That’s a Wrap!

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

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

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

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

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

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

Keep on keeping on, readers.

~ Alex

Chapter 12

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Leave.” 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Five more minutes…” mumbled Rich.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

A nightmare.

Sensa’s nightmare.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And off they flew.

*              *            *              *                *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Will?” she prompted. 

Will cleared his throat.

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

End of Book I

Chapter 11 Part 1

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

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

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

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

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

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

 The calm before the storm, I thought.

Richard swallowed.

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

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

Gwen laughed. “Of course not.”

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

Gwen immediately began whacking Rich with his own shoe.

“Richard!”

“Ow!”

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

“You said you wouldn’t hit-”

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

“It wasn’t my-”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“And the others…do they–”

“Yeah, they feel the same way.”

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

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

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

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

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

“Me? I don’t have one. I’m flawless.”

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

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

Gwen whispered: “I am really temperamental.”

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

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

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

*                  *               *                  *                   *

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

Chapter 10 (at last!!!)

“Look out!”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“How did….?” I asked, sitting up.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was an awkward silence.

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

The orcs laughed loudly. We went along with it.

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Just spit it out, Kevik.” Lex said.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Will quickly outlined our business in the mountains.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Not as rough as I was though.

“No, no, Kaiylan, don’t pull that-”

“Hyup!”

“WHAT?! NO-”

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

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

“What is this?” she said.

“You mean the crossbow?” he said.

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

“It’s a crossbow.”

“That’s redundant.” said Lex.

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

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

“What’s the lesser?” asked Gwen.

“The spear.”

Richard’s face ticked.

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

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

“Sweetbread? said Will.

“All the works.” assured Kevik.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Always so dramatic.” Lex rolled his eyes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Lex took a step away from Matik.

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

“I’ll come with you, said Rich.

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

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

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

Fights?

Oh yes. Fights.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

I heard Richard yell Will’s name.

My blood froze.

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

I swore under my breath.

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

“What. Were. You. Thinking?

“Sensa, that orc challenged-” said Rich.

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

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

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

“Hey!” Rich said indignantly.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Do you hear that?” he asked.

“I don’t hear anything.”

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

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

“Run!” shouted the figure.

“Is that Rich?” asked Will.

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

“What?” I said.

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

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

And the world descended into chaos.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Where’s Gwen?” asked Will.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 9

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

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

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

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

“No.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“My destiny? Are you delusional or something?”

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

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

I stepped back. “But…but how…?’

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

Temporary Cover!

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

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

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

Chapter 3

There is nothing quite like riding a wild horse. The wind whipping through your hair, the feel of hooves pounding beneath you…it is possibly the most glorious, exhilarating feeling in the world. 
  Of course, when I first got on the nightmare, it struggled; I still can’t believe I held on through all of its bucking. But then, when I righted myself on its back, something…clicked. Suddenly, the horse and I seemed to be like one creature, hearts beating in tandem and movements synchronized. I could tell the horse had adrenaline in its blood and let it gallop; it seemed to feel that I was uncomfortable and formed a saddle. 
   The rest of my evening-or was it morning?- was less enjoyable. Mostly, it was just confusing. The Warriors seemed like good enough people, especially that Willym. He was kind to me, understanding. Richard seemed to be that cocky type of boy who carried himself too confidently, the sort of boy that was used to making girls swoon with little more than a look. Gwenolyn was a bit more confusing. When she first walked in, I was unsure of whether she was a boy or girl. She carried herself like a boy, and acted like one, and I had never seen a girl with hair cut that short-girls in the village always grew their hair long in hopes that their beautiful locks would fetch a husband. On the other hand, the lines of her face spoke of femininity, as did her  not-so-generous curves. Girl I had finally decided. Judging by her name, I was probably right. 
  There was also the strange, box-like contraption, the carriage. The ride had been so full of fascinating notions. A school, place where you came and learned things, knowledge always at your disposal, more and more every day! And full of so many people, you had to have two names to distinguish yourself! I could hardly believe I was going to such a place right now…
  And then came the battle. It was completely unlike anything I had ever experienced, the strong, dark creatures lashing out at you, hooves kicking, knife swinging, the desperation of struggling to stay alive. Thank goodness instinct had taken over and told me how to handle my knife-which startled me by glowing the second I collided with the first nightmare-, where to stab the creatures to make them explode into black sand. Truth be told though…it wasn’t all that bad. The rush of battle had been kind of…fulfilling. I felt at home, holding that knife.
  I had so many questions. Why could I see nightmares? How come I could ride one when no Warrior ever could? And most importantly, Where was my Gramma?
  “We’re here!” Will called, snapping me out of my reverie. Since we needed to bring the nightmare horse as evidence for their professor, and the horse refused to be tied behind the carriage, I had to ride it to the Academy. To make sure I didn’t get lost, Will had unharnessed one of the horses from the carriage and was riding beside me, though he had to keep his distance from my wild steed.
  I looked around for the school, but I saw nothing but empty plains. “Where is it?” I called. 
 “In order to keep the Academy a secret from trespassers, the school if protected by a number of magical barriers. Some of them keep nightmares at bay, some ward off those with evil intentions, the list goes on and and on. Anyways, the school is enchanted to be invisible to any part who doesn’t know the password. Richard!” he turned to look at his friend as he opened the carriage door and poked his head out, “What’s this month’s password?”
  “Bhfianaise!” shouted Richard.
  The word echoed throughout the air. I felt a vibration coming from all around me, the air rippling like water. As the illusion peeled away, the most magnificent building I had ever seen came into being. 
  It was enormous, a castle at least the size of my entire village, with turrets and towers brushing the sky. Lights shone in dozens of windows, the dark outlines of people sometimes pacing in front of them. The outer walls were high and straight, an unclimbable barrier broken only by a huge drawbridge that spanned a moat. It was breathtaking. 
   “Wow,” I whispered. This was a school? Compared to this, I’d been “studying” in a clay box my entire life. I could only imagine what the inside looked like.  
  “Who goes there?” shouted a rough voice. I looked around for the source of the question, but no one else was around. Another magic trick?
  “A returning hunting party!” shouted Will, looking up at the wall. I followed his line of vision, and saw a line of people, spaced apart on top of the wall. Sentries, guarding the school. The wall must have some sort of place for them to walk about. The speaker was probably one of them. 
  “Which party?” asked the guard.
  “Willym Thomys, Richard Brent, Gwenolyn Laurya, and a civilian we encountered who must speak to Professor Darius!” yelled Will.
  “A civilian? Why on earth would a civilian need to speak with the professor? They can’t even see this place!”
  “I can!” I shouted. I was starting to understand how much of an anomaly I was. “I see the whole castle: the moat, the wall, the towers, the sentries on the watchtowers!”
  There was a period of silence. I saw one of the guards, most likely the speaker, confer with a couple others, though I couldn’t hear what they were saying. At last: “She can come in. Darius will decide what to do with her.”
  Will gave me a reassuring smile. “Professor Darius is an understanding man. He won’t turn you away.
  “Be sure to keep that nightmare from galloping off into the moat,” he said as he guided his horse onto the drawbridge, “You wouldn’t want to meet the stuff they keep in there.”
  I nudged the nightmare into a canter until I had caught up to Will. “What do they keep in the moat?” 
  “No one really knows,” he shrugged, “But the students tell stories all the time. Some people think they keep rabid mermaids, others say it’s a giant squid. I’ve even heard one story about a hydra-a many headed nightmare dragon-viscously jumping out of the moat and attacking some Warriors who got too close-but that’s probably just a story,” he added quickly at seeing the horror that just have been written on my face. “Most likely, it’s filled with kelpies-water horses created by the faeries. They drown their victims, but  once you know how, they’re easy to fight off; only Warriors know the secret trick.” He winked, a joking wink that wasn’t at all like one I would expect from someone like Rich. Will was so easygoing and friendly, I already felt like he was an old, trusted acquaintance. 
  “Just wait until you see The City,” he said. “If you thought the outside was impressive…” Willym trailed off as we passed under the arch of the City entrance.
  My jaw dropped. It was amazing. Tall stone building lined the twisting cobblestone paths that intersected everywhere; I realized that the place must have been enchanted from the outside so that these buildings weren’t visible. Some of the buildings looked like bigger, more permanent versions of the businesses i was accustomed to seeing: bakeries, coppers, blacksmiths, dairy stalls. Then there were places I had never seen the likes of, shops that sold shields, armor, and all manner of weaponry. I also saw places that sold art supplies, sheet music, instruments, books, paper, ink, maps, and many more things I didn’t recognize. There were grand buildings called libraries and museums, lovely music I had never heard pouring from “art halls” scattered scattered all over the beautiful City laid before me. 
  There were people everywhere, walking in and out of shops. Some went hurriedly, some took their time, some stopped and conversed with friends as they went about your business. The men and women all dressed alike, in dark trousers and sleeveless shirts. Many of them wearing the same leather over-clothing as my companions, and had weapons strapped to their hips and back as often as not. 
  At the center of it all, there was the castle I had seen from the outside. It was taller than I had thought, it’s highest tower spiraling into the night. 
 The whole City had such a lively feel, the sense that life was thriving around every corner. It was feeling you never got living in a tiny village on the plains, miles from any other human settlement. 
  “Welcome to the Soldier’s City,” said Willym.
  “Wow,” I breathed, “This place…it’s incredible! Do all Warriors live here?”
  “Well, sort of. This City is home to most of the Warriors in this part of the world, though some live on their own, making a double living in both Warrior and civilian societies. There are seven more Cities, seven more Academies, each home to the Warriors of a different part of the world.” Will looked at me again. “Shall we be going then?”
  “Hurry up, we haven’t got all night Will!” Gwen shouted out the carriage window. I jumped; I had forgotten they were there.
  “Well,” I recovered, “I suppose that’s our answer. Lead on!” 
 It took us barely fifteen minutes to reach the castle. The city people must have been used to horses and carriages in the streets, for they cleared out a path for us as we approached. I received a lot of strange glances from people. Could they tell my horse was a nightmare?
  At last, the castle loomed tall before us, bigger and grander up close.  The architechture was immaculate. Willym led me to a stable near what I supposed was the side entrance, where a couple of stable boys who were chatting around saw us and ran over to help with our horses and the carriage.
  “Oh, hello Willym!” said the boy who came to help him, “You’re back early; I thought the hunt was supposed to converge again at ten o’clock?”
  “Well, yes, but we had some complications.” Will dismounted and gestured at me. “The lady needs to speak to Professor Darius. Urgent business.
  The boy followed Will’s line of vision and jumped back about four feet. “Holy Great One, is that a nightmare?!”
  “Yes, that’s sort of what we need to talk to the Professor about…” Will rubbed his neck; it seemed to be a nervous habit of his. I just sat there awkwardly. 
 “Uh, John, this is Sensa, a civilian girl we found out in the villages.” Will continued. 
 “A civilian? Then why is she on top of a cursed nightmare?” John gaped at me and the horse. This whole ‘holy horses, the random commoner can do impossible things!’ business was getting old. 
  “Yeah, yeah, I can somehow not only see but ride a monster I didn’t even know existed until today,” I said as I dismounted, keeping a hold of my “reins”. “Can I please just speak with this Professor you keep talking about? I just want to find my Gramma.” 
  John looked surprised at first, as if he hasn’t known I could speak. He must have sensed the fatigue and annoyance in my voice, though, because he motioned a younger boy-probably no older than twelve- over. 
  “May I take your…horse…miss?” the boy asked, looking nervous. I nodded, but when I tried to hand him the reins, my nightmare reared up onto his hind legs and whinnied angrily. 
  “Whoa, boy!” I put my hands on the horse’s neck to steady him. The stable boy jumped back. I shrugged apologetically at him, then looked to Will.
  “Hmm,” he said, obviously deep in thought, then shrugged. “I guess the creature’s as wary of us as we are of it. Is there any way you can keep it with you when we go inside?”
  “I don’t know. Let me see.” I turned to stand in front of my nightmare and looked deep into his eyes, like I could see its soul. It must have understood what I was trying to ask, because a moment later, it morphed into a raven, perched heavily on my hand. 
  “That’ll work,” yawned Richard, who I could see had gotten out of the carriage along with Gwen. “Can we get going? I need my beauty sleep.” 
 “Ok,” Willym said as he opened a door set into the side of the building. It had a twin door to its right, only this one had the word “Headquarters” engraved into it instead of “Academy”.
  “What’s that door for?” I asked as I moved the raven to my shoulder.
  “Oh that?” Gwen replied. “You see, the castle serves a double purpose, as both a school to educate young Warriors and the headquarters of official Warrior activity.The doors are magic: go through that door and the building is the HQ, go through this one and it’s a school. Genius, really.”
  I had to agree. As I ducked through the “Academy” door, I was struck yet another magnificent sight. We were in a long hallway with a high, arched ceiling, faerie lanterns hanging at regular intervals. The walls were covered in tiny pieces if colored glass. As we walked down it, I saw that the glass pieces formed pictures, pictures of people at forges, beating the strange metal the Warriors used for weapons into swords and shields and helmets. The glass blacksmiths were accompanied by leatherworkers, glass makers, tailors, jewelers, and architects. 
  Will noticed me staring, and launched into another explanation.
  “The school has several different Halls, sections dedicated to a different aspect of Warrior life. Right now we’re in the Hall of Craftsmen. These are murals, depicting the craftsmen and women at work.”
  “They’re beautiful,” I said sincerely, “this whole place is.”
  Will smiled. “Thanks. The  whole City is the work of thousands of dedicated Warriors. It’s our pride and joy.”
  “Hate to break up your little friendly chit chat, but we’re at the Professor’s office now.” Richard drawled, leaning against the wall by the door. “Are we going to knock, or just stand here until our feet fall off?”
  “We’re going to knock, of course.” Will smiled, unfazed, and rapped the big brass knocker.
  Almost immediately, I heard a muffled “Come in!” from inside. 
 Will opened the door, and we filed into the office. The room had probably been spacious when it was built, before its current owner had crammed it so full of books and papers that it gave off a feeling of cluttered coziness instead. The walls were lined with bookcases, stuffed to bursting with scrolls and leather-bound tomes, the kind I had only heard about in Gramma’s stories. A desk sat near the far wall; above it hung a lance and spear. Sitting behind the desk with his feet propped up on it was a man, stirring his tea and reading book. He looked to be in his mid-thirties, with a mop of reddish brown hair, and a very casual look about him. 
 “What brings you three back so early?” the man said without looking up from his book. “Might it be the civilian you’ve brought with you?”
  What? With his nose buried so far into that book, there was no way he could have seen us. How did he know I was even here, much less that I was not a Warrior?
  The man looked up, revealing a pair of sharp but kind brown eyes. “Oh, don’t look alarmed dear, I heard an extra pair of footsteps. Much lighter than the others’ too, not made by the standard Warrior hunting boots; obviously civilian.”
  He stood, hand outstretched. “Allow me to introduce myself. I am Professor Conrad Darius of the Warriors’ Academy. And you are?”
  “Sensa,” I shook his hand, “just Sensa.”
  “I say, that is one exquisite bird you have there,” the Professor remarked. 
  “Well, that’s sort of why I’m here, Professor. My bird…he’s sort of…” How was I supposed to explain this if I didn’t even understand it myself?
 “A nightmare.” Will finished for me. 
  The professor’s eyes widened. “Explain.”
“Today, while we were tracking our designated horde, I came across Miss Sensa here, whose grandmother had gone missing earlier that day. Amazingly, she was able to see the nightmare tracks I had been observing in her home. We put two and two together and realized that her Gramma had been kidnapped by the nightmares, and so she came with us on our hunt. When we found the horde, she ended up fighting with us-and did a fine job too, may I add. Unfortunately, we came across a second-class nightmare and-“
  “It knocked me to the ground, and would have eaten my face off, had it not been for Sensa,” Gwenolyn chimed in, her freckled face stony and unreadable. Odd, she didn’t seem the type to easily admit defeat. “She tackled it with her bare hands, knocked the beast clean off me. I didn’t see much of what happened next, but next thing I know, the nightmare’s galloping across the plains, with miss Sensa sitting atop it as if the creature’s a regular farm pony. Magnificent, it was.”
  All eyes turned to me, looking for answers that I didn’t have. “Hey, don’t look at me. I know as much as any of you. I saw that Gwenolyn was going to get hurt, and I just did what came naturally. Once I was on that nightmare, it was like something slid into place, and then we were galloping. It felt like the most natural thing in the world.” The raven on my shoulder squawked. No one said anything. 
  Just when the silence was starting to become uncomfortable, the professor spoke up. “Well, this is a very interesting situation.” Darius sat down again, fingers templed.”You say that everything you did was instinctive?” 
  I nodded. The professor closed his eyes, obviously deep in thought.
  “You said she fought beside you, Master Willym. Did her Lightweapon glow?” 
  “Yes,” a look of realization dawned on Will’s face. “Yes, it did. It glowed gold. Do you mean to say that-“
  “Yes, I do.” Darius opened his eyes and leaned forward onto his desk, this time looking intently at me. “Miss Sensa must be a Warrior.”

Author’s note:

I just want to apologize for any grammar or spelling mistakes. Ususally I’m pretty good about those, but i write on my iPhone, and autocorrect can be a total pain in the rear.

Also, I need help with coming up with a title for this book. I really can’t think of anything. If anybody has an idea, please comment below.

Thanks! -Alex

Chapter 1

     I was woken by the sound of wind-chimes. The faeries. I had forgotten they were coming today.
     I threw on my leggings and shirt, silently cursing myself for not remembering about the trade. I bet Gramma had been awake for hours, preparing all the wooden trinkets we had made over the past year, all the clay beaded necklaces, string bracelets, and brightly colored fabrics, and here I had been, sleeping while she did all the work.
    Not that Gramma minded work much, I thought as I pulled on my shoes, simple and black as the rest of my modest clothing. Gramma had always been very hands-on, loving to roll up her sleeves and get things done. But still, I’d hate to leave her to do everything.
     I rushed into the next room of our little cabin, and sure enough, a big sack was sitting on the table, right next to a bowl of steaming carrot soup.
     “Good morning, Sensa,” smiled Gramma as she tucked the last pouch into the bag. My grandmother wasn’t really all that old, her back still straight and strong, her brown hair only beginning to be streaked with gray, but there was a kindly wisdom in her eyes that had gained her respect around our little village. “Sleep well?”
     “I’m so sorry,” I said around a mouthful of soup, “I completely forgot.”
     “Don’t talk with your mouth full.” Gramma smiled as she picked up an orb from our counter and shook it. As she shook, it began to glow, growing brighter and stronger, though not as strongly as it should have been. The magic in it was fading.
     That was the trick of faerie magic: it always had to be renewed. The faeries made sure we would always be making things for them, always be in their debt. It was the entire reason why the trading today was so crucial.
      I shoveled the last of the soup into my mouth and slung the sack over my shoulder.
      “Don’t forget your dress, Sensa!” Gramma held out a light slip of fuchsia cloth.
      I groaned as I dropped the sack and threw the flowing material over my head and shoulders, belting it on with a thin cord. “You know I hate these things, Gramma. You can’t run in an overdress!”
      “I just want you to look your best, dear. After all, you never know if you’ll meet a handsome faerie lad, now do you?” Gramma winked as she pushed me out the door with the last of our faerie lanterns.
    “There you are, Sensa!” Katryna’s high voice called across the clearing in the center of the village as she stormed over, her pale face lit by the glow of her lantern . “What on earth took you do long?”
     “I slept in.” I muttered, tucking my messy black braid behind my ear as I shouldered the bag. “Aren’t you selling anything?”
     Katryna looked at my bag as if just realizing that it was trading day. “What? Oh, no, Felyx’s taking care of all that.” She gestured over to her house, where her brother, Felyx,  was indeed setting up their kitchen table in front of their house to display their goods on.
     “Aren’t you going to help him?” I asked.
     Katryna scoffed. “Why would I?” She tossed her impeccable blond curls over her shoulder. “Felyx can handle everything, and besides, I want to talk to the faeries.”
     She nodded toward the advancing caravan of traders, still rather a far way off, but close enough that their windchime-bearing carts could be heard clearly.
     “I wore my good dress today,” she continued, holding out the shimmering orange material, “I mean, faerie boys are supposed to be so gorgeous, I want to make sure I look my best…”
      Oh, Great One, I’m in for it, I thought. More of Katryna’s endless nonsense… I had known Katryna since childhood, and she was something like my only friend, though I had never understood her much more than I understood the other village girls. All they did was talk about boys and clothes and boys and hair and boys. It got old after a while.
     Something flickered in the corner of my vision, pulling me from my trail of thought. I looked over my shoulder, in the direction of the movement. Nothing. But…if I looked just right, I could almost make out a shape in the shadows behind my house, where dark sky was met with something darker.
     “Katryna…,” I shook her shoulder, still looking at the hut, “do you see that?”
     Katryna craned her neck, looking over my shoulder. “See what?”
     “That dark spot over there. Behind my house…”
     “News flash, Sensa,” she stopped searching for the shape and looked at me like I was the one who couldn’t see something right in front of her. “The whole world is a dark spot! No one our age has ever seen the light of day! The sun hasn’t risen since before we were born, or have you forgotten about the ceremony tonight?”
      “Of course not…,” I peeled my eyes away from the wall, “I just thought I saw something.”
      She was right about the dark. There had been no sunlight for sixteen years. Every year, on this day, everyone in the village gathered at what would have been sundown, to pray to the Great One, asking Him to send the Sunbringer. But Katryna was wrong about one thing. I had seen the sun, though I don’t remember it. The last day the sun shone was the day I was born.
     And of course, Katryna forgot about it. I can’t blame her, though. She has much more reason to look forward to the Sun Festival than my birthday. Tonight, the elders would all recount the ancient tales, there would be dancing and music, and and the very end, the whole village would gather for the prayer ceremony.
     “Sensa, did you hear anything I just said?” Katryna waved a hand in front of my face, snapping me out if my reverie.
    “What?” I asked politely.
     Katryna gave an exasperated sigh. “I was just talking about how in some other villages, I’ve heard that women wear overdresses all the time. Only their overdresses.”
     “What?! Wouldn’t that be a bit…immodest?” I asked, looking down at my own dress, the loose material cut off at the knees and upper arms, so thin and light that you could see my clothing underneath.
     Overdresses were really just decorative, a way for girls to be more appealing to the eye than they would in just their pants and shirts. Young girls and elderly women usually never even wore dresses, and some women never wore them, claiming they were useless and bothersome. I wouldn’t wear dresses myself, if it were not for Gramma’s insistence.
     “Of course not,” Katryna rolled her eyes, “they make them out of thicker material, so you can’t see through. They’re heavier too, so they won’t blow around as easily in the wind. As if there was any wind to worry about.”
     “Katryna, I don’t think-” I was cut off by the cry of a young boy.
     “The faeries are here!”
     All heads turned to the eastern edge of the clearing, where the procession of wagons, seemingly drawn by nothing, had stopped. The wind-chimes mounted on the fronts of the carts could barely be heard over the whispers that had broken out all over the village. There were no faeries in sight.
      “This is always my favorite part,” I whispered to Katryna, keeping my eyes on the carts.
     She nodded. “Me too.”
     In front of the lead cart, a shimmering light appeared. As it grew brighter, several more joined it, all of them coming to a cresendo bright enough that, for a moment, my lantern wasn’t necessary.
     Then that moment ended, the light fading until the faeries could be seen.
     The village children, who had rushed forward to get a look at the mystical strangers, stopped short, their gleeful cries hushed by the faeries’ cold, commanding beauty. They were all females, tall and slender, their wings still flashing sparks as they folded them behind their backs. The faeries were beautiful, with delicate features, long, pointed ears, skin even paler than that of us humans, who hadn’t seen the sun in sixteen years. Their hair, colored red and pink and blue and green, flowed down to their waists. They wore only overdresses made of some material I had never seen before, like a leaf that gleamed in the moonlight, much shorter than the one I was wearing and without sleeves at all.
     “Aww,” Katryna grumbled next to me, “they sent all girls again!” Though faerie men were rumored to be even more beautiful than their female counterparts no one had ever actually seen one.
     The first faerie, the one who had materialized first, stepped forward.    “Humans,” she began, her voice high-pitched but authoritative, “we have come to your village in observance of the annual trade that has been established with your people for the last fifteen years. Are you prepared to trade your goods for ours?”
     This was when Gramma-who had been established as the village ambassador since she first proposed that we trade with the faeries-would step forward and say that we were ready. That was how it has been every year since that rain had stopped coming and the plants had stopped growing, with no sunlight to evaporate the water and to feed the crops.
     But there was only silence.
     After a while of unexpected waiting, people started looking around, whispering. I could feel their stares on my back. Where was my Gramma?
     “Sensa…” Katryna pulled on my sleeve, voicing my thoughts, “isn’t your Gramma supposed to…?”
     “Yeah…” I looked back at our little cottage, where I had seen Gramma last. It was dark.
     I was about to go inside and look for my grandmother when a man, a village elder, stepped forward, apparently deciding that Gramma wasn’t going to show up.
    “We are prepared to trade,” he said in a loud but hoarse voice, “What have you brought to sell to us?”
    “We have brought the items that you cannot provide for yourselves,” the faerie woman replied, unfazed by the change in ambassador. “We bring lanterns, orbs lit by our magic. We bring food, our crops that grow by the light of the moon. We bring wood, harvested from trees that were grown likewise. And what do you have that we would want?”
    “We have the items that you cannot make yourselves,” the man called, “We have cloth, made of wool and colored with dyes. We have items carved from wood: dishes, barrels, and furniture. We have items forged of metal: weapons, pots, pans, plows, shovels, and more. We bring jewelry, bracelets and necklaces made of the finest string, clay, metals, and gems.”
   At the mention of jewelry, the faeries seemed to get excited. They formed a huddle, whispering in a language I didn’t recognize. After a moment, they must have reached an agreement, because the huddle disbanded, and the faeries went to get sacks from their magic carts.
     “Let the trading commence!” the lead faerie called, sending the villagers scrambling for their goods, myself included. Though I still had no clue where Gramma was, we couldn’t afford to miss this trade.
     “Have fun trading!” Katryna called as she walked away to where a small group of other girls were, whispering about who knows what.
     I ran up to the carts, where faeries were pairing off with humans to bargain. I flagged down a tall faerie with purple curls.
     “What do you have?” she asked, her voice thick with an odd accent.
     I opened my sack and pulled out a roll of yellow fabric. “I have…cloth. Made of the finest wool.” Okay, that may have been an exaggeration. But we did get the wool straight from our own two sheep; it was all Gramma and I had to work with, so lying didn’t bother me much. “It is much warmer than cotton or…the fabric you wear. Oh, and the wool is dyed…I have red, yellow, green, pink, and violet. I believe that starting price should be three bushels of wheat per roll of cloth.” The wool wasn’t worth nearly that much-aim high, hit low.
     The faerie scoffed. “Three bushels? No, little girl. I will give you one bushel for each roll.”
     I pretended to consider. “One bushel, and one lantern, and you have yourself a deal.”
     “I will give you one bushel of wheat per roll, and one lantern.”
     “A house lantern, not a hand lantern then.”
     “Agreed.”
     She bought all of the pink, yellow, and green cloth, claiming the red and purple “would clash terribly with my hair”. I ended up with sixteen bushels of wheat; not nearly enough to last the year.
     “Anything else?” The faerie girl peeked at my bag.
     “Yes,” I replied eagerly, hoping my excitement would spread to my skeptical customer, “I have jewelry. Bracelets and anklets and necklaces.”
     The girl perked up considerably at the mention of jewelry. “Let me see!”
     I let her look at the different trinkets, starting with the string anklets and saving the good, copper-beaded necklaces and bangles for last.
     As the sight of the metal jewelry, her eyes grew wide with a trance-like awe and greed. Shiny or sparkling objects always had this affect on the faeries, and they always fetched the highest prices.
     I snapped the bag shut as she began to reach for the jewelry. “Ah-ah-ah! Not before you pay,” I chided.
     The faerie made a low growling sound from the back of her throat, deeper than I would have thought and intimidating enough that I had to force myself to stand my ground. “Name your price, little girl,” she hissed, her eyes fixed greedily on my bag.
      “Two barrels of carrots or onions for each bracelet. Two barrels and a bushel of wheat for each necklace.”
      “That is outrageous!” she exclaimed.
      “That is my price. Take it or leave it.” I shook the bag temptingly.
      She took it, however reluctantly. When the faeries disappeared and the carts rolled magically back where they came from, I was left with twenty-three bushels of wheat, fourteen barrels of onions, nineteen barrels of carrots, and a bag full of faerie lanterns, some small and meant to be carried in one’s hand, and some large enough to be strung from the ceiling to light whole rooms. I also had the remaining rolls of wool and string and clay jewelery that hadn’t been sold. The faerie bought all the copper pieces.
      As I lugged the heavy supplies back to my home, my mind wandered again to Gramma. Where was she? Trading was arguably the most important event of the year, and Gramma was the one who had established it! She was the ambassador, the one who communicated with the faeries, a role she had always taken very seriously. Gramma never missed trading.
    When I had dragged the last barrel to the cellar, I set out to find her.
    “Gram-ma!” I called as I searched the house, “Where are you?”
     Not in her room. Not in mine. Nor in the village as far I could tell. It was unlike her to just disappear like this without telling me where she was going. I sighed and ran out into the village commons, brightly lit by new faerie lanterns. The lanterns were strung up with brightly colored ribbons, decorations for the festival. Some men were already building the big bonfire in the center of the village square.
     I weaved my way through groups of people until I reached a tall wooden building and knocked on the door.
     It was answered by a little man with wild hair and a short beard, a friendly smile on his face.
     “G’morning, miss Sensa. ‘Ow’re you?” he asked in that rough way of speaking that wasn’t too uncommon around here.
     “Quite fine, Gylligan, but I still can’t find my Gramma. Have you seen her anywhere?”
     “Ah’m afraid not, Sensa,” he deflated a little at the disappointment that must have been written all over my face. “Ah was wond’ring what was up when that little issue came up this mornin’.”
     “Well, in that case, I was wondering…” I glanced past him to the stables I knew were inside. “Could I borrow Jaya?” I blurted.
     “Borrow Jaya?” Gylligan’s eyebrows shot up in surprise. “That beauty’s me prize mare. Ah’ve been trainin’ ‘er all year for the races today; Ah wouldn’t want to wear ‘we down…Ah’m sorry Sensa, but your joyride will ‘ave to wait until tomorrow.”
     “I don’t want a joyride, Gylligan, not today. I need her to look for Gramma. She might have wandered into the Dead Forest. Please?” I implored.
     Gylligan stroked his beard, a sympathetic look on his face as he considered. At last he stemmed to reach a conclusion. “You can borrow ‘Enry. He’s not as fast as Jaya, but ‘e’ll do.” He opened the door wider, so I could come inside.
     I sighed with relief. “Thanks, Gylligan.” I walked into the stables, which smelled of hay and manure, a familiar combination that I had grown to like long ago.
     Gylligan led the way-though I knew my way around the stables well enough-past stalls with cows, goats, and, towards the end, horses.
     I love horses. When I was younger, Gramma insisted that I learn to ride, a hobby that I instantly became obsessed with. I could ride better than anyone else my age, boy or girl. Gramma also thought it was important for me to learn to read-a very rare trait amongst common people. I don’t know how she learned, but she taught me from a young age, with a trunk of books she had brought with her when she came with my mother-rest her soul-to this town. By now, I had read every scroll in the trunk at least three times. I loved books almost as much as I loved riding.
     We stopped at a stall towards the end if the building. Inside was a pretty bay, his coat a beautiful gray spotted canvas. I reached out and stroked his nuzzle, making the horse whinny softly.
     “‘Enry’s gettin’ on the older side ‘a things, but ‘e’ll do the job,” Gylligan said as he got a saddle out of an empty stall.
     A few minutes later, I was galloping towards the Dead Forest. A long time ago, it used to be a real forest, before the sun went away and the trees died. Now it was nothing more than a dark shape on an even darker horizon.
     “Whoa, boy,” I pulled the reins up gently, coming to a stop in front of the dark mass of trees towering over me. Henry whinnied nervously.
     “Graaaaaaammaaa!” I called, “Are you in there? Gramma?”
     Not a  sound came from the forest. Nothing but the whistling of the wind.
    “Come on, boy,” I nudged the horse with my foot, and he nervously cantered into the line of trees.
      I held up my lantern as I called out to my grandmother that might or might not have been hidden amongst the trees. My guiding beacon cast eerie shadows across the twisted limbs, creating the illusion of things hiding everywhere, watching me. I could feel fear rising in my chest. I shoved it down, urging my horse deeper into the forest, shouting louder.
     “Gramma! GRAMMA WHERE ARE Y-ah!” My horse had stopped abruptly rearing back on his hind legs. As he stamped his feet back to the ground, I searched the ground for a snake or something, any clue as to what had spooked him.
     But there was nothing. Nothing but the dirt ground and shadows.
     I looked around me. The trees, twisted unnaturally, their branches like long fingers reaching towards us. The shadows, looking like unholy ghouls, in every nook and cranny. This place was giving me the creeps.
     I couldn’t help it; the old legends started to tell themselves in my mind. Stories whispered around campfires, about how these woods were inhabited by trolls, huge, viscous monsters that would boil you for supper if they got the chance. About how orc tribes went hunting here, on the prowl for human blood and flesh and how they could lure you in with their-
     No. I clamped down on the memories and pushed the to the back of my mind. Don’t let fear get the best of you. You owe it to Gramma.
     “Come on Henry…” I urged my ride forward, but he refused to move.
     “What is it, boy?” I sighed, “what’s scaring you?”
      The horse just neighed nervously, cantering backwards a little.
      Now I was getting frustrated. “What could possibly be-“
      In the corner if my vision, something moved.
      I whipped my head around, peering into the darkness. Something was definitely there. A shadow, something a little bit darker than everything else, shifting slowly behind the trees. I leaned forward, trying to make out its shape.
     “Hello?” I called, “Who’s there? Is that you, Gramma?”
     No reply. But whatever if was was getting closer. It might have been my imagination, but the air seemed to be getting colder.
     “Who are you?” I called. Henry was getting really freaked out, I could tell, he kept whinnying and stepping backwards, obviously wanting to make a run for it.
     The stranger still said nothing, just kept walking towards us. This was definitely not my grandmother.
      I knew I should probably go now, snap the reins and tell Henry to move it, but I didn’t. I just had to know who was lurking around the Dead Forest, spooking my horse. As the figure approached, close enough now that I could almost make out their shape against the other shadows of the trees, a stark fear gripped my heart. I was suddenly frozen in place, unable to move even if I wanted to. There was a cold hand around my lungs, stopping my breath and chilling my bones.
     That was all my horse could take. Henry let out a terrified shriek and bolted back the way we came. I held on tight until we were out in the open again. By then, the deathly terror had subsided and my heartbeat slowed. Still, I let Henry gallop all the way back to the village, where I could finally breathe easy again.
     “Did you find your Gramma?” Gylligan asked as I returned Henry to his stable.
     I shook my head. Looking back on it, I don’t know why I went to the Forest at all. Gramma wasn’t senile; the likelihood of her wandering off wasn’t that great.
     But then where was she? If she wasn’t in the house, and not in the Forest, then where? The plains (which lay to the east of our village, just as the Dead Forest lay to the west)?
     I sighed and patted Henry’s nuzzle, as if to say Goodbye, sorry for scaring you out of your wits. “I’ve got to get going, or I’m going to miss the festival. But thanks anyway, for letting me borrow your horse,” I said as I started to leave, “And give that old boy some extra oats. He’s been through a lot.”
     Out in the village square, the festival was already in full swing. Travys-a  boy who lived a couple houses away from me-was strumming a lyre as his father played the flute, setting a tune for the group of dancing children near the well. The children were accompanied by a bunch of pre-teen boys, trying to get girls to dance with them. Unfortunately, those girls were too busy fawning over Travys’s good looks and excellent lyre skills.
     Nearby, some men had broken out their stashes of homemade beer, toasting the new year and the return of the sun. Their wives were talking, laughing about who-knows-what as they ate food from the bounty-table to the side of the party. In the center of the village was a huge fire, so high its smoke seemed to tickle the stars. It lit up the night, bringing us as close to daylight as I had ever seen.
     And in front of the blazing bonfire, the storytellers: the elders of the village were each entertaining a group of young children, telling stories of the Sunbringer and the Great One and heroes of old. I searched that group hopefully; it was where Gramma was certain to be every festival. She always told the best stories, some that I now recognize as tales from the books she owned.
     But Gramma wasn’t there. Deflated, I scanned each group, holding on to that thin thread of hope, which faded when I saw nothing.
     I didn’t have time to linger on my discouragement, because then, a familiar pair of hazel eyes were up in my face.
     “Sensa!” Katryna squealed while hugging me forcefully, “Where have you been? After the trade, you just disappeared, and-“
     “I was looking for Gramma,” I told her as I pried her off of me, “in the Dead Forest.”
     “In the Dead Forest?!” she gasped, “You went in the Dead Forest? Alone?”
     “Well…yes…” I didn’t think it would be that big of a deal. Kids, especially boys, dared each other to go there all the time. One time, we’d even gone troll hunting there; it was a fun and thrilling escapade that involved almost every kid in the village. Every one of us got a good hiding for it, but the fun was worth the scolding, even if we didn’t find a single troll.
     “Did you find her?” my friend inquired.
     “No,” I frowned, “Have you seen her?”
     “No, I haven’t seen your Gramma since this morning. Maybe we can get a search party together tomorrow.” She glanced over at the bonfire, then back at me. “Say, you know all your Gramma’s old stories, right?”
     “Yes…” I replied. Where was Katryna going with this?
     “Well, the elders are having a hard time without your grandmother’s excellent tales. Do you think you could…?”
     I thought about it for a moment. I did need a distraction from the stress of not knowing where my grandmother was, and the elders did seem to have too many kids to handle at the moment…
     I nodded. “Sure.”
     Katryna sighed with relief. “Thanks Sensa,” she grabbed my wrist and pulled me towards the bonfire, “They were going to make me do it, and you know how I’m terrified if public speaking…Hey kids! Sensa’s going to tell her Gramma’s stories!”
     The children who had been listening attentively to the elders before now swiveled their little heads around. There were excited intakes of breath as I waded through them to sit on a log with my back to the fire, laughs, whispers, and even cheers. I couldn’t blame them. A lot of the elders were boring storytellers.
     I motioned for the kids to quiet down. “What story do you want to hear?”
     I was assaulted by at least thirty little voices, shouting out their favorite tales. Above the din, one little girl who somehow made herself heard: “Do the puppet show!” Her request was met with a dozen cried of agreement.
     Katryna, who was standing to the side, quieted the kids down.
     “You want me to tell you the puppet show story?” They shouted their enthusiasm.
     Katryna quieted them again as I turned sideways and raised my hands in front of the fire. The “puppet show story” was basically just the story of creation, but with a shadow puppet routine my Gramma had made up to go with it, capturing the kid’s small attention spans immediately. I put on a voice, whisper-like and mysterious.
     “Long ago, many eons before you or I were born, the only things that existed was the ball of nothing that was the universe,” I raised one hand in a fist, “and the Great One.” I made a sunburst motion with the other.
     “Until one day, when the Great One decided to make the ball of nothing into something beautiful. First, He flattened the universe of into land,” I moved the starburst across fisted one, unclenching it as the hand moved along its length. “Next, he melted some of it into water, forming the great seas.” I wiggled the fingers on my “land” hand to give the impression of waves.
     “The third thing He did was to decorate the earth with all sorts of plants,” I raised my arms up, hands unclenching from fists to look like a flower blooming, “and fill the land and sea with animals, fish, and birds.” I made with my hands, a rabbit, a fish, and an eagle.
     “Fourth, He made the faeries, to cultivate beauty and nature,” I made a pair of butterfly wings, fluttering them lightly, “and then the orcs, to hunt and tend the beasts of the earth.” My fingers formed big, hulking shapes for the feared creatures.
     “And then, at last, His sixth creation: the humans,” for that, I gestured around at the children, who were watching wide eyed, “who were to be creators themselves; shaping metal, carving wood, inventing always.”
     “But something was missing. The world was still cloaked in the darkness from whence it came. So the Great One made, from himself,  great orbs of light: the brighter one to reside over the day, and the lesser one to reside over the night.” I made my hands into two open circles before the fire, one larger than the other. “And to make sure that their cycle was unbroken, the Great One took a piece of each of them, called The Light, and placed it in a human being, and when the human should sleep the sun would set, and when he should rise, so would the sun. This person was called the Sunbringer.” I overlapped the circles and let the last three fingers on both hands burst around them, like the rising sun I had never seen.
     I put my normal voice back on as I turned to face the children again, hands back in my lap. “And that, kids, is how the world began.” They clapped vigorously, whispering to their friends.
     But one boy raised his hand tentatively into the air. “Miss Sensa, what about the Warriors?”
     “The Warriors?” I was taken aback. “What about them?”
     “Your Gramma used to tell us stories about them!” shouted another kid in the back, “She said they were they were the bravest people on Earth!”
     “When did the Great One make them?” asked the first little boy.
     “I don’t know,” I said, “they aren’t usually included in the Spiritual Records. Legends tell of a race of Warriors, the Sun Soldiers (because the Great One put a drop of sunlight in their blood) who protected us against fearsome creatures. I guess they were created with the Sunbringer, then.” I shrugged. Better to pretend the legends were true, for the sake of the children. The kids were still listening raptly, nodding as if that made perfect sense. But once one boy brought it up, they all wanted to hear about the Sun Soldiers. Curse that kid.
     “That’s enough for now, kids,” Katryna chimed as she waded through them to grabs my wrist and pull me away, “we’ll be starting the prayer ceremony soon.”
     “Thank you,” I sighed as she pulled me towards the food table, “If I had to tell another story about Olyve the Orc Slayer-.”
     Katryna stopped abruptly, making me almost crash into her. “Wait here,” she said cryptically, “and close your eyes.”
     “Why would I need to close-“
     “Just do it,” she sighed.
     I covered my eyes, waiting for something to happen.
     “Okay, you can open them now.”
     I opened my eyes to find Katryna standing in front if me with a plate in her hands. “Happy Birthday!” She tilted the plate to reveal a round loaf of sweet cake, the number sixteen carved into the top of it.
     The gesture touched me. I had been so worried today about my Gramma, I hadn’t even thought about the fact that it was my birthday. I pulled my friend in for a hug. “Thank you so much.”
     Katryna smiled. “Your Gramma and I were going to keep it a surprise until after the ceremony, but you seemed like you needed something sweet.” She handed me the plate.
     “It looks delicious,” I said, sniffing, “and it smells heavenly, too.” Smelling the sweet bread, it struck me how hungry I was. I hadn’t eaten anything since that carrot soup this morning.
     Before I could dig in, the bells on top of the community chapel rang loudly.
     “Time for the prayer ceremony,” I sighed as I set the cake down on top of the table.
     Everyone was converging in the village square, holding hands to form a circle around the perimeter. Katryna and I quickly joined, just as an elder stepped into the center of the circle, near the bonfire.
     The last stragglers joined the circle, and a hush fell over the people. Nerves were running high, boosted by hope and anticipation. This was when we poured out our desperate longing for light, for plants and beasts and food and life. And Great One was it fun.
     Then, the elder began to hum. It was low and one note, but when it caught on, it became a harmony, spreading along the circle. When every person, young and old, had joined in the song, the elder began to hum out a melody, a simple and hymnal tune. When that too had spread to each person, the circle began to move.
     But when I took my first step forward, something was wrong. I felt…queasy. Was it my lack of food? Something about the song was off, too. It was ringing too loudly in my ears.
     “Mighty Great One!” shouted the elder, his face to the sky as the humming turned to wordless singing, “We come to You in prayer, Your children, the humans! You set the sun in the sky, and gave its Light to the Sunbringer! But it has been sixteen years now since the old Sunbringer died, and still a new one has yet to replace him, as is the cycle! Sixteen years since we have seen the light of day!”
     We were running now, the circle spinning faster and faster as our voices climbed higher. I was getting seriously dizzy, stumbling as I ran. The prayer was a shriek in my ears.
     “Please, oh Great One!” the elder continued to shout, “Come into our midst and restore balance! Restore light!”
     I cried out. It was like the song was reaching inside if me, its holy words like poison in my ears and gut. I could no longer see straight, and I could feel myself swooning like a drunk.
     “Restore the sun!” the elder shouted desperately to the sky, arms outstretched.
     And then the world went black.