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

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Chapter 11 Part 3

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

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

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

“What are these things?” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich muttered something under his breath and dropped the issue.

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

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

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

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

It was a troll.

We ducked back below the top of the boulder.

“No. Way.” Rich said.

“I can’t believe it,” whispered Will.

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

Rich clapped a hand over my mouth.

“It’s here,” Gwen whispered.

“Mmpff?” I asked.

“What?” Rich asked.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” I said.

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

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

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

What are we dealing with here? I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s here,” said Rich. “But where?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re on,” said Rich after a beat.

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

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

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

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

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

And then her arrow snapped.

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

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

“Gwen, are you okay?” Will shouted. 

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

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

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

“Rich,” said Will.

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

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

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

“They’re coming!” I said.

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

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

Before we could protest, Gwen jumped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope!” she replied.

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

And then he walked away, right past the trolls.

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

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

“Me either!” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great One’s tear burned against my cheek.

I thew the knife aside.

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

And then the world went white.

Chapter 11 Part 2

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

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

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

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

Sensa, whispered the darkness.

The word was vaguely familiar.

Sensa.

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

Sensa?

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

I looked around, straining to see.

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

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

Sensa! she screamed.

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

Sensa, where are you?

Gramma! I screamed. No sound came out. 

Sensa? She called. The despair in 

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

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

I’m here, Gramma! I’m looking Gramma!

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

My heart broke.

Sensa, she cried.

GRAMMA!

Sensa…Sensa has forgotten me.

“Sensa!”

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

“Ow!” said he.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will waited for me to go on.

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

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

“This would be the first,” I conceded.

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

I told him.

“Sensa, that’s…that’s awful.”

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

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

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

“We?” I asked.

“We.” Will assured me. I smiled.

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

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

“Yes.” Will said.

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

“Sensa?” 

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

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

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

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

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

“So, will you forgive me?” he asked.

“Will you forgive me?” I retorted.

“I forgive you,” Will smiled.

“And I forgive you.” I said.

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

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

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

The scale stayed put, real as ever.

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

“We should stay put,” Will said.

“We really should.” I concurred.

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

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

I ran silently over to Rich and shook his shoulder.

“Wake up! We’re going exploring!”

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My destiny? Are you delusional or something?”

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

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

I stepped back. “But…but how…?’

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

Chapter 8

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

Chapter 6

     And thus began my new life at the Academy. It took some major adjustments, but eventually I settled into the rhythm of school. 
     I learned more in the first month of classes than I had in the past three years combined, and improved my physical condition until it nearly matched those of my classmates (vigorous training five hours every day can do that to you). I had Gwen cut my hair, too-not nearly as short hers, just a few inches below my shoulders, where it wouldn’t get in the way.
    There were lots of other things I picked up, little quirks about the Sun Soldiers’ lifestyle. No spoons, for instance. Everyone drinks soup right out of the bowl, and everything else is eaten with a fork. And Professor, Master-or Mr., as I learned to abbreviate it-Miss, and Madame were all titles of respect, for people you didn’t know, or those older than you (though I don’t know where that puts the my lady Will continued to use for the first week or so he knew me. It must be some weird civilian formality). I also realized that people were self-conscious, just not in the way I was used to. Here they fretted over their skills, in fighting or knowledge or whatever career they wanted to pursue, all of them striving to become a prodigy. It made for some really talented kids, but also for fierce competition. 
    That was another thing I learned: not all Warriors were actually…well, warriors. Though everyone was taught how to fight, many of people chose to become Keepers of knowledge or crafting skills or the arts. There were whole rooms, just full of paints or musical instruments or leather-working supplies or paper and ink, for the students who wanted to become artists or shopkeepers or scholars some day. 
    Not that I forgot why I was there in the first place. Every day I made my way to the headmaster’s study to ask Darius if there was any news of Gramma. There never was. Eventually, the professor just told me to stop, that he would tell me if there was any sign of her. 
    My nightmare kept showing up too, more and more frequently the longer I tried to pretend it wasn’t there. Nothing but a shadow on the walls,  invisible to everyone but me, weighing on me like a dark secret.  I tried several times to sneak it out if the City, but it wouldn’t come when I called. The stable boy, John, had assured Will he would tell no one, for the sake of our whole team’s honor. 
    I started thinking things were alright. I learned to enjoy myself, and I found friends in Will and Rich and Gwen. In fact, I was with them when it all went wrong. 
                                                                                    *     *     *     *     *
   “So…what do you say? You, and me, tonight, in the faerie garden?” Richard quirked his eyebrow in a way that was probably supposed to be enticing, but only succeeded in making me laugh.
    Today at lunch, Gwen bet Rich her dessert couldn’t get Hayla to go on a date with him. By the ways things were going, Gwen was keeping her pie.  
    Hayla looked up from her book with a mix of cold un-amusement, mild curiosity, and a dash of what-in-Great-One’s-name-are-you-doing?. 
    “If you’re implying that I would even consider courting an idiot like yourself, you are extremely mistaken,” she stated simply. 
    “Aw, come on, you know you want to…” Richard coaxed.
    “You have ten seconds.”
    “But it only takes one to say ‘yes’.”
    “I really wouldn’t want to do any permanent damage to the pretty face of yours.”
    “Oh, so you do find me attractive!”
    “Five seconds left.”
    “He ought to walk away while he still can,” I muttered to Gwen. 
    Rich leaned in really close to her face and grinned lazily. “Bring it.”
    “..two, one.” Hayla nonchalantly slammed her knuckles into his emerald eye before looking settling calmly back into her book.
    Richard’s head snapped back, his hand flying to his face as he lost his balance.
    “Great One!” he swore. “Geez, woman, didn’t know you were so adverse to midnight picnics. But thanks for the polite “no”. By tomorrow, this shiner will be as black as your soul.” He turned on his heel and walked indignantly back to the three of us, who were cracking up uncontrollably.
    “Glad my pain amuses you,” Rich muttered leaning against a mess hall table, “but hey, boysenberry is the king of all pies…”
    “Oh, no,” cackled Gwen, “You’re not laying a finger on my dessert. I bet that you couldn’t get a date with Hayla, not that you could annoy her into hitting you.”
     “What?” Richard exclaimed, “I just got punched in the face, and you still refuse me what is rightfully mine? Like that’s going to happen…”
     “What do you-ACK!” Richard had swooped in and thrown Gwen over his shoulder like a sack of potatoes. 
     “Put me down!” she shrieked. If our laughter hadn’t already caught the attention of everyone in the hall, that sure did. By now, Will was doubled over laughing; I had to clutch the table for support, barely able to breathe.  
     “This is very undignified, Richard!” Gwen tied to punch him but ended beating her fists on his back like a child. “At least face me like a man!”
     “Why? So you can black my other eye?” Rich calmly folded his arms over Gwen’s legs and pretended to check his nails. “Not likely!”
     Though a crowd had started to form, teachers weren’t doing anything to break up the fight; in fact, I’m pretty sure  there were teachers in the crowd. 
     Gwen tried kicking at him; fortunately for her, her feet were at the perfect height to kick his knees. Richard tried to lock his legs up, but that just threw him off balance when the next kick came. 
     “If I go down, you’re coming down with me!” he called over his shoulder. 
     “All the more reason for you to put me down!”
     “Say the magic words…”
     Gwen sighed. “Put me down please.”
     “Wrong. The magic words are “You can have my pie, Rich”.”
     The circle of onlookers laughed. Before people could start cheering for a fight, the afternoon class whistle blew. Richard sighed and dropped Gwen unceremoniously on the ground as the students and teachers dispersed.
     “We will continue this in sparring,” yawned Rich. 
     “I thought you said you didn’t want any damage to your face,” retorted Gwenolyn as she dusted herself off.
     “Oh, please, like you could ever-” I didn’t catch the rest of his comeback, for John-the-Stable-Boy had come up behind us was tugging on my sleeve. 
     “Professor Darius would like to have a word with you,” he said in low tones. 
     “Alright,” I replied. “I’ll meet you in class,” I told my friends. 
     I followed John through the Hall of Craftsmen. My friends had informed me that the stable boys were civilian orphans that Darius had found in the outer villages and brought to the Soldiers’ City for a better life.  Besides caring for horses, the stable boys apparently ran errands for the headmaster and office people at Headquarters.
    Despite my best efforts not to, I found myself becoming hopeful as I approached Darius’s office. Why would he call me here if not to tell me news about Gramma? Perhaps to throw you out of the school, said that pessimistic little voice in the back of my head, they’ve found your nightmare and they’re throwing you out for fear you’ll destroy their City.
    While these thoughts fighting for attention in my head, I hesitated upon reaching the headmaster’s door, then reached up and banged the large dog-shaped knocker. A muffled “it’s unlocked” came from within-typical Darius, being so blatantly casual-, so I opened the door and walked in.
    The professor was sitting on the floor in a nest of old books, skimming the contents of a scroll while polishing the shaft of his old Lightlance. One leg stretched out awkwardly while the other was bent as if he meant to cross his legs at some point.
     Brows furrowed, Darius muttered to himself as if I was not there. 
     “Miss Ivene, what is the most dangerous type of nightmare?” he asked out of the blue. 
     “Er, humanoid ones, sir.”
     “Correct. Nightmares have the mental capabilities of the creatures they take the form of. Almost all of them look like common animals-or more rarely, monsters particular to the nightmare species-so we have the advantage of intelligence. Not here though,” said Professor Darius, turning to face me as he tossed me the scroll.
     The paper was smaller than I had thought; a hastily-written letter, not a book. The message was written in a language I did not recognize-the characters were comprised of series of vertical lines slashed through horizontal ones. 
     “Um, sir, I can’t read this…what language is this anyway?”
     “The written tongue of the Mountain Orcs,” he said, taking the scroll back. “It’s a border report. Last week, the Warriors guarding their borders and some Orc hunters were lured into a trap. They were hunting a small horde, chased them into the Dead Forest. The group was ambushed in a clearing.”
     “By a human nightmare?”
     “By three.”
     “Three!” I exclaimed, “They didn’t stand a chance!”
     “It was a massacre,” Darius shook his head. 
     “No survivors? Every one of them was killed?”
     “All thirty-six of them,” sighed Darius, rubbing his temples, “Seventeen were Warriors.”
     “Is that…is that why you called me here?” I asked, somewhat disturbed. 
     “What? Oh, no,” the professor said, shaking himself out of his mournful reverie, “I apologize for burdening you with this knowledge. I actually called you here on a much happier occasion.”
     “Gramma?” I asked, hardly daring to be hopeful.
     “Precisely,” Darius smiled, “patrol Warriors found a shoe near faerie borders: sturdy, definently City-made, and, best of all, her family crest was stitched into the sole. We’ve directed our search party to the area.”
     Finally, after weeks of worry, there was a chance at finding Gramma. A small chance, but hopeful nonetheless. And I knew the nightmares had taken her alive. I could have cried for joy. 
      “Your welcome,” the professor grinned, “now get to your classes before Trysha gets angry at me. I’ve seen that woman with a fork before, and I’m not particularly anxious to repeat the experience.”
                                                                            *          *          *           *          *
      I flew into the training room, grinning like an idiot. I was lucky enough to miss our “warm up” period, as well as most of nature tactics. Settling down with my team to help them finish their camouflage leaf net, I told them the news. 
      “And to top it off,” said Gwen with great bravado, after the trio expressed their gladness, “you get to watch me beat the daylight out of Rich!”
     “I talked to Madame Trysha,” said Will, ignoring her, “and she agreed that your private training is sufficient for you to join everyone else.”
     “Welcome to the fun classes!” smiled Richard, whose eye was now officially purple-black and swollen, “where no one leaves without a bloody nose or a fractured bone!”
     My day couldn’t get better. Well, the pie at supper would be great, but that was just the icing on the sweetbread, so to speak. 
     After drilling with Will for weeks, I was ready for some real fighting. I had the basic stuff down, was as good as I felt I’d ever get at unarmed combat, and had even learned to use that Lightknife pretty well. I guess Will could tell I was itching to get out there, since he convinced our instructor I was ready. I gave him a fist-stack of unspoken appreciation. I could tell he got the message. 
     Two classes, three headlock techniques, and one falling-apart camo-net later, I finally got to see sparring. Sparring was a special class that we only got once a week, a crossover between hand-to-hand combat and weapons training.    
     Basically, you challenged anyone in the room to a duel-with or without weapons, the challenger got the pick-and beat each other up until one of you lost. Since there was no real guidelines as to what “losing” meant, the fights tended to be long and bloody; no one ever wants to surrender. There was also a pretty general “anything goes” policy, so there were lots of creative moves and low blows. Bones were broken fairly frequently, and I’d even heard one story about a kid who got beat so badly he was in a coma for a month. 
      It was everyone’s favorite class. 
      First up was our very own Gwenolyn Laurya and Richard Brent (he cleared his throat loudly at that), a match everyone had been looking forward to since the scene in the mess hall. Their weapons were incompatible-Gwen used a Lightbow while Rich sported a Lightspear-so they chose to go unarmed. 
     Our classmates lined up along the wall to give them space. A number of people, I could see, were placing bets. Will and I were no exception; I had money on Rich, and Will was betting on Gwen. 
     They bowed ceremoniously to each other and slipped into their fighters’ stances, concentration etched on both faces (along with more than a bit of playful cockiness).
     Madame Trysha blew her shrill wooden whistle. “Fight!”
     And fight they did. In moments, the pair was a blur of yellow and black uniforms, kicking and twisting to the beat of a drum only they could hear. 
     Gwen attacked first, running at Richard as if she were going to punch him and slipping beneath his arm as he went to block. 
     Rich used the momentum of his useless block to spin around and catch Gwen’s arm, yanking her behind him in a reverse judo-flip. 
     Gwen recovered quickly, jumping to a crouch and sweeping her leg in a circle to topple her lanky opponent.
     Unable to regain his balance, Rich instead re-directed his fall so he fell directly on top of Gwenolyn, pinning her arms with his hands and his her legs with his knees. 
     Gwen head-butted Rich, and took advantage of his momentary surprise by freeing her arms.  With a strength that belied her small size, she shoved Rich off her and carried the momentum all the way over, until he was pinned the way she had been not a moment before. 
     “Great One!” I shouted to Will over the noise of the crowd of classmates, “they fight they talk!”
     “More like they talk the way they fight,” he remarked, neither of us taking our eyes from the match for a moment. 
     Despite their differences in size and speed, they were quite evenly matched. Clearly, they both had put tremendous amounts of work into developing their hand-to-hand fighting skills-a fact you never would have realized with their long-range weapons. 
     Back on their feet, Rich attempted to get his opponent into some sort of headlock. Gwen dove between his legs as he lunged forward, rolled to her feet, and jumped onto his back like some sort of monkey, earning whoops and laughter from the crowd.
     Rich tried everything to shake her: jumping, shaking, attempting to pry her arms off his neck, and generally making a fool of himself while she laughed and held on easily. It was questionably the funniest thing I’d seen in a week (and with those two, that’s saying something). 
     “You know, earlier, when you threw me on your back?” shouted Gwen, “Well, this is payback! Get it? Payback?”
     “Haha, really punny,” grunted Richard. 
     “Touché,” she replied. 
     “You know, I didn’t want to resort to this, but here goes,” said Rich as he reached around his back and started tickling Gwen. 
     “Wha-no!” Gwen shouted, squirming as she cackled with laughter, “Stop, stop! Tickling…tickling is cheating!”
     “Anything goes…right?” said Richard. He had to contort himself now, as Gwen was writhing with tickle-induced laughter on his back. I was wrong. This was the funniest thing I’d seen all week. 
     In moments, Gwen was off Rich’s back and on the floor, giggling as he continued to tickle her. The class roared with laughter. Tough, stubborn Gwen, brought to tears by the power of tickling. 
     “Do I win?” he asked over his shoulder.
     “N-never!” Gwen yelled. 
     “Well, I’ve never seen an attack like this before, but your opponent has been down for quite some time…” said Madame Trysha, trying not to crack a smile.
     “You hear that?” Rich shouted over Gwen’s laughter, “that, my friend, is the sound of VICTORY!”
     “You-you are an awful person,” Gwen panted as Rich stopped tickling her.
     “Of course I am. How else did you think I’ve acquire so many admirers?”
     “Oh, I usually put that down to your general stupidity.”
     “Well, you-“
     “Moving on,” Madame Trysha interrupted, “who’s up next?”
     Before anyone else could respond, Feyden jumped to his feet.
     “I challenge Sensa Ivene to a duel!” Feyden looked me directly in the eyes. I didn’t like what I saw.
     “Weapons?” I asked; thankfully, I managed to keep my voice devoid of emotion. I stood up to face Feyden more openly. I hadn’t realized before that we were exactly the same height.
     “No,” the boy said with a smirk. Then, more quietly,  “I don’t need a sword to beat you, peasant.”
     “Of course not. You could kill a man easily with that face of yours.” Feyden turned an amusing shade of purple, which he managed to hide from the class as we bowed.
     “Begin!”
     And then we were on each other like wolves. He attacked fast and hard, I dodged and counter-attacked and attacked again. The ferocity of the match was not helped by the fact that we both had something to prove. The crowd which had been laughing and exchanging bet money minutes ago was now silent. 
     I launched myself at Feyden in a tackle. I succeeded, but not without getting a fist to the stomach. He landed awkwardly, one leg pinned between his chest and mine. I thought I must have caught Feyden really by surprise-I’d learned how to fall properly, so he must have-until that same leg kicked me out from on top of him with a hard heel to the gut.
     I fell back, the wind knocked out of me. Feyden took the opening and stomped on my right arm as soon as he could scurry to his feet. I yanked myself back to my feet before he could claim a win. 
     “So you’re the sort that kicks a man while he’s down,” I hissed at him through clenched teeth, “I bet you tear the wings off fireflies, too.” He either ignored those comments or got angry (I believe the latter was more likely), because the next moment Feyden’s foot was flying at my face.
     Faster than a whip, my hand shot out and grabbed his leg. I twisted it so that Feyden was slammed to the ground, then hit hit him with a series of fast, hard punches that left him groaning.
     I stood up, breathing hard. When he didn’t get up after a moment, Madame Trysha declared me the winner. 
    “Wait!” Feyden shouted, getting up. “Rematch! I want a rematch!”
     I looked at Madame Trysha. “Can he do that?”
     Our instructor rubbed her time-creased forehead. “Usually people don’t, but it isn’t unheard of…”
     I heard someone murmur that he must really hate my guts. 
     So we went again. I won, though it was close. He wanted another go. I won again. His fighting style was becoming more clear to me: mostly cold, calculated blows, followed by quick hot flashes where he would lash out and was liable to make mistakes. 
     We ended up going five rounds before he called it: weapons. This round we would fight with weapons. He used a Lightkatana, a long, slightly curved blade first developed by an elite brand of Warriors in the Sunrise City to the east. I had my knife. His blade glowed a strange shade of ochre. My soul color was definitely yellow-Lightweapons burned gold at barely a touch from me. It was strange at first; I had always pictured myself as a sort of magenta persona. 
     “Begin!” our instructor shouted, clearly tired of our seemingly endless rematches. 
     By now, I was exhausted. Five intense sparring matches leave your bones feeling like putty and your muscles like lead. Feyden must have been fueled by rage, because he swung at me with as much energy as ever. 
     I dodged, I ducked. I tried to fight back, but I could never get close enough; his long-range weapon far outmatched mine. The scales were tipped, this time in Feyden’s favor. 
     Feyden moved like the Lightkatana was an extension of his body. My Lightknife, which seemed balanced before, was now far too small and light. It was all I could do to parry the oncoming attacks, much less advance my own.
     Soon, my back bumped into something solid. The wall. I tried to maneuver to the right, but Feyden turned my evasive moves  into a trap, pressing my into the far corner of the room. 
     Cold fear crept into my chest. He was not backing up as most fighters would. Feyden continued to swipe and slash, at my legs, my abdomen, my face. The fire in his eyes told me my opponent might not even be in his right mind. He was blinded by anger-perhaps not even directed at me.
     His next stab to my knife arm-also the arm he had stomped on earlier-drew blood. That would be enough for a win, but Feyden still advanced. My mind and limbs became clouded by panic, I couldn’t block his blows, and-
     My vision was blinded by a seething mass of darkness. An unnatural shriek pierced the room. As the terror left my vision, I recognized the black mass as a rearing horse, the shriek as an unearthly whinny. 
     It was my nightmare. 
     Great One help me.