~ Alex

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Chapter 12

Willym Thomys did not remember what sunlight looked like. He always imagined, that it would be warm and soft, like butter in the sky.

He did not imagine excruciating pain. He did not imagine pressing his face to the ground, arms over his head in a vain attempt to block out the blinding light that burned his eyes.

Will certainly did not imagine the way the air would charge and his hair would stand on end as he shouted for his friends to “Get down!” in the terrifying moment between realizing there was something dangerous and utterly not Sensa behind Sensa’s eyes and the attack of the light.

It burned. It burned so badly. Nothing in the worked existed but his eyes, which felt like they were composed on pure fire. The pain was so bad, Will did not notice the light was gone for along time after its disappearance. Even after the pain slowly faded, Will lay on the ground, totally blind.

When Will finally opened his eyes again, it was because he heard words.

“This is not the end.” The voice was livid with anger, and while definitely female, not Sensa’s; it was pitched higher, like that of a young girl. Vision was slow in returning, so Will’s pain-filled eyes saw nothing of the speaker but the after-image of light.

“You may have her now, yes, but not for long,” continued the same voice. “She will come to me like a moth to a faerie lamp. And then you will be no more.”

Will could sort of make out shapes now, specifically the shape of a female form directly in front of him. Or perhaps it was an upright rock. No, it was a person, and it spoke with Sensa’s voice.

“Leave.” 

Out of the corner of his eye, Will saw a figure turn and look at Sensa.

“Leave!” Sensa repeated. The figure fled, seeming to whirl around disappear into the shadows. 

And by now he could see Sensa almost clearly, all leather armor and dark hair, though spotty after-images of light obscured parts of her face. As the image crispened, Will froze as he realized he was not seeing after-images; the Teardrop of the Great One was glowing where she has bound it to her hair. But what really unsettled Will was Senas’s eyes: they were made of pure light.

Sensa opened her mouth and exhaled. A thin stream of shadow left her lips, curling into the air like smoke.And then Sensa collapsed.

Will sat up too quickly, making his head spin. When his vision cleared of gray spots, he scrambled over to Sensa. Her eyes were closed and her breathing was shallow. He grabbed her wrist; her pulse was fast and flickery beneath his fingers.

“Sensa,” Will shook her lightly. “Sensa, wake up.” Sensa did not rouse. He shook her harder. “Sensa!” Still nothing. Her skin felt hot.

Will swore softly, rubbing his hands over his face. He had spent the past four years doing his best to keep Rich and Gwen alive and well, but somehow it seemed he couldn’t seem to extend the same safety to Sensa. Not for the first time, he wondered if he’d done the right thing by inviting her to join their team, but by now his heart was as invested in her as it was in the other two, and there was nothing to be done about it. Will didn’t think he couldn’t take it if any of his friends were to die. 

“Guys…guys, come here.” His friends did not respond. He looked back to see them still lying on the ground. “Gwen! Rich! Wake up!” He heard groans from behind him.

“Five more minutes…” mumbled Rich.

“No, not five more minutes! Something’s wrong with Sensa!”

“What?” Gwen said, clutching her head as she sat up too quickly, just as Will had.

“Sensa! She passed out, she isn’t waking up, she feels feverish…”

The others scrambled over to look at her. Rich and Gwen observed her pulse and burning skin as Will told them about her glowing eyes. Belatedly, Will thought to remove the feather from her hair. The talisman was no longer glowing, but it burned to the touch, as did the hair and skin touching it. Will made a mess of Sensa’s braid in removing the feather. He placed the Tear in a leather pouch attached to his belt.

Gwen slapped Sensa’s face to try to wake her. Rich lifted her eyelids. Nothing. As a group, they debated pouring water down her throat, but decided it was a bad idea that was more likely to kill Sensa than wake her.

“We have to get her to a healer,” concluded Rich, the back of his hand pressed to Sensa’s forehead.

“Unless we want to deal with the trolls again, the closest civilization is the faeries,” said Gwen.

“Well, not really, there’s always the….” Rich’s voice trailed off as the other two shot him pointed looks: Will with eyebrows raised skeptically, and Gwen with mouth and eyebrows a tight line, glowering witheringly. They would receive no love from the orcs. “Right.” he said. Will felt a little bad as he heard an edge of guilt creep into Rich’s voice.

“Well,” Will said, an idea coming to him, “What about the Forest Orcs?”

“The imps?” said Gwen. “That’s risky. They’re devilish creatures.”

“And in any case, we’ve no clue how to find them,” finished Will.

Before they could grasp in vain for other options, a bird swooped down from the shadows, a raven. It landed next to Sensa’s head, and next to the black of her hair, Will could see how unreal it was, shadowy and indistinct, absorbing rather than reflecting the meager moonlight off its feathers.

A nightmare.

Sensa’s nightmare.

As he looked at it, the Raven absorbed the shadows cast by Will and Richard and the rock behind it, growing until it stood taller than Richard, a small dragon. Will jumped to his feet and drew his swords in a single, lithe motion. Gwen and Rich were only a few seconds behind him. The dragon made no move to attack. It only stared at Will, head cocked with an unspoken question. Then it nudged Sensa’s arm with its head and flapped its powerful wings twice before looking back at Will.

Will understood what it wanted. “No!” He said. It had to be a trap.

The nightmare crouched down. On its back were three saddle-like ridges, and a fourth ridge that looked more suited for a person to lie upon.

“No!” Will repeated. The nightmare snorted, frustrated. A moment later, a swath of shadow peeled itself off the dragon and fluttered through the air. A shadow imitation of a faerie. It landed on Sensa’s face and pulled at her hair lightly.

Will’s heart froze. What choice did they have?

“Get on the nightmare,” he told the others, scooping Sensa up and depositing her in the recumbent saddle.

“What!” Gwen said.
“You heard me,” said Will, mounting the dragon himself in the seat behind Sensa.

“Will, I don’t–” Gwen began, but Will cut her off.

“It’s Sensa’s nightmare. It’s going to take us to the faeries.”

“And if it’s a trap?” asked Rich, already climbing into the rearmost saddle.

“We’re Warriors,” Will answered. “We’ll fight our way out.”

“Fair enough,” Rich replied. 
Gwen stared at the thing for a long moment before swinging herself up into the dragon’s back. “If we die, I’ll kill you,” she said. She might have been talking to the nightmare, but Will had a feeling she was talking to him.
Will saw that thick ropes of shadow held Sensa to the saddle, but he kept a protective hand on her anyway. Holding onto a spike protruding from the nightmare’s back, he whispered, “Take us to the faeries.”

And off they flew.

*              *            *              *                *

I woke with memories of a dream in my head, the first proper dream I’d had in my life. It it, I had been surrounded by tongues of light, all emanating from me, from my soul, sparked by anger and love in my heart. Or perhaps I had been made of light. The dream was fuzzy on that point.

In the dream, I had whirled around in a kind of dance, cutting down shadows with all the fury of a raging fire and all the grace of a summer breeze. Hooded figures dissipated into shadow when I touched them with my fingers, fingers laced with sunbeams.

My friends, standing around me with looks of concern on their faces, looked visibly relieved when I sat up, awake. I caught the smell of juniper and hibiscus, of sage and citrus, of growing things. I looked around and found myself in a hammock made of vines. Not at all the rocky wasteland I last remembered. On the horizon, between the vines that blocked my view, the sky was tinged with a wonderful and impossible pink.

“Wait. Where are we?” I asked Will, swinging my legs over the side of the hammock and patting my belt to be sure I still had my Lightknife. 

“We’re in the Faerie Circle,” he said. “You passed out, and your nightmare turned into a dragon and flew us here.”

“What?” I said. But his words rang with truth, for I saw the Faerie Queen approaching us, her dark skin contrasted against a bright yellow gown. Behind her, the sky was becoming orange.

“The Sunbringer has woken!” she said, grinning.
“The Sunbringer!” I exclaimed. I looked down at my hair: the feather was gone. “You got the Tear?” I asked the Queen, my voice high and squeaky with excitement. “You used it to find the Sunbringer?!” Now I understood the meaning of the warm orange glow where the earth met the sky.

The Faerie Queen and Richard laughed at the same time, the Queen’s laugh high and lovely, Rich’s breathy and mirthless. I looked back at him, confused.

“You want to tell her?” Rich asked Gwen, who shook her head.

“Will?” she prompted. 

Will cleared his throat.

“Sensa…” he said, “You are the Sunbringer.”

End of Book I

Chapter 11 Part 1

After what seemed like hours, the forest thinned back to rocky terrain, and shouts and glow of torchlight behind us faded completely.

“I think this is good,” said Will. “We can stay here for the night.” He didn’t mention what we would do tomorrow, and no one pressed him.

I dismounted and searched through my saddlebags for a faery orb. I didn’t find one. In our getaway haste, we had to leave behind our carriage; the orcs had probably found it by now and salvaged what they could. We were left with little more than our horses, weapons, and the moonlight.

     I turned around, ready to roast Richard alive, but Will had beat me to it.

“What on earth were you thinking, Rich?” he scolded. “We could have been killed! For all we know, the orcs have declared war! Do you have any clue-”

“Richard.” Gwen’s voice silenced us with its quiet tone. She was holding onto her saddle, eyes closed, the perfect image of serenity.

 The calm before the storm, I thought.

Richard swallowed.

“Richard,” Gwen’s voice was pleasant as she turned around to face him. “Would you hand me your shoe, please?”

“Are you going to hit me with it?” Rich asked warily.

Gwen laughed. “Of course not.”

Rich didn’t look convinced, but he removed his shoe anyway and handed it to her.

Gwen immediately began whacking Rich with his own shoe.

“Richard!”

“Ow!”

“Brent!” Gwen screamed a long string of curse words.

“You said you wouldn’t hit-”

“How could you have been so stupid?! You nearly killed the lot of us, you ruined my night-”

“It wasn’t my-”

“I DON’T CARE!” Gwen had stopped hitting Richard with the shoe and was now simply screaming at him. Somehow, this was scarier than the smacking.

“They were being kind to us, Richard! We’ve been in these Great-One-forsaken mountains for weeks, and finally, we run across some people who actually care, who take us in and feed us, and you go and ATTACK ONE OF THEM OVER SOME PERCEIVED SLIGHT!”

Perceived?” Now Richard was getting angry. “I don’t think I perceived the way Kevik–”

“Oh, shut up! I was having a perfectly good–no, a wonderful time! But you couldn’t just play along and be happy for us, no, because you weren’t enjoying the party, and if Richard isn’t happy, no one can be!”

With that, Gwen chucked Richard’s shoe at his head and stomped off.

Will made to go after her, but I stopped him.

“She needs to blow off some steam,” I said. “I’ll find her; you go talk to Rich.”

Though the worry never left his eyes, Will nodded and went back to talk with Rich.

I found Gwen sitting behind a boulder, with her bow and a knife. She said nothing when I sat down next to her. Her eyes and nose were red and puffy, but I decided not to bring it up. I watched her whittle tiny decorative leaves and flowers into her bow. We sat in silence for what felt like a long time, giving me time to think about what she’d said to Richard. The words weren’t intended for me, but they stung all the same.

I was the one who finally broke the silence: “Are you really that unhappy on this quest?”

Gwen gave a small, mirthless laugh. “Look around. We’re surrounded for miles by a steep, miserable wasteland of rocks. And don’t get me wrong, I love you guys, but there’s only so much of you I can take. I miss my family.”

“And the others…do they–”

“Yeah, they feel the same way.”

My guilt was a physical thing, racking my insides. It felt like a bad stomach ache. “How did I not notice you were so miserable? Great One, I’m so self-absorbed.”

“You’re just now realizing that?” said Gwen. Then, seeing my face, she said, “Hey, you’re worried about your Gramma; we know that, and we forgive you. Of all the flaws in the world, yours isn’t the worst.”

“I’m not sure about that.” I said. “I mean, I came over here to comfort you, and ended up turning this into a conversation about my problems.”

“Oh, come on, Sensa,” said Gwen. “Everybody’s got problems. You’re self-centered. So is Richard. Will’s got a big ego, but at least he’s not vocal about it.”

“What about you?” I nudged her. “What’s your fatal flaw.”

“Me? I don’t have one. I’m flawless.”

I laughed and played along. “Tell me your secret, O Perfect Woman!”

Gwen pretended to debate the issue in her head. “Fine! You want to know my super secret weakness?” I nodded. She leaned in and cupped her hands around my ear.

Gwen whispered: “I am really temperamental.”

I burst out into laughter. Gwen’s temper was hardly a secret.

“You can never tell anyone,” she continued to joke. “No one can ever know!”

“What will you do? Throw a shoe at me?” We both laughed at that one.

*                  *               *                  *                   *

[That’s right folks. This time, I decided to split the Chapter into parts so I can give y’all something to read. My goal is to finish this book by the end of the summer; I’m getting close to the end. I hope you all like it!]

Chapter 10 (at last!!!)

“Look out!”

I didn’t hesitate to follow Will’s orders and ducked. Huge fangs snapped shut right where my head had been. I was proud for a moment of the bit of “team cohesion” I had displayed, but then the black maw came down once more.

I dove out of the way, then leapt up onto the beast’s lowered neck. It was huge and furry, and most definitely a nightmare, but beyond that, we had no clue what it was.

I scampered up onto the proportionally tiny head, hanging onto a horn for dear life. From this vantage point I could see the rest of my team working their chaotic magic: Gwen firing arrows into the thing’s chest (not penetrating deep enough to hit anything vital, unfortunately); Will trying to distract it by hacking at the tail, and Richard poised to throw his spear at the face.

Without hesitating, I stabbed my knife into the creature’s eye. It howled with furious passion and thrashed like a bag of cats, throwing me off its head. Rich threw his spear with admirable accuracy, taking out the other eye despite the fit of rage I had induced.

“Is that enough to kill it?” I panted.

“It had better be!” Rich responded. “I can’t just pull another spear out of my-”

The flailing bum of the now-blind monster came crashing down, pinning Richard and myself underneath it. I couldn’t move my arms or upper body, but my legs were free from the knee down, so I kicked the thing’s furry rump with my heels as hard as I could. This did absolutely nothing.

The beast let out a furious roar. I was caught between the shaking of the ground and the nightmare’s quivering body, which was by far the strangest sensation I have ever experienced.

Unfortunately, I couldn’t breathe beneath the crushing weight of the beast, so I was very grateful for the gift of fresh air that came moments later when the creature dissolved into loose shadow.

Will retrieved our weapons as Rich and I gasped for breath.

“How did….?” I asked, sitting up.

“Will took out one of the legs, so I shot few arrows in the maw while it was howling in pain.” Gwen answered, picking up her own scattered arrows. I caught my knife as it was tossed to me.

We assessed our injuries. Nothing serious, just a few cuts and bruises. We’d been encountering bigger, stronger nightmares often since we’d  begun scouring the mountains on the Faerie Queen’s quest. The task itself was rather boring (and so far, fruitless) but the danger kept us on our toes.

It also gave me the chance to become as familiar with my friends as they already were with each other. Everyone has their quirks, good or bad. Richard snored in his sleep. Gwen could whistle even the most complex songs. Will’s a lousy cook, but didn’t mind digging the latrines every time we pitched camp. Several weeks of nothing but the same three people and barren rock-land as far as the eye can see is an excellent opportunity for team bonding!

But recently, it wasn’t all that barren. We’d come across a thick stretch of forest. We assumed it was the work of Forest Orcs, but I hadn’t seen a single soul except those with whom I was traveling.

“On the bright side, a nightmare if that magnitude would have cleared out any competition in the area.” said Will, heading toward the carriage the faeries had provided us. “We should be safe to set up camp and rest for the-”

A low growl pierced the air. We all turned in the direction from which it came. It seemed to be some way off still. Then another growl, and another, each a good deal closer than the other. The thing must be moving pretty fast. We unsheathed our weapons again.

“You’ve got to be kidding me, Kaiylan!” I looked at my friends, but they looked just as confused as me.

“It was Matik’s job to memorize the map!” Another voice, higher than the other, though the growling tone was still present. They were approaching quickly.

“We can argue the blame later,” said a third. “Do we at least know the way back?”

“I think I-wait, lanterns?” Voice Two had noticed us. “Guys, I think we found it!” We raised our weapons, not knowing what to expect.

Three blurs of color shot from the forest. I hardly registered them pounce before I was on my back, pinned to the ground. Razor sharp fangs reared back for the kill-

And then stopped. A confused female face looked down at me quizzically.

“You’re not an imp.” said the owner of Voice Two. She was a year or two younger than me, but definitely not human. My thunderous heartbeat slowed with realization that she wouldn’t eat me. Probably.

“Humans?” asked one of the others. I shifted my head to see Will and Richard in situations similar to mine. I couldn’t see Gwen.

“No, faeries.” Richard deadpanned. “Could you let me up, kid? You’re crushing my wing.”

The girl pushed herself off me and helped me to my feet. Her friends did likewise.

Once I saw the full profile, I could see they were Mountain orcs.

Though humanoid in size and shape, and quite intelligent, Mountain orcs were an inherently feral race. Their bodies were modified for both upright walking and quadrupedal running, with limbs that faintly resembled those of a canine or big cat. I knew the hair of their arms and legs and even backs could stiffen into sharp quills if the orc sensed danger.

Fangs protruded from their lower lips, and all three had luminous yellow eyes, but otherwise their faces could have been human. The other orcs, both of them boys, looked about the same age as the girl…around thirteen or fourteen. All three were armed to the teeth, with spears sheathed across their backs, belts heavy with knives, and much more, I was sure, that I could not see.

There was an awkward silence.

“So, uh…” I cleared my throat. “You come here often?”

The orcs laughed loudly. We went along with it.

“Was that supposed to be a joke?” Will whispered out the corner of his mouth. I shrugged.

“Allow me to introduce ourselves,” said the girl. “I’m Kaiylan, and this is Lex, and Matik.” Will introduced the four of us as well.

“So what are you doing here, anyway? asked Lex. “The guards the Warriors send are usually older.”

“You’re not exactly elders yourself.” said Richard.

“Well said.” We all jumped at the sound of a new voice. Leaning in the shadows of a tree was an orc a year or two older than me. The orc kids paled.

“What on earth could the three of you be doing all the way out here?” he asked in a mock-concern voice. “I know you’re not big party people, but this a bit extreme, don’t you think?”

“Just spit it out, Kevik.” Lex said.

“Your parents noticed you were missing. It wasn’t a big deal, really. But then tracking you down took so long. And what was that you said just a moment ago about the imp camp?”

The three were silent. What did we just walk into?

Kevik whistled. “You are in astronomically big trouble.”

Will cleared his throat. In the blink of an eye, the older orc had spun and was pointing a strange contraption, sort of like Gwen’s bow, at us.

“Whoa there, orc-man!” Richard put his hands up defensively.

“Humans?” He lowered his weapon. “I thought all the guards were on duty tonight?”

Will quickly outlined our business in the mountains.

Kevik reddened and quickly slung his weapon over his shoulder again. “I apologize for the ill greeting you’ve received here so far-”

“Ill? We were-” began Kaiylan indignantly. The older orc silenced her with a look. Then he continued;

“You may not be aware, but tonight we celebrate the customary Lunar Festival. We don’t have much, but we would be honored to share it. And I’m sure our priest would be very interested to hear about your task. The return of the sun would be a miracle for all of us, and I’m sure he’d want to help in any way possible.”

“Oh, um, thank you.” Will stammered. The hospitality was rather sudden. “Thank you very much.”

“If you want we can take the horses.” I said, motioning to the four steeds harnessed to the carriage. “It would be faster.”

Disbelieving excitement dawned on the young orc’s faces. I decided I liked these kids.

“CAN I DRIVE IT?!?” Kaiylan practically screamed.

“Uh…” I doubted she had the slightest inkling of what to do. She just looked so excited, though… “Sure.”

I don’t think the orcs had even seen a horse before, much less ridden one. Their reactions were pretty amusing: Matik was terrified after Rich’s horse brayed in his face, Lex was trying to figure out how they worked, and Kaiylan was practically jumping up and down in the saddle like this was the coolest thing since faerie lanterns.

Kevik insisted on leading the way back to camp so the other orcs would know the group was peaceful. Unfortunately, he had never ridden a horse before, and I think Gwen-seated behind him-was having a rough go of it.

Not as rough as I was though.

“No, no, Kaiylan, don’t pull that-”

“Hyup!”

“WHAT?! NO-”

We were delayed a few minutes, because re-mounting a horse is difficult when a thirteen-year old girl has figured out how to make it spin in circles.

In the meantime, Gwen finally got to ask Kevik the question that had been gnawing at her.

“What is this?” she said.

“You mean the crossbow?” he said.

“Yeah, if that’s what it’s called” she said,

“It’s a crossbow.”

“That’s redundant.” said Lex.

“You’re crushing my rib cage, Matik.” said Will. Even though we weren’t moving, the kid was holding on for dear life. Though with Kaiylan all the over the place, I couldn’t really blame him.

“You’re just jealous, Lex.” Kevik retorted, then explained: “Crossbows are the greater of the two orc weapons.”

“What’s the lesser?” asked Gwen.

“The spear.”

Richard’s face ticked.

“Just because it isn’t as fancy, doesn’t mean I can’t still gut you like a fish.” Matik said, face green.

Eventually, we did come to the village. I could smell it long before I saw it: roasting meat, warm bread, fresh greens, and, was that…?

“Sweetbread? said Will.

“All the works.” assured Kevik.

We dismounted at the edge of the village. We tied our horses behind a house, so I couldn’t see anything, but the noise of the party was loud.

“How did I do?” asked Kaiylan eagerly as we dismounted. I didn’t have the heart to tell her she did terribly. I was spared this dilemna by the approach of an older orc, dresssed in red robes. His face was painted with blue lines, marking him as the tribe’s priest.

“What took you so long, Kevik?” he said.

“I’m glad you asked, sir. Would you care to tell the priest why you missed the ceremony, Kaiylan?”

The girl shuffled around. “Well, you see…”

“They were going to steal food from the imps.” said Kevik.

The shaman swore. He picked up Kaiylan and Matik by the scruffs of their necks, lifting them off the ground. He was a lot stronger than I’d expected a man his age to be. “What in Great One’s name were you thinking?”

“Ow! You know they’re not paying us enough!” said Matik.

“I’ll be the judge of that.” He released them. “It’s against our laws to punish you during the festival, but believe me, I won’t forget this come morning.”

Wisely, the kids kept their mouths shut as the priest left.

“Always so dramatic.” Lex rolled his eyes.

“/’Pups’/?” Kaiylan said. “We’ll be adults next year!”

“Great One help us when that day comes.” Kevik shook his head, then turned to Gwen. “So, I take it you shoot?”

“Oh, yes. I’ve had this Lightbow for about…” the two of them walked away, spewing incomprehensible bow/crossbow jargon.

“Well, they certainly hit it off.” Richard said.

“And I’m about to hit it off with the food table.” I said. “Anyone else?”

“Heck yes.” said Matik. “I’m so hungry, could eat Lex.”

Lex took a step away from Matik.

“I’m going to see what’s going on over there,” said Will, pointing to a small crowd gathered around something I couldn’t see.

“I’ll come with you, said Rich.

So I went off with the orcs to eat. The kids were right; the village was smaller than my own, but there wasn’t as much food as there should be for a feast. But the food was good-fresh vegetables, fruit, and even a couple of large pigs roasting on spits. The sweetbread was weird-made from some wild grain and filled with a nutty paste-but the taste grew on me.

“Where’d Will go again? I want to him to try one of these.”

“He and Richard are over at the fights. Over there, right?” said Kaiylan.

Fights?

Oh yes. Fights.

The crowd wasn’t massive, but it was big enough, and loud, and resembled exactly the kind of spectator’s circle we would get on sparring days at the Academy. We fought our way through the crowd, but couldn’t find Will and Rich. We were walked in on all sides by sweaty guys screaming at the top of their lungs at whoever was punching in the fighters’ ring.

“Where’d all the women go?” asked Matik.

“They had the sense to get food before it runs out.” Kaiylan answered.

Lex pulled his shirt over his nose and wheezed dramatically. “Ugh, I can’t breathe with this much testosterone in the air!” We laughed.

The crowd burst into equal parts cheering and groaning; another match over.

The orc directly in front of me passed money to the one next to him, and said “Well, what do you know. The human’s tougher than he looks.”

“Wait, WHAT?” I yelled over his shoulder, starling him.

“See for yourself.” The orc stepped aside, and I caught a glimpse of the fighting ring. One figure lay facedown, and another stood, his fist held high by the referee.

I heard Richard yell Will’s name.

My blood froze.

I shoved my way to the front and ducked under the rope, entering the fighting ring. Much to my relief, Will was the one standing. He had more than a few cuts and scrapes, and plenty of bruises, no doubt, but-thank the Great One-no serious injuries.

I swore under my breath.

“Oh hey, Sensa!” said Rich, dropping Will’s arm. “You just missed it! Will beat this big orc guy! He kicked his-” I cut him off with a look, then pulled both of the boys out of the ring. I kept walking until we a reached a river, narrow and still (as all rivers were without the sun), and out of the party’s way. Only then did I let my anger loose.

“What. Were. You. Thinking?

“Sensa, that orc challenged-” said Rich.

“Oh, don’t even start, Richard! I know you’re the one who talked him into it, you-” I made to punch Rich in the face, but Will caught my wrist, making me face him.

“Richard didn’t talk me into anything,” he said firmly. “That fight was my decision.”

“Willym Thomys! You’re the best tracker, the best fighter in our party; you just put our whole quest at risk! Orcs are twice as strong, twice as fast as humans! I would expect something so stupid from Rich-“

“Hey!” Rich said indignantly.

“Sensa, I paid attention in class. I know the odds of beating an orc weaponless are slim. But I watched this one fight several times before he challenged me. I knew his style. I accepted the challenge because I knew I could beat him.”

I bit back my automatic protest. At least some forethought went into it. And the part of me that wasn’t channeling the wrath of the Great One was actually rather impressed; its no small feat to beat an orc. I counted to thirty to calm myself.

“Alright then. Thank the Great One you’re not hurt; we would have had to stay here until you recovered.”

“Not hurt?” Will said with mock indignance, letting go of my wrist, which was now covered in his sweat. “I’ve got cuts all over from those cursed quills of his, my whole body feels like a bruise, and-”

“And you’re drenched in sweat.” I grinned. “Go take a bath!” I pushed him into the river.

Will surfaced again a moment later, gasping. Richard and I laughed quite hard.

“Nice one, Sensa!” Richard and I stacked fists.

“C-Can you swim S-S-Sensa?” Will asked, shivering.

“Yeah, there was a pond in my village, growing up. Why do you- oH NO YOU DON’T, YOU LITTLE-” Will lunged up suddenly, grabbed my arms, and pulled me into the water.

The water was so cold, it stopped my heart for a moment. I broke the surface, gasping and swearing.

“It’s f-f-freezing, Will!” I shivered.

“After you get used to it, it’s not so bad.” Will’s smiled. His hair, like mine, was plastered to his face.

Richard was just standing over us, laughing. Before we could subject him, too, to the icy water, Gwen jogged up to us. She was followed by Kevik, the orc with the blond ponytail and that cool firearm. Both of them were flushed and panting like they’d just sprinted a long way.

“You guys missed it!” Gwen said, smiling from ear to ear. “It was the best- Wait, why are you swimming?”

“Long story,” I said, looking up at her. “So tell me, is this what it feels like to be shorter than everyone?

“Pretty much.” Gwen grinned. “I was coming to tell you to join the festival. A band started playing, so everyone’s been dancing, but orc dancing is way different than Warrior dancing. There’s all this jumping, and fancy footwork, and you’ve got to be really fast, so now I’m exhausted. And hungry. Want to get some food?”

“We’ve got to dry off, first,” said Will, hoisting himself out of the river.

“We’ll met you at the food table.” I pulled myself out as well, and tried to wring some of the water out of my hair.

While the other three left to eat, Will and I sloshed back to the horses. We grabbed dry clothes, parted ways to change, then met back up at the horses again. I stroked my horse (Kay, a brown mare) while Will assessed our supplies. Another horse lurked in the corner of my eye. My nightmare. I reached for a handful of feed for my real horse, but my fingers scraped the bottom of the bag.

“We’re almost out of feed,” I told Will, as Kay ate the crumbs out of my hand.

“We’re almost out of everything.” Will replied, peering into a saddlebag. “We’ll have to stock up with the orcs.”

“Did you hear what Kaiylan and the others were saying? They don’t have enough food to begin with. They can’t grow or hunt anything, so they’re reliant on the imps for food.”

“Because the imps can grow plants the way faeries do.” Will rubbed his temples, then exhaled and looked up with a tight smile. “We’ll figure it out later. Come on, the others are waiting for us.”

We walked back toward the party. About halfway there, Will stopped suddenly.

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything.”

“Exactly. What happened to the music?” I looked at Will; my own uneasiness was mirrored in his eyes. We had left our weapons with the horses.

A figure sprinted toward us. I lowered into a fighter’s stance and raised my fists.

“Run!” shouted the figure.

“Is that Rich?” asked Will.

“RUN!” the figure-definitely Richard-sprinted right past me.

“What?” I said.

An arrow whizzed past my head. Then another. That’s when I started to hear the angry shouts.

“I think we’d better run,” said Will.  As I turned, I heard shouting. Nearing us. I bolted for the horses.

And the world descended into chaos.

Will and I ran as fast as we could, but the thick underbrush, fallen tree limbs, and flying arrows slowed us down. We would have been outrun anyway; when orcs drop to all fours, their powerful legs make them twice as fast as humans. Shouts grew louder, and soon I saw the world in the orange light of torchfire. The orcs were gaining on us.

I yanked Will to the side; a spear sliced the air where his head had been and lodged itself in a tree. Unfortunately, Will’s momentum carried him farther than I had pulled, dragging both of us to the left. We fell into the underbrush, which gave way to reveal a steep drop I hadn’t noticed when running. We tumbled down the hill in a jumble of limbs until the ground leveled. My back ached like a troll had sat on it, and a trickle of blood marred my left eye’s field of vision. But Will rolled to his knees and pulled me up with a groan.

“I can see the horses!” he said. “That fall was a gift from the Great One!” I simply moaned in reply, and sprinted to the horses despite my back and pain in my legs.

The horses were skittish with nervousness when we got to them; I could hear the orcs approaching faintly. I quickly calmed Kay, untied her bridle from the branch she’d been hitched, and swung myself onto her back. In a moment, Will too, was mounted. With a bloody gash on his leg and dozens of new scratches in addition to his fighting ring wounds, Will looked about as bad as I felt.

“Let’s go,” I said. “They know where to meet us.”

Will shook his head. “I’m not leaving without Gwen and Richard.”

“Will, if we let those orcs catch up to us, they will kill us. Literally.

“And of they catch Gwen or Richard, they’ll kill them!”

“Richard and Gwen are excellent fighters. They can handle themselves.”

“They’re up against a whole orc village!” Will shouted. “They’re good fighters, but they’re not the best, and even if they were-”

“Oh, and you’re the best, aren’t you, Master Top-in-His-Class?” I retorted viciously. “You’ve proved you can take down one, so now you can handle a whole orc village?”

“Okay then, Miss Nothing-Matters-Except-Finding-My-Gramma, let’s just leave our team behind so you can save your sorry butt and finish a quest that you dragged us into! You’re being selfish, Sensa!”

“And you’re being stupid, and arrogant!”

Just then, someone burst through the brush. Will drew one of his swords, and I my knife, but it was Richard. Despite what I’d just said, I felt a huge weight off my shoulders to see my friend safe. He mounted his own horse, out of breath.

“Where’s Gwen?” asked Will.

“She’s not here yet?” he asked. “When the orcs started coming after us, she ran straight for the horses. They chased me through the woods.”

“Why are they after us in the first place?” Will asked. “They were good hosts last time I checked.”

Rich turned beet red. “We’ll talk about it later.”

Why are they after us, Richard?” I demanded.

“IkindofthrewmyspearatKevik.” He spat, flushing even darker red.

“WHAT?!?!” Will and I screamed in unison.

Gwen burst through the brush, clutching her right arm close to her chest. My relief at seeing her alive was countered by worry that she may have broken her arm, but she nimbly mounted her horse, using her right arm normally.

“They’re right behind me,” she screeched. She punctuated this statement by dodging a flying arrow. “GO!”

We raced into the night as fast as our horses could take us.

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.”

Temporary Cover!

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

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

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

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.