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

Advertisements

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 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 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 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.