In the Gray Places | Teen Ink

In the Gray Places

February 28, 2011
By _cgirl921 PLATINUM, Littleton, Colorado
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_cgirl921 PLATINUM, Littleton, Colorado
33 articles 4 photos 3 comments

“Grandma, what if we don’t get back before the sun sets?”

I asked her the same question every night, and she always gave me the same answer. “We’ll return in time. We always do.” She rubbed my back with one hand and held up her skirt and the berries in it with the other. I smiled at her predictable answer. I never felt safe until I asked.

As soon as we were in the warm glow of the clearing, I sat on the soft ground. The leaves blazed golden, lit from within by Grandma’s light-magic. Dusk rolled in like smoke around us.

Grandma sat on the ground and I hurried to her, crawling into her lap. “Grandma,” I whispered, “what if Night sees us when he flies across the sky to push away the sunlight?”

Grandma smoothed my hair with her hand. “You know he can do nothing to us, Liath. The light protects us, and so does Eleoh.”

Of course I knew, but I needed the comfort of her familiar words as the chill of the night took hold. Grandma opened her sack and handed me a soft woven blanket. “Will you tell me the Story?”

She smiled at me. “What story?”

“The story about Eleoh making the world,” I said. She had many stories, but there was only one Story.

Grandma pretended to look exasperated, but the love remained in her eyes. “I’ve been telling you the Story every night for eleven years. You ought to be able to recite it by heart by now.”

I thought for a minute. I knew the Story; it seemed as though I had known the Story forever. But Grandma painted such lovely pictures with her words, and her voice was musical. “I think I could, Grandma, but I could never tell it as nice as you.”

Grandma smiled. “Very well.” I felt her warmth and safety stretch to cover me as she encircled me with her arms. Nighttime scared me, but Grandma always made it better.

“Before Day ever pulled the sun up at the first sunrise, Eleoh existed alone in the universe without any living thing to love. He created the world with a flick of his thoughts, and he made angels to take care of it. Day and Night were the most important of all the angels except Airell, Eleoh’s most trusted messenger. And to Day and Night, Eleoh entrusted the beginnings of the human race, so that the people would love him, and that he could love them in return. But some of the angels didn’t want to listen to Eleoh, and those angels fell to the earth.”

“Airell,” I supplied, and then clapped my hand over my mouth. I wanted Grandma to tell the story.

She nodded. “Airell and his followers: Night and his angels. And Eleoh put a curse on the darkness that remains to this day. And eventually, Day disobeyed and fell to the earth, but he chose to serve Eleoh instead of turning away, and Eleoh forgave him.

“Then the people that Eleoh created in heaven flourished on the earth. And he gave them every gift he had to give, just to show how much he loved them. But the darklings—the people that Eleoh had given to Night to look after—shunned Eleoh and continued to choose evil, and so Eleoh turned away from them.”

It was a shorter version than she usually told, but I was already drowsy. “And we’re supposed to love Eleoh because he made us and he loves us,” I concluded in a sing-song voice.

“That’s right, my dear.” Grandma sounded sleepy, too. “We’ve got to have more lessons tomorrow. We’ve missed so many days.”

I fell asleep before I could answer.

* * *

Our lessons the next morning didn’t go as planned. Not again. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I’m sorry!” I kept whispering. My hands shook and tears streamed down my face. What had I done? “I didn’t mean to, Grandma! I didn’t!”

Grandma’s eyes had been wide with fright a moment ago, but now the pale cast to her skin was the only thing that made it obvious she was afraid. “I know you didn’t. You’re more powerful now. There’s nothing you can do to change that.”

Grandma had been giving me these lessons to make light for six years, but the light wasn’t the problem. “Why do I have darkness in me, Grandma? You don’t. I want it to go away!” I still felt the darkness swirling around in my head, a cold, frightening, oppressive power that mixed with my embarrassment and frustration. I hadn’t meant to call the storm and make it rain. I shouldn’t have been able to. All I wanted to do was make sparks like Grandma did. Lightning. What was wrong with me?

“Everyone has a struggle, sweetling. Yours just happens to be harder than most.” Grandma looked tired instead of scared now. She hugged me tight to her, and my silent tears became great, hiccupping sobs.

“Grandma? Am I broken?” I whispered. I still felt so weak and so ruined from creating the storm. I fought it, but I couldn’t control it. It controlled me.

“Oh, sweetheart, no. No, of course not.” She hugged me even tighter, as though she could smother the evil right out of me.

“Then why does this happen, Grandma? Why do I have it?”

Grandma pulled away and looked me in the face. Her expression scared me. She was hesitant, maybe even afraid. Why? Grandma was never afraid. “Honey, maybe we should wait until you’re older.”

A sob caught in my throat. “Grandma, no. I’m hurting now. I want to know why.”

Grandma shook her head. “I don’t know that I can bring myself to tell the story, Liath.”

She was so close to finally explaining why I had this evil fighting with the good inside of me. I wasn’t about to give up that easily. “Show me, then.” I grabbed her hand.

“Liath…” She started to pull away and stopped. “I’m old, Liath, and I don’t know when I will be able to share this with you, so I will give it to you now. But it’s a large burden to bear.” She put a hand on my cheek. “I’m sorry for everything you’re about to see.”

She moved her hand to my forehead. She had shared many memories with me this way; it was how I learned of her old village and of other kinds of magic that Grandma couldn’t do, as well as of the lightlings that had been her friends and family. She shared images and thoughts as though I were right there inside her head. Her hand was cold and clammy now, and I trembled to see what this memory had to reveal.

Oriana jerked awake. She had fallen asleep in a chair next to the window, her cheek pressed against the windowsill. Her eyes slid over her view of the quiet village from the window with increasing unease. Her daughter had not yet returned home, though the sun orbs had been lit and were already illuminating the little village, protecting it from the darkness that had fallen around it like a blanket. How long had she been asleep? The last thing she recalled was watching and waiting for Alastrine, but the sun had been up then. The girl should have been home long before. Something was wrong.

The old woman heaved herself out of the chair with her knobby white walking stick. If she had been truthful with herself, perhaps this would not have come as such a surprise. Something had been wrong ever since the small bump had appeared on her daughter Alastrine’s belly. Alastrine was not married, and having a baby out of wedlock was all but unheard of in the little community. Furthermore, Alastrine had refused to name the father and he had not come forward, which forced Oriana to care for Alastrine as her belly grew.

Despite the strange circumstances, the village had rallied around the mother and the mother-to-be. After the initial shock, everyone had only smiles, words of congratulations, and prophecies of future happiness. Oriana herself had been thrilled at the prospect of having a granddaughter—she had a hunch that the baby would a girl.

Alastrine’s joy, on the other hand, had clearly been artificial, for as the bump on her belly grew, so too did the shadows under her eyes and the worry line between them. Oriana and the other women of the village had fretted over her, claiming it was all due to the mothering sickness. Looking back, though, it seemed related to something more sinister.

Oriana stepped softly out of the room into the alley, trying not to disturb Alastrine’s two brothers, asleep in the room behind her. It was a cool night, for the sun orbs gave light but no heat, and a chilly breeze snaked between the open-topped cottages.

Alastrine had left the house that morning to visit her friend Rowena. Her baby was due soon and she really shouldn’t have gone, but Alastrine was stubborn. Oriana had tried to convince Alastrine to at least let her come, but Alastrine insisted that she stay behind. Oriana was not so very old, but her bones had been aching more than usual, and Rowena’s house was all the way at the other end of the little village.

Oriana made her way there slowly now, leaning heavily on her walking stick. The village was a ghost town at this time of night; everyone had already gone to sleep. Had Alastrine planned on sleeping at Rowena’s, she would have mentioned it.

Rowena’s cottage looked like all the others save the purple wildflowers woven into a wreath and attached to the door. Oriana knocked softly and walked into the house as familiar to her as her own. Rowena was awake, sitting at the edge of her bed and looking worried. “Oriana?” she asked. “Where’s Alastrine?”

Oriana knew from her expression that Rowena must have had another of her visions of the future, but clearly it had not shown her Alastrine. “What did you see, my dear?” Oriana asked, laying a hand on Rowena’s shoulder.

“I saw only that you were looking for her. Grandmother,” Rowena said, using the term of endearment although they weren’t blood family, “Alastrine was only here for an hour this morning. She never came home?”

Oriana’s heart sank. Alastrine could be in labor somewhere with no one to help her. She had been afraid this would happen. “No,” she breathed. “Rowena, you must help me find her.”

But Rowena was two steps ahead, already pulling on a shawl and racing out the door.

Oriana struggled through the village, wondering where Alastrine could have gone. Part of her couldn’t help but wonder whether, if she found Alastrine, she would finally discover who Alastrine’s secret lover was. She shook her head. Alastrine’s safety was far more important than such a discovery. But she had no idea where to look. She would have imagined that Alastrine would have been either at Rowena’s house or on the path that took her to it. But surely someone would have seen her and helped her home. Where could she be that no one would have noticed her?

That made Oriana change directions, heading toward the edge of the village rather than the center of it. There was an area of land protected by the light of the floating sun orbs where no houses stood. A piece of the nearby river, too, was illuminated, and Oriana had a feeling that was where she would find Alastrine.

Sure enough, as soon as Oriana was within sight of the river, she saw someone crouched at the edge of it. Quiet, shrill sobs and hysterical muttering filled the air. Oriana hurried toward her daughter, ignoring the piercing pain in her hip and knees.

The sound of the rushing water should have calmed her, but Oriana found the river’s whispers frightening as she knelt beside her daughter. Alastrine was soaked through with sweat and shaking, her voice rising and falling unintelligibly. “Alastrine?” Oriana asked.

Alastrine jerked around to look at her, her eyes wide with shock. “Mother!” Her voice was breathy and out of control. “Mother, you must leave now!”

Oriana realized why Alastrine was sitting so awkwardly. Though she couldn’t see it, Alastrine must be holding her newborn, and it seemed she was cleaning the baby in the river. It was not the most intelligent idea Alastrine had ever had, but Oriana much preferred it to the horrible situations that had been forming in her imagination. “Darling, why didn’t you come back home so we could help you?” she asked softly, trying not to spook her further. “Here, let me see her.” Oriana stretched her arms out for the baby.

“No. No, Mother, no.” And, before Oriana could understand what she was seeing, Alastrine savagely plunged the newborn head-first into the water.

Instinct came before thought as Oriana grabbed the child. “Alastrine, what are you thinking?” Oriana shrieked. Alastrine’s frenzied blue eyes met Oriana’s.

Then, as the soaked infant began crying in earnest, Oriana’s question answered itself. Oriana couldn’t stop the gasp. The baby girl had white blonde hair to match her mother’s, dust colored skin, and silver eyes ringed with a coal-black band. It wasn’t possible. It couldn’t be. Where were the blue eyes, the perfect alabaster skin? Even green eyes, or violet, skin the color of a rose or fire, but not this. Oriana could feel the sickly dark mist roiling under the child’s skin, but there too was the light she was so familiar with. What was she?

Oriana was baffled. Could a life be created with the people of darkness? She had never even considered it a possibility. But the product lay before her, squirming but now unnaturally quiet in the breaking dawn. It was an abomination.

The baby felt alien in her hands, but Oriana couldn’t felt she had to protect her from her grasping mother. “It must be destroyed, Mother. It’s evil. You know it’s evil.”

Oriana feared she was right, but aloud she said, “She’s an infant, Alastrine. Your daughter.”

“My mistake!” This was a scream. “But not my daughter. Never my daughter.”

Oriana heard a gasp behind her. “Alastrine!” Rowena’s voice was shrill and panicked. She ran over and fell to her knees at Alastrine’s side, wrapping her arms around her. “Alastrine, I was so afraid.” Alastrine was shaking, and her lips were tinted an alarming shade of blue.

Rowena said nothing when she saw the baby, but her face drained of color. She seemed to grasp what it was more quickly than Oriana had; she looked back and forth between mother and child several times before returning to holding Alastrine tightly in her arms.

Alastrine began to cough, and blood spattered the ground before her. “Alastrine!” Oriana cried, but she dared not get the infant closer to her fragile mother.

“Her name is Liath,” Alastrine said. Oriana couldn’t understand why Alastrine would bother to name the baby that moments before she had been trying to drown in the river. But light was beginning to radiate from Alastrine, and not in a way that gave Oriana comfort. Birthing this child had done something to her. She clearly was no longer acting under her own compulsion.

It seemed the baby wasn’t immune to the effects of the magic, either. Even as her name was spoken, a strange mixture of light and darkness broke through her skin and pooled gently around her. Alastrine stretched her shaking hands toward the infant. “Give her to me, Mother.”

Oriana got to her feet, her view blurred with tears. “No.”

Alastrine was fading fast. She seemed robbed all of her strength, and the light was now fading from her body. Her lovely green eyes were closing with infinite slowness, as though she had all the time in the world to die.

But she didn’t. The sun was coming up in earnest now, and any time, the rest of the village would be waking up and going about their day. “Go, Grandmother,” Rowena said, as though reading her mind. The endearment brought a lump into Oriana’s throat. “Run. The village will kill her if they see her. Perhaps they’re right…”

And perhaps they were. The infant had been born of evil, of Diabahl’s curse. And yet, Oriana felt light in the child. Perhaps she could be taught to fight the darkness inside of her. “I will wait,” Oriana said. “I will not leave my daughter.”

So they waited on the bank of the river as the sun rose and the sun orbs dimmed above them. They waited as Alastrine’s labored breathing sped up and then slowed. She died with a gentle beam of light escaping her and the pain of a thousand lives on her face.

The moment the light left her, a wave of intermingled light and darkness burst forth from Liath and swept through the village, unsettling small objects in its path and leaving everyone with an odd tingling sensation, as though they had all been shocked. Oriana stared at the baby in amazement. The sheer power of the newborn was astounding.

She swallowed. She had to leave now. Anyone in the village who was the least bit sensitive to power would’ve felt the wave and the darkness therein. Rowena was right. If they saw Liath, they would kill her. And suddenly, Oriana felt bizarrely and intensely protective of the baby. This was her granddaughter, her only granddaughter. She wasn’t about to let anything happen to her.

She pulled Liath into her arms and gave Rowena, who was as close to her as a daughter, a kiss on the forehead. “I’m so sorry,” Rowena said softly. “I’m so, so sorry.”

Oriana picked up her walking stick from the ground and twisted her shawl around her the same way she had when Alastrine was a baby, cradling Liath in the soft cloth. Her neck hurt from the awkward sleeping angle and her back protested, but that all seemed unimportant now. She took one moment to look back at the quiet village, lit in gold sunlight with long shadows stretching across the grass. They would find a grove of trees, she supposed. They could forage for food and Oriana could put light in the trees to protect them from the night. Somehow, they would survive. She would not allow herself to ponder it further, for fear that she wouldn’t have the courage. “Good bye,” she murmured softly. With that, she turned her back on everything she had ever known and set her face away from the rising sun.  

“That baby…” My chest ached, and I couldn’t get in a full breath of air. “That baby was me.”

“Yes, my dear. I wish you didn’t have to know. But for you to fight what is within you, you must know what you are.”

I was frozen. “I am darkness.” The statement shuddered through me, and the darkness power that had always lived inside of me seemed to be banging against its prison. I dreaded the day it would break free.

“No, Liath, no.” Grandma’s words were insistent as she grabbed my hands. “You have darkness, Liath, but that is not what you are. You are what you choose to be.”

I couldn’t meet her eyes. Shame coursed through me.

She released one of my hands and put a hand under my chin, forcing me to look at her. “Listen to me, Liath. It is choice, not birth, that determines what you are. You did not choose to have darkness within you, but what you choose to do or not do with it, that is what will make the difference.”

I heard her words, but I couldn’t make sense of them. My head was spinning in a senseless string of images from Grandma’s memory. “My mom tried to drown me. She said I was a mistake…”

Through my hazy vision I saw the tears welling up in Grandma’s eyes. “You are a gift, Liath, not a mistake. You must never believe otherwise, no matter what anyone tells you.” I said nothing, shame a weight in the pit of my stomach. “Promise me!”

The force of her insistence startled me. “I promise,” I said softly.

“You must fight, Liath. You must fight against the darkness inside you. That fight may be more difficult for you than anyone else. But perhaps you are stronger than any of us as well…”

It seemed she was no longer talking to me as she stared off into the distance. I looked at our hands, mine so small in hers. I understood now why my skin looked so dark against hers and why my silver eyes had the black ring around them. Things I had always taken for granted now had entirely new meanings, meanings I wasn’t prepared to handle. “I’m strong,” I whispered to myself. “I’m strong.”

We gathered many more berries than necessary that day, neither of us speaking much. Grandma seemed lost in memories, and I was lost in the kind of identity crisis that my eleven-year-old mind was ill-equipped to handle. Who was I? Was I a creature of light? A creature of darkness? Surely the two forces whose sole aim was obliterate each other couldn’t exist together in one being.

Eventually, my brain couldn’t cope with the stress anymore and I concentrated on finding the ripest raspberries in the bushes. I took far too many, but half of the plumpest ones ended up in my mouth, so it all evened out.

Grandma and I were both so lost in our separate thoughts that we were out foraging much longer than we intended. I hardly paid attention when Grandma found me and grabbed my hand, pulling me in the direction of the clearing. Feeling contrary, I dragged my feet and went as slowly as possible until I finally tripped over a tree root. My hard-earned berries tumbled onto the ground, most of them squished underfoot.
I vaguely heard Grandma making a fuss and stood up, wiping the dirt from my hands. They were scratched, but it didn’t hurt very much. I was more annoyed than in pain. “I’m all right, Grandma, stop it. I just tripped, that’s all.”

“Liath, we must hurry,” Grandma said tensely. “Look how low the sun is in the sky. It’s nearly nightfall. I can’t conjure sun orbs out here, not quickly enough! We have to get back to the camp.”

I looked up through the trees and saw colors racing through the sky. I hadn’t realized it was so late. But now that I was paying attention, I felt the approaching terror that nightfall always brought with it when I wasn\'t under light\'s protection. I felt the uncontrollable urge to run and hide as the shadows lengthened. The evil in me was moving again, too, howling to be let out. I’d had more trouble keeping it locked away recently than I usually did, as the days had been getting shorter and the cold season approached. I had even slipped a few times when Grandma and I had been foraging separately, and little bits of darkness had flitted out of me like sparrows out of a cage. I’d never told Grandma how hard it was getting, but I was sure she could sense the fear that had started to consume me. Now that I knew the reason, I was that much more terrified. Being able to name the source should have helped, but instead, it had given my imagination even more information to use as it spun tales of my demise.

Now I rushed ahead of her, dread keeping my pace quick and my attention sharp. I couldn’t take risks, not now that I knew what I was risking. I ducked in and out of tree branches and over rocks until finally, in the quickly dying light, I spotted the clearing and its glowing orbs. “Come on, Grandma!” I shouted. “The sun’s almost gone!”

When there was no response from behind me, I stopped and turned around. Grandma was on the ground, struggling to get up. Her ornately carved walking stick was several feet away, and her long, flowing silver hair had slipped out of its braid and was pooled on the ground. “Get up, Grandma!” I cried. I ran back and tried to pull her up by the hand.

Grandma finally struggled to her feet, but it was too late. The sun had dipped below the horizon, and full dark was moments away. Grandma ran to the clearing, but I stood rooted to the spot. I thought I saw Night dash across the sky, and then the day was gone. The darkness was alive. It had a voice, a mind. It touched the skin of my bare arms and raised goose bumps along my shoulders. I had never been out in full dark. The darkness called to me with a voice that was sweet and compelling. It called to the evil that lay restless inside me.


Grandma’s terrified voice was only a dream as the night took hold. The night wind showed me things that I had never seen before, and whispered words I had never heard: moon, firefly, star. Images flashed through my mind with such speed I couldn’t contain them all, strange, confused images of light and darkness entangled, of stormy skies and cold winds, of meteor showers and closed doors and whispers lost to the song of the night sky. There were beings around me; for these I had no name, but they closed in with the darkness and its whispered mysteries. They called my name and exuded the darkness power that I had fought for so long. And there were sounds that flowed down into my core and shook the restraints off of the power I struggled to contain. The sounds were cold and hypnotic and mournful and frighteningly beautiful. They quickly overtook the images and filled my mind with an even greater intensity. Music, the darkness told me. That was music. And my darkness, with a wild, desperate kind of joy, rose up to meet them, while my light struggled to remain lit and fight the part of me I most feared.

I felt it when Grandma left the protective glow of the clearing. It was like I could see the whole area, only I was feeling it, through the light and the darkness. Though the shadows that surrounded me did not react when she came closer, I felt more shadows pull themselves out of the night and surround the small, flickering light that was Grandma. My light felt the desperate pull of hers, as well as her weakness, and her fear. Those shadows swirled and grew, as did Grandma’s terror.

That did it. The images whirling through my head reached dizzying speed, the music hit fever pitch, darkness filled the inside of my chest, and my strong white light finally rushed into the night. My darkness, too, broke loose of my choke hold as I shrieked, “Leave my grandmother alone!”

The power hurt as it left, so much had it increased in potency. My vision swirled with a confused mesh of light and darkness all exploding out of me. I was burning, I was frozen, I was flying, I was drowning, all at once as the night exploded with magic. I no longer knew which way was up and which was down, where I was, or even who I was. There was no room left in my mind. There was a bright flash outside of my own, and my power engulfed it.

But then, as quickly as it had started, it stopped. The roaring in my ears, the images, the restlessness, the longing, the fear were all gone. My light and darkness alike subsided, exhausted, back into a neat little compartment somewhere deep inside me. Even the night around me was still. I could still feel its voice and its pull, but it spoke no longer, and the strange shadows had disappeared. Besides my pounding heart, it was utterly silent.

It took a few moments for me to be aware of my surroundings. Grandma was lying in a crumpled heap on the ground, and I had trouble regaining control of my feet. “Grandma?” I whispered, stumbling over to her. “Grandma?”

But she made no noise. The real sign, the one that stopped me cold, was the total, utter absence of light. It was something I had never consciously noticed before the strange increase in my power, but Grandma had always had a faint glow, an inner light that was always there. It was gone.

I wouldn’t have known what it meant, wouldn’t have put the pieces together, but I remembered in Grandma’s memory when my mother’s light, too, had left the earth.

“Nawna,” I whimpered, using a name I hadn’t called her for years. “Nawna, come back.” I fell next to her body. “Nawna, don’t leave me alone.”

The darkness was complete. Even the tree lights in the clearing had gone out. My power had destroyed them.

A horrible realization began to dawn on me. Was that it? “No.” Was that what had killed her? “No!” Grandma had tried to teach me to keep my darkness under control, and in the end, it had won. I had failed. I had killed the only person in the world who loved me. Grandma was wrong. I was a mistake.

My sobs had only just begun to quiet when I heard sounds begin to fill the clearing. They were similar to the ones from before, the sounds of the flying shadows. I pulled the light from inside me into a visible shield like I usually did to keep my darkness from escaping. Maybe it would keep darkness out, too. I lifted my head, shoulders still shaking and face still wet with tears, to discover that those insubstantial shadows from before were again manifesting themselves, this time into recognizably solid figures. I pushed my light out further when I realized that this way, I couldn’t feel their cold, enticing power.

“Get out of here,” I said, but the strength was gone from my voice. The little energy my body had was invested in the shield that now protected me.

The hint of fear in the eyes of the figures disappeared. “Liath?” the man in the front said, startling me. I didn’t know they could speak. And what was more, I certainly couldn’t understand why they knew my name. “Liath, my name is Broin. Your grandmother sent us to help you.”

The man’s voice was kind, but I knew better than to trust a darkling. “Do you think I’m stupid? I know all about you. I know you’re all bad. My grandmother hated all of you, and so do I. You’re not here to help me.” I held tighter to my grandmother’s lifeless body, despite knowing that if they wanted to take me, there was nothing I could do to stop them.

One of the other darklings made a threatening sound and moved forward, but the one in front put out a hand and he fell silent. “Night said she must remain unharmed,” the man in front murmured, his slightly graying mustache bouncing above his mouth.
The name knocked the wind out of me like a punch to the stomach.
“Night?” I stammered the name, barely able to get it past my lips. “He’s… he’s… coming here…?” A different fear than before filled me, a fear this time that was about something very definite.

“No. You’re going there.” The mustache bounced again, looking much less sinister than the voice sounded. “He’s got quite an interest in you, little missy. You may end up being pretty valuable to him one day.”

I shook my head hard, fear making it hard to move my muscles. “No. No, I’m not going. Leave me alone.” I was trembling harder now, from fear as well as grief. I never wanted to meet Night, never wanted to get within miles of that much evil. The only thing I could think of that would be worse was meeting Diabahl, and I doubted that was even possible in this world.

“Yes, you are. You and I both know you haven’t got any more power left in that little body of yours to scare us off. So either you come with us like a good girl, or we make you come.”

As afraid as I was, I would never let one of them lay a hand on me. If I had to go, I could at least go without being touched by the evil ones. “I’m sorry, Grandma,” I murmured again, trying not to think about the depth of the horrors this night held for me. I stood up, unable to stop my trembling. “Eleoh, please protect me. I’m sorry.”

The man—was his name Broin?—peered up into the sky. “We don’t have time enough to make it there on foot. Flying would be more practical. I’d rather not have to hide out here in the daylight.”

He didn’t have to say anything else before the edges of all the rest of them began to blur into the night. I knew I could probably do it, too, but I kept my feet firmly on the ground. I wasn’t going to start betraying my grandmother now. Not now, not ever.

“My threats are not empty,” Broin said. “Come.”

I shook my head. “You can force me to come with you, but you can’t force me to be part of the darkness. I won’t!” As if in response to my words, my light glowed even more brightly. It did that sometimes when I was emotional.

Broin shielded his eyes with a broad hand. “Very well. But make haste. Night doesn’t like to be kept waiting, and nor do I.” And with that, he turned and began to walk.
I had to trot to keep up with the tall man’s long strides. The darklings at my back stopped me from slowing; I wanted to be as far away from them as possible. The world before me was a blur. The tears streaked down my face and flooded my soul. The terror the darklings instilled within me was muffled by the overwhelming sorrow and the hole inside of me where my grandmother’s love had been. Nothing mattered anymore but making sure that I did what Grandma would have wanted.

Night’s castle rose up out of the horizon like some grotesque monster. It had taken us two grueling nights of traveling to reach it. We had hidden during the day; I hadn’t been able to keep from hoping that on his daily journey bringing the light of morning across the sky, Day would swoop down and deliver me from the cold, cruel darklings. But Broin hid us well and at the end of the second night, we arrived at the castle with, unfortunately, little incident.

By this point, the shock had dulled enough that my fear returned clear and strong. I was shaking hard as we made our way through the enormous, heavy wrought-iron gates. The gates swung closed behind us noiselessly. As we entered the castle itself, I realized it wasn’t just the gates: everything here was unnaturally quiet. Conversation hummed through the air at the lowest of volumes. I didn’t have much experience with social situations since we lived as nomads, but Grandma and I had always talked loudly and laughed louder. And in her memories, conversation had always been at a higher volume than this. The quiet here buzzed in my ears.

The hall near the entrance was filled with wooden tables where the castle’s inhabitants were eating something that smelled like stew. I was shocked by their numbers. There were hundreds upon hundreds of darklings assembled in the large hall. Though our entrance had made little noise, almost every one of them was staring at me.

I looked away as Broin led me forward, but I could feel the cold, hate-filled stares of the darklings on me as I passed them. Even the quiet conversation ceased, and the silence was so thick that I jumped when Broin cleared his throat. It was a small sound, but somehow powerful, and immediately conversation once again filled the hall.

Broin led me up a wide staircase onto a floor shrouded almost completely in darkness. Rather than enter the main hall, we turned a sharp right and walked down the length of the balcony to a door hidden in the shadows. Broin opened the door and gestured me inside with a smirk.

The moment I was inside the room, he closed the door behind me. I forced my light to shine brighter as I backed up to the door, my instincts screaming at me to run. But there was nowhere to go.

The darkness in this room was again alive, but in a more concentrated form than it had been in the clearing. It writhed with energy that made the hair on my arms stand up and my stomach tie itself in knots. As I pushed my light brighter still, I could make out the outline of a four-poster bed hung with black gossamer, but I could penetrate no more of the thick, unnatural darkness.

Then, all at once, the temperature dropped and my light went out. I fell to my hands and knees, shaking. Where had my power gone? And what were they planning on doing to me?
“So you’re Liath,” came a voice out of the darkness. No, not out of the darkness. The voice belonged to the darkness. “You kept me waiting. I’m sure Broin told you that I don’t like to wait.”

Cold sweat broke out on my forehead. It was Night. Night was in this room with me, forcing my light down. This was a scene that I had never imagined, not in my ugliest of nightmares.

This darkness wasn’t beautiful and tempting as it had been in the glen. That element was there, somewhere, but drowning it out was an overwhelming sense of fear. Fear like nothing I had ever felt before, not even when the darklings had come for me. It was like when I had been pulled under the current in the river and had been unable to so much as change position, only a million times worse. It was fear that made my muscles twitch and my hands shake and made me want to run and run and never stop running. My imagination ran through countless horrible scenarios of what Night would do to me as I knelt helpless on the ground before him.

“This will be your new home.” I heard him sneer on the word. “If you wish not to enter this room again, you will do exactly as I tell you when tell you. Is that clear?”

I couldn’t speak through the blinding terror. I tried desperately to force my light to return, to reclaim some part of my sanity, but both were cowering deep inside me, away from the demon manifested before me.

“Good,” Night said. “Now stand up.” I complied. The darkness was thinner now, and I could see his silhouette. He was tall, broad-shouldered, but lean, and looked as though he could snap me in half with no effort at all. His eyes seemed somehow to glow with blackness. I looked away.

He put a hand under my chin and forced me to look at him. The physical contact caused the fear to spike so that I almost bolted. At the same time, I couldn’t move. “You are mine now,” he hissed. “Don’t you ever think otherwise. You are to put every effort into your training, or I will force you to improve. Sleep now. Your training starts at dusk.” And with that, he disappeared. The crippling sense of fear lifted, and I crumpled to the ground. But Broin returned to lead me to my quarters, and I forced the tears back. I would cry when I was alone. I wouldn’t let these creatures see me cry.

I tried to muffle my sobs with the dirty pillow. I had been here for three years, and every day, I seemed to get more hopeless. I ought to have lost all emotion by now, I thought. I had gotten better at feigning indifference, but every so often, it all came crashing down on me when I was alone in the dark. This was one of those times.

I felt a hand on my shoulder and I jerked into a sitting position, startled. Behind me sat Broin. He drew his hand back.

“Get out of here,” I snarled, scraping the tears from my face with the heel of my palm. Then I remembered that that wasn’t generally an accepted way to greet one of my instructors. I gritted my teeth. “Can I help you?”

Broin cleared his throat. “Liath…” He stopped and seemed to look past me. “I was wondering if you wanted to go shoot a few more arrows. I know the sun’s risen, but that means that no one else is on the practice field.” He cocked an eyebrow at me. “Unless, of course, you’re too tired after training today.” It sounded like a challenge.

“I’m fine.” Why was he offering to do this for me? Was it a trap of some kind? What could he possibly gain? On the other hand, I couldn’t see anything I had to lose. We were going out into the sunlight, after all. And, truth be told, I knew I could use the practice. “Fine. Let’s go.”

I hadn’t taken off my training garments before collapsing onto my cot, so I had only to get my bow and quiver of arrows from their hooks near the door. The torches in the halls were even dimmer than usual. Nearly all of the darklings were asleep.

The moment Broin and I stepped outside, I felt monumentally better. My eyes stopped stinging, my stomach stopped churning, and my mind sang when I was touched by the first sunlight I had seen since the day I had been brought to this awful place. The air smelled of warmth and crickets and morning glories. Dew glistened on the grass. I fell to my knees and thanked for the sun and the day, which I had all but forgotten existed.

“Don’t just sit there groveling on the ground!” Broin barked. “There are arrows to be shot and targets to be hit! How the hell do you expect to do that while you’re three feet tall?”

I scowled and complied.

At Broin’s order, I strung the child-sized bow that had been given me—fourteen was still by far a child in this place—and cocked an arrow. I pulled back, sighting down to one of the targets.

“No, no, no!” I released the tension in the string. “Are you stone deaf? That’s not how you cock an arrow!” I hadn’t noticed that he had a thin veil of darkness around him, like I did with light. He was squinting in the bright sun.

I was just standing there looking at him as he walked over. “Well?” he asked. “The arrow! Let me show you how it’s done!”

I sighed and cocked the arrow again, pulling my right hand and the bowstring back to my shoulder.

Broin smacked my right arm and I almost loosed the arrow by accident. “Arm up, Liath! It’ll never go anywhere that way! That’s right, hand up by your ear. And widen your stance! You’ll blow over like a leaf that way.” He gave me a bit of a shove as I shifted my weight, and as he’d predicted, I went down hard. I landed on my right shoulder and the arrow flew into the ground.

I got up, dusted myself off, and picked up my arrow from the pile of leaves it had landed in. “Just let me shoot one,” I pled, exasperated.

Broin just looked at me. “So shoot one.”

He didn’t need to tell me twice. I let one fly as quickly as I could, afraid he would interfere again. He didn’t. The arrow missed the target completely.

“For the love of Eleoh above and Diabahl below!” Broin was back to yelling. I grimaced. “Just look at your stance. I must have been teaching your twin for the past three years.”

Annoyed as I was at his heckling, I knew he was right. My feet were together and I’d brought my hand up only to my shoulder. I slid another arrow out of the quiver on my back and cocked it. This time, I remembered to widen my stance and bring my arm up.

“Two fingers on the bowstring! Not one, not three! You can count to two, I hope!”

I took my third finger off the bowstring. I was beginning to realize how little I’d paid attention while he was teaching. Or while anyone was teaching, really. I refused to use their power and planned on escaping soon, so what did it matter? But now I realized that it mattered a good deal. How did I ever expect to escape if I didn’t know what I was up against?
My right arm was quivering, but I let the arrow go anyway, intentionally this time. The arrow lacked power—it bounced the off target rather than piercing it—but it flew straight and true. It hit the ring outside the bull’s eye.

To my surprise, Broin nodded. “That is how you shoot an arrow. And that is what you’ll be doing any other time you hold that bow. Understood?” I looked at him, half surprised and half irritated. “I said, understood?” The force of his yell blew my hair back, and I inclined my head as little as I could get away with. “Then, in we go.”

I felt a little vindictive satisfaction when we stepped inside; Broin’s face held an expression of obvious relief at returning to the darkness. Now he knew how I felt.

He escorted me to my quarters. As he was leaving he said, “Liath, you’re going to be a very decent archer.” The compliment caught me by surprise. His next remark surprised me even more. “And… I would appreciate it if you wouldn’t mention that to Night. Strictly speaking, I’m not… That is, you can’t… Well, that’s off the record.” And with that, he shut the door.

I let out a surprised laugh in spite of myself. What a strange night.
As I got into my nightclothes, I was deep in thought. I had looked at all of my time here wrong. It wasn’t enough to simply get through my days while waiting for escape. I had to learn everything I could without compromising myself. I was in the enemy’s base camp learning their own techniques. I had to build up every skill I could so that I would be strong enough, eventually, to hold them off long enough to run away. And strengthened by the sunlight and my new realization, it seemed to me that that day might not be too far off.

I remember hearing ludicrous stories in my childhood about the thirteen levels of Hell, stories created to keep lightlings in line and remind them to share and tell the truth and do what their parents said. Now, having reached 19 years of age, I knew better. No, Hell had only seven floors.

I was on the third floor now in the main hall in the middle of a hellish storm. My leather warrior’s suit was plastered to me by the rain and my long braid whipped around my head. I was braced against the wall trying to return to my feet: the wind had knocked me over time and again, and I couldn’t gain any ground this way. Light began to flicker over my skin in response to the storm overhead, but I pulled the power back inside of me as quickly as I could. Night considered me using my light power to be cheating. I wouldn’t have cared, but he had recently taken a liking to dropping me on the seventh floor and watching me scream for a while when I cheated. I would rather take on the storm with no power than the seventh floor with all the power in the world.

A twister plucked me right off the floor and tossed me up in the air like a ragdoll. I slammed my head into the arched ceiling and felt a wetness slightly more viscous than the rain begin to flow down my face. Wonderful. As if I needed any more head wounds.

I blinked my eyes a few times to rid them of stars and grabbed on to a beam in the ceiling as the wind fell away again. I looked down at the ground. It was far, but I could probably land on my feet. I just didn’t want to run the risk of breaking my ankles and being really stuck.

A storm was brewing in my chest, longing to take hold of the storm around me, but I forced the power down once again. I wouldn’t give in to using my powers of darkness, not even in the worst of circumstances, and this certainly wasn’t the worst. Though I had never tried controlling a storm, I guessed that if I wanted to, I could probably calm this one enough to at least let me escape through the stairway. Unfortunately, the cost was just too steep.

As I clung to the ceiling, the storm came to another climax and golf-ball-sized hail began to pelt me as I struggled to maintain my grip. My hands were sweaty and soaked, though, and my face was getting battered, so I took my chances and dropped.

As luck would have it, any wind that would have cushioned my landing disappeared and I fell straight down, landing, as I knew I would, painfully on my feet. I could taste blood now, and I wondered whether it was coming from the gash in my head or the many wounds I knew now decorated my face. My ankles hurt horribly, but they didn’t feel broken.

An enormous crack rang through the hall as the beam I had been holding onto moments before dislodged itself from the ceiling. As it fell straight towards me, I jumped into the air and, with the foot that hurt less, kicked the beam as hard as I could. Although a seemingly impermeable mist surrounded me, I knew intuitively where the stairs were. The beam flew toward those stairs and, as I ran after it, shielded me from the worst of the winds. It hit the wall at an angle. Before the winds were able to kick up again, I leapt behind it into the stairwell.

Without the strange gray mist, this floor, the second, seemed darker than the third had been. I took my bow off of my shoulder and strung it as I descended. This was the only floor that was designed to require no magic, only physical strength. That I could supply.

I crouched with my back against a wall as I tried to get my bearings. The stairs had brought me, as they sometimes did, into the main hall. I struggled to see through the sticky mist that clung to much of this floor, darker and more impenetrable than the mist upstairs. It hung blackly between me and the stairwell on the other end of the hall, and I heard a low growling coming from somewhere inside it. I leaned forward a bit and deftly grasped an arrow from the quiver slung across my back. In one fluid motion, I stood up and fit the arrow to my bowstring. There was no movement in the mist.

I took a careful step forward into the black mist. The darkness pressed against me, insistent and distracting. “Leave me alone,” I murmured, trying to keep my eyes open for any hint of movement, though I felt entirely blind. The blackness shifted but that offered no relief: somehow everything became more obscured, more confused. There was another growl, this time from behind me. The hackles on my neck rose and I spun around. I was the hunter here, I reminded myself, not the hunted. Or at least, I hoped so.

My light power twisted and writhed under my skin, close to the surface, wanting to break through and fight the darkness, but I forced it down. It wouldn’t do to reveal myself now. I couldn’t see the beast, but nor could it see me. Night wouldn’t allow it to kill me, but I healed too quickly for him to have any problems with injuring me further. If my sense of direction wasn’t failing me, the beast was no longer between me and the stairway, so if I was careful, I might be able to make it out without a fight. It would certainly be a first.

Bow still taut and ready to fire, I took a cautious step backward. I was surprised to feel my heel catch on something on the floor and I went crashing backwards on top of my quiver, feeling something in it crack. I cursed loudly. Now there was no doubt that the thing knew where I was.

Sure enough, the darkness power that the beast exuded came toward me in a rush. I tried to get to my feet, but the dark mist just chuckled louder and held me down. Damn it all, I had tripped on the mist. I could hear the beast gnashing what my imagination decided were great, serrated, rotting teeth about to sink into my throat. Still the darkness held me fast, and I smiled grimly. Night was cheating. If that was the way he wanted it, so be it. I could fight fire with fire.

I had made my decision a split second too late. The beast dove on top of me . Its teeth were no longer left to my imagination as they clamped onto my bare shoulder. I screamed aloud, something I fought not to ever do, and shut my eyes for the split second I needed. I mentally tugged on the fire dancing just beneath my skin. The flames gushed out of every pore in my body, spreading warmth over my tired skin.
Mere light wouldn’t have touched this beastie, but it leapt up from the inferno with a demonic hissing sound. The dark mist let go of me, but I could feel its displeasure as I pulled myself to my feet. Night could do what he wished with me; I had had enough. I turned on my heel and dashed toward the staircase, my lightning parting the darkness before me. The stairwell was nothing more than a softly illuminated hole in the floor, but I leapt into it. I used few of the stairs, bounding rather than stepping, happy to be out of total darkness.

I landed in a crouch and stayed there, senses on high alert. Still I held my bow aloft. I surveyed my surroundings, and was unnerved to find that I could feel the floor. Usually, this floor was an illusion of darkness and lack of substance, designed to make me give into the darkness and fly through it. The floor was there, though I usually couldn’t sense it. The fact that I seemed to be standing only in a dark room was disturbing.

What was rather more disturbing was the figure standing motionless in the shadows. He hid his power well, but I had known him for too long not to notice it.

I stuck my chin out stubbornly and tried to hide my fear. I would not be the first to speak. He could break the silence when it suited him. I had nothing to say to him. He had cheated first.

The silence stretched on, an uncomfortable silence. I could feel his eyes on me, though I stayed in the light away from his living shadows. He played the game well, making no motion or noise, but I could play, too. Long ago it had been when I lost the necessity for constant motion and constant noise. I could stand now for what seemed an eternity without shifting weight or twitching my taut muscles. It was a battle of wits, and mine were sharp. I could never win, however, for we played by Night’s rules.

“I had thought for a while that you were learning something from me, my dear. Clearly I was wrong.”

The statement irked me, as did the address he used, but I said nothing. I would not rise to his bait.

“I gave you one simple task,” he continued, his deep voice slow and precise in the darkness. “Escape. Like you’ve done so many times before. Escape without using light. It is not a difficult request, Liath. It should not be even a challenge for one like you. And yet you failed. What is even more worrisome is that you failed deliberately because you are too much of a coward to succeed. You did not even try, Liath, and yet you expect me to let you continually ignore my requests and keep on teaching you my secrets.”

I kept my voice controlled, neutral. “I expect nothing.”

“I should punish you.”

“But you won’t.”

“Won’t I?”

I shuddered inwardly at his dangerous tone but stayed defiant. If nothing else, I understood the way he worked. “If you were planning on punishing me, you would do it rather than talking about it. There has never been any warning: you’ve always put me on the seventh floor and been done with it. Clearly, you want something from me, and perhaps you should stop talking around it, because I daresay you enjoy our little chats about as much as I do.”

My circle of light went out. “I’m afraid you’re wrong about that particular point, my dear,” Night’s voice said. I closed my eyes and concentrated on the ball of light inside me, trying to ignore the darkness pressing against my skin. “I rather enjoy our little conversations, despite the fact that they tend to be under unpleasant circumstances. You are a puzzle. I have watched you grow from an ignorant child who fears the darkness to a young woman who hates it even more than she fears it. Every time I believe I understand how to change your mind, you react in a way I don’t expect. You are stubborn, intelligent and yet somehow more afraid of yourself than of anything else.”

I kept my eyes closed and spoke softly. “You speak of trying to change my mind, but did you ever once try being kind to me or giving me a reason to disbelieve the stories I had heard for so long? I’ve seen too much of you, of all of you. All you have given me is corroboration of what I have always known. I’ve seen too much to ever change my mind.”

The whispers along my skin grew sharper. “You have seen nothing.” Night’s tone was the same as before, but somehow the words hissed on the air. “You have seen nothing because you will allow yourself to see nothing. You think that you know the nature of everything without ever having experienced anything but what you were given as a child. You have never grown up. Which is why I am willing to make a deal.”

Though the darkness remained, the whispers on my skin subsided. I couldn’t help but open my eyes in suspicion. “Why don’t I believe you?”

Night’s chuckle, low and deep, floated through the air. “Because you have spent too much time with my darklings. But I give you my word. No deceit, no lies, no fine print. I will release you from here and never again seek you out if you do but one thing for me.”

Too good to be true, I though wryly. “And what might that be?”

“Use your power. All of it. Allow me one day to coax out your potential, without you holding anything back. Experience all of what you were meant to experience.” The darkness had a voice and a texture again, and this time it was coaxing. It brushed lightly along my skin, inviting me to dip into its power, its magic, the music it carried through the night.

My throat was suddenly dry. “You mean for me to use my darkness.”


My heart began beating harder, but I was an expert at hiding my emotions. “This is something you’ve been asking of me since I came here. Why would my answer change now?”

“There has never been this much at stake. You know how much your freedom means to you, as do I. You think that by escaping this place, you can escape who you are, but I am afraid that is simply not the case. However, this is not my decision to make. It is yours. I simply wish that you will give a fair chance to the night before you forever return to the day.”

I was unconvinced. “What changed? Why are you suddenly so desperate? I thought you could force me to do whatever you wanted with a little bit of that power of yours.”

Mocking him was never a particularly good idea. He raised his hand to slap me, and I steeled myself. But the blow never came. “You are not the girl I once thought you were,” Night mused. “You do not learn in the same way as my darklings, but nor do you necessarily think in the same way as the lightlings. I underestimated both your uniqueness and your stubbornness.” He lowered his hand with a look of resignation. “You and I both know that this is the only way we will break out of this stalemate. Losing you is a gamble I’m willing to make.”

“Why should I believe that’s true? I know that I’m valuable to you. You wouldn’t just let me go.”

Suddenly, a dim light illuminated the room, though I couldn’t discern its origin. Night, who had before been at least a few yards from me, was now inches in front of me, between me and the stairway to the ground floor. A small smile rested on his face. “I wouldn’t have to. You need no more training about the ways of the light, but darkness is an unexplored mystery. You would want to learn all you could of it; of this I’m sure. The darkness is more beautiful than you could possibly imagine, and it is a part of who you are. You would not leave.”

His powers were manifesting themselves around him. The deep, deep brown of his skin looked black in the soft light, and his eyes, true black, were nearly impossible to ignore, though I did my best. It was like looking a black hole in the face. Even light didn’t escape.
My mouth tasted like twilight air, like moonlight and fireflies, like wind and storms and whispered secrets, things I had never experienced myself, except in the confines of my lessons. I had tasted it before, though, and the memory of it cleared my head and unfroze my body. “My answer remains the same.” I tore my eyes away and walked around him. I could feel his eyes on my back as I descended the stairs, but the room behind me remained silent.

The stairway opened up into a grand staircase entering the dining hall, looking as though it led to the upper levels of a palace or a mansion, rather than the places of torture it really concealed.

The dining hall was relatively bustling, as loud as it ever got, since it was lunchtime. Quiet, dark-sounding conversations filled the hall and nearly every corner was dimly illuminated by flickering torchlight.

In spite of the unease that filled me like a poison, my stomach rumbled when I smelled the food cooking in the dining hall. “Food” was something of a loose term: I had enjoyed the thick, hearty stew when I had first come, but after eight years of consuming the same meal three times a day, food was fuel now rather than something to be enjoyed. It seemed that way throughout Night’s domain. That is, except for his personal meals. I had shared a few of those and the stew was, by far, the lesser of the two evils.

I silently placed myself behind the line of quietly chattering darklings and took one of the roughly hewn wooden bowls from the enormous stack. Though the noise and commotion surrounded me, I was entirely separate from it. I was vaguely aware of the warm stew that was filling my bowl and of my echoing footsteps as I walked toward my customary table, but I could still taste the night on my tongue. The memory of the night of my grandmother’s death was as fresh and painful as though it had happened only yesterday. That was the memory that had stopped me from taking Night at his word. That was the memory that reminded me who I was and what I had to do.

I was so caught up in the memory that I nearly didn’t notice when the screaming started. But the sound forced me out of my reminiscences. Another captive, I supposed. Someone else to store in the seventh floor alongside the others. Another lightling who would never see the sun again.

I tried not to look, but, like they always did, the screams drew my eyes. She appeared in the door flanked by two darkling warriors who were all but dragging her by her arms. A two-darkling guard was customary for most prisoners, I had learned. Not like the many darklings who had come for me.

It startled me how young the girl was. She couldn’t have been older than twelve or thirteen. Her short sunshine-yellow hair stuck out in all directions, and her frenzied violet eyes clung to my contrast with the darklings around me.

Again, I tried and failed to look away. She caught my eyes, then, and locked them. My bet was that if she had seen me by myself, she would have panicked. But now, when I looked more like her than anyone else here, her eyes were full of desperation and pleading.

This was why I hated when they made eye contact. I broke away, staring shamefacedly down at the floor. If I really believed I could stall her guards long enough for her to get away, I would have done it, even knowing that it would probably mean a trip to the seventh floor. I had tried that once, when I hadn’t been here long. I had attacked the guards of several prisoners, desperate for them, at least, to be free, but I was sorely outnumbered. It had always ended worse for the prisoners. Now I could only wallow in guilt even as I knew there was nothing I could do. Wallow in guilt and be almost glad, for once, that mine had been a special case.

“What happened to you?”

I blinked, dazed. It was hard to pull my attention away from the screaming lightling, even as she went up the stairs and her screams faded. I pushed back the residual vulnerability from my thoughts and scowled. The darkling that was speaking to me looked familiar—I recognized all of them by now—but I’d never spoken to him before. I shrugged. “Same thing that happens to everyone else.” I turned to go.

The darkling put a hand on my arm to stop me, and I jerked away. He looked about my age, perhaps a bit younger. His skin was a deep, midnight blue and his eyes were black. “I’ve got an open seat at my table over there,” he said, gesturing behind him.

I blinked. “Why are you talking to me?”

The boy crossed his arms. “Because I want to. Is that a crime?”

I sighed. “Night put you up to this, didn’t he? Well, tell him that I’m not listening to any more sales pitches.”

“Why is she the only one you talk to?” the boy asked, nodding his head toward Aithne sitting obliviously at a table a few yards away.

I shrugged again. “Because if I didn’t talk to someone, I’d go insane. More insane.” I wanted to stop talking. Blood was starting to run into my eye and the various bruises all over me were throbbing painfully. I could feel that my body was already starting to heal itself, but that just made everything more painful. My ankles, especially, felt like they were ready to give out.

“Maybe you wouldn’t hate all of us so much if she wasn’t the only one you talked to,” he spat. His obvious contempt for Aithne surprised me a little. Then he smirked. “Come play Scream with us. Unless you’re too afraid, of course.”

I rolled my eyes. Darklings could manipulate and create fear and paranoia in others. To amuse themselves, two darklings would often compete by increasing the fear in each other and seeing who would give up first. They seemed to get a thrill out of the fear and adrenaline. It was a game I had never understood. “No, thank you.” As much as I would’ve liked like to show this darkling exactly how unafraid I was, it probably wouldn’t be a good idea, especially not in my current state. Besides, although I could defend myself, I couldn’t do any damage without using darkness. I turned to go.

The darkling grinned. “My name’s Kirwin, in case you change your mind.” Before I could see what he was doing, he pulled some darkness into his fingertips and zapped my arm with it.

I gritted my teeth and tried not to show any reaction as he walked away. It hadn’t hurt, exactly, but I hated the way it felt. He had probably guessed as much. It was a new one—I had never met anyone who could do that with just straight darkness. The group of darklings he returned to began to laugh quietly and glance at me. I walked back to the table where Aithne was sitting.

“You get lost?” Aithne asked. As if she hadn’t just heard the whole exchange.

I glared at her. “Yes, Aithne, I completely zoned out and got lost in the twenty feet between the lunch line and the table.”

The darkling across the table from me gave a smug smile at my irritation. “I suppose too much time with Night does tend to make people have a hard time coming back to reality. But usually they’re not quite so reluctant as you.”

I bit back my scathing retort. It would be no use. Aithne knew how I felt about Night, but she didn’t seem to care. It seemed that Aithne existed only to make people uncomfortable and laugh at the resulting chaos; thus, she stayed with me, the only one in the whole place who regretted being here. For me, though, she was someone to talk to. As little as I liked her, I knew Aithne wouldn’t repeat anything I said to anyone else: Aithne, by her own admission, enjoyed watching me fight an uphill battle. It was an odd relationship; I knew that either of us would kill the other as soon as look at her if the circumstances arose. But, so far, they had not.

“I think it’s funny he tried to talk to you,” she said, stirring around the stew in her bowl.

Her definition of funny and my definition of funny weren’t the same thing. “Why’s that?”

She laughed. “Because he loves going after girls. Now that you’ve rejected him, he isn’t going to leave you alone.”

I took a bite of stew, feeling the hot prickling on my face and head and arms as my cuts knit themselves back together. “He’s going to have to, because I’m not playing along. He really ought to have known better.” I paused. “It’s funny, that’s the first time anyone’s spoken to me without a specific reason to in years.” I glanced at Aithne. “Besides you.”

Aithne laughed. It was an unpleasant sound. “Someone starting to feel lonely and dejected?” she asked, smirking at me.

I was immediately on the defensive. “No. I just think it’s funny that they’re all so afraid of me, that’s all.”

Aithne snorted. “Sure. Just tell Mr. High-and-Mighty over there that. He’s really terrified.”

I looked over at the table not too far away where Kirwin sat, laughing quietly about something. As though he knew I was looking at him, he immediately turned around and winked at me.

My cheeks burned. “He will be.” Fire leapt into my fingertips, but I quenched it. Violence here and now probably wasn’t the best idea.

Aithne licked her lips and followed where my gaze had been. “I’d love to see him fight. You decide to attack him, you’d better let me know.”

I rolled my eyes. “Not going to happen. I’m not that stupid.”

We sat in silence for a while, Aithne uncharacteristically lacking in taunts and me lost in thought about what had occurred on the second floor. Goosebumps rose on my skin as I recalled the darkness that had held me down, and my anger burned anew. I tried to distract myself, and my eyes lighted on one of the enchanted flickering torches. “Aithne, why do darklings need torches?” It seemed that darklings could use darkness to see with their power but needed light to see with their eyes, though much less than lightlings needed. That had always bothered me.

Aithne smirked at me. “Why do lightlings have shadows?”

Now I was just more irritated, unable to quit thinking about what Night had done. “What’s the highest floor you’ve been to?”

“The sixth. He doesn’t use the seventh for training. It’s supposed to be inescapable except for him. That’s why it’s the dungeon.” It wasn’t as though I didn’t know that already. For that matter, it wasn’t as though I hadn’t experienced it myself enough to brand it painfully into my mind. She could be so condescending sometimes. “Granted, the sixth itself is enough of a pain, though. Why?”

I shook my head. “It doesn’t make any sense. Why train me if he won’t let me use my power? When I used it, I got up to the fifth, but I can barely get out of the third floor without it…”

Aithne cocked an eyebrow. “He won’t let you use power? It’s impossible without it.” She sounded skeptical.

My discomfort was giving way to frustration. “He won’t let me use my light. And then he… cheats.” Now I felt juvenile. “He wouldn’t let me get out of the second floor today. He held me down. He was provoking me.”

“Held you down? As in, brought in more darkness?”

I nodded.

Aithne snorted into her stew. “I knew he played favorites, but that is disgusting. He was offering you help, Liath, and you didn’t even take it. What’s wrong with you?”

“What are you talking about? Did you not hear me? He wouldn’t let me leave and I couldn’t defend myself. How is that helping?”

Aithne shook her head, looking disgusted. “He’s handing you everything. The rest of us have to use darkness to get out, Liath, and so do you. He’s giving you more. Manipulate it! Eleoh knows you have a higher capacity for that than most of us do. He can’t let you use light when the rest of us don’t, not if he actually wants to train you. It’s no one’s fault but yours if you’re too stubborn to take what he teaches you. If I had that much private training time with Night…” Aithne smiled. “Well, let’s just say I’d be doing something more productive than sitting here chatting.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m not here to abandon everything I’ve ever been taught. I’m not here to give in to my darkness.”

“Then what are you here for?” Aithne’s eyes bored into me. “Just because you’ve resisted him for eight years doesn’t mean you’re safe.” She smiled suddenly. “Everyone breaks eventually.”

My imagination was running away with me. What if I consented? What if, just for one day, I looked the other way and allowed the darkness in me to have its way? The idea filled me with unbearable sadness at the idea of showing such weakness. But he was right—freedom meant more to me than anything. Freedom from the castle and the darklings and the constant pressure and isolation. I would be free to ignore my darkness for the rest of my existence. And wouldn’t that be better? If I was going to break anyway, wouldn’t choosing it now cause less damage in the end?

I shook my head. “Eleoh won’t let me fall, Aithne. Eleoh will give me strength.”

Aithne smirked. “You know, Night thinks Eleoh’s on his side, too.”

“You disagree?”

“It’s more that I just don’t care. It makes no difference to me.”

I sighed. “Nothing makes any difference to you.” The gloomy bell rang out the signal for the end of the lunch break, and I stood up, pushing back my wooden bench and taking my bow from it. I took my bowl to a different stack, this one for dirty dishes. I was scheduled for archery now on the practice ranges. It was the only time I was ever allowed outside, and of course, it was during the very darkest part of the night.

As I walked down the long, dank, dim hallway, I cloaked myself with a layer of light. It was too exhausting to keep up my shield all the time, but I did use it when I left the castle. I hadn’t been completely exposed to the night since the night of my grandmother’s death, and I wasn’t about to change that now.

I glowed like a small star as I stepped out into the cool, dark night. As much as I hated the night and the darkness, I had to admit the fields were somewhat beautiful. My light reflected off the dewy blades of grass and a soft wind, kept devoid of any disturbing power by my light shield, swept over my thirsty skin.

Unfortunately, my glow also made me an easy target for “stray” arrows. A quiet whistling pierced the air and I sidestepped the arrow without thinking about it. I looked for the source and was unsurprised to find the archery instructor scowling at me through the darkness, his bow still strung in front of him. “Put out that light, Liath! How are you supposed to be stealthy if you’re the only damned thing we can see?”

I smiled to myself. Broin was the only darkling I knew who could be loud and obnoxious, but he was also the stealthiest one I had met when he needed to be. They always spoke of how indispensible he was in battle, and he was one of the only darklings who could sneak up on me. “No light, no archery practice,” I responded, just as I did every night.

Broin’s scowl deepened and he said gruffly, “Well, at least tone it down a little. You’re ruining my night vision.” That was a laugh. I couldn’t ruin his night vision if I tried.

I complied, dimming how much light spilled out of me by nearly half. I had purposely made it brighter than I needed. It was another battle of wits, but this one had a script and was well rehearsed. I knew better than to think that Broin was predictable, though: it was all a façade.

At last, I joined the gathered darklings, many of whom were a few years older than me, some a few years younger. Most didn’t even spare me a second glance. They, too, knew how the game went.

I hadn’t realized that Kirwin was in my group of archers. Why hadn’t I known that? He caught me looking at him and winked again. I flushed and looked away.

“Let’s have some target practice for the first half an hour or so,” Broin said. “And then I’ve got a surprise for you later on.” The glee in his voice worried me.

We all took up our usual stations. Or at least, that was what I thought. Except I was sure that I would have noticed Kirwin if he was usually standing just to the left of me. He strung his bow, a long, gracefully arched swoop of some dark wood I couldn’t name, and grinned at me. “So what do you think all that was about a surprise?”

I ignored him completely as I strung my bow. I took a little bit of comfort in the routine of it, the sounds and feelings that I knew so well. I might not feel at home in the castle, but I felt at home with a bow in my hands.

“Of course, considering Broin’s brand of ‘stealth,’ his idea of a surprise might be a bit different than ours.” I didn’t like the way he said “ours.”

“Oh, really?” Broin’s deep voice from behind me made me jump, and I cursed. With my light shield up, I couldn’t tell when one of them snuck up on me. And Broin was difficult to detect, anyway.

Kirwin laughed easily, and I glared at him, unsure who he was laughing at. He cocked an arrow and pulled back, looking as though he exerted barely any effort. “Just a joke, sir. We all know that you’re scarier than any of us.” He let the arrow go.

I was shocked that Broin didn’t say anything, but it may just have been because Kirwin wasn’t being entirely sarcastic. Kirwin’s arrow buried itself in the bull’s-eye. Not that impressive, really, from the distance he was shooting at.

I cocked an arrow and shot it into my target, pretending the bull’s-eye was Kirwin’s smirk. My arrow whistled through the air, exactly where I wanted it. Just at the last moment, it swerved and missed by a fraction of an inch.

I rolled my shoulders back, trying to loosen a bit of the tension that was seated there. I was blazing again, so I dimmed my light a little, too. My light shield was an irritating little sign of my moods. I never missed, at least not this close to a target. I had to stop letting the stupid darkling get to me.

Naturally, there was an airy laugh from next to me. “Looks like you could use a little more practice, Liath,” he said, peering out to the target. “Private lessons, maybe? I think we could arrange that.” He passed me under the guise of retrieving an arrow, and his arm brushed mine.

I took a deep breath and centered myself, taking a moment to just hold onto the light power inside of me. It calmed me down and warmed me up against the slight chill. I took a few strides down the field to another target , almost twice the distance away. I strung an arrow and loosed it in the one smooth, practiced motion that barely took any conscious thought. The arrow flew straight, just as the last one had, but much farther. And then, at the last second, it swerved.

My temper threatened to overtake me. A cold wind swirled around me, and I stopped. It hadn’t been this cool when I’d come outside. And the air smelled faintly of rain.

So that was how he wanted to play. I turned to Kirwin, who had moved on to another target on my right. “So, you think you can’t beat me at archery unless you cheat?”

“I don’t have any idea what you’re talking about. It’s not a competition.” He sighted down his arrow.

I looked quickly around and made sure no one was looking. I pulled some fire from the air, just enough to knock his arrow, smoldering, to the ground. “Oh, really?”

I expected him to be angry, his massive ego wounded and one of his arrows destroyed, but he turned to me and smiled. “Fine. You want to compete, I’ll compete. No winds for me, no fire for you. What are the stakes?”

I pursed my lips, keeping back all the rude things I wanted to say. “If I win, you have to stop talking to me.”

“Now, that’s not very nice.” He tried to look hurt, but he couldn’t hold back the eagerness in his face. He thought he was going to win, and I had a hunch he was pretty competitive. “And if I win?”

I waited. I wasn’t about to try and set his prize. Whatever I thought of was likely to be less unpleasant, but he probably wouldn’t accept it.
The expression on his face went from mock-wounded to mischievous. “If I win, you have to eat dinner with me tonight.” He thought for a minute. “And participate in the conversation.”

My stomach twisted, though I didn’t know why. I was surprised that he hadn’t tried to be even more cruel. I supposed it would be bad enough. That is, if I lost. I would not lose. And there was really no way he could force me to participate in conversation. “Fine. Not that it matters.”

His eyebrows shot up. “Oh, really?”

I didn’t answer the question. “Bull’s-eye on the farthest target?” I asked, already cocking an arrow.

“You got it,” he answered, following suit.

I didn’t usually practice on the farthest target, but I wasn’t worried. There was a reason I was one of the youngest archers in the group. This was the one talent I had that was relevant here. As a result, I was well-practiced. I relaxed, blocked everything else out, and let the arrow fly, listening to the soft twang of the string, the quiet, almost inaudible whistle of the arrow, and the thud that indicated I’d hit the target.

Kirwin hadn’t shot his arrow yet. His stance was good, I had to admit. He was tall, dwarfing me, but his body was firmly grounded. His bow and arrows were both larger than mine, but I noted with satisfaction that smaller bows actually take more strength to string. He loosed his arrow, and I noticed how the sound of it was much different than mine, lower and smoother. It sounded like storm winds. I wondered what mine sounded like to him.

I couldn’t see the target from here because it was so far and there was no moon tonight—we had both shot on instinct, power, and memory—so all I knew for certain was that both arrows had hit the target. But I had won. I knew in my bones that I had won. And I couldn’t keep the resultant smile off my lips.

But Kirwin was smiling, too. “Broin,” he called, his loud voice suddenly cutting the near silence. “Could you judge this for us?”

I sighed and felt petty having competed at all when Broin gave me a surprised and somewhat amused look. But why should I care what Broin thought? I didn’t, I reminded myself. Not at all.

Broin strode quickly to the target. My smile returned. My arrows were easy to recognize. We were required to get our own plumage for our arrows, and mine were the only arrows that used the silver feathers that almost glowed in the light. Everyone else’s were dark colored.
I heard Broin pluck the arrows from the target and couldn’t help but give Kirwin a satisfied smirk, as stupid as it was. Even small victories for me were significant when I felt so trapped here.

Broin laughed heartily as he returned our arrows to us. “Sorry, Liath,” he said. “Kirwin’s was much closer to the center.”

The smile slid off my face. He had to be lying. But he probably would have loved putting Kirwin in his place had I won. And even if he was lying, there was nothing I could do about it. He had already removed the arrows, and contesting his answer would just make me look like a poor loser. I nodded stiffly.

Kirwin laughed, too. “Looks like I’ll see you at dinner, beautiful.” Before I could move, he grabbed my arm and zapped me with darkness again, the physical contact allowing it to get through my thin shield of light. Fire again sizzled against my palms and I cursed my deplorable self control. I would get my chance, I promised myself. I didn’t know how or when, but I would. I wouldn’t rise to his bait now.

“We’re going to be doing something a bit different for the rest of our session,” Broin announced as the archers gathered back to him. “We’re going to be hitting some moving targets and practicing your battle maneuvers.” The anticipatory smile on his face made my stomach twist with worry. “Our scouts have received word of a ‘surprise’ siege on the castle tonight from the east side, and since you all are our most skilled group of archers, you will be at the point of our counter ‘surprise.’” The darklings around me shifted and murmured with excitement. “I will meet you all under the northeast arch in ten minutes.”

Broin’s clipped, commanding tone required no direct order. The group dispersed, as quiet as a whisper, the only sign of what was to happen being the shifting and stringing of bows and the securing of quivers for battle. I moved with them, fuming internally. No wonder Night had tried to make a deal with me tonight! A siege. I didn’t want to think of what might have happened had I consented.

Kirwin bumped me as he passed. “I love surprises,” he said.

“Liath, stay behind a moment, please,” Broin boomed. I rolled my eyes and turned on my heel. Of course, since I had refused the deal, I would not be allowed to fight tonight. It was smart of Night: if I were allowed, his archers would not fare well.

“Yes, sir?”

“I have alternate orders for you. You are to report to Night’s quarters straight away.”

That wasn’t what I had been expecting. “Sir, I spoke to him an hour ago.”

“I have my orders, and you have yours. Take it up with him.” And with that, he turned sharply and headed toward the arch where the siege would begin.

I pursed my lips. Why should I go? Night had been unusually charitable today and perhaps I oughtn’t push my luck too far, but I had no desire to go and see him and have him either try to convince me to use darkness or punish me when I wouldn’t. Besides, he had used me. He had tried to get me to kill my own people. He was getting more desperate, and I didn’t know why. But why give him an opportunity?

The decision was easily made, but not easily carried out. I crossed through the practice field and back into the castle. What I wanted, more than anything, was to go out and join the siege, to protect the lightlings from Night’s soldiers, whom they often seemed to underestimate. I wanted to fight, and then perhaps to escape with them. But there was a reason I had been here this long. Escape was not an easy thing, not for me. Of course, none of the other warriors ever tried.

I crossed back over my steps. The dining hall was quieter now, nearly empty but for a storm summoning group in a back corner. The light from the torches had even dimmed, as though they sensed the lack of people around them. I was wandering aimlessly, really. I wanted to fight, but that was unviable. I didn’t want to talk to Night, but that was probably unavoidable. So I wandered through the dining hall in indecision.

The first alarm was startling. A horn blared through the near silence, and it seemed as though the very castle itself jumped in surprise. I told my heart to be still. Someone had obviously just made a mistake. There was no way that the attack was strong enough to trigger that kind of alarm.

The second was downright disturbing. Another horn, louder than the first, sounded through the hall and echoed off the high, arched ceilings. It took both alarms to cause movement, but when it happened, it happened quickly. Darklings seemed to materialize and move into organized groups smoothly and soundlessly. It had happened before; in fact, it happened quite often, but this time was different. It was the middle of the night, so the attack shouldn’t have had any strength; come to think of it, what lightling in his right mind would attack Night’s castle in the darkness? None of them usually even came outside until sunrise. Something was wrong.

I had a battle station, too, even though I was never allowed to fight. I fell in with the archers, who had returned into the castle looking anxious. From what I could glean from the whispers around me, the archers had been the ones to sound the alarm. What they had seen had shaken them up pretty badly, but no one seemed to be putting it in words. Kirwin, though, looked unconcerned as usual. Excited, actually.

Before I could put up my shield of light, which I had put down after coming back inside, a shadow brushed my skin and Night’s voice flashed into my thoughts. “Change of plans,” it said. “Meet me on the balcony where the storm raisers usually meet.” Then the shadow disappeared.

So he could force me to fight against the lightlings? Not likely. I would ignore the order. He could punish me later, if he wished. At this point, I wasn’t sure I cared.

I made my way through the confused cluster of archers to Broin. Not only would he have answers, he would be able to articulate them in a sentence unlike some of the other darklings. “Sir, what’s going on? Why is he calling everyone to the fight?”

The master archer’s face was bleak. “They’ve brought Day. It seems that this is more than just a siege on a whim.” Then, in a voice so low I wasn’t sure I heard him right, he said, “Maybe you’ll escape after all.”

They had brought Day? No wonder they were able to fight in the middle of the night. Usually, they wouldn’t risk Day being hurt in a battle: he was not a warrior like Night. And even with Day, they still should have been at a slight disadvantage. What did this mean? What was so important that the lightlings had to attack in the middle of the night with Day at their side?

I forced it out of my head and concentrated on my current situation. Night didn’t have enough manpower to force me into coming to him or to stop me from going into combat, not this time. At the very least, I wanted to see if it was true, if Day truly was shielding them from the darkness. I would follow the archers and find a course of action from there.

The divisions of darklings moved with a fluidity and flawlessness that came from practice, intuition, and the silent orders given by the liquid shadows. I struggled to keep up, but I kept the light flickering just under my skin, even though it meant I couldn’t hear the orders. I would not let the darkness touch me again. I didn’t want to hear what he had to say.

The storm raisers were always first into battle, and they had already disappeared to the balcony from which they always fought, the same balcony where Night now resided. They would be calling fog, clouds, rain, thunder, anything that could inhibit their enemies. After sufficient confusion had been created, it would be the archers’ turn to go and do as much damage to the lightlings as they could. Then the shadow dancers would melt behind enemy lines and destroy them personally without ever being seen; at least, that was the idea, but I didn’t know how well it would work with Day fighting with the lightlings.

I stopped myself. I couldn’t think that way. I shook my head. Too many years in the castle had brainwashed me. No, the object was to help them as best I could, and then to escape with them. Something big was clearly happening, and I would probably never get a chance like this again. I had to make the most of it.

Before I knew what was happening, the archery unit began to move swiftly. It split down the middle. One half went to the east side exit and another to the west, so as to flank the confused enemy. If everything went as Night had planned, hail would be battering them and they would already be a muddled mess.

My half division slithered through a stone corridor and out into the courtyard through a tall, wide Gothic arch. I couldn’t make sense of what I saw at first: the bright light ruined my night vision and I stopped for just a moment, completely blinded. When my sight returned, it made no more sense. Day’s army was standing in a stiff, straight arrangement with their hands in the same position, as though praying. Day stood behind them all, hands raised high in the air. The circle of light surrounding them was brilliant and sung with power. My dimly flickering light grew in strength as I felt the touch of other light power as I had not felt in years. The hope inside me began to grow.

But Night’s army wasn’t done, not by a long shot. I could feel power growing over my head, on the storm raisers’ balcony. Without looking, I could see Night with darkness swirling potently around him, swelling as each of his darklings added their power. My light flowed out of me, longing to join that of Day’s army, but my darkness stirred, too. Night’s power choked me for a moment, for I was standing in its circle of influence rather than Day’s. I pushed my light even brighter.

But all of the showing off of power did not mean that the fighting had stopped. On the contrary, it had just begun. Night’s archers all fit arrows to the strings and loosed them as one, piercing the air with a lethal humming sound as arrows cloaked in darkness whizzed toward Day and his followers. I half expected the circle of light to stop the arrows dead in midair. Instead, the arrows slowed down a bit, but their course remained true: I could hear the gasps as several lightlings fell.

That snapped me out of my stupor. I had been standing frozen, dazed, for several moments now when I should have been helping. Now that the archers were truly in the fight, the forces finally met and crossed one another, as my division slid forward like water and Day’s hand fighters and archers marched forward with a shout. The collision was violent, sending a shockwave through the night as light and darkness met. I wove my way through the zinging arrows and screaming warriors to the side of the battle nearest Day, pushing my light out all the harder to identify myself as friendly. I couldn’t fight any of the darklings hand-to-hand: nearly all of them knew me and my fighting style too well, and I would lose. I could, however, help the lightlings in their fight, interfering with the darkness power. It was something, at the very least.

They didn’t need it. It was a case of immovable object meets immutable force: neither side seemed to be gaining the upper hand. The powers both flared strongly in the night. Day’s aura of sunlight stopped all but the strongest of the darkness power, and Night’s aura of darkness did the same to the light. Warriors fell on both sides, but the losses seemed nearly insignificant in proportion to the size of the forces. Never had a battle at Night’s castle been so well matched.

I realized that if I was going to flee, now would be the time. If I waited until the siege ended, Night would again have the resources to seek me out and force me back again into his training. Now, however, the unexpectedly strong attack had his power and his people occupied. All I had to do was slip out of the battle. I didn’t fear the night as I had as a child, because I knew my light would protect me. I would seek out another light village, perhaps, or find this battalion when they returned to their camp. Who knew?

I wove through more warriors fighting hand-to-hand, knocking darkness arrows out of the air here and there as I went. I used the bits and pieces of Day’s light around me to turn myself immaterial as I hadn’t done since the last time I’d seen daylight, weaving through the air unseen. It felt good to touch real light again, to make myself part of it. I’d forgotten the soaring, joyful feeling.

It was short lived, though. I got to the edge of the battle, where there was no more light, and had to have form again, landing lithely on the ground. But I raised my light shield around myself and plunged into the darkness, not once looking back. I had no idea what was happening around me, but I didn’t have time to find out.

That was when I hit it. Night’s constant supervision and myriad punishments weren’t the only reasons that I had never succeeded in escaping before. The other reason was the huge barrier surrounding the edge of the castle’s land.

I had hit it only once before. Two years ago, I had been on the verge of escape, slipping out at sunset during the end of another much smaller battle when Night had to leave to chase the sunlight from the sky. I had gotten as far as this, and I couldn’t go any farther.

I crumpled to the ground, having thought that the barrier was farther away. I hadn’t prepared myself to hit the wall of fear.

I hadn’t really prepared myself for anything. Where could I possibly go after leaving here? There was nowhere I would be accepted—I would probably be killed on sight. That was my grandmother had left her village, because the lightlings would have killed me.

And now I was going to die. There was no way to get around it. Either the darklings would come after me, or the lightlings I met would do the job for them. I was too young, too inexperienced, too weak to think I could possibly escape and survive. The shadows would come for me, and I would powerless to stop them.

My body shook with the force of my insecurities, but still, I forced myself to stand up. Strange sounds whispered through the darkness around me, sounds that made me fear that some of the creatures I’d fought Upstairs may have been captured from this very part of the land. Was this how I would die? Mauled by some great beast where no one would find my body?

But Night himself had taught me to deal with fear. I filled my lungs with air, even as I felt they would burst. I was afraid to take even one more step, suddenly feeling that I was on the edge of a cliff and that I was able to go plunging down into a bottomless pit.

Even as my lungs burned and my eyes watered and my knees shook with the force of my terror, and every part of my mind screamed at me to return to the castle, I did what I had not been able to do two years ago: I resigned myself to whatever fate I might have, and took another step.

The air shattered around me as I broke the barrier. I fell to my knees, gasping for air, but then remembered the battle and stood up. I had to run, and I had to run now.
But as I ran, I heard an angry yell pierce the night. I felt myself smile. They may not have lost, but Night was unhappy. And just then I really didn’t care what happened to me. Because I had escaped. I took a deep breath of the cool air and felt the wind tousle my hair. I was finally free of that wretched, suffocating place where Night had tried to make me his slave. I made my light shine a little bit brighter. Soon I would be with my own kind. Everything would be all right.

I threw myself into the run. I ran with a joy I had forgotten how to express, all the while ignoring the little voice in the back of my mind. I had all but stopped hearing that little voice, and it was screaming now. It’s not over yet, it kept saying. It’s not over yet.

Beyond the courtyard of Night’s castle, most of the land was in a vast evergreen forest that stretched as far as I could see. I slipped through a space between two trees and suddenly around me all that existed was those trees. Shadows cast by the thick branches clawed at me, but my light blazed and kept their prying fingers away from me. I knew that somewhere, not too far away, the forests ended and the plains began, the plains that would eventually take me to Day’s territory.

But the forest was difficult enough to get through. It was cold and damp, and strange mosses and ivies climbed the trees that I sped past. Roots stuck out of the earth at awkward angles, but I was light on my feet from the amount of training that I had received. I slipped through spaces that shouldn’t have been large enough even for my slender frame and navigated only by the small radius of light I could provide.

I found a rhythm eventually, an organic pattern in the grasping branches and roots and mosses. It all had a design, I reminded myself. Nothing was here just by chance.

I stopped myself at that thought and knelt quickly on the ground. I had just made a miraculous escape and had forgotten to thank the one who performed miracles. I laced my fingers together and whispered, “Thank you, Eleoh, for providing me with a way out. Please, guide my steps and keep me safe.” I would make it through this. Eleoh would protect me.

I enjoyed the silence as I sat. I was in a small clearing, but large enough that a decent-sized piece of the night sky was visible to me. It was so still, so peaceful...

“You owe me dinner.”

I bolted into a standing position as Kirwin’s voice rang, too loud, through the clearing. My heart was hammering in my chest. I thought that they had all been preoccupied. I didn’t think anyone would follow me. “I thought that under the circumstances, perhaps it would be better if we postponed...” I said. I slowly reached for my bow and looked around. I couldn’t see him.

The chuckle was barely a warning as he dropped out of a tree inches in front of me. “Now, now, we had a bet.” He eyed my bow, which I hadn’t had time to string, much less put out in front of me. “And I think we’ve already determined who’s the better archer. Wasn’t that the whole point?”

I scowled and put my bow down, simultaneously stepping backwards. I didn’t want him that close to me. “Well, I haven’t got anything to eat,” I pointed out. Why was I afraid? He was probably my age and had no more power than I. If he had come alone, which I hoped but did not think he had, I had nothing to worry about. He was irritating, infuriating, even, but no more dangerous than I was. I could certainly hold my own against him, at any rate. Probably just residual fear from the barrier.

But that didn’t keep me from being wary as he sat down. “Conversation, then,” he said, patting the ground next to him. “It’ll have to do.”
“Why did you follow me?” I asked, sitting down across from him instead. I knew the probable answer. Night had somehow gotten him to try to talk to me, and now he was having Kirwin follow me. Wonderful.

“Because you’re just so darn beautiful.” When I glared at him, he put up his hands and said innocently, “Now, see, that’s actually true. Your eyes... I’ve never seen anything like them.”

“Being different than everyone else doesn’t make me beautiful,” I said. I bit my lip. I hadn’t meant to say that out loud. He didn’t need to know what went on inside my head.

He shrugged. “That’s not what makes you beautiful. You just are. Ask anybody.” He stopped and looked around at the clearing. “Although, I suppose you can’t now. Hey, tell her she’s beautiful!” he yelled to a nearby tree.

I scoffed a little at how ridiculous he was.

He turned abruptly back to me. “Was that a laugh?”

“Not in this world, it wasn’t.”

“Oh, good.” He mocked wiping sweat from his forehead in relief. “I thought for a minute I followed the wrong girl. Because I’ve never seen you smile, much less laugh.”

I remembered back to a time when I smiled and laughed easily, before they kidnapped me. Back when I was happy. “I don’t tend to share the morbid, sarcastic sense of humor that all the darklings have,” I said quietly.

It was his turn to scoff. “Well, you’re certainly sarcastic, but I don’t know if it counts as humor in your case.”

I stood up. “Get out of here, Kirwin,” I said, saying his name aloud for the first time to give the command more weight.

But he just looked up at me. “No.”
The fire started to tingle in my palms again, and this time, I let it. “I said, get out of here,” I said, not bothering to hide the flame.

Kirwin stood up too, quick as a flash. “Do you really want to do that?” he asked, pulling darkness into his fingertips like he had before.

I really did. I let the fire flow over the rest of my body and fed it energy so that it grew in strength, then shoved it at him with everything I had.

But Kirwin was faster. He jumped out of the way, calling storm winds to lift him up and over me. But before I could spin around, he put his hands on my waist and zapped me again. It still wasn’t painful, but the little energy I had--I was already at a disadvantage, it being night--disappeared. I collapsed on the ground.

He sat behind me and pulled my head into his lap. I was almost entirely immobile. I had enough energy to either put up a light shield (which had disappeared when he touched me) or move, and I chose to put up a shield to protect myself from the energy that emanated from him. Besides, if I had moved, I knew he would have just moved, too. He took the tie out of my braid and began to play with my long hair.

I gritted my teeth. “How did you do that?”

His grin was upside down from where I sat, or lay, rather. “Special talent of mine. What do you think?”

I didn’t respond.

“Hey, the deal was, you participate in conversations, remember? And considering you really don’t have any room to renegotiate,” the humor in his eyes was infuriating, “I say you should talk to me.”

“Fine,” I said, changing the subject. “Tell me the real reason you followed me.”

His fingertips brushed along my scalp as he pulled his hands through my hair. “As soon as they realized you were gone,” he said, “the fighting stopped, more or less. The lightlings still kept us occupied, but everyone knew it was just so you could get out. Seems to me that was why they came. And it’s no fun when they stop trying, when they stop being afraid they’re going to fail.” And then the contrived pout evaporated as he smiled. “And then I figured, the fun seems to follow you.”

We sat in silence for a moment as he thought and I fumed. “And you don’t like rejection,” I finally said.

He was silent for a moment, and then I could feel him shake as he started to chuckle. His chuckle turned into a full-blown howl, and soon his laughter was booming through the clearing. “That, too.”

I didn’t remember falling asleep, but some time later, I opened my eyes to sunlight filtering down through the trees. Real, honest to goodness sunlight, bathing me in its warmth. I was so stunned that for a moment I couldn’t even sit up. I could only lay and stare at the sky through the labyrinth of tree limbs. The sun caressed my face with a soft, sweet power that made my head spin. This was what daylight felt like. I had all but forgotten it. Kirwin was gone, of course, and I was blissfully alone.

Finally, I pushed myself into a sitting position, registering vaguely that my back was wet with dew from the ground. I must have been much more tired than I realized. Perhaps now that my body was getting light again, it remembered that it was supposed to be sleeping in the night and awake during the day. What a nice concept.

I took a few more moments just breathing in the smells of the early morning and feeling the sunlight sparkle on my skin. It was so peaceful, so quiet. I could actually hear the skittering sounds of small animals hiding behind the tall pines scrounging for food and communicating with each other. And then… was that a birdcall? There were so many of them, beautiful, musical sounds I had forgotten existed. How could I ever have left any of this?

I finally found the willpower to make myself stand up and brush myself off. Dead pine needles and bits of dirt clung to my boots and leggings and shirt and back and hair. The sun was low, clear, and bright, so I knew that I couldn’t have been asleep for very long: it wasn’t even quite midmorning yet. A wonderful thought occurred to me. Why continue running through the forest when I could simply leap into the embrace of the wind and the sunlight?

The flight during the battle last night had been hurried and messy, as I had simply been trying to escape the fighting. Now, though, I closed my eyes and felt for the light inside of me. It was already drawn to the power in the sunlight above me, so it came to my grasp with ease. I felt the power around me that the sun poured out and made the light force, golden now, match in the power, texture, color, taste. I felt the sunlight on my skin and the sunlight glowing inside of me and made them come nearer and nearer each other. I felt the sounds and smells of the daytime together with the delicious warmth. Everything else but the beauty of the day disappeared from my mind.

In that way, I became the sunlight. One moment I was standing there, feet on the ground, the next I was part of the warm breeze that flew over the forest. It felt so natural, so right to be part of the day again. My sight was not restricted by physical sight; rather, I saw what the sunlight saw, the whole horizon spread out all around me. Below me, the forest, relatively dark, stretched out like a shadow over the ground. But beyond it, I could see the rolling hills and deciduous forests and laughing brooks of my childhood. And not only could I see the sun, I felt it as a huge, powerful presence that infused me with energy and kept me soaring through the open sky. I spun and twirled and reveled in the absolute, breathless joy that flying had always brought me.

Flying in an immaterial form became disorienting after a while, though, so I eventually concentrated on what made me who I was and I gained matter again, dropping not so gracefully back down to earth. It had been a long time since I’d done it, and flying for that long had a way of making one forget how to use one’s limbs.

I was now in Day’s domain, that area of soft, rolling hills dotted with streams and gentler forests. Memories assaulted my over-stimulated brain, and I thought of all the times I had frolicked and played in areas that looked just exactly like this one, with my grandmother looking on and occasionally joining me in my antics.

My run was slower now as I took in my surroundings, watching as foxes chased after each other and lightly brushing each tree that I passed. It was like reliving the past out of someone else’s life, it seemed so distant…

I was so distracted that I nearly didn’t sidestep the arrow that zinged through the air toward me. Luckily, habit and muscle memory took over, and I found myself stepping out of the way of a projectile whose origin I couldn’t see. To my surprise, the arrow countered my movement and struck me squarely in the upper arm. I hissed in pain, but luckily it hadn’t struck deep. I pulled the arrow out and pressed my hand to the wound to keep it from bleeding. I seemed to be alone between several trees, but there was another twang of a bowstring, another arrow. This one followed me as well, but this time I had the presence of mind to burn it before it struck me. What kind of strange power did this archer have?

My quarry was hiding behind one of the trees, that much was obvious when I watched the arrow’s path. But surely none of Night’s warriors were out seeking me at this time of day, and certainly not this far from the castle? But it was not the power of darkness that I felt emanating from behind that tree, it was light. A lightling. Time to see how I would be treated.

My shield of light had been down because I didn’t need it, but I put it back so that the lightling could see that I was not only what I appeared. I would not attack the warrior, I decided, not even in self-defense. If I wanted to prove myself worthy of the lightlings’ trust, that would certainly not be a good way to start.

It was a moot point, however; as soon as I raised my light, the arrows stopped flying and the warrior stepped out from behind the tree, a confused look on her face. The lightling’s skin was a pink the color of rose petals, her hair a light copper that shined in the sunlight. Her pale green eyes surveyed me slowly. She kept an arrow on the string, pointed straight at me. “It’s not possible,” she murmured.

I stayed silent, knowing that I was in a precarious position. I had been trained as a darkling warrior, but since I had refused to use darkness, few, if any, of my tactics would work now. I would have to trust in my light to do the speaking for me. And in Eleoh to prevent death by stupidity.

“Who are you?” the warrior asked, not relaxing her weapon.

“My name is Liath,” I said, holding eye contact and trying not to sound aggressive. “I am traveling to Day’s lands to seek asylum from Night and his followers.”

“Night’s power clings to you like a poison,” the warrior said, her face twisting with distaste.

“I had no choice who my father was,” I said evenly, “nor what powers I received from him. But I choose light over darkness, and I will continue to, whether I receive Day’s help or not.”

“Light exists within you in equal parts as darkness,” the warrior murmured. “How can it be possible? I wouldn’t believe it if I wasn’t seeing it with my own eyes.” The warrior let some of her own light spill out of her skin, and as if in response, an aura of light manifested itself in the air around her. It reminded me of the way Night communicated through the liquid shadows. The warrior closed her eyes for a moment and was silent. Perhaps, it occurred to me, that was exactly what was happening here. Who was to say that Day couldn’t communicate in a way similar to Night?

The warrior opened her eyes, and her face was grave. “Day will not communicate directly with you, not until he has met you in person first. His instructions to me were to point you in the direction of his dwelling place, but I cannot accompany you there myself. I am a scout for him, and I must continue my sweep.

“To find the Palace of the Sun, continue your journey that way.” Without lowering her weapon, she indicated with her head the direction east, towards the sun, the way I had already been traveling. “When you come to a river that forks, follow the left side until you come to the palace. It’s rather difficult to miss.”

I nodded and turned to go, but the warrior sidestepped in front of me, still keeping a wary distance. “Be warned,” she said. “Do not go expecting you will be received with open arms and immediate trust. They will not know what do with you; there is no precedent. It goes against our nature to accept anything tainted by the darkness.” Her pale green eyes swept me. “Something in me thinks that perhaps you will earn our trust, however. If you continue to fight the darkness within you, you may yet find a place among us.” She hesitated for a moment, and then added, “When you meet our gatekeepers, tell them that Rhoswen sent you.” And with that, she crouched and jumped into the arms of the wind, disappearing into the sunlight.

I blinked. The encounter had been surprising, frightening, and quite enlightening, and had lasted all of about three minutes. I hadn’t even considered what I would tell people when I arrived at—what was it? The palace of the sun? I felt as though I ought to remember that from my grandmother’s teaching. But what would I have said had I not met Rhoswen? Would they have turned me away? Or would they simply have killed me for the darkness that I held?

I took a deep breath and began to run again. It was silly to worry about that now. What was done was done, and I did have a name to mention. Perhaps that would be enough to at least get them to listen to me, and if they were all as open-minded as Rhoswen seemed to be, perhaps I really could make it all right.

The forest of aspen trees through which I ran tinted the sunlight a beautiful emerald color as it fell between the leaves and onto my face. The ashy white trunks streaked past me, and I smiled at my energy and the speed I could reach. I had forgotten how easy it was to run in the daytime, how the sunlight itself infused me with energy and prevented me from being exhausted. At a time like this, it was easy to believe that I could squelch the darkness down inside of me and forget about it forever. After all, hadn’t Night been trying to do the same thing to my light? But now, I would be around people who could help, and I would cooperate.

It took a few more hours of running before I realized two things. The first was that I had no idea how far it was to the palace and whether I would reach it before nightfall, when the darklings would be able to come after me. The second was that I still had to eat if I wanted to keep up my current pace. I had been so enamored with the sensations of the daytime that I hadn’t noticed my stomach’s vague complaints, but now it was fairly screaming with hunger in a way that was impossible to ignore. I stopped running and tried to remember what I had known about scavenging when my grandmother and I had lived in a place not dissimilar to the one I found myself in now.

Water, I remembered. Plants bearing fruit were almost always near water. If I could find the river of which Rhoswen spoke, perhaps I could find some lunch as well. The thought made me smile. I would never have to eat that dull, bland stew again. Another advantage to my newfound freedom.

The moment I found a clearing in the forest, I again dissolved into the sunlight and flew over the hills until I heard and felt the musical sounds of running water. I pulled myself into human form again at the bank.

Bushes of all kinds grew thickly at the edge of the deep, clear river, whose strong current was only evident by the ripples that formed when a stray rock or tree branch pierced its surface. A few tall, shady trees grew out over the water.
I immediately began examining the bushes to see if there were any I recognized. Oh, how I hoped I would remember what to look for! Many of the shrubs were full of briars and put little cuts in my hands, but still I reveled in the organic feel of the plants that brought back so many happy memories. I recognized the serrated leaves and telltale flashes of red of one shrub, and plunged my hands into it, searching for treasure. I emerged with two fistfuls of ripe strawberries, glinting ruby red in the high noon sun, and instantly began salivating. The smell alone made my stomach roar.

I popped one into my mouth and reveled in the burst of tart sweetness, so different from everything that I had eaten for the last eight years. Sun ripened strawberries were a beautiful thing. And that wasn’t all I found. Raspberry bushes, blackberry bushes, and even a few of the mushrooms my grandmother had taught me to gather all grew at the bank. One tree held green apples, a delicacy even before I had begun to eat the wretched stew. I devoured it all slowly, fruit by fruit, suddenly not able to bring myself to care whether I made it to the palace by nightfall. I had found the river. Surely I couldn’t be that far away.

I was rummaging my hand around in a knothole of one of the trees, hoping to find a few more mushrooms, when a warm, furry mass made me draw my hand out in alarm. That hadn’t been what I expected.

I was clearly still a little jumpy, though, because a moment later, a sleepy looking, fat little ferret stuck its head out and blinked at me. I laughed. It had a dark body and a white face, but a dark little mask around its eyes made it look like either a robber or a target whose center was its little pink nose. “Hello,” I crooned. “You’re a fat little thing. It’s probably not good for you to live around all this fruit, huh? You startled me, little fella.”

The ferret squinted its black eyes at me, and I realized that in my contentment I was unconsciously emitting a pretty good amount of light, and the poor creature’s eyes hadn’t adjusted yet. “Oops.” I pulled my light back inside of me and stretched my hand out toward it to pet its head.

This time when I touched it, I felt as though Night was suddenly with me. I couldn’t say if it was a smell or a sound or a feeling, but I could have sworn that Night was standing nearby, perhaps behind me. I spun around, but all that was behind me was the vast open hills and the rushing river. Besides the shadows in the tree, there wasn’t even any darkness for him to access. “What in the world?” I put my hand out to pet the ferret again, feeling unnerved.
It happened again, and the feeling was so strong that I again spun around and searched the land behind me. I turned back around and the ferret stared at me, its black eyes wide.

I cursed and backed away from the tree. Of course, out of any animal I possibly could have met, it had be the one with Night’s power inside of it. A creature of darkness. Naturally. I had forgotten that some animals had the power of darkness just as some had the power of light. “Leave me alone!” I shouted at the ferret.

It wasn’t fair. I had finally left Night’s castle, and the darkness would still not leave me alone. And it was my own fault. It was my own fault for being stupid enough to stick my hand in a dark hole and hope that nothing dangerous was there.

I turned around and began to run away from that spot, following the bank of the river, just as Rhoswen had told me. I would just forget about it. It was just a ferret. It was evil, but it wasn’t as if it could do anything to me. I would find Day’s palace soon enough.

The air was cooler near the river, and eventually I found my rhythm again once I pushed my anxiety aside. The sounds of the running water calmed me and helped me find my center, my light, without overdoing it as before. If I wasn’t careful, I was going to be exhausted before I ever met the lightlings.

I knew it was a moot train of thought to follow, but what would I say to them once I mentioned Rhoswen’s name? Would the name even matter? If the gatekeepers were good at their job, the truth was that they probably wouldn’t allow me entrance unless Day himself had made them aware, because they had to protect him from any and all forms of darkness. It was funny, the closer I got to Day’s palace, the more of my grandmother’s stories about it I remembered. It had been cloaked in folklore and legend, as Grandma herself had never been there, nor had anyone else that she knew, but naturally, someone knew someone who knew someone who had. It wasn’t like Night’s castle, where all the darklings went to train. Day’s house was a garrison in addition to being a house of luxury; if the stories were to be believed, it could hold every lightling in the domain in times of grave danger. It was a place of training for the strongest, of education for the most intelligent, of protection for those in greatest need. And now I was going to tell them to go against everything they’d ever learned in order to offer me, a warrior trained by their blood enemy, safety. This was going to be fun.

The sun was beginning to sink low in the sky, and I still hadn’t found the fork in the river that would lead me to Day’s palace. It was taking much longer than I had expected, and I was beginning to regret the long break for lunch I had taken and the leisurely pace with which I had traveled that morning. I knew that I wasn’t going to make it to the palace before nightfall, and if I was going to avoid capture by Night’s scouts while I slept, or Kirwin’s company, for that matter, I was going to have to make arrangements now.

I stopped in a grove of oak trees. Oak, I remembered, was sturdy and held my particular light very well. My grandmother had favored aspens, but my light had always been a little different. My sun orbs were, too. I had always made them differently.

Making sun orbs didn’t take me as long as it had always taken my grandmother; that is, if I could remember how to do it. It had always come naturally to me, but it had been so long…

I plucked several leaves off each tree that was near to the place I decided I would sleep and mashed them all between my fingers, creating a wet, green, aromatic pulp. I inhaled their scent and felt their special tree light that made them oak trees. I let my light sense sweep the grove and feel the tree lights within each of my chosen trees, forming a little circle around me. The leaves between my fingers connected me to them in a web of light.

I let my light sense take in the dying sunlight, too, as it stretched the trees’ shadows across the ground, and I drank in as much of its power as I could swallow, but not allowing it to spill out of me, not yet. When I felt I was ready to burst with light—the sun’s, the trees’, and my own—I infused every bit of it into the paste of oak leaves. I smeared it all over my hands and walked in a circle, putting a glowing handprint on each of my protector trees. The handprint flared and then went dark, as the light ran up through the tree trunk and into the leaves, sending a green light flaring into the twilight. I continued until I returned to the first tree and smeared it again, closing the circle. There was enough power in this light to stop any darkling that might come after me; it would be too oppressive to their darkness, in the same way that Night would sometimes crush my light.

I wiped my hands on the grass, the power already having left the thick green paste, and stretched out on the soft piece of earth, cushioned by cool moss and long, thick grass. I bade farewell to the sun as its last minutes slipped away and squeezed my eyes shut, not wanting to see Night as he flew across the sky and back to his castle in the time it took me to traverse a single mile. He can’t get to me, I reminded myself. None of them can.

The dream was a strange one, even by my standards. I was standing in a grove of trees similar to the one in which I had fallen asleep, but this time, there was no sun for me to use to make my own light, nor were the trees giving off the light they should have already had. Instead, it was the darkest of nights, with naught but a full moon overhead to see by, casting everything in high contrast. I tried to call my sunlight to light the night, but it was lost within me, like a word I couldn’t quite remember. At first, the darkness held no power, it was just an absence of light. And yet, I still was more frightened than I could understand.

A soft wind started to blow, whispering in the trees. It became more insistent as it went, soon hissing rather than whispering, and then shrieking, blowing my hair from my face and stripping the trees of their leaves. The shrieking wind seemed to be hiding words from another source, from someone I couldn’t see. No, it was more than one someone, it was a crowd of someones in a vast circle around me. It was important, no, vital that I hear what they were saying, but the wind shrieked ever louder. And yet the circle seemed to be closing, to be coming closer to me, with their non-words louder and louder and still incomprehensible.

The darkness was no longer without power. It called its sweet siren call to me, promising mystery and danger and moonlight and music that no other mortal could hear. It sang to me, whispered to me, caressed my face and arms and pulled me into a standing position. I knew this feeling, knew it so well, though I did my best to avoid it at all costs. I avoided it because now, in the middle of its temptation, I could no longer see the danger. Pure, primal fear pulsed in my chest, the mumbling voices still gaining volume, and yet the light was now but a distant memory, a past that belonged to someone else’s life. I drank in the darkness and the moonlight like one parched with thirst, opening myself completely to the forbidden sensations. I melted into the shadows and heard the voices of all the other darklings come to play, reveling in that magic that only comes from things you can’t see… My light was no longer lost to me, it just didn’t exist…

I sat bolt upright. Wind was indeed howling through the trees, but the bright green light still bathed the ground in addition to the light of the rising sun. My circle had held, my light was still mine, and the darkness had never touched me. But I felt the cold sweat on my face and knew better. Somehow, darkness had broken through my circle and preyed on me during the night.

It couldn’t have been Kirwin; even Night himself couldn’t have done that, at least not without dousing the lights in the trees. I bit my lip. The only time I had ever heard of anything like this happening was in connection with Diabahl’s fallen angels. Could a fallen angel have visited my dreams? But why? Perhaps to prevent me from reaching Day, but my lights had prevented more than a disturbing dream. That made the most sense, but the idea that I had perhaps been visited by a fallen one the night before made my skin crawl.

I touched each of the glowing trees and released their lights back into the sky, the green glow quickly absorbed by the golden sunlight.

I made my way back to the riverbank and gathered what breakfast I could, though the fruit bearing plants were less common here. I felt oddly light as I moved about, and realized after a moment that I had left my quiver in the grove of trees.

There it was, lying exactly where I had left it in the circle of sunlight. Exiting the circle, though, I tripped over some small animal sleeping near the roots of one of the tall trees.

As I toppled forward, I saw the little brown mass of fur jump in surprise and spring to its feet, stretching itself sleepily. I caught myself with my hands, dirt smearing my palms. Not possible. The ferret blinked its large black eyes at me. I scrambled to my feet, backing away from the creature. It can’t possibly be the same one. My mind’s playing tricks on me. But the small face had the same target coloring and the ferret was just as plump and moved just as slowly as the one I had found the day before. Somehow, the little animal had followed me who knew how many miles in just a night.
Could animals with darkness powers fly like darklings? I certainly hoped not, but that was how it appeared. It seemed that the darkness did not intend to leave me alone. I turned my back on the ferret and walked quickly from the glen, taking flight with the sunlight as soon as I could. The animal and the dream were just too much taken together, but the memory of them soon dimmed as I drank in sunlight and twisted through the air. Soon the glittering thread below me split off into two branches, and I followed the left fork as Rhoswen had told me. Sure enough, it was only minutes before a shining mass rose seemingly up out of the horizon and stood regally against the morning sun. Day’s palace, I thought. Finally. Go on, Night. Just try to get me in there.

I pulled myself into matter again one hundred yards or so from the gates to the palace, realizing that it probably wouldn’t be a good idea to sneak up on the people I was trying very hard not to scare. The palace seemed much bigger while I was walking: the luminous, brass colored gates alone were at least thirty feet high. Behind it was a vast courtyard full of beautiful sculptures and bubbling fountains, behind which was the real palace, whose shining marble exterior glinted in the sun. It was a sight to behold.

I followed the winding, antiquated cobblestone path to the gate, and was so absorbed with looking at the palace that I might have walked right into the gate if one of the guards hadn’t said, “Halt! Who wishes to enter the Palace of the Sun? Declare yourself.”

I blinked and tore my eyes away from the winding spires that disappeared gracefully into the sky. The guard that had spoken was a tall, well built-male with pale gold skin and eyes to match. His counterpart on the opposite side of the gate was pale as alabaster and stared at me with stern green eyes. Neither guard had reacted to my odd appearance or the strange power I held. They had been well trained.

“I am Liath,” I said, taking as much care with my words as I could. “I come to seek asylum from Night and his allies. The warrior Rhoswen instructed me that I might find safety here, and use her name for security.” Only then did the guards’ eyes flicker over my appearance and their expressions shift minutely. I waited for a moment, then said, “I mean no one in this house any harm. I wish to make my place among the people of light, and I believe this to be the only place where I may do so. I would like to speak with Day, if I may.”

The guards did not look at all surprised, but the lines on their face were a bit deeper, the tiredness a little more pronounced than before. “We received word of your coming arrival,” the first guard said. “Day is expecting you. Someone will take you to meet him from the entrance hall.” With that, the huge gate swung in noiselessly on well-oiled hinges.

“Thank you,” I muttered to the guard, not able to take my eyes off the courtyard as I walked into it. The whole thing seemed to have been constructed out of light. The great sculptures were made of glass that held onto the rose colored light that fell from the rising sun behind the palace. The glass figures were unbelievably intricate, people and animals with eyes and expressions so lifelike that I would only have been half surprised had one of them gotten up and walked away. The fountains bubbled with light and the water threw off more light than I normally would have expected it to. Cobblestone paths snaked through the enormous garden- like courtyard.
I wandered slowly through the pink orange colored air, feeling the light power that surrounded the place growing as I grew closer. It gave me the feeling of floating, though I knew my feet to be firmly on the ground. No worries, not here. Everything would turn out all right.

Eventually, I came to the grand, solid wood door at the front of the palace and raised my hand to use the large brass knocker that hung heavily against it. I had barely touched it, however, when a shock of power coursed through me and pulled out some of my own light, causing the door to swing silently inward. I smiled. The door itself had sensed my light and allowed me entrance.

I passed through the door into the large, airy entrance hall. The door swung silently shut behind me and a lightling appeared very close beside me, who I supposed had probably flown through the ample sunlight in the palace. Her vibrant red hair was in a long braid that coiled around her head and her brilliant green eyes sparkled. Unlike the two guards or even Rhoswen, there was no look of fear or even caution on the lightling’s open face. She smiled, her expression radiating joy. “You’ve come!” she said in a high, musical voice. “My name is Elsha. Day asked me to take you to meet him.”

I was dazed by the manner with which the lightling addressed me. It reminded me of my grandmother, somehow. I had forgotten that some people were routinely happy and sincere, rather than dark and sarcastic. “I’m Liath,” I said eventually, remembering myself.

The lightling continued to smile. “I know.” She promptly dissolved into the sunlight, and I found myself following suit. It came easier than it had before, as though I suddenly had more light, or perhaps I had left the bulk of my darkness behind.

I could feel the joy of Elsha ahead of me, could sense the lightling as a point of energy. I followed her through a great dining hall, up winding staircases and through rooms full of people and conversation. I got but the flash of an image of each one as we sped through the rooms. I lost track of what floor we were on as we went up and up and farther still. Huge windows gaped in the marble walls, sunlight always a close companion as we ascended.

Finally, we emerged from the top of a staircase. Elsha swiftly regained form and dropped to one knee before what I immediately sensed as a huge light power source. I followed suit, and looked up to see the person whose power had affected me so.

He sat upon a wrought gold chair with intricate carvings over every surface and runes that shone with power. I could think of no other way to describe him than cherubic. He looked quite young, perhaps even a bit younger than me, though I knew he couldn’t be. His face was round and shining, and his cheeks flushed. Golden blond hair curled over his ears, and full, cupid’s bow lips curved into a wide smile. His bright blue eyes lit up the whole room. “Welcome, Elsha. Welcome, Liath.” he said in a voice that caused sunlight to wash over my kneeling form.

Elsha and I rose up off the marble floor in synchronization. My inner light, which had already been so much closer to the surface than I was used to, spilled out of me in the presence of Day.

“So it’s true,” he murmured softly. He stood and came to me, examining me closely. I felt my face flush. “The stories are all true. I should have known after I sensed you flying here, but I couldn’t get a close enough look, or I would’ve risked exposing my people to some elaborate hoax. They can be quite clever, you know. Of course, I suppose I needn’t tell you that.”

I felt distinctly uncomfortable, and I hated it. The last half of my life, I had been trained to be constantly on edge, constantly wary. Even now, when I was finally where I had longed to be and was in no danger whatsoever, my muscles were taut and ready for fight or flight, whichever came first. I rolled my shoulders back, making a conscious effort to calm down.

“Being with the darkness so long has affected you,” Day murmured. He laid a hand on my head. “Be at peace.”

I felt instantly better as even more sunlight washed through me. “Thank you.”

“Elsha, please show our friend to her quarters.” He turned back to me. “You will find new clothes and a hot bath waiting for you, which I daresay you need.” He smiled. “When you have freshened up, Elsha will take you to begin your training with us.”

“Thank you,” I said again, my mind whirling with the kindness he was showing me, kindness I had been without for so long. “Thank you so much.”

Elsha returned to her light form, as did I, and we went back down the stairway, spiraling down several flights before we stopped. We had not returned all the way to the ground floor, but rather we were now in a hallway I didn’t remember passing through. There was no window in this particular hallway as there had been in many of the others, but sun orbs lined the crossbeams and illuminated the glossy, polished wood doors on either side. Elsha strode before me to the closest and opened it. “This is where you’ll stay,” she said. “My room is the next one over, so when you’re ready, come and knock, and I will accompany you back.”

I nodded and stepped into the room.
“Room” was a bit of an understatement. It was quickly apparent that the reason this hall had no window was that rooms on this side were facing the outside: an entire wall of this part of the room was a huge window. A small fire pit was situated rather oddly in the middle of the room, circled by several cushions and odd runes that I couldn’t read. A skylight above it must have been where the smoke escaped. There was, I noted with delight, a new bow and a new quiver of arrows hanging on the wall to my right near the window. On the wall to my left, also circled with runes, was a large, circular mirror. The floor, like everywhere else in the palace, was shining marble slab, and I couldn’t help but wonder how the upper floors were supported, as heavy as they were. A solid-looking bookshelf resided next to the mirror, containing volumes of all sizes and colors.

There were also two doors on the right hand wall. I walked to the closest one and opened it. Immediately, I was enveloped by sweet-smelling steam, which I inhaled with pleasure. How long had it been since I bathed?

I left my acrid smelling, stiff animal hide tunic and breeches at the door and dropped my heavy quiver and bow. I was glad to be rid of the enchanted weight to which darkness clung. I unlaced the knee high training boots. I even undid the braid in my hair.

The warm water relaxed me further as I sank down into it. Sweet-smelling potions sat on a shelf near the bath, and I scrubbed all the remaining feelings of darkness and fear away from my hair and my skin. It took quite a bit of potion and even more time before I felt truly clean, but finally, I rinsed myself and stepped out of the bath. The towel hanging nearby was soft and warm.

As Day had promised, new clothes were folded neatly on another shelf. The billowing pale blue blouse was light and airy, and the swishing lavender skirt hung just below my knees. The clothing felt so free and comfortable. Leather boots sat below the shelf on the floor, but these laced only to my ankles, and were much lighter and more flexible than my own.

There was a mirror in there as well that had managed to avoid fogging up. I pulled the comb I found there through my waist-length blond hair and braided it carefully, abandoning my dirty hair tie and tying it with the leather cord sitting next to it on the little ledge.

I examined my face in the mirror. My large eyes were shining with the novelty of everything around me, and my cheeks were flushed a berry color from scrubbing. After seeing so many lightlings, it was a little disconcerting to remember that I was not the same as they were. My eyes were wrong and my skin, though not nearly the color of a darkling’s, seemed all the darker in contrast to my shining white blond hair. It had been a long while since I had seen my own reflection, I realized. Night’s castle had few mirrors, and there had never been enough light near still water for me to see anything. My cheeks were more angular than I remembered, my face slimmer and my mouth fuller. I was changing. But perhaps that wasn’t such a bad thing.

I left the bathing room and returned to the main room, pausing only briefly to see what lay behind the other door. As I had suspected, it was a small room with a comfortable looking bed and sun orbs, now unlit, hanging across the ceiling. I crossed to the bow and quiver hanging on the wall. First I removed the quiver from its hook. It was lighter than my own and shorter, the arrows stockier but only about three quarters of the length of the ones I was used to using. Shining golden runes were emblazoned on the sturdy leather, in addition to an intricate, artistic image of the sun. I hung it across my back, and though it felt better than having no quiver on at all, it was still too light and unfamiliar feeling.

The longbow, too, felt different in my hands. It was also shorter than my own, but it was more flexible, so it took less strength for me to string it. It was oak, I noted with surprise and delight. The grip fit perfectly in my small hands and pulling it back was so easy that I couldn’t help but question its power. The arrows were smaller and lighter, I reminded myself, so it didn’t have to be as inflexible as my old one. When I plucked the string, it sang an echoing note through the room and pulsated with sunlight, the golden runes on it that matched the ones on the quiver shimmering. Satisfied, if somewhat hesitant, I unstrung the bow and stuck it through the loop made for it on the quiver.

I wanted to explore the room more, to examine the strange runes that surrounded everything and perhaps examine the books, but I knew that I had spent enough time there for now. It was my new home, after all. I had to train now, but there would be ample time later to unlock its secrets. I hesitated a little, however, as I pulled the door open, and took another look back at the room. It was all so wonderful. Truthfully, I was afraid that if I left now, it might all just disappear.

Finally, I returned back into the hallway and rapped on the door next to mine. “Elsha?” I called softly. “I’m ready.”

The lightling emerged from her room and surprised me immensely by embracing me. “You look beautiful,” Elsha said. “It all fits you so well. I’m glad that you’re here to train with us.”

I was unaccustomed to any kind of friendly affection and was amazed that Elsha was so open despite the fact that we had known each other for barely a few hours. Even more surprising was that she seemed to feel no animosity or even guardedness toward me despite who I was. “Thank you,” I murmured, embarrassed. I noticed that Elsha, too, had a quiver and bow hung across her back.

Elsha surprised me further by grasping my hand and leading me down the hallway. “We have no idea of your potential,” she said, “so you’re going to have to try everything. Who knows what kind of power you have?”

We began descending a flight of stairs. “What, no flying?” I asked, surprised.

Elsha shook her head. “I’ve got too much to tell you!”

She proceeded to explain to me as much as she could about how the palace was run. I would learn of fire summoning, lightning control, scrying, image manipulation, clairvoyance, and their own special brand of archery. I couldn’t take in everything I was hearing. “I had no idea lightlings could do all of that,” I finally said, cutting off Elsha’s rattling list of powers.

“Not all of us can. In fact, most of us just have one or two specialties that we concentrate on, and perhaps one or two other things that we are capable of, but certainly don’t master. Besides,” she added, “we try not to let the darklings know everything we can do. The element of surprise is an important battle tactic, and until we can win the war for good, we can’t reveal all of our secrets.”

I didn’t say it aloud, but I couldn’t help but be surprised that Elsha was sharing all of this with me. Did they really trust me? Even though I was half darkling? I certainly hadn’t expected that much.

Elsha finished her description of each type of power, but little of it made any sense to me without having seen or experienced it myself. “It’ll all make sense after a while,” Elsha reassured me. “I know it’s a lot to take in. When my mother brought me here three years ago—”

“You’ve only been here for three years?” I asked, stunned. Every darkling was trained at Night’s castle from the time they were eleven years old. “And you’ve learned this much?”

Elsha smiled. “It was three years ago that my parents noticed my unusual aptitude for archery and a little bit of clairvoyance as well. They sent me here to develop my gifts and train to defend my people. Not to sound vain, but only gifted lightlings train here. Others are usually trained either by their families or by warriors that Day sends.”

She led me down a corridor and out a door into the archery field. It was so different from the one that I was used to. A line of haystacks with targets attached sat at the far end of the large field, and placed in a seemingly random fashion throughout the field were hoops on poles of varying heights. A straight line of about fifteen lightlings stood stiffly at attention. Elsha took her place at the end of the line and I stood next to her, trying to mimic her stance.

An older lightling with silver-colored hair tied up in a bun and yellow eyes strode out into the field, her dull gold tunic and skirt swirling in the wind that had just begun. Her sharp features and air of concentrated purpose reminded me of a bird of prey. “Good morning,” the woman said.

“Good morning, ma’am,” the lightlings all responded, respect clear on their faces.

“Joining us today is Liath,” she said, indicating me with a nod of her head. “Liath, my name is Edana, but you will call me ma’am unless I say otherwise. Is that clear?”

I swallowed. “Yes, ma’am.”

Edana nodded. “Very good. I have heard that you are quite an archer, Liath, and we will see if that is true. I hope, for your sake and ours, that it is. I assume you’ve never been trained as an archer by a lightling?”

“No, ma’am. The only training I received was at Night’s castle, so darklings are the only ones who’ve ever taught me.”

Edana nodded again. “Then you will have to work all the harder. This is my most advanced group of archers, and I do not take excuses for failure. You will learn to be at the same level as the rest of them, regardless of your past training. As you may have noticed, we do things a little bit differently here. You will learn to use your powers with your archery. Elsha, if you will please explain how our training works to Liath.”

Elsha nodded. “Yes, ma’am.”

“Good. The rest of you, get to work! I expect to see improvement today. Remember your goals. These hoops are here for a reason. Don’t go on ignoring them! I will be coming around to make sure you are all on task and completing said tasks.”

The lightlings all nodded together and the line dissolved. The sounds of bows being strung and arrows sliding out of quivers were familiar to me and made me feel a little more at home. This was where I belonged. Perhaps I had been trained a little bit differently, but this was still what I was good at.

“Liath,” Elsha said, “do you see the poles set up around the field? Those are there for us to learn how to control the paths of our arrows with our light. Have you ever done that before?”

“I didn't know that was possible,” I admitted. Why hadn't I thought of that?

Elsha didn't look surprised. “The bows here have special runes carved into their sides that allow them to hold our light power more easily,” she said, indicating the runes on her own bow. I nodded. I had noticed them before, but now I was glad to know of their purpose. “If you infuse the arrow with your power, you should be able to sense it as you shoot it. From there, you can move it as though it were you flying through the air rather than the arrow. Does that make sense?”

I nodded again. “That doesn't sound too difficult.”

Elsha smiled wryly. “It isn’t, not by itself. The real difficulty lies in both navigating the arrow and keeping an eye on your own surroundings. It really isn’t practical in battle if your arrows fly true but you're either knocked unconscious or killed because you're not paying attention.” Elsha pointed to Edana, who was shooting an arrow at a lightling who had his eyes closed and was clearly guiding his own arrow.

I gasped and was about to shout something when Elsha grabbed my arm. “Don't worry,” she said. “The arrows Edana uses are certainly not pleasant to be hit with, but they do no actual damage.” The arrow flying toward the lightling veered off course, and Edana smiled. “See? He’s fine. He stopped it from hitting him. We’re all pretty used to this kind of training. You will be, too, after a while. I would say that I don't think she’ll do it to you on your first day, but after everything we've heard about you, I can’t be sure.”

I strung my bow. “Heard about me? From whom?”

“Our clairvoyants,” Elsha replied, stringing her own bow. “They have a limited vision of what goes on in Night’s castle, but they could see you because your light called to theirs. We couldn’t be sure about your allegiances until you came to join us, naturally, which was why nothing was done before.”

Edana crossed over to the two of us. “Miss Elsha, what do you think to get done through your idle conversation?”

“I was explaining how our training works, ma’am,” Elsha replied carefully, not quite meeting the elder's eyes.

“Oh, well, good. She must be well versed in it now. Let’s see you give it a go, Liath.”

I swallowed and pulled an arrow out of my quiver, fitting it carefully to the string. I closed my eyes and filled the arrow with my light, surprised at how easily it drank it in. Then I pulled the string back, again surprised by the ease with which I could do it, and let it go.
I kept my eyes closed as the arrow flew, but it seemed to me as though they were open and I could see everything. I flew through the hoops one after another, weaving up, down, left and right, but just as I was about to bury myself in the bull’s eye of a target, I felt a stinging pain on my shoulder and opened my eyes. I heard the arrow hit the ground, and I rubbed the pain on my shoulder. Edana was staring at me with her sharp eyes. “A little less chitchat and a little more practice would serve you both well.” She walked away, eyes already on another unfortunate lightling.

I already felt downhearted. This was what I was good at, so why was I already failing at it? But that kind of thinking would be of no help. I turned the embarrassment into determination. I would show Edana who was a good archer.

Elsha looked sheepish. “I'm sorry,” she said softly when Edana was out of earshot. “That was my fault. I’ll talk you through it. You’ll still be able to hear me when you’re flying with the arrow, so just listen to my voice.”

“Okay,” I said, still shaken from embarrassment and the shock of Edana’s arrow on my shoulder. It was strange to feel this way—I had been struck by Broin’s arrows more than once, and those did real damage. Why was this more humiliating? But it was of no help to think of that now. I fit another arrow to the string, fed it my light, and loosed it into the sky, closing my eyes as I did so.

It was nearly the same thing. I was flying through the air again, my perspective that of the arrow. “Pay attention to the lightlings beneath you," said Elsha’s voice. I realized that I could simultaneously direct where I was going and watch those below me, almost like crossing my eyes and seeing two things at the same time. It was an odd experience. “Good,” Elsha said. “Now find your own body on the ground.”

When I saw myself from above, standing straight with my eyes closed and my bow out before me, it was an odd experience. I realized that I still had control of my muscle movement from my own perspective. I lowered my arms, but it was not an easy task. It was like trying to come up from the depths of water to find my own muscles, and when I accomplished it, my arrow veered sharply to the right, which wasn’t where I wanted it to go. I saw an arrow flying toward my body, one of Edana’s, I assumed, and this time managed to clumsily sidestep it, though this buried my arrow’s head in the ground.

I came back to myself abruptly, head spinning from the force of my arrow’s impact. “It takes practice,” Elsha told me, patting my shoulder. “None of us could do it the first day. And having Edana for an instructor is kind of like getting thrown into the ocean to learn how to swim. It’s terrifying, but it works, and it works quickly.”

The archery session seemed to last forever, and I was getting more and more frustrated with myself. Elsha eventually had to stop helping me and practice her own archery, so I was on my own. I kept on trying, but every time I had to move my body out of the way of something, my arrow would veer off course. The only time I got my arrow into the bull’s eye when my body was left alone. Talk about being thrown to the wolves. I kept getting closer, though, but somehow that didn't help. Missing it by only a little made me feel as though rather than just not having enough practice, I wasn't working hard enough. And I was supposed to learn to control opposing arrows while I controlled my own, rather than just sidestepping them. How could I ever get to that point?

By the end of the session, I was sweating through my light clothes, along with every other lightling. Edana approached me, her face stern. “You should know, Liath, that regardless of your background, I expect more of my students. If you do not work harder, I will be forced to move you down, and that would be an insult to you as well as to me. You do not want to insult me.” And with that, she strode out of the field.

I was thoroughly disheartened, even though Elsha kept insisting that I had done much better than any of the rest of them. “You made more progress in your first day than I did in my first month, and that was after they chose me to come here because of my archery!” Elsha said, trying to cheer me up. But I just couldn’t feel better. This was what I was good at. Would there really be a place here for me after all?

It was time for lunch, then, and I was already thoroughly exhausted. I didn’t have the energy to fly despite the sunlight bathing the practice fields, so Elsha and I walked back to the entrance hall. I followed my nose down a large corridor into the long dining hall. It smelled warm and delicious, and scents I couldn't name made my mouth water. Fresh fruits and vegetables were in enormous piles on tables along the wall, along with various steaming buns, meats, stews, and any number of other foods.

I took as much as I could fit on a plate and followed Elsha to a table situated in one of the large squares of sunlight from the enormous windows. My tired body appreciated sitting still, and I was finally able to soak up a little energy from the sunlight now that I was more or less resting. “That was… interesting,” I finally managed, speaking between bites of the delicious food. “What happens next?”

“I guess I’ll take you to clairvoyance. I’ve got some individual instruction after that, though, so you’ll probably have to follow someone else to another session.”

I nodded, trying to let my exhausted brain take it all in. “What’s clairvoyance, exactly?”

Elsha shrugged. “I’ll let Driskell explain it to you. I’m no good at it. He’s the clairvoyant master. I think you’ll really like him.” She paused. “How do you feel?”

I laughed. “Sore, tired, and overwhelmed. But better than I’ve felt for a very long time, nonetheless. I’m frustrated, but it would take a lot more than that to ruin this.”

We finished eating quickly, and then we were off.

The clairvoyant lightlings took their class in the top of one of the winding turrets. It took several minutes of flying in upward spirals before we finally came to the room where these lightlings met.

The lightling in charge of the clairvoyants was a man with solid blue eyes and blond hair pulled back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck. "Liath," he welcomed me, nodding. "I have heard a great deal about you."

I nodded awkwardly. That was not a comforting thing to hear. It seemed as though the lightlings here all knew more about me than I knew about myself.

"This is where I teach the clairvoyants. Am I correct in assuming that this is a power you've never either explored or experienced?"

I nodded. "What exactly is clairvoyance, sir?"

"My name is Driskell, and I am rather fonder of my name than Edana is of hers,” he said, his eyes sparkling. “So if you will call me by my name, I will call you by yours.
“Clairvoyance is the ability to see beyond what we would normally see, to know that which should be beyond knowing. It may be manifested as the ability to foretell events, and certain kinds of scrying also require clairvoyance. It is a difficult skill to teach, mainly because few possess it and the way it is used is very personal. However, I have met with many different lightlings and have learned certain techniques which may be used to coax out whatever talent may, or may not, exist."

I nodded. "Should I have already experienced it? If I do have it?"

"Not necessarily. Some lightlings are able to accurately foretell events as small children, whereas others do not know of their talent until someone else helps them to discover it. You all have your individual projects," he said suddenly, addressing the rest of the lightlings. They had all been watching us. "Go to it." It seemed interesting to me how self-led everything seemed to be here. Or perhaps I had just been tossed in among the advanced students. I wondered why.

He turned back to me. "Oftentimes it is possible for a clairvoyant to see something that is not there in a mirror, water, clouds, or any other pattern without logic. For example, would you please look out that window and tell me what you see? Or, rather, do those clouds look like anything to you other than clouds?"

And so the session began. I described to him in minute detail the shapes that the clouds presented to me, though I could find no logic or sense in them at all. After that, Driskell had me look into a mirror and try to find anything out of the ordinary. A pool of water was near the wall in the tower, and that served also as a way to test my skills. I could find nothing in any of it, except for shadowy shapes that turned out to be reflections of very real, very concrete parts of the tower.

Though he was not cruel like Edana, he was exuding disappointment by this point, and I couldn't decide which was worse. Driskell radiated gentle humor and understanding, and I was immediately inclined to trust and respect him. I longed not to disappoint the kind, intelligent lightling with my lack of skill, so I tried ever harder to see what was not there.

His expression hadn't changed in all the time we worked, but his eyes were a little weary by the end. "It appears that this is not your strong suit," he said, his voice neutral. "Although... Have you ever tried looking into fire?"

I bit my lip. "I've never seen any fire except the fire that I create. We never saw any natural fires, and all the torches in Night's castle were magical light. I never saw anyone use real fire. And I’ve never done anything but fight with mine."

Driskell raised his eyebrows. "Curious," he said. Near the wall, next to the pool of still water, was a fire pit like the one in my room. "So you've never seen one of these?" he asked, pointing to it.

"There's one in my room, sir—Driskell—but before that, no, never. I only knew what it was because of my grandmother's stories. She always wanted to make a fire for me to see, but she was afraid that she would burn more than what she meant to. She said fire had a tendency to get away from her, and she was afraid I would do the same. I didn’t realize I could control it until I was at Night’s castle."

But Driskell had stopped listening. In the pit in front of him, a scarlet orange flame had sprung up, dancing in the air before us. It sparked and spat smoke at the ceiling in curling tendrils. "It's so beautiful," I whispered. Mine had only ever burned over my skin, and had never been colored like this. "It's so..." But I stopped. The flame was moving. Shapes took form in its belly, shapes that looked like people.

But not like regular people. Not like walking people. They looked like they were flying. Yes, that was it, they were flying somewhere, in an organized clump, with a bigger person at the front. No, not bigger, I realized. I wasn't seeing physical forms, I was seeing energy. There was someone more powerful at the front. I concentrated harder, pushing all other noise and distractions out of my head. They were darklings. How I knew was a mystery, but there was no question. Night was in the front.

As I watched, I began to realize that I could hear them, too. "Not long now," one of them said.

"We will crush them," said another. "They will have no idea. Now that Liath isn't here for them to scry, we can have a real element of surprise."

"It's a shame." I was shocked to hear Night's voice as though he were standing right next to me. "I would've liked to keep her. If she had learned to use her darkness, she might have helped us and we could have left her alive. No use crying over spilt milk, I suppose." There was ripple of laughter behind him.

Slowly, the fire faded away, and I was watching them as though I were there. "Really, though, is this a good idea now that they have her?" That was Broin. "She'll be able to tell them about all of our strategy, and I have no doubt she will. She feels no loyalty for us. She never has."

Night chuckled. "It does not matter. She knows so little about our strategy as it is, because she would not let herself see it. It is her own stubbornness that protects us. Although, naturally, had she not been stubborn, she would be helping us attack anyway. But the time is finally right. We must get to them before they to us. It is imperative. You all know what would happen."

There was a murmur of assent. "It is such a shame," said Broin in a low voice. "She was my best archer. I had so much to teach her..."

Night sighed in something close to anger, and my skin prickled. "We all did, would she have learned it. She had more potential than anyone, but now we have no choice but to kill her..."

I gasped as the fire sputtered out and I returned to the present. "Liath?" Driskell asked, his face serious. "What did you see?"

It took a moment for me to form coherent sentences. "They're coming," I said finally. "All of them. A battle. A battle to kill me. They're going to fight."

There was a moment of silence until a lightling spoke from behind me. "The clouds tell of a coming storm, and not a natural one. It’s getting closer at this moment."

Another voice. "The reflection in the mirror is dark and filled with shadows, enemies coming upon us without warning."

Elsha spoke, too, in a strained whisper. "The water shows me flying shadows, readying to hunt and to track the one who stands in their way..."

The room was silent again for a moment. "Of course," Driskell said. "But now we know. Liath, it is because of you we are able to see the dark ones. Thank you. We must alert the rest of the lightlings as well as Day to the attack. It is likely that they aren’t on the march yet and that you were all seeing what will happen rather than what is happening, but we can’t sure. Gwenolla, please take Liath down to Niallan to scry the event and see if it is, indeed, happening now. If not, see if any of the scriers can nail down a time frame. Elsha, stay here and see if you can glean any more information. I will inform Day and his assistants of what we know as of now." Everyone ran to fulfill their orders, and Driskell turned to me once again. "I know Day had been planning for you to study for a few years at least before any plan was made, but I'm afraid you're going to have to learn as you go. Gwenolla and Niallan will help you to find out if you can scry, but I have confidence that you can because you saw the event in the fire. I am truly sorry about the pressure, but I know of no other way." He quickly began to fly down the stairs.

Gwenolla, a tiny lightling with luminous violet eyes and white blond hair cut in a short bob, approached me. "We must go now, and quickly," she said. "Niallan's scrying room is at the other end of the palace." She melted into the air, and I followed her out of the tower.

She hadn't been exaggerating. We had to descend all the way to the ground floor and then fly back up to the top of another tower, at the opposite end from the first. The room was nearly identical to the one we had been in before, except instead of fire pits, mirrors, and pools of still water, only water and mirrors were on the floor. Lightlings crouched around them, occasionally murmuring something to one another.

I was taking in my surroundings while Gwenolla explained the situation to a lightling that I could only assume was Niallan. He was tall and well built, but somehow he had the same insubstantial look as Gwenolla and, I realized, most of the other scriers and clairvoyants. Did the power a lightling had affect how he looked? "Liath," the lightling said. "I apologize that there is no time for introductions." He crossed to one of the mirrors on the floor and shooed away the lightlings around it brusquely. "So you cannot see the future in either water or mirrors?" he asked. I shook my head. "Good. That makes it much easier for you to scry in them, because you won't have to determine whether what you see is happening at present or in the future. Scrying is always the present."

Gwenolla had left them and was now staring determinedly into a mirror in the floor, a small wrinkle of concentration between her eyes. "Gwenolla is one of my best," Niallan said, "but she usually cannot see the dark ones, just as most of the clairvoyants and scriers can't. We must hope that because of your unusual heritage, you may be able to."

He motioned me toward the mirror in front of him, and I hurried over. "Look at the mirror and concentrate on someone or somewhere, preferably one that would be involved in this situation." I found his vagueness odd, but remembered that lightlings, like my grandmother, preferred not to mention Night’s name, except when they were telling of his fall. They could be terribly superstitious sometimes. “Reach inside of yourself for your light and give it to the mirror. Give it also to that person or place in your mind, as though are throwing it somewhere you can’t see.” Niallan sighed. “I apologize for my terrible explanation. But scrying is a very inexact and complex art, and I don’t have time to do it justice.”

I nodded and knelt by the mirror. I reached inside of myself, pulling my light into the palms of my hands and throwing it down into the mirror. The mirror shimmered and its reflection dimmed, leaving its surface empty and ready for me to scry. I reached inside myself again to that pool of light and envisioned Night. It was painful to do so, because I'd hoped to never see or think of him again. How terribly naïve. I imagined him in perfect detail as much as I could, because instinct told me that that was what I had to do. I imagined him just as I'd seen him last, glaring at me and offering me a deal. I could hear his voice, feel the touch of his poisonous power on me. I shuddered and threw the light at the image of him in my mind.

The image on the mirror shimmered, but nothing appeared. I closed my eyes, trying to concentrate harder. Where would he be right now, if indeed he wasn't on his way as of yet? He would be in his quarters, I imagined, and that was a place I wished never to see again even more than I wished never to see Night. I had only been there a few times, and it had been more difficult each of those times. It was usually there that Night threatened me or made me promises, there that he tried to turn me into one of them. The image resisted my imagination, but I called it through the layers of time and denial. It was the most ornate room in his castle, a four-poster bed in it hung with black gossamer. There had been no light in the room, for he had needed none, and everything had been so dark and seductive, calling to the evil that dwelt in my depths.

I opened my eyes, but the image remained in my mind. The mirror shimmered yet again, but I could feel a barrier keeping me from seeing it, from seeing him. Then, all at once, I knew what that barrier was. None of the lightlings had been able to scry him, and why was that? Because he was shrouded in darkness. And why had they thought that I might be able to do it? Because I possessed darkness myself.
I looked swiftly around the room, but Niallan was hunched over a still pool of water, murmuring words softly to himself. The rest of the lightlings were similarly distracted. No one was watching me now.

I took a deep breath and tried to calm the fear in my stomach. It was the only way, I told myself. I was the only one who could help them, and if that meant suffering a little, so be it. I would control it; I wouldn't let it control me. It would just be for a moment.

With that thought giving me little comfort, I dove deeper into myself than I had to find the light. The darkness was buried within me, in a corner with suppressed memories and emotion I wouldn't allow myself to acknowledge. With a feeling of dread, I grasped a small corner of the darkness and dragged it up with me, fighting through the levels of myself and breaking through to my conscious imagination. I threw the thread of darkness toward my intersecting images of Night and his quarters.

My eyes flew open, not of my own doing, and stayed glued to the mirror before me. Its surface shimmered for a third time, but now with an intermingling of darkness and light. The shimmering was sustained for a few seconds, and then an image appeared. It was dark, very dark, but I knew that I had finally called forth an image of Night's quarters. There, with glowing eyes staring straight back at me, was Night.

"I told you," he said. I jumped. Was he talking to me? "I told you that you would need to use your darkness someday. I would've rather you learned it here. Now that you've used it, they'll never trust you. You won't learn how to use it properly. So yes, now you've scried me. But what will you tell them you've seen? An image speaking to you? They won't believe you. You see, it's impossible for me to know you're here." I could hear the smile in his voice. "But it was bound to happen. Just remember what I've told you, Liath. Remember it all. You'll need it." All at once, the image disappeared, and all that I could see was a reflection of the high ceiling.

I was gasping for air. I hadn't let the scry go. Night had been controlling it, and he knew that I had seen him. How was that possible? Even according to him, it shouldn't have been. And yet, he had... What was wrong with me?

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