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 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.

Temporary Cover!

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

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

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

Chapter 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 2

Chapter 2

Something clanked loudly, jolting me out of a dreamless sleep. I was in my bed, still in my clothes from last night, though someone had taken my shoes off. Probably Katryna.

I couldn’t remember much of what had happened the night before. Sluggishly, I remembered of the prayer ceremony, how the sacred ritual had made me sick and pass out. That was weird. Really weird. Usually, the prayer circle was my favorite part of the night; it was the only time I could ever be sure that other human beings would engage in actual physical activity with me since my peers had outgrown games like tag.

Another crash brought me back to my senses.

Someone is in the house, I realized. Who could possibly be smashing around my kitchen like a bull in a china shop at this hour?

As quietly as I could, I climbed out of bed and slipped my shoes on, grabbing a heavy scroll off my nightstand (a book about astronomy I’d been re-reading for the thousandth time-star gazing was pretty easy when they shone twenty-four/seven).

The noises sounded like they were coming from the kitchen. I crept there silently, cautious of the creaky floorboard. As I entered the kitchen, I saw a tall figure in a black hooded cloak bent toward the ground near the table. I raised my scroll, ready to whack the stranger on the head.

Before I got the chance, the stranger (I could tell by his shape that it was a man) righted himself and turned around, pointing a long, gleaming silver something at my face. A sword. No match for my puny book. I swallowed, fear coursing through my veins.

The stranger suddenly dropped the sword. He scrambled again for the blade, as if he had dropped it in surprise. When he stood up again, his hood fell back, revealing a surprised face with two startlingly blue eyes.

“Very sorry for alarming you, my lady,” he said sheepishly, “I thought you were a nightmare. How foolish f me.”

“Wait…what?” I asked, scroll still raised. I had so many questions. We were under attack? From whom? And why was he blundering about my house? But what actually came out of my mouth was: “What did you think I was?”

“A nightmare,” he replied pleasantly, before shaking his head. “I’m sorry, you must be so confused. Allow me to introduce myself. My name is Willym. Willym Thomas.” He extended his hand with a smile, as if we were old friends.

As I lowered the book and hesitantly shook his hand, I looked him over. I realized now that he was a boy of about my age, rather than a full-grown man. He had pale blond hair that was just a bit too long, a genuine smile, and clear blue eyes, creating an overall impression of good-natured-ness. I wasn’t getting any overtly evil vibes from him, but one could never be too careful about crazy strangers breaking and entering.

The boy, Willym Thomys (an odd name, I thought), was dressed very strangely. Under his cloak, I could see he wore loose clothes, under strange plates of tough leather. He wore steel bracers on his forearms and shins, and boots made of the same leather as the plating. Clothes made for movement and protection. Crossed over his back were two sword sheaths, one of which was empty at the moment.

The swords reminded me that I was talking to a trespasser. I released his hand and crossed my arms. “What are you doing in my house at this ungodly hour of the everlasting night?” I asked with more than a hint of annoyed sarcasm.

“Well…I don’t know how to explain it to a civilian…”

“Civilian?”

“A civilian is any human who isn’t a Warrior, who can’t see or fight nightmares.” Willym glanced at the floor he had been examining before, his hand rubbing his neck nervously.

“Wait….” I said as the impossible truth of the situation dawned on me. “You’re a Warrior? A Sun Soldier? Like the childrens’ stories?”

“Childrens’ stories?” He replyed, bemused as he bent to examine my kitchen floor again.

“What were you looking at?” I leaned over the table to see the floor. I was surprised to see a trail of black animal footprints, leading to the stove, and coming from…the wall.

“Whoa! What made those? What, did it just walk through the wall? Is that why you broke in to my house? Are you looking for that thing?

Why-” I looked at Willym Thomys, who looked back, surprised.

“Wait,” He stopped me, “You can see the nightmare tracks?”

“Not yet, Sir Fancysword. It’s not every day a character your bedtime stories walks off the page and break into your house. I get answers first. What are nightmares? I get the feeling you’re not just talking about bad dreams.”

The boy sighed. “Ina way, I am. Nightmares are fear embodied. They terrorize humans for food. Most feed off fear, but some have developed a taste for flash and blood.” Williym Thomys looked at me, sheathing his sword. “They project terrifying images on your mind as you sleep, extorting fear from unsuspecting humans. There’s a reason bad dreams are called nightmares.”

I’d never even thought of that. My fear must be really delicious, because I had never had a happy dream in my life. I didn’t even know good dreams existed until my friends talked about theirs. All I ever dreamt of, if I dreamt at all, was always an endless darkness, cold and disturbing.

I nodded. “That actually makes sense. But what did you say about-what was it? civilians?-not being able to see them?”

“That’s the confusing part. Civilians aren’t supposed to be able to see nightmares…” Willym Thomys looked at me, confused. “Is this stuff familiar to you?”
He pointed to the swaths of shadow on the floor.

“Not that I can remember…” I shrugged. Then it dawned on me: the shadow behind the house earlier, lurking near the place where apparently the shadow had come in. “Wait! Earlier, I saw a shadow moving behind my house, and when I asked my friend about it, she thought I was crazy. And there was another one like it, in the Dead Forest,” I looked at Willym Thomys for a sign that what I was saying made sense. “When it got close to me, the air got colder, and I seized up with fright.”

He nodded. “That sounds exactly like nightmares. Wait, why were you in the Dead Forest?”

“I was looking for my Gramma.”
 Willym Thomys’s eyes widened. “What happened to your grandmother?”
  “I don’t know,” I sighed, sitting down at the table and resting my chin in my hand, “She just disappeared.”

He looked from me to the tracks and then back. “Was this before or after you saw the shadow behind your house?”

“I don’t really know. I saw the nightmare after I left the house, but before she didn’t show up to speak with the faeries…” The boy looked confused about the faerie part. “We have this annual supplies trading thing with the faeries, and Gramma is usually our ambassador to them. But today, when she was supposed to step forward, she didn’t. And no one has been able to find her since.

“And actually,” I gestured at the place where the tracks met the wall, “the shadow I saw was right about there, except outside.”

Willym Thomys looked alarmed. “I hate to say this, my lady, but I think your grandmother…was taken.”

*            *            *            *            *

The girl shot up out of her seat. ” You mean those creepy things have my Gramma?! What are they going to do to her? How-”

Will put his hands on her shoulders gently. Panic was never good when nightmares were involved “Don’t worry; these things happen. Besides, we know the position of the only horde (meaning a group of nightmares) in this area. There was only one, and even nightmares can’t move that fast. We can track them down and get your Gramma back.”

The girl looked at him very seriously. “She’s the only family I’ve got, Willym Thomys. You’d better be right.”

“What’s your name?” Will asked. He could tell this situation wouldn’t be so easy to diffuse.

“Sensa,” the girl replied, pushing her dark hair out of her face. “And who is ‘we’? Are there other Warriors with you?”

“Oh, right-my team!” he smiled, “Right now they should be making sure the rest of the village is clear of nightmares.”

Just then, the door burst open, and a tall, lanky boy with dark hair and dark green eyes entered.

“Speak of the devil…” Will shook his head. Richard has got to learn some stealth skills, he thought..

“What are you doing in here, Will, making breakfast? Did you find- Wait, who’s she?” said the boy as his eyes found Sensa.

“This is Sensa,” Will stepped aside and gestured to the tricky girl. “She lives here, and she’s provided me with some valuable information about their recent activity in the area.”

“Sensa,” Willym walked to where the other boy was leaning against the doorframe and put his arm around him, “this is my good friend Richard. He’s one of my partners who’s been helping search for the horde I was telling you about.”

“Pleasure,” Rich smirked at Sensa in that way he did that mysteriously made girls blush and giggle amongst themselves. Sensa didn’t look impressed.

“What’s the hold-up, boys?” a slight figure appeared in the doorway next to Richard. The girl was nearly a head shorter than Rich and dark skinned, with a curly head of super-short hair and steady eyes.

“Made a new friend, Will?” she asked, nodding at Sensa, who looked especially perplexed.

“Oh, yes, this is Sensa. Sensa, meet Gwenolyn.” Gwen nodded hello.

Will smiled at Sensa, to say it was all right, that his friends were her to help, but the words died in his mouth when he saw her face. She looked like a lost puppy, more confused by the minute.

Poor girl, he thought, first she’s lost her grandmother, then someone breaks into her home while she sleeps, and now all of this to take in.

Richard, however seemed to have no empathy for the girl at all. He sauntered into the room, looking around at everything the simple cabin.

“What’s this?” he asked, picking up a plate on the table and sniffing it, “Hmm, smells good. Can I eat it?”
Will knew from experience that Rich wasn’t asking for permission. Thugh Will was prepared to stop the wild Richard from attacking his prey, it was Sensa who stood and snatched the plate from him before he could dig in.

“Not a chance. That’s my birthday present from my friend and my Gramma. Seeing as how it’s the only one I’v got, I would prefer if you didn’t eat it.”

Gwenolyn snickered beside Will. “I like this one. She’s got fight,” she said approvingly. Gwen was as stubborn as a stone mule, and approved of strength as a crowning virtue.

Will was surprised. “It’s your birthday?” he asked.
Sensa nodded.

“Well, that explains the big 16 in the middle of the cake,” Richard mused.

“So, not only did your Gramma get kidnapped, forcing you to spend the rest of your day in the Dead Forest, but it happened on your birthday?” Will’s eyes widened. Sensa nodded wearily. He gave her a sympathetic smile.

“That has to be the worst birthday present the universe has ever given.”

Tell me about it,” she sighed. Sensa set the cake down next to her book scroll. Will wondered where she got that. He hadn’t met many civilians yet who had any sort of education, much less written works. Could she read, even?

“What’s this about a kidnapped Gramma?” asked Rich. Sensa explained her story to the newcomers. Richard looked from Will to Sensa and back.

“Well, it looks like you certainly taught her the basics. Soon Miss Sensa will be riding into battle with us.” Gwen rolled her eyes.

“Perfect. When do we leave?” Sensa smiled.

The room went silent. The three Warriors looked at each other in surprise. Encounters with civilians were infrequent, and when they occured, the people usually backed off when told that the strange people had very important businesss fighting off their very fears. But this-a civilian wanting to accompany a team of Warriors-was at the top of the list of Things That Didn’t Happen.

Finally Gwenolyn shrugged. “Come along then!” she said, grabbing Sensa’s arm as if they were sisters. Sensa smiled and hurried to match her pace.

“All done here?” Richard asked Will. Will nodded, looking around to make sure he has forgotten nothing. This place was just teeming with surprises.

Richard took an apple on the way out.

“What is this?” asked Sensa as the group arrived at the carriage, parked just outside the village, near the Dead Forest.

“It’s a carrige, faerie girl,” said Richard, gesturing to the bright pink thing Sensa was wearing. “Haven’t you ever seen one before?”

“Of course she hasn’t, you idiot,” Gwen rolled her eyes at Richard, “these are villages we’re talking about.” Sensa looked like she wasn’t sure if she should be offended.

“This,” she continued, talking to Sensa now, “is a a carriage. It’s basically a box on wheels so you don’t have to walk everywhere or ride a horse.”

“Do you always ride in carriages?” Sensa asked. Will saw that she was no longer confused as much as curious. Willym liked curiosity; it was hard to find in people these days.

“When we go out on missions like this, it’s usually best to ride in a carriage, because you can bring extra supplies as well.” Richard took a bite of his apple and went on: “Bandages, food, extra weapons, the works.” He looked around furtively before leaning down to whisper with a wink, “It’s also a great place to hide a body.”

Will opened the door. “We can explain everything on our way to meet the horde.”

Sensa’s dark eyes looked up at the carriage, then back at Will, staring long and hard. “Can I trust you, Willym Thomys?” she asked at last.

Will nodded with smile that he hoped came across as warm and not creepy. She nodded then and stepped into the carriage without looking back. The others followed suit, Richard bringing up the rear and closing the door.

The inside of the carriage was bigger than it seemed on the outside, with plenty of room for both the supplies that lined each wall and two benches that faced each other. As Richard had said, there were plenty of bandages, gauze, splints, and other medical supplies, dried meat and fruit, and an entire wall of weapons. Axes, swords, bows and quivers of arrows, knives, all made of an iridescent sliver, almost white metal, gleamed in the light of the faerie lanterns hanging from the ceiling.
  Sensa’s eyes widened as she sat down, taking in everything. “You weren’t kidding.”

“You’d best sit down, my lady,” Will advised, “the carriage ought to start moving soon.”

“I didn’t see a driver,” she said as she sat next to him across from Richard and Gwen.

“The carriage is enchanted. It will take us wherever we need to go, even if we don’t know where that is, or if the location is constantly changing, as this nightmare horde will be. Faerie work.” Will smiledy.

“Do the faeries do a lot of work for you, Willym Thomys?” Sensa inquired.

“Sometimes. We guard their lands in exchange for food and magical items like this.,” he shrugged. “Say, why do you keep calling me by my full name, my name?”

“Full name?” she looked blankly back at him.

“You forget, Willym Thomys,” Richard said through a mouthful of apple. “Civies don’t use surnames.”

“Surname?” Sensa asked.

“A surname is a Warrior custom used to keep people from getting confused with others of the same name,” Richard continued around another mouthful of apple, “You tack another name, a surname, onto the one your parents gave you at birth. A boy takes his father’s first name and girl takes her mother’s first name, and when you meet someone of the same name as you, now you have a backup name for clarification. But you usually don’t call a person by both his names. Much too long and formal.”

“So you can just call me Will,” Will concluded.

“And I assume you all have surnames?” Sensa asked.

“Yep! Mine’s Brent, but use it,” Richard replied, “I don’t like bring associated with that old fool.”

Gwenolyn rolled her eyes. “Rule Number One of Richard: Thou shalt never mention his father or he shall throw a raging hissy fit. My last name’s Laurya.”

“Rule Number One of Gwen: Thou shalt never let Gwen near hot water unless ye has a death wish.” replied Rich.

“It’s your fault-you stole my bow. I’d just fixed the strings and everything.”

“So!” Will interrupted quickly, “Any other questions Sensa? We’re on a roll here.”

“Loads.” she sighed. “To start, why would you need surnames? Shouldn’t everyone in your village know that that name is already taken?”

“Well, yes,” said Will while Gwen and Rich continued to bicker in the background, “But our…village is really big. We actually stopped calling it a village a while ago (it’s a City now). But last names really come in handy at school; like, there are four girls named Elynor in the fifth class, and three of them are friends.”

“School?” Sensa leaned forward, intrigued. “Like, with books and stuff?”

“Yes, like with books and stuff,” Will said “We live there full time, except during our bi-annual holidays.  Most children begin school at age eight, and you get assigned to your team at age twelve.” He gestured to his friends, who were still having their arguing about the same old nothing.

Sensa had lit up, her big eyes wide. Will wondered how such dark eyes managed to look so bright.

“We learn all sorts of things,” he went on, “We learn how to use weapons, how to be stealthy, how to track and kill nightmares. We also learn more technical things: how to read and write, how to figure numbers, the science of how the world works, historical events and such.”

A smile breaking out on Sensa’s face. “You mean you all know how to read?”

“We can read, but can and will are entirely different concepts.” Richard cut in, considering the uneaten half of his apple as if it fully understood the uselessness of reading.

The carriage lurched to a halt. “Here already?” said Will, “That’s unusual. Normally we have to chase them around for a bit.”

“A mystery? I think I can shed some…” Rich asked, reaching behind him to grab his Lightspear, which glowed with soul color-green-the moment he touched it, “light on the subject!” Everyone else just stared at him for a moment. Gwen was the first to voice what they all were thinking.

“Never, ever make a pun as awful as that again.” She snatched up her Lightbow-now glowing faintly violet-and pushed past him to jump down onto the ground. Rich followed her.

“It wasn’t that bad-“

Ever.”

Will was about to tell Sensa to wait here and they would back soon with her Gramma, but she was already ducking through the door, holding a knife from the weapons wall. Will caught Sensa’s arm.

“Where are you going, my lady?” Will asked.

She looked back. “I’m going to get my Gramma back. Coming?”

Will smiled wryly. Gwen was right; this girl had spirit. “Whatever you say.”

Sensa grinned. “Come on then, Gwen and Richard are having all the fun!” She spun on her heel and ran to catch up to the others, her dress swishing behind her. Will quickly followed.

Outside, The carriage was surrounded by nightmares, forming a wall of cold blackness around them.

“Stay near me,” Will hissed to Sensa under his breath, “and follow my lead. I assume you know how to use that knife?” She shook her head. “Instinct will take over soon enough. Now about the nightmares: they are extremely dangerous. Can kill you in a heartbeat. The less deadly ones look like horses,” he gestured quickly to the creatures in front of them, most if which could be recognized as wild horses, braying in an eerie shriek-like pitch.

“Nightmares?” Sensa snorted. “They must have a sense of humor.”

Will ignored that. “The horses are also the most common. Since this is your first time, engage those only. If you come across any larger ones, stranger ones, or more lethal-looking ones, yell for one of us.  The worst ones look like people.” Will looked Sensa in the eyes. Hers were big and nervous, but excited, like a warrior would be. He was struck by the thought that were she really a Sun Soldier, he would want her on his team.

“Above all,” he said, “be very careful. Any questions?”

“Plenty,” she whispered, gripping her knife, “For one, why aren’t they attacking?”

“The nightmares don’t know we’re a threat yet. They wouldn’t want to kill civilians; that would be throwing away a free snack.”

Suddenly, from the other side of the carriage, there came a whooping battle cry and a flash of green light, followed by the angry neighs of horses.

“And genius Richard has just us away,” sighed Willym. He reached behind him and drew his own weapons, a pair of long, slightly curving blades. “Follow me and take care! If you feel like they’re overpowering you, get back in the carriage immediately.”

“Not a chance.” Sensa smiled, then charged at a nearby stallion with a battle cry and horrible knife form. Will shook his and raised his swords to meet the first oncoming nightmare. The blades came down in a blue arc, slashing through the nightmare’s ethereal head.
As   soon as the weapons made contact, the beast became nothing more than shadow, dispersed by the light.

He spun, slicing expertly at anything he could see, mildly aware of Sensa a few feet away, holding her own despite her lack of training. This was his favorite part of Warrior life: the battle, actually doing good, the rush of adrenaline that came with the fight.

All at once, the horses stopped kicking and rearing at them and retreated, galloping around the carriage to the other side.

Will lowered his still-glowing swords catching his breath.

“Where….where have they gone?” Sensa, too was panting. Her knife was glowing gold. Will’s eyes widened: Lightblades were only supposed to glow in the hands of Warriors. Gold was a new one, too. He made mental note to discuss the topic later.

“They retreated,” Will panted, “surrounded Rich and Gwen most likely. They’ll want to take out as many of us as they can before they die. Nightmares are stubborn like that.”

“Shouldn’t we go help them?”

“Richard and Gwenolyn can handle themselves. There weren’t that many of the beasts left anyways.” Will wiped his brow. That had been a viscous fight, short and hard.

Just then, there was a high scream, far too girly to be Richard, though it wasn’t a sound Will would usually associate with boyish Gwen.

Sensa’s eyes widened. “They are in trouble,” she half-whispered, then took off toward the other side of the carriage. Willym ran after her, not only because he was terrified for his friends but because he felt an inexplicable responsibility for the odd girl.

Around the other side, there were only a few nightmares left-half a dozen horses and one that looked like a mountain lion.

The puma had pinned Gwen to the ground, her glowing purple bow out of her reach.

Richard hacked defensively at the nightmares that tried to lunge at the prone girl, his back to her. Her shoulders were bleeding where the big cat’s claws dug into them, and Rich sported a large gash on the side of his face. The nightmare growled at Gwen, clearly getting ready to snap her neck in its huge jaws. 
  Will immediately raised his swords, about to launch himself at the puma, but Sensa had beaten him to it. She ran at the monster-much faster than Will had ever seen a civilian move-poised to tackle the thing and stab it with her glowing knife.

But then she cast the blade aside.

She tackled the nightmare with empty hands, her hands thrown around its neck and her body slung across its back. The nightmare roared and tried to shake her off, but the girl held fast. Her fingers dug into its black coat to keep from falling, and her legs had wrapped themselves as securely as they could around its belly.

“Sensa!” Will yelled, racing towards the endeavor.
  The puma reared up, morphing into a horse as it did. Gwen rolled out of the way, immediately, just before its hooves slammed to the ground again. Sensa shifted herself so that she was no longer clinging to the nightmare for dear life, but sitting as if she were going to ride it, clutching its thick black mane like reins.

The horse reared and bucked, trying to throw her, but the girl clearly had experience with horses, and held fast. Will had to back away from the pair of them to avoid being trampled.

“Are you all right?” he said as he quickly helped Gwen to her feet.

“Yeah, this just needs a bandage or two,” she rolled her shoulder and winced. “Is Sensa alright? That was either bravest thing I’ve ever seen or the most stupid.” Sensa had saved her life. Will wondered if life-debts applied to civilians.

“I think she’s ok.” Will picked up his sword to kill the nightmare before Sensa got hurt.

“What in the Great One’s Name is that?” asked Richard with obvious astonishment. His spear was no longer glowing green; he must have killed the remainder of the nightmares.

Will turned and saw what Rich was looking at, and nearly dropped his swords when he saw it.

Sensa was riding the nightmare.

It had galloped a good distance from where they stood, farther than a normal horse could get in that time. Sensa was sitting atop it, still clutching its mane. The nightmare seemed to be letting her ride it. Even stranger, the nightmare was morphing again: its dark matter seemed to be forming a kind of saddle for her, with reins and foot loops. Her feet in the loops, Sensa stood up in saddle, bent at the waist.

Sensa gave a loud whoop of exhilaration. They seemed less like a horse and it’s rider than one machine, pounding hooves and flying black hair and  pink dress and mane and tail, a dark streak across the plains.

For a moment, Will had lost the ability to think or speak or breathe. He felt as if a wall had slammed into him. He had never seen anything so wild and free and beautiful in all his life. He had never seen or heard of anything like what he was seeing.

The others, too, were speechless. The trio of nightmare hunters watched in dumbfounded silence as the horse cantered back towards them and Sensa brought it to a stop.

“Good boy,” she patted the horse’s neck affectionately, then looked up at the Warriors, smiling. Her face fell when she saw their expressions. “What? Did I do something wrong?”

“No…no, it’s just,” Will sputtered, “it’s that nightmares-no one’s ever ridden one before. It’s never even been a plausible possibility.”

Gwen turned to him, excited. “We have to show this Darius.”

“Darius?” Sensa asked.

“The headmaster of our school-you, know, with the books and stuff?” Richard said.

“If anyone can figure this out, he can.” said Will.

“Wait, what about my Gramma?” asked the girl atop the un-horse. He voice was defiant, but Will saw fear in her eyes. He reached out to her, but had to retract his hand when the horse tried to bite it.

“I’m sorry, Sensa, truly sorry, but I don’t know what happened to your grandmother. I was so sure this horde would have her. They can’t kill civilians…” Will sighed and ran a hand through his hair in frustration, then looked back up at Sensa apologetically. Hate was a word Will rarely used, but he hated being unable to help. The emotion was unsuited to Warrior. “The only person who might know what to do is Professor Darius, at the Academy. I understand the misgivings you must have; we’re almost total strangers and we’re asking you to come to a place you’ve never been for more strangers to make sense of a phenomenon strange to us all. But everything we’ve said so far has rung true hasn’t it? Don’t you want answers?”

After a moment, Sensa nodded slowly. “Yes. I do want answers. Take me to your school.”
She smiled. “The one with the books and stuff.”

Chapter 5

As we left the mess hall, I got lots if looks from the other students. Not bad looks, really, just curiosity. At first, I wondered how they all knew I was the new kid; there had to be at least seven hundred kids in this hallway, goofing off and bouncing off the walls with excitement. Then I realized: my dress. Everyone here was wearing the same black hunting clothes, and I was wearing a bright fuschia overdress. I stuck out like a sore thumb.
Wait, where was my nightmare? I hadn’t even realized it, but the bird’s weight had left my shoulder long before I entered the mess hall.
I tugged on Will’s shirtsleeve. “My nightmare,” I whispered urgently, “it’s gone.”
Will’s blue eyes widened, then looked around. I searched with my eyes for my raven, but saw nothing. Had it taken off somehow?
My worry was short-lived. “There,” Will pointed to where he had spotted the bird, up in the rafters above us. The nightmare blended in almost completely with the shadows. I breathed a sigh of relief. I was about whistle to call it to me when Will put a hand on my arm.
“I don’t think anyone should know about the nightmare yet,” he said in hushed tones, “They might see you as a spy for them or something. I know you’re not; there’s no way could have been, but still…I’m sure some people would interpret it badly.”
I nodded slowly, still looking at the raven. For now, I think it would stay out of sight; something told me the nightmare’s instincts would tell it to keep away from the Warriors. I suppose the Professor would figure out what to do with it in the long run.
I noticed a riff in the way the crowd was moving. All the girls were turning down a hallway to the left, and the boys continued on down the corridor.
“What’s going on?” I asked.
“This is where we part ways,” Gwen smiled and turned on her heel to follow the rest of the girls, “G’night, boys!”
“Goodnight!” they replied. Will turned and shouted, “And make sure you show Sensa her way around the dormitories!”
Gwen rolled her eyes and grabbed my arm, pulling me down the hallway. “Like I was just going to leave you to puzzle things out alone.”
Seeing the look on my face, she launched into what had to be the hundredth explanation of my night. “This is a dormitory, or a big room where people live together. To save space, instead of each student having his or her own room, all the people of each age group share a bedroom. They keep the boys and girls separate, of course. That’s why the boys kept walking; their dormitory is a bit farther down.”
We passed several rooms, which younger girls were filing into. They were numbered as well. By the time we got to the sixth door, the number of chattering girls had halved.
“Each age level at the Academy is called a class,” said Gwenolyn “The youngest children are class one, or first years, since this is their first year here. We,” she said, pushing open a door with a large number right on it, “are class eight.”
Inside was a cozy space. The right and left wall were lined with beds, five on each side. Though there was a sense of uniformity about it, each person’s space was somewhat personalized. Some sported homemade quilts, others old dolls, and most girls had pictures pinned to the walls, drawings of their families or friends or even what I suspected were boys they fancied.
The girls themselves were very different from what I was used to as well. For one, they seemed to be less beauty oriented; shorter hair, rougher skin and callouses from fighting, not an overdress in sight, yet these girls seemed much more comfortable in their own skin. And though they laughed and chattered away like the village girls I knew, there was something different about it. More casual? No, more confident. Almost boastful. But what really caught my attention was the far wall of the room. The entire surface was made of some sort of silvery, reflective glass. In it, I could see everything in the room perfectly. Including myself.
“What are you ogling a-oh. I forgot, they don’t have mirrors in the villages,” Gwen said, following my line of vision. She pushed me closer to it so I could see myself more clearly. “Go ahead. It must be strange, seeing yourself for the first time. Pity though, you’re really rather beautiful.”
I  had never thought of myself as particularly beautiful, but looking in the mirror, it was hard to deny that Gwenolyn had a point. I was willowy and tall, though not nearly as muscular as the girls who had been fighting their whole lives.
My pale face was a stark moon against the night, with low cheekbones, a round nose, and thin, lips that were full but pale. My black flyaway hair that was always so bothersome actually looked quite good, cascading in loose curls down my back.
But what startled me the most was my eyes. They were black, to totally black, so dark that I couldn’t separate pupil from iris. They made me look so different than I felt, all deep and commanding and sure. I looked almost…regal. It scared me a little. I looked at Gwen’s reflection next to me in the mirror. Compared to what I had just seen, she looked rather plain: she was short and rather skinny, built like a child, and I still couldn’t fathom why she would cut her hair so short and close to her head. I also noticed  she was the only dark-skinned girl at the Academy. This struck me as odd-my village was populated by people of colorings all over the brown scale. Gwen didn’t seem to care-she just smiled with twinkling eyes. Yes, Gwenolyn was contented with her lot, and, I suppose, I with mine. It was still unnerving, though.
That’s when I noticed the silence. The girls in the room had stopped talking and were watching now watching us. Gwen must have noticed too, because she spun around and smiled warmly at the group.
“I see you’ve all noticed our new friend Sensa!” she said as she clapped me on the shoulder. I felt uncomfortable under their gazes. At least these girls seemed nice, and they didn’t look like they were judging me too harshly.
That impression was shattered quickly.
“She doesn’t look like a Warrior,” sneered a girl from the back of the room. My heart plummeted. I felt Gwen tense beside me. The speaker and the girl on the bed next to her in the corner got up and walked over to us.
The speaker stood with her arms crossed with her friend-or probably sister, I realized as I looked at the pair of them-at her side. The two both had blond hair, the first girl’s chopped short at her neck and the second’s tied up high on her head. They both wore contempt plain on their faces.
“Sensa, this is Hayla,” Gwen said slowly, nodding at the girl with the short hair, “and this is Natyly,” nodding at at the long haired one.
“Who asked you, sir?” sneered the one called Hayla. Ouch. At least when Richard had called Gwen a boy, he had been just been teasing, the way friends do. But Gwen just smiled at Hayla. “Who asked me? No one asked. I was just being polite and introducing you to our new friend. Or did you not read that in the context of the moment? I’m sorry, I’ve forgotten that you lot probably can’t read, and I’m sure you haven’t a clue what the words ‘polite’ or ‘context’ mean either. Silly me.” Wow. And she said that all with the same politely cheerful face, too. There was obviously bad blood between the sisters and Gwen, and I was caught in the crossfire.

Hayla scowled, obviously a bit ticked off that her insult had done squat. The second half of the duo recovered more quickly. Natyly circled the two of us, scrutinizing me from head to toe. She was seriously starting to make me feel uncomfortable.
“Too bad politeness won’t help your new friend tomorrow when we start drills,” she said as she held up my arm, which looked flabby compared to her corded muscle. “She’ll be killed out there.”
“Stop talking about me as if I’m not here, all of you!” I snapped, snatching my arm back.
“Ooh, she speaks!” mocked Hayla. “Tell me, what’s it like to live in caves, civie?”
“Yes, do you have to feel around in the dark all the time, or has your kind figured out how fire works yet?” asked Natayly.
“I’ll bet you aren’t a Warrior at all! I bet Darius saw how pitiful you looked and decided to take you under our wing. He always did have a heart for sad-looking dogs.”
Gwen’s hand flew from my shoulder to Hayla’s face faster than you could say the words “shut up”. The girl staggered back. When she took her hand away from her face, I saw that her nose was bleeding. Her face flushed scarlet with anger, but before either she or Natayly could pounce upon the redhead, another girl had launched herself between them.
“Break it up, break it up!” shouted a girl not much taller than Gwen, with mousy brown hair that whacked me in the face as she scrambled to keep the girls apart. “What is your problem? Hayla, Nat, is that any way to treat our guest?”
The girl turned around, revealing a round face, bangs, and kind gray eyes. “My name is Sabryna,” she said, shaking my hand with a rather strong grip, “and most of us here try not make new students feel like a pile of nightmare poo on their first day. You’ll have to forgive these two, they’re absolutely insufferable.”
“No, no, it’s quite alright, I’m sure they were just poking fun…” I said as I glanced at the sisters, who certainly did not look like they were only teasing. Though I’d never quite fit in at home, with either the boys or girls, I’d never been straight-out insulted to my face, not like that.
“I still dob’t belieb she’s a Warbior,” said Hayla through her bloody nose.
I yanked my sleeve down to show her my Mark. I was done with these girls and their taunting and accusations and better-than-you sneers. Just shut up already, I thought.
As soon as the twins caught sight of my shoulder, I cut of the questions that were obviously coming. “Yes, I am aware that most people don’t have that little spiky ring around their it, but I really don’t believe it’s of consequence at the moment.”
“You tell it to ’em, sister,” Gwen whispered, grinning.
The twins looked taken-aback. Natayly stammered for a retort, or maybe something mean to say, but I guess she decided she couldn’t refute my Warrior-ness, and settled with a glare that perfectly mirrored the one I was getting from Hayla. They walked back to their beds, apart from everyone else, and I’m happy to say that they left me alone for the rest of that evening.
Ayva introduced me to the other three girls in the room, who apparently were all on the same team. They seemed to be perfectly nice girls, albeit ones that could probably snap my neck in an instant and not bat an eye.
We chatted for a bit, learning about each other. They had so many questions about my village. Apparently, civilian life was rather primitive in comparison to what the Warriors were used to.
Eventually, they wanted to know about how I was found. I say back on the bed I had been given and let Gwen tell that story, and soon, I drifted into the dark recesses of sleep.
*        *        *       *       *
Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong. Bong.
I started awake, thinking at first that I was in my cot at home. My eyes focused on the face leaning in front of me and I remembered everything.
“Rise and shine, my friend,” Gwen smiled. “You’re in for a day like you’ve never seen before.”
Groggily, I looked around. The other girls seemed to be in a similar state, yawning and dragging themselves out of bed. Gwen dropped a change of clothes into my lap, the same black pants and yellow sleeveless shirt that everyone else was changing into. Good. I couldn’t wait to get out of the dress.
Gwen showed me to the washroom, and soon I was sitting in the mess hall again, wearing my new-and surprisingly comfortable-uniform. I stared at my plate, trying to figure out what was on it.
“Um, do you know what this is?” I asked, pointing at something white and yellow.
“Eggs,” said Rich through a mouthful of potatoes. “You’ve never had eggs?”
“No. Do the faeries grow them? They’ve never sold us any.”
Richard nearly spit his food out. “Do the faeries grow them? Great One, woman, have you ever seen a chicken?”
“Richard means to say that eggs are laid by chickens,” Will explained,  “There are people in the City who breed chickens and other animals for food. I suppose you might not have that, back at your home.”
Ohhh. I had heard about chickens and goats and pigs from adults in our village, as well as in my books. I was told that they used to be kept around for their milk, or eggs (though until now, I hadn’t quite understood what those were), or their meat. Since we became dependent on the faeries, however, people had been too busy trying to keep themselves from starving to care for animals. If the Warriors could afford meat, they must be very rich indeed.
As I ate, I looked at the trio of my newfound friends. They were so…contradictory, their own ways. It was interesting to watch the ways in which they acted towards each other.
Gwen was unlike any girl I had encountered before, in more ways than just her looks. Though she spoke frankly, she was funny and witty, comfortable to laugh and talk with openly. She seemed to see everything simply, in black and white, and wouldn’t take trouble from anybody. Gwen ate twice as much as one would think her small body would allow, and she didn’t try to impress by appearing more pretty or well mannered than she actually was. No words, compliment or criticism, seemed to touch her, and the result was this content, laid-back toughness, like Gwen knew she could break your arm in an instant, but wasn’t going to, because you were a friend.
Richard, on the other hand, was all attempted wit and easy swagger. The way he carried himself, with such confidence, you would have thought that he, not Will, was the best nightmare hunter of his age. He acted like the world was one big crazy mess, to be joked about, or flirted with, or sometimes punched in the face if it was being a jerk.
With personalities like that, it was easy to see how they butted heads. In another world, the two of them would probably have ended up as deadly rivals, but as it was, they were something between siblings and an old married couple. Gwen would say something, and Richard would turn it into a playful jab, and she would flip it right back onto him, and they would end up with one or another of them in a headlock with Will laughing and breaking it up.
Now Will-Will was entirely the opposite. He just smiled and watched his friends feed off each other’s words. Unlike Rich, Will wasn’t all that handsome-not that he was ugly or anything either. He just seemed…ordinary. Will was kind though, I could tell that. While we were eating, he tried to give me a little bit of background information for what we would learn today, so I wouldn’t be completely behind.
“In our science classes, were studying different types of vegetation and how you can use them. I’ll point out the useful ones to you when we-”
“So, the civie knows how to use a fork! I’m surprised!” drawled a voice behind me. I turned to see a boy with dusty hair and an expression dripping with sarcasm standing behind me, arms folded. Behind him smirked Hayla and Natayly. I hadn’t even heard them approach. I tried to gauge whether the new kid was their ringleader or their evil spawn.
“Of course I know how to use utensils,” I shot back calmly. “I also know how to use my inside voice.”
“Inside where? Your cave?” Hayla and Natyly laughed. Defintiely a ringleader. “I wish you luck in our classes today. Are they putting you in with the first years, or are you just going to figure out how to read on your own?”
“Wait, a second,” said Richard, looking like he was straining to hear something. “You hear that, Feyden? It’s the sound of nobody cares!
“Yes, the Spite Sisters showed well enough where you lot stand on the matter last night,” Gwen continued for him, “Now go plot our demise somewhere else. My eggs are getting cold.”
“I’d have to agree,” smiled Will, “Sensa is a part of our team now, and if you’re going to insult her, you aren’t welcome here.”
I got a warm sort of feeling inside, almost melting away the worry for my Gramma that had been nesting inside me since yesterday.
Before Feyden could say anything else, a whistle blew, and across the hall, students stood up and started to head towards the door. Feyden glared at us than turns on his heel and left, twins in tow.
Rich sighed. “Glad those freaks are out of our face. Come on, time for class!” He grabbed my wrist and pulled me out into the hallway, Gwenolyn and Will chatting behind me.
We passed through a section of corridors that the girls had told me the classes were taught in, called the Hall of Knowledge. The walls were decorated with mosaics of scholars and books, geometric shapes and mathematical equations, astronomers and stars.
When we entered the classroom, I was immediately greeted by a funny little man with graying hair and very large spectacles, apparently the teacher.
“Oh, you must be the new student!” he said, shaking my hand vigorously, “Miss Sensa…?”
“Ivyne,” I said. Gramma raised me, so it only seemed fair to take her name, not my mother’s. The man didn’t question it.
“My name is Professor Alden. Headmaster Darius has informed me about your situation. I understand that you will only be here temporarily, but I do hope you will study hard. I assume Miss Laurya, and Masters Thomys and Brent will help you?”
“Yes Professor,” they chimed.
“Good. Take your seats, then.”
We sat as books were passed around. There were only about twenty people in the class, and all appeared to be about my age. Will pointed out the boys I hadn’t met and told me their names. One boy had dark skin like Gwen’s; Will said thier families had moved here from a different City a couple generations ago, in a situation similar to the one that led Gramma to move. It was amazing how big the world was, and yet we all had the same problems.
“Settle down students,” called the teacher from the front of the room. “Now, today we start a new chapter of our history studies. But before we begin, I would like Miss Sensa Ivyne to stand and introduce herself to the class.”
What? What kind of cruel trick was this supposed to be? The tiny man was still smiling merrily, however, so I guessed it wasn’t a malicious gesture. I could feel all twenty pairs of eyes on me, waiting. I wished I could just get this new-student thing over with. Better yet, I wished Gramma had never gone missing and I was back home, where I didn’t feel so foreign.
Slowly, I stood, hoping I looked more confident than I felt. “Um, hi. My name is Sensa.”
“Tell us a little bit about yourself, Sensa,” coaxed the teacher.
“Well…I like to ride horses. And read stories.” At that, the class erupted in whispers. I knew what they were saying. She can read? I thought the civies didn’t have books. Maybe she’s lying to make herself look better. I felt myself flush deep red as I sat down. Why did those stupid monsters have to take my Gramma?
“Quiet down everyone, quiet down!” called Professor Alden. “Thank you, Miss Ivyne. Now, for the next month or two, we will be studying the Orc Wars. Please open your books to page 118. The Orc Wars originally stemmed from a feud between the  orc clans, Mountain Clan and the Forest Clan…”
It went on like that for a while. The professor chose someone to read out loud from the book, and then they chose a person, and so on. At least the history lesson was fascinating.
“…and after a three day seige, the clan lord Zeb surrendered the tree fort to Mountain clan army,” finished Feyden. Then he turned around and gave me a very fake smile. “And how about we let Sensa read next?”
Most people tried not to make it noticeable, but they were all looking at me, curious. They still didn’t believe I could read. They didn’t believe I was really Warrior. Well, I would show them. Angrily, I picked up my book.
“Advantages and disadvantages of Forest orcs. The Forest clan’s most obvious disadvantage is their size; most Forest orcs reach a maximum size of about three feet. This makes them prone to the overhead attacks of Mountain spears and bolts. The Forest orcs also tend to attack wildly and savagely in little to no formation or pattern, whereas the Mountain clan will form organized armies and use more strategic attack methods.
“However, the Forest orcs are remarkably nimble, and as such they are able to swiftly penetrate the enemy lines, primarily by using their double rows of sharp teeth to incapacitate the larger orcs. Another of their advantages is their faerie-like ability to alter their environment. This skill makes ambushes-a common Forest clan strategy-especially effective and easy.”
I looked up to see everyone staring at me openly. Some were grinning, like my teammates. Feyden looked like he wanted to kill somebody. Probably me. Professor Alden motioned for me pick someone to continue.
“Um, Rich, you can read next,” I said.
As Gwen started on the next paragraph, Will  held out his fist to me. Noticing my blank expression, he leaned over and whispered, “It’s a sign of respect.  Like saying ‘good job’ when you’ve done something  right that was very difficult. You put your fist on top, see?” Hesitantly, I made a fist and stacked it on top of his. “Exactly,” he smiled, then turned back to his book before we got in trouble.
*          *         *         *         *
The rest of the day passed the same way. I understood more of what we learned than I had thought I would. Gramma’s books had taught me a lot. I thought I was going to be fine, until we started our afternoon classes.
While the morning had been all book learning, the afternoon was all physical training. First, we ran laps around the entire Academy, which killed me. But I was far more dead when we arrived at our next class, improvised fighting, where I learned how to kill people, nightmares, and six different types of dangerous animals with a twig. Third was nature tactics, in which we had to start fires with deadwood and flint.
Just when I thought my day couldn’t possibly get any harder, the instructor announced we would be moving on to weapons practice. Before I could groan, I felt a gentle squeeze at my elbow.
“Headmaster Darius has given me clearance to hold your training during this period,” whispered Will. I nearly sighed with relief. The instructor-a tall woman named Madame Trysha-nodded her permission, and we left, catching our breath as we hurried down hallways decorated with mosaics of legendary Warriors and Lightweapons.
“After you, my lady,” he said holding open the door to an empty room. Inside was a simple training space, simpler than the classroom we had just left: hard padding covered the floor, there were practice dummies lined against the wall, and a rack for weapons was  hung in the corner.
Will walked in and turned to face me. “Punch me.”
“Wait…what?” I didn’t know what to expect from my tutoring, but this certainly wasn’t it.
“Punch me,” he said, that same pleasant smile on his face. “In the face, stomach, shoulder, anywhere. Groin shots are off-limits, though. So are neck hits and fatal blows to the head, but I don’t think you can manage those yet, so have at it.”
“Why?”
“Just do it.”
Why?”
“It doesn’t matter why.”
“Yes it does! I’m not about to punch someone who has been exceptionally kind to me in the face if I don’t know why!”
Will studied my face for a moment, carefully, like trying to make out the tiny details of a painting. Then he broke into a big grin. “Alright then. It’s a common thing they do for the first years, to get them to learn to follow orders. They give them strange directions like this randomly until they all learn not to question the instructor and just go with it.”
“Oh,” I said, feeling a bit insulted and the smallest bit guilty I had pressed him so when he was only trying to teach me. “So I suppose I failed that test?”
Will laughed. “Not really. It was a bit unfair of me to spring this on you, since you didn’t know anything about it. The kids, at least, know its coming and what it’s about. It won’t be a big deal.” I certainly hoped so; obedience had never been one of my crowning virtues.
“Do you still want me to punch you?” I asked, already preparing a fist.
“Yes. I’m going to teach you unarmed fighting first, so you can develop your reflexes. Alright?”
“Perfect,” I smiled. Better than making a fool of myself with a knife again.
For the next hour or so, Will taught me the proper form for punches, solid stances, and blocks, until I felt I could knock out a man in my sleep.
“And now we are back where we started,” he said, lowering into a fighting position.”Punch me.”
This time I didn’t hesitate. I threw a left hook-which he blocked- followed by a right clip to the jaw, which he caught. Wow. He couldn’t expect me to beat him, with reflexes like that. Oh, I see, I thought, it isn’t about that at all.
I would have to catch him off guard if I were to ever land a hit. So I punched towards Will’s face, over and over, at least a dozen times building a rhythm. Then, I threw a sudden, hard jab to the stomach. He didn’t anticipate it, and his suprise gave me an opening for a harder punch to the face.
He smiled as he rubbed his nose, fist outstretched. I stacked mine on top. “Knowing how to fight is only half the battle,” said Will, “you also need to be able to apply yourself in the situation. And that, my lady, is much harder.”
We sat for a couple of minutes to catch our breath. “So,” he said after a moment of silence, “We have some extra time this afternoon. Is there anything you want to do? I could give you a tour, or whatever.”
“Thanks, but I think it would take a lifetime to explore this whole place.”
He laughed. “True. I’ve been living here for the past eight years,  discovered dozens of secret rooms and passages in my time, and I still haven’t even scratched the surface of the secrets this place hides.”
“Sounds nice,” I said, “having a place like this to grow up in.”
“You probably would have loved it.” said Will. “The games we played, exploring after bedtime. I saw how you fought the nightmares last night. Very messy knife work, but the raw talent was obvious. You would have flourished here.”
Would have. There was a moment of silence as I imagined what it would be like, growing up here. I would have learn to fight, learned about the world, grown up with people like myself, lived my entire life in this thrill that I had somehow walked into. It was like something straight out of a book.
Again, Will broke the silence. “….You said it was your birthday yesterday, right?”
“Yes,” I replied, “Funny, with everything else, I’d forgotten about it completely.”
“Come with me,” he said, jumping to his feet and holding out his hand, “Everyone should get a present on their birthday.”
At this point, I figured nothing would surprise me, so I let Will lead me back down the corridors of the Hall of Knowledge. I kept thinking about that cake Gramma and Katryna had made me, and how it would probably be inedible by the time I returned. We stopped in front of a set of double doors. On them was a carving of a huge, twisting tree laden with fruit.
“Now close your eyes,” said Will. He looked like he could barely contain his smile. I wondered what on earth could be behind those doors, what he was so excited to show me.
I closed my eyes. After Will made certain I wasn’t peeking, I heard a loud creak, what I could only assume was the doors being pulled open. As I was led blindly inside, I felt the whole atmosphere change. And was that musky smell…the scent of paper?
“Okay,” said Will, “you can look now.”
At first, I opened my eyes slowly, but when I caught my first glimpse, my eyes nearly popped out of my head,  my jaw on the floor.
The room was huge, so large I couldn’t see the end of it. The floor was covered in worn carpet, and directly in front of me, there was a cozy circle of armchairs and tables and lamps, where students were poring over homework and talking in hushed voices.
But none of that compared to the books. Everywhere I looked, I saw shelf after shelf, all of them filled with what had to be thousands of books. They were made of dark wood, reaching all the way to the ceiling, like a labyrinth you could get lost in and never want to find your way out again.
I stood there, speechless, just trying to take everything in.
“Happy birthday!” said Will. “It’s amazing, isn’t it?”
“I…I mean yes…thank you,” I stuttered.
“Come on, let’s go get you one,” he said. “What kind of books do you like?”
“My favorites are the ones containing fact,” I said, still in a daze as I followed Will into the stacks, “I like learning about the world, the way it was before.”
“Then you’ll probably want something about science, and maybe some history as well.” We sifted through the shelves for hours-though it seemed to be minutes-, finding books about ecology, astronomy, sociology, wars and Warriors, politics, how the races coexist and a work together, everything. After years of my only knowledge about the world beyond my life coming from a few scrolls in a box, it felt like heaven.
“Wait a moment,” said Will. “There’s one I bet you’ve read. It’ll only take a moment; its section is pretty close to here.”
“Yes, you go on ahead,” I said, engrossed in a book about the nature capabilities of faeries and Forest orcs and not really paying attention.Will left, and all was silent for a moment. I was very deep in the book; I didn’t even know the boy was there until he spoke.
“That was quite the performance, in class today,” he said, making me jump. Feyden was leaning against the bookshelves opposite me. “I was almost impressed.”
I sighed. “Just say what you will and let’s all move on with our lives, shall we?”
“We can’t move on with our, lives, because of you!” he hissed, trying to maintain the quiet of the library. “Everything was going along fine, and then you pop up out of nowhere! And not only does Darius let you, a total stranger, enter the haven of the Soldiers’ City and the Academy, but he expects us to teach you and train you, like a show pony learning how to walk halfway through the show!”
“No one asked you to do anything for me, Feyden!” I said. “If you’re so opposed to the idea of my being here, then why dont you leave me alone?”
“Because, Miss Sensa,” Feyden leered, pushing off the wall and closing the distance between us until we were nose to nose, “there is something…off about you. You aren’t like the rest of us. I can feel it. And no amount of nightmare killing or reading or showing off your strange Mark is going to convince me otherwise.”
I let those words sink in while trying to keep my face neutral. He hated me for no reason at all, nothing but a hunch. What was his problem? I stared defiantly up at him.
“Look, all this is new to me, too. I never asked for this to happen, never asked the nightmares to take my Gramma away from me. All I know is that she is gone, and I’m going to do what I need to do to get her back. I’m sorry if that somehow interferes with whatever agenda you have going on, but it really isn’t my problem. Now back off.” I pushed him away from me, hard. Feyden stumbled back, looking both surprised and livid.
Before he could do anything, Will came waltzing around the corner, a fat book tucked under his arm.
“Here, Sensa, I found the-,” his face fell as he fought sight of Feyden. “What’s going on here?”
“I was just telling your new friend that she has no place here,” said Feyden, eyes narrowed. “Why did you bring her back here, Will? Bringing a stranger into this place without knowing a thing about her-she could be a spy! You would be responsible for the downfall of hundreds of years of Warriors’ hard work. How thick can you get?”
“Sensa is not a spy,” Will replied calmly. . “You know the Soldiers’ Code: ‘When brother or sister be in need, thy help shall be given them in the fullest’. You would have me leave Sensa orphaned, alone in a world where she doesn’t belong?”
“She doesn’t belong here!” Feyden nearly shouted, “She never will!”
She is right here!” I said indignantly.
She shouldn’t be!”
“Stop it, Feyden!” said Will. “It’s enough that you mess with Gwen and Rich, but Sensa hasn’t been here twenty-four hours! Leave her be!”
Feyden laughed hollowly. “Strangers in the Cityare never a good idea, Will. You’ll see.”
“What’s his problem?” I asked as the boy stalked away.
Will sighed. “Some people just need a reason to be bitter.” But he brightened quickly and handed me a thick tome
I took it gingerly, and immediately noticed the silver words embossed on the front cover. They seemed an oddly extravagant touch, since none of the other books had them, and those were the special, bound books that had to be written out by hand. But what the words said explained it:
“The Book of Sacred Legends,” I read, smiling at Will. “My Gramma had a scroll copy of this, read it with me every night! The tales of the Great One’s miracles, heavenly guidance and such, right?”
“Yes. But for the Warriors, it’s also history text, and a key guide for life, so much that it’s often referred to as the Soldier’s Code. Every significant event that ever happened for any of the races is in here, and specific instructions about how to fight both the darkness out there,” Will nodded to the window, “and in here,” he tapped his chest, right where his heart would be.
“Plus, there’s all sorts of stories about ancient Warriors.” He thumbed fondly through the yellowed volume. The pages were filled with pictures, like the one the headmaster showed me. I saw snatches of the battles for Mount Speur. The tale of the Speaking Ocean. Olyve the Orc Slayer. “Every kid loves stories about monsters and the heroes that defeat them.”
“Do you think yourself a hero, Will?” Did fighting monsters automatically make you one? Or perhaps not the fighting, but the good that came of it.
“I think we’ve all wanted to play the hero at some time or other,” Will shrugged, “but heroes live the loneliest lives, and suffer the most hardship. It almost seems better to just be average. The unnamed people don’t get hurt.”

I wasn’t sure if that was quite true. Honestly, I didn’t care. Not yet, anyway.

Chapter 4

What?!” I exclaimed.
“You are a Warrior!” the professor smiled pleasantly, “Congratulations, my dear!
Okay. Okay. Not okay. I had gone through a lot that night. I had willingly accepted that a race I had thought only belonged in stories actually existed. I had accepted that my fears were caused by a bunch of monsters who haunted people in their sleep.  I had accepted that my Gramma, my only family, had been taken by those monsters. I had gone on a wild crusade into the night, fought for my life, and done several supposedly impossible things, and hasn’t questioned any of it.
I was at the end of my believing rope.
“Listen. I’ve gone along with all of this pretty easily. But now, you’re expecting me to believe that I’m not what I’ve been for the past sixteen years, not what I’ve been raised to be, not what I always, with absolute certainly, believed I was, not human-”
“Whoa, whoa, whoa, wait,” Richard stepped in, “‘not human’?!”
“What Master Richard means to say,” Professor Darius cut in kindly, “is that Warriors are very much human; we’re just a bit…extra.
“There is an ancient legend about the origins of the Warriors,” he said, hurrying to one of the shelves and pulling a book off of it, making the others leaning against it fall. He skimmed through the pages until he found what he was looking for and held the volume out to me.
On one page was a vividly painted picture of a dark world, much like the one we lived in now, and people, brows furrowed in anxiety. On the right hand page, there was a picture of a nightmare lurking in the gloom. “Before the Great One invented light, all the races if the earth lived in fear, fear of the darkness and the unknown. He From this fear, nightmares were born.”
He flipped the page, revealing a picture of a hand setting what I assumed was the sun into the sky; its rays illuminated the people, arms raised, rejoicing. In the picture beside it, it was nighttime, and the nightmare towered over the people, who were freaking out again. “To solve this problem, the Great One created the sun and the moon, to chase away darkness and fear. But, unfortunately, the moon was not strong enough to keep away the ever-persistent nightmares, and they came back to terrorize humanity.”
The next pages showed the hand again, this time beckoning, and some of the people raising their hands; the page after that showed a small armed group running to clash with the nightmares. “So the Great One asked the humans to form an army and eliminate the nightmares. He promised them that he would look after them in battle, and promised that with His help, they would defeat every last nightmare, if they would all help. But, despite His assurances, only a small portion of men and women were willing to fight.
“The Great One was appalled and enraged that so many had disregarded His words. ‘Are there no more among you who are brave enough to face their enemy and fight? What need you fear? If I am with you, none will be able to even lay a finger upon your head!’ So he declared, ‘Since you are not willing to help eradicate your threat, it will not be eradicated! I will take this army of willing servants, and I will use them to drive the hordes away, and greatly reduce them in number. But since you would not destroy them, they will remain, to haunt you in your sleep and cause all manner of trouble for you and your generations.’
“So the brave few suited up for battle, mounted their steeds, and, with the power of the Great One, they killed so many nightmares, that their queen ordered them to run away and hide.” Darius flipped the page again. The next two pages depicted the hand from above, first showering some sort of fog over many people, then held over the small group of soldiers, who were kneeling with smiles on their faces.
“When the battle ended, the army celebrated a victory. The Great One separated the soldiers from those who did not volunteer, bestowing upon them different gifts and roles in life.
“For the civilians, He gave the gifts of blindness and the mundane life; always merciful, He spared them the knowledge of nightmares, making them unable to be seen or touched by them, and while they would experience far less honor in life, they would have peace and safety.
“The Warriors had a very different job: to protect the innocent and the vulnerable, to guard against and destroy nightmares and the fear the brought with them. For their bravery and submission, he gifted the Warriors with courage, physical ability, and wisdom to help them through the trials they would encounter. He also put sunlight into their blood, to give them strength against the depths of darkness, and put a Mark upon each of them, that they may be set apart from the other races of the earth, and that nightmares may know their enemy.” The professor snapped the book shut.
I bit my lip, processing the story. It was a creation story I’d never heard before, and parts of it seemed to be fabricated, intentionally or not, to justify the sense of supremacy Warriors seemed to have over civilians. I bet with the right education or training, civilians could do everything Warriors could except see nightmares. But there was truth to the story, as there was truth to the story I told the children around the bonfire.

Then something clicked in my head. “That Mark you mentioned…do Warriors today still have it?”

“Yes,” Gwen smiled, catching onto my line of thinking. “Every Warrior is born with the Mark. Inside the City, we usually try to wear clothes that display our Mark, but we cover it when we’re hunting; nightmares can see a Mark from a mile away.”
She pushed her cloak cloak aside and slid her right sleeve down revealing an X-shaped birthmark with pointed ends. I backed up, hitting the edge if the desk. No, I thought, impossible.
Hand shaking, I pulled own the sleeve of my dress and shirt to reveal what I had always thought was just a really odd birthmark.
It was a a pointed X, identical to Gwen’s in every way except one: around mine was a circle, the outer edge spiked evenly. Whenever I had asked Gramma about its distinct shape, she would get very quiet and serious and a little sad, and told me I must always cover it up. She said she would tell me why when I was older, but it had always wracked me with curiosity.
I heard a sharp intake of breath from the Warriors around the room.
“What’s that thing around your Mark?” asked Richard tilting his head sideways to get a better look at it.
“Yes, that is a bit strange…” supplied Will, brow furrowed.
“I’m sure it’s nothing,” Professor Darius spoke hurriedly, “It doesn’t happen often, but sometimes Warriors do have peculiar Marks. Sometimes, they foretell an unusual destiny for the bearer-but not always. I remember a girl when I was younger who had a big dot in the middle of hers. Now she owns a tailoring shop. Who knows?”
We all turned to look at the Professor. His demeanor had gone from calm, composed wisdom to giving frantic explanations in an instant. Strange.
“What I mean to say,” he said more slowly, “Is that Sensa is one of us, in every way. ”
“But…my Gramma…why didn’t she tell me? She must have known, because I had the Mark…” At least now I know why she wanted me to hide it. It would attract nightmares to our area like bugs to a faerie lantern.
“Oh, yes, your lost grandmother. We’ll send out a search party for her immediately. What was her name?”
“Ivene.”
The Professor’s smile froze. “Ivene? Ivene Gregory?” He rushed over to a bookcase and skimmed along the shelf until he found what he was looking for. He snatched up a tall and immensely thick book and thumbed through the pages until he slapped it down to stop the next page from turning. “Here,” he said, handing it to me, “That’s her, isn’t it?”
I stared at the picture on the page. It was a detailed drawing of four kids, a couple years older than me. On the left were two boys who looked very much alike; definently brothers, probably twins. One had the other in a headlock and was messing up the laughing boy’s hair. To the far right was another boy, his arm slung casually around the shoulders of the girl in the middle.
And the girl in the middle was…Gramma. She was younger, of course, and dressed in Warrior clothes, but still obviously my grandmother. She was holding a book, laughing at something the boy had just said. She looked at comfortable, at home…happy.
I cleared my throat. “Yes, that’s her. But I don’t understand. Gramma looks so happy here. If she enjoyed being a Warrior, why would she leave? Why would she keep this from me?”
The Professor grew solemn. “This is a picture of your grandmother’s team, her fighting partners, when they graduated from the Academy. Your Gramma was at the top of her class, you know. She and you’re grandfather-that’s the boy she’s speaking to in the picture, Gregory-were married and had a son, Petyr.
“When he was young, we had a change in government leaders. Every six years, the people who used to be in charge of making decisions for the community leave their positions, and the people of the City choose new ones. Well, unfortunately, the people who were chosen didn’t follow through with what they said they would when we chose them.
“The government was corrupt. They began collecting more money for themselves, charging fees on buying weapons and gear, making people pay a good deal to send their children to the Academy. Warriors were sent out on dangerous missions, and many of them did not come back alive. Gregory  was sent on one of these missions, and-Great One bless his soul-he died.
“Your grandmother was devastated. She decided to leave the City, declaring she would not live under the corruption of the people who had killed her husband . So she and Petyr packed up and left, and no one ever saw them again. Until you came along.”

“How do you know all this?” I asked.

“I was her teammate,” Darius pointed to the boy caught in a headlock.

“Oh.”

“Wait-what about your parents? I don’t recall seeing them in your home.” Will frowned.
“They’re dead,” I replied frankly. “My father died in a hunting accident before I was born, and my mother died giving birth to me.” The room fell silent, its occupants solemn.
“That is a very unfortunate thing indeed,” The Professor said. “I assume your mother was a civilian, from the village you grew up in?” I nodded. “Well, I suppose you take after her, then. I see very little of your grandparents in you.”
Just then, a young girl rushed into the into the room. She seemed short of breath, and her face was red, but her eyes gleamed with wild glee.
“Professor,” she said, “all the teams are back. The feast is starting.”
“Oh yes,” Darius said, taking the book from me and shoving back onto its shelf, “I’ve forgotten myself. I have to give a speech tonight. You three,” he turned to look at the Warriors who had brought me here, “would you look after Miss Sensa? Show her the ropes, at least until I can find a team for her?”
“We’d be happy to have Sensa on our team,” Will said. “Wouldn’t we?” he looked at his friends for confirmation.
Gwenolyn smiled. “Of course.”
Richard sized me up, then shrugged. “I don’t see why not.”
“Well, that makes things a lot easier.” The Professpr rubbed his hands together. “These three will show you your way around, give you some extra training to make up for what you’ve been missing out on. I’m putting you in charge if that, Master Thomys,” he looked pointedly at Will, who nodded. “Master Willym here is at the top of his class. Excellent fighter, that one.” Will blushed a bit.
“As for Ivene, I will send a hunting party in search of her as soon as I dismiss the students. I assure you, Miss Sensa, you will find yourself very much at home here,” Professor Darius smiled at me. “Now come along, children, to the mess hall! Don’t want your food to get cold!”
As we made our way down to the “mess hall” I looked at Will in a new light. He had just volunteered to take hours out of his time to train a virtual stranger how to fight, and then cheerfully took me under the wing of his group.
“Why did you do that?” I asked.
“Do what?” he replied pleasantly.
“Take me onto your team.”
Willym laughed. “Because I want you on our team.  You’ve never even left your village, most likely, and yet you insisted on galavanting off into the night and fighting monsters, without a second thought. And tackling a nightmare to save a girl you’d just met-that takes serious guts.You don’t have the skills yet, but you’ve got the spirit. I can already tell we’ll be friends.”
I looked at the trio of strangers who didn’t really seem like strangers anymore.
“Yes. I think we will.”
*        *         *        *         *        *      *
I don’t know what I was expecting from the “mess hall” but this was not it. It was a huge, spacious room, the sounds of laughter and chatter resonating throughout. The room was dotted with round wooden tables, and most of them were full, four or five students sitting at each. The students seemed to sit with their age group, children that couldn’t be older than seven or eight against the left wall, and young adults looking to be almost twenty sat on the far right. A long table sat on a slightly raised platform in the back, occupied by what I assumed were teachers. In front of the platform was an even longer table, devoid of people and chairs. Instead of being lit by bare house lanterns, as most rooms were, this one had dozens of large hand lanterns hanging from the ceiling on chains. The panes of glass in the lanterns were colored red and orange and purple and green, giving the room a cheerful and comfortable aura.
The Professor made his way to the staff table, where he took his seat in the center of the table. Richard led the way to an empty table towards the right, greeting people along the way. He winked at a blonde girl, but she just rolled her eyes.
Gwen rolled her eyes. “Richard thinks he’s a lady-killer. But as you can see, the ladies are still very much alive.” That made Will laugh.
When we sat down, I got my first good look at what was on each table. Atop the plain wooden table was a bowl of fruit. Wait, fruit?! Fruit was something of a delicacy where I lived. You could get it from the faeries, but only for a high price. My stomach grumbled and it struck me that I still hadn’t eaten since early this morning. I grabbed a pear and dug in.
Next to the bowl was a bottle filled with something green. At each place setting was only a tall wineglass, made of dark wood and filled with the green stuff.
As I took my seat I noticed that a lot of people were looking at me strangely, whispering to their friends. Of course; they’d never seen me before in their lives. I ignored them.
“So…what is this?” I asked peering at the strange liquid in my glass.
“Not wine,” said Rich ruefully, his glass already half-drained. “Just a sort of juice. They-” he jerked his head towards the oldest students, “get wine. Not us; apparently it’s “unhealthy” to drink wine at our age.”
“Or, maybe they just want to avoid the tragedies that would occur should you get drunk.” supplied Gwen. I couldn’t hold back a tiny snigger.
“Attention, everyone!” I turned to see Professor Darius, who had stood up to address the room.
“Welcome, children, back from your hunt! I assume you all were successful?” This drew a surge of cheers from the tables around me. “Good, good. Now, on to other matters.
“Some of you may remember that, this night, exactly sixteen years ago, the sun set. The next morning, it did not rise. This eternal night has taken its toll on every race living on this earth. The orcs have no creatures to hunt, and rely on the mercy of their Forest Class for sustenance. The faeries, once free and playflul, must work long and hard to keep the moon in the sky and keep the food growing. The civilians must rely on the faeries completely, working only to make trinkets for them and hope not to starve.
“The only creatures who have benefitted from this endless night are the nightmares. They run rampant through the countryside; the world lives in fear! It has become harder for us to contain them. We must fight constantly to keep the creatures at bay. In a dark world, dark things prosper-but we are the light! We are the Soldiers of the Sun! We must do its work, even when the Great One keeps it from us! It is our duty to our Maker, to the peoples of this land, to ourselves, to continue to fight these monsters in the name of righteousness!”
I listened to his speech through an outsider’s lens. Having just experienced a different anniversary acknowledgement of the sun’s passing a few hours ago, it was interesting to see what it meant to someone else. For the civilians, it was a rare excuse to celebrate, full of desperate hope and prayerful pleading.
But for the Warriors, it was almost a cause for mourning. Another year gone by, another year where the world hasn’t worked as it should. Another year people starve and struggle. I could feel the burden they carried; it was as if they had to replace the sun itself. Where before their work had taken up only the scant hours of the night, it was now a twenty-four hour job. They felt responsible for the suffering of everyone around them. They were the Sun Soldiers-but without the sun, what did they stand for?
“Now then,” the Professor continued, a smile dawning on his face. “Tonight, while hunting, one of our teams found something much more valuable than just a horde: a Warrior, alone amongst civilians.” Whispers broke out all over the room. The people who had seen me looked our way; I swallowed and waved tentatively.
“Her grandmother-also one of our number-has been kidnapped by nightmares; it is urgent that we retrieve her before they do any harm. In the meantime, Miss Sensa will be staying here at the Academy; I expect you will embrace her with open arms?” The students nodded, many of the ones near us flashing warm smiles at me. The tension that I hadn’t even known had been building in my chest subsided considerably.
“And to our dear sister returned to us,” Professor Darius smiled straight at me, “welcome home.”