Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five more minutes…” mumbled Rich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nightmare.

Sensa’s nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And off they flew.

*              *            *              *                *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will?” she prompted. 

Will cleared his throat.

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

End of Book I

Chapter 11 Part 3

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

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

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

“What are these things?” I muttered.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Rich muttered something under his breath and dropped the issue.

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

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

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

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

It was a troll.

We ducked back below the top of the boulder.

“No. Way.” Rich said.

“I can’t believe it,” whispered Will.

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

Rich clapped a hand over my mouth.

“It’s here,” Gwen whispered.

“Mmpff?” I asked.

“What?” Rich asked.

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

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

Nothing.

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

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

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

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

“Nothing,” I said.

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

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

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

What are we dealing with here? I thought.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“It’s here,” said Rich. “But where?”

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

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

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

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

“You’re on,” said Rich after a beat.

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

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

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

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

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

And then her arrow snapped.

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

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

“Gwen, are you okay?” Will shouted. 

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

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

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

“Rich,” said Will.

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

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

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

“They’re coming!” I said.

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

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

Before we could protest, Gwen jumped.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Nope!” she replied.

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

And then he walked away, right past the trolls.

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

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

“Me either!” he replied.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Great One’s tear burned against my cheek.

I thew the knife aside.

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

And then the world went white.

Chapter 10 (at last!!!)

“Look out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did….?” I asked, sitting up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was an awkward silence.

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

The orcs laughed loudly. We went along with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just spit it out, Kevik.” Lex said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will quickly outlined our business in the mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not as rough as I was though.

“No, no, Kaiylan, don’t pull that-”

“Hyup!”

“WHAT?! NO-”

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

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

“What is this?” she said.

“You mean the crossbow?” he said.

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

“It’s a crossbow.”

“That’s redundant.” said Lex.

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

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

“What’s the lesser?” asked Gwen.

“The spear.”

Richard’s face ticked.

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

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

“Sweetbread? said Will.

“All the works.” assured Kevik.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always so dramatic.” Lex rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lex took a step away from Matik.

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

“I’ll come with you, said Rich.

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

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

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

Fights?

Oh yes. Fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard Richard yell Will’s name.

My blood froze.

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

I swore under my breath.

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

“What. Were. You. Thinking?

“Sensa, that orc challenged-” said Rich.

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

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

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

“Hey!” Rich said indignantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything.”

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

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

“Run!” shouted the figure.

“Is that Rich?” asked Will.

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

“What?” I said.

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

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

And the world descended into chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Gwen?” asked Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My destiny? Are you delusional or something?”

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

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

I stepped back. “But…but how…?’

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

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 6

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

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.”