Zelene left the room, evidently to somewhere more exciting, and I was left to get myself out of bed. As much as I wanted to go back to bed, perhaps stay there and avoid all my problems until the rest of time, I was hungry. My traitorous stomach growled and I frowned at it.
My boots and cloak were still on the floor from the night before, as well as the pajamas I had tossed down. I considered just putting the boots on and going, but I had already been wearing the same clothing since the day before, and I felt rather gross.
On a whim, I decided to see if there was anything in the wardrobe. After all, someone else had already laid out pajamas for me, so it wouldn’t have been a stretch to put an extra shirt or two in the wardrobe.
When I opened it, it was far more than a shirt which greeted me. An entire ensemble, hung from various hangers or folded, sat in the wardrobe. At first, it seemed like far too many clothes for one day, but when I looked at them I realized they all went together, cohesive parts of one large set. A dark shirt that snugly went to my wrists, a well-fitting pair of smoky leggings. A long green tunic there was as well, with no sleeves and a divided skirt that went to my knees. A brown leather belt fit around my waist, just where the two pieces of the shirt came together again. There was also a smaller leather band to hold my hair back. When I put everything on, I was surprised at how well it fit, how natural it felt to me. They weren’t the strangest clothes I had worn, they actually were rather conventional. I tossed my boots on and threw the dark cloak over my shoulders, before piling everything on the floor inside the wardrobe and shutting the door.
My five minutes must be nearly up. I hurriedly left the room.
Down the hall and into the common room I went. The other four were already up and about, dressed in somewhat the same way I was. Madge had a quiver of arrows on his hip and was sitting, stringing a bow. Rob was nearly on top of him, sprawled across the couch and laughing. Azak’Kam the orc was smiling at something Zelene had just said. Though my thoughts were still dark as pitch, but everyone seemed genuinely happy and I was lulled by the easygoing, pleasant air of it all.
Rob saw me first, vaulting off of the couch and grinning. “Morning, sunshine,” he said. “Ready to face your first day?”
“We will see,” I said, but I was smiling, too. “Maybe I’ll finally get a full explanation of what’s going on.”
This made him smile, and he grabbed Madge by the hand and pulled him off of the couch. “We’d best not be late,” he said, gesturing towards the door.
As we went downstairs and past the others I had seen the day previous, I noticed that many of them looked far more serious than we did. I didn’t see a single smile, nor laughing jest. A few were polishing weapons in their common room, an elf was conversing with an angel, but no one seemed to be having any fun. As we passed, nearly all activity in the room stopped as the others watched us past. Madge gave someone a sunny wave and I heard a few sniggers. They hate us, I realized. They think us laughable. Suddenly, I was determined to prove them wrong.
We left the building and emerged into glittering sunlight. Outside, the street I recognized from the day before was filled with life. A large green dragon blocked most of one end, so dark as if to be nearly black and I was momentarily mesmerized by the smoke pouring from its nostrils.
People were everywhere, unlocking shop doors and conversing. Most everyone was dressed in greens, more shades of green then I had ever seen, except for two hulking man, nearly eight feet tall and dressed in white, walking up and down the street. “Guards,” supplied Rob helpfully. I stopped to stare into a bakery, scents of fresh bread filling the air. A line of people were already corralled outside, waiting to be served. Zelene tugged on my arm when she saw me staring, ushering me down the street and past the wonders.
A few streets over, me stopping to gawk every few moments, we reached a large timbered building. Delicious smells wafted from inside. A rowdy group were making their way towards the wooden doors. We followed behind them and ducked inside. Zelene took my arm and lead me past trestle tables full of people busy eating and to an empty section in the corner. The whole place was filled with hearths, burning merrily and filling the hall with smoke and woody smells. Everywhere there was chatter, people laughing and joking through their meals.
The instant I sat down next to Madge, a woman dressed in grey set a large plate of food in front of me, heaped high with bread, something that looked like eggs, and a few types of meat. I dug in eagerly, stomach growling. Across the table, Rob said something I didn’t catch and Madge laughed heartily.
When we had finished eating, Rob and the others led me outside and back onto the street. A group of pointy eared girls in various shades of green snickered at us as we walked out. One of them, a nasty looking girl with a scar over one eye, had the gall to say: “Don’t you Unchosen have somewhere to be? Latrine duty, perhaps?” Everyone around her grinned, laughed under their breaths. Zelene looked ready to sock the ringleader, but Azak silently caught her by the wrist, holding her back.
“Why do they all laugh at us?” I asked, when we were on the street.
Madge grimaced. “No reason, really, ’cept prejudice. That we’re not equal to them, because we weren’t picked to be Skydancers, or something like that.” He said it not in a harsh way, but rather resigned, as if there was no escaping it. But then he smiled, a sunny, bright thing that lit up his face. “But never mind them,” he said. “Let’s get you to the Grounds for your classes!”
We wound a few streets over, past groups of people and a large muddy green dragon, into a section with red roofs, but we didn’t stop there. We passed through two more sectors before stepping onto a large boulevard. It was very wide, and filled with people dressed in all colors and dragons milling about. It was very straight, and when I turned to stare down one end, I could see a large city gate, down and down and down and so far away it seemed tiny. Closer to our little group, however, was the huge mountain in the center, pushing into the clouds. Leading into the mountain was a huge carved arch, looking to be over a hundred feet tall and wide enough for an army to pass through. This was the direction that Madge turned, heading towards the entrance, leaving me to follow and gape in wonderment. As we strode underneath the huge arch into the mountain, I stared up and marveled at intricately carved runes set into the stone, a long way above.
Inside the mountain, a warren of tunnels awaited. The arch opened up into a huge cavern, stretching up and up and up into darkness. People treaded all around our little group, coming in and out through stone and wooden doors, or running in formation. A pair of angels practised at swordplay in a corner, the clang of metal and battle yells reaching my ears. As I looked around, my eyes picked out spots of color along the walls and I realized there were stone stairs carved into the walls and leading up to tunnels many feet above. The whole thing was lit by floating beacons of light, giving it a warm glow.
At one edge of the gigantic room was a waterfall, cascading from a cave too far above for me to see in the gloom. It sprayed into a huge inky pool, so large it took up much of the ground. The water was jet-black and shimmering like a thousand stars. Even across the cavern, I could feel the slight mist of water on my face. “It’s lovely,” I told Zelene, standing next to me. “What is this place?”
She smiled at me. “These the Training Grounds.”
Before she could say anything else, a loud roar echoed from the darkness above and I took a step back in surprise. The crowd, all the people gathered around, went silent. Whispers all around me, “Are they running patrols again?” “Don’t tell me we’ve gone to war!” “There’s a new Dancer- just you wait!” When I turned to the other Greens, they looked as confused as I felt. I noticed everyone around the edge of the pool doing the same, backing up and pressing against us. The push of people forced us backward and I tripped over a boulder. When I scooted around it, Rob shook his head. “Climb on,” he told me. “This is something you don’t want to miss.”
I scrambled onto the rock and looked toward the inky pool. Everyone had left a wide berth around it. I turned around to ask Rob or one of the others why, but when I looked off of the rock they had all vanished, eaten by the crowd. The crowd had fallen silent, watching, waiting, expectant. Then, that huge roar split the deep again, and a loud yell. A burst of light, fire? streaked the cavern above, far above, in streams of red and orange and gold. A sound, like wingbeats, echoed, and then a huge yellow dragon burst from the cave above, diving straight towards the inky pool. I could see someone on the dragon’s back, for just an instant, before man and beast both hit the water at full force and vanished, sending a huge spray of water into the air. Everyone gathered about was cheering, hugging each other. “Another successful jump!” I heard someone say below me. “This is the first one in weeks!” a heavily accented voice declared.
The crowd began to disperse, spreading back out throughout the cavern. When I hopped off of the rock, glancing around for my friends, they had vanished. When I looked through the people, I didn’t see anyone in green. I spun around again, but they still hadn’t showed up. What am I supposed to do now? I didn’t even know where I was supposed to go, or when.
Suddenly, a loud voice exclaimed: “Well, look who it is? The youngest Skydancer protege Ivy Whitehall!” When I turned around, I was faced by the broad grin and side-swept hair of Storm Fallingstar. His blue eyes sparkled mischievously and I fought hard not to groan. “What are you doing here?” he asked. “I thought your little Greens would have taken you under their wings by now.”
I was too uptight to tell him I was lost, instead I held my head higher, adjusting the cloak around my neck where it sat heavily around my shoulders. “The Greens were busy, but they showed me the way to this place and told me where to go,” I said, deadpan.
“To go for what, exactly?” he asked, eyes glinting with something halfway between malice and humor. I sensed he had seen right through my ruse.
When I tried to come up with some valid answer, my mind fell blank. I wasn’t even sure what the Center was for, and certainly not what I was doing there. I sighed loudly. “Fine, Stardust. You got me. The Greens took my here for classes, or something, but I lost them in that commotion. I’m not sure what I’m doing here or where to go. Happy?”
He grinned again, cocky and wide. “Of course I am, dear. I have a task now!”
“And that task is?” I asked, dripping with sarcasm.
“Why, escorting a lovely lady to the Masters for her training to begin.” He made a grand show of offering me his arm, like a proper English gentleman, and I scoffed. “I can walk on my own, thank you.” When he looked crestfallen, I felt a bit bad, but then I remembered he had pushed me off of a cliff the day before.
We walked to the other end of the cavern, ducking out of the way of people moving in other directions. He led me to a large stone staircase, carved into one of the walls. “It’s much easier on a dragon,” Storm told me. “Less stairs to climb.”
We began the ascent, and only a few minutes in, my legs were aching and we were about fifty feet above the central cavern. The staircase we were on curved around the central cave, up and up and up into the darkness. When I stopped for a moment to glance up, I heard Storm’s voice call. “Surely you can manage a few more steps, dear. We’re nearly there, if you can make it.” I hated the cocky tone in his voice, and so, tired legs or not, I turned to dash up the stairs until I was ahead of him. “Of course I can make it,” I told him. “Can you?”
He only smirked. “Of course. I’m Storm Fallingstar. I can do anything I set my mind to.”
I rolled my eyes, but said nothing as we continued climbing. We reached a large door set into the wall a few minutes later, and Storm pushed it open. Wind and sunlight hit my face, blowing my hair around. Inside was another cavern, mirroring the one Storm had shoved me off of the day before. We stood on a ledge that extended another ten feet before dropping into empty space. A slim young woman in white stood near the edge, arms corded with muscle folded neatly over a bow of grey wood. “Lo tirem, Storm. I’m glad the Council’s let you out of their sight. Where are you bound?”
“Lo tirae, Maeth.” Storm responded, tongue rolling elegantly over the language I didn’t understand. “The Masters’ Hall.”
The woman nodded, and closed her eyes for an instant. When she re-opened them she glanced back at Storm. “One of the couriers is on her way,” she said. “It’ll be just a moment.” Storm nodded. “We can wait,” he said.
The small woman walked over. “Who’s this?” she asked Storm, gesturing to me.
“I’m right here, you know,” I said, voice harsh. The petite woman smiled at me, and it stretched falsely over her lovely features. “Of course you are, dear,” she told me, as if she was addressing a very small child. I suddenly wanted to shove her off of the ledge.
“This is the newest Unchosen Green, Ivy Whitehall. She’s my Assigned,” answered Storm, gesturing towards me.
The lady laughed widely, lips stretching over white teeth. “You, the great and rebellious Storm Fallingstar, have an Assigned? Is this the one you pushed out of the infirmary yesterday?”
He smiled, but there was something darker behind it that I couldn’t place. “That she is,” said Storm, glancing at me. “At first, the Council judged to take away my Assigned and my status as a Ranger, but Os’Dan decided to give me another chance.” He turned towards me in full, then, grinning broadly. “Would you believe, it’s actually my punishment to continue teaching you? The Council thinks I can be a good teacher, if only I’d learn some humility.”
I sighed. “Humility is something you lack, Storm, I can attest to that.”
“Attest? My, someone’s using big words!” said the petite woman, eyes sardonic as Storm laughed mockingly. I could feel the fumes of anger burning a hole through my chest, but I kept my mouth shut.
The loud sound of wingbeats buffeted the air around us as a lithe purple dragon came to a landing on the ledge beside us. The small woman spun away from me, the sarcastic glare she had given me vanishing into a placid mask. “Nyss,” she said, voice calm. “These are the two that requested passage.”
A young angel woman in a purple cloak was leaping off of the dragon, raven hair cascading around her shoulders. “Oh, hello, Ivy!” she said, brightly. “How was your first night?” I smiled when I realized it was Nyssrin, the kind angel girl I had met the day before. She walked swiftly towards Storm and I, leather boots silent on the stone, and caught me in a tight hug before I could complain. “It’s so lovely to see you again!” she told me, when she stepped away. Her purple eyes glimmered with warmth.
“You too, Nyssrin,” I replied. “My first night was okay, eventful, I suppose. I’m still rather disoriented.”
She laughed, tinkling bells. “That’s not surprising,” she said. “The first day is confusing for everyone. I’m your ride, apparently.”
“Are you? Where am I going?”
She glanced over at Storm. “Where are we going, Fallingstar?” she asked. He inclined his head towards the purple dragon standing alongside, who noticed Storm looking and blew a great gust of smoke from its nostrils.
Finally, after a long moment, he answered. “The Masters’ Hall would be nice,” he told Nyssrin and the rudeness in his voice was palpable, and Nyssrin noticed, too, violet eyes narrowing. “Maybe I won’t take you if you have that attitude,” she retorted, flipping a lock of unruly dark hair over one shoulder.
Storm’s eyebrow raised, and he did a sort of foppish half-bow. “Sorry, angel girl. My intention was not to be rude.” Nyssrin sighed and began to walk back towards the dragon. In one graceful motion, she had crossed the gap and vaulted onto the saddle on the back of its purple back., swifty tightening an array of straps around her legs. When neither Storm nor I moved, she crossed her arms, glaring more at him than at me. “Well?” she asked. “Are you coming or not?”
Next to us, I could see the petite woman silently laughing and I shot her an angry glance before following Storm towards the purple dragon.
As I swiftly discovered, riding a dragon is really hard. First there’s mounting. Storm, who’d apparently had practice, got on as smoothly as Nyssrin had, leaving me to stand awkwardly on the ground, staring up. Despite how graceful the purple dragon looked at a distance, it was rather large, and I considered for a moment how best to clamber atop of a ten foot tall beast before Storm saved me, extending a hand for me to scramble up.
Second, there was the saddle. It was a triple saddle, with three tooled leather seats one after the other, sitting on the back of the dragon’s neck and in front of its wings. Nyssrin was securely strapped in the first one, with Storm in the second, doing up the buckles round his legs. I was sitting in the third one back. At first, it looked much like a horse’s saddle, which made me feel a bit better, until I saw the extremely large and extremely confusing mess of straps. “I’m supposed to put these on, right?” I asked.
Storm, in front of me, laughed. “If you don’t want to fall off you might!” he joked.
“Be gentle, Storm, this is her first time,” Nyssrin chided. She turned a bit in the saddle. “Do you know how to buckle all the straps?”
“I can figure it out,” I lied. “I’ll be fine.”
Storm laughed again. “Ivy, dearest, you are an awful liar.” He quickly undid the straps on his saddle and turned around to help me with mine.
I could feel my face growing hot. “I can do this.” When I reached down to tighten the straps myself, my fingers fumbled.
“Please, dear. Leave this to the professionals.” He jokingly punched me in the leg, lightly, before finishing what I had so clumsily started. When he turned back around, I breathed out shakily, face red with embarrassment and anger. Damnit, Ivy. Get it together. He’s just rude and you’re just inexperienced.
Nyssrin snapped me out of my thoughts. “Ready?” she asked.
“I suppose,” I told her, while shaking my head.
“Right. Off we go, then!” She laughed merrily, and said something I didn’t hear to the purple dragon. My stomach lurched with fear just as the dragon took one large step forward, and then another, and then launched off of the ledge into open space.
Third, there’s the flying. The flying was the worst part of all. I felt my heart drop in my chest as the dragon plummeted. It folded its wings into a graceful dive and I screamed. It reminded me altogether too much of a roller coaster, which I hated, and skydiving, which I also hated. I squeezed my eyes shut in terror as I was thrown around. The straps held my legs in, but my loose upper body had nowhere to go. When the dragon began to rise, I nearly went over backward until someone caught me. I opened one eye just a crack. Storm had his hand gripped in the fabric of my shirt. “Come on, kerkarl,” he reprimanded me. “Just forget you hate me for two seconds and put your arms around my waist so you aren’t ripped in half." Chagrined, I did just that, and found it did become a little easier.
My stomach curled with nausea, but I forced myself to open my eyes just the same. The dragon I sat upon was rising steadily with every beat of its great wings. The city in all its multicolored glory was spread out like a quilt far below as we spiraled around the Great Peak. Dragons spread all across the sky like shining gemstones, red and blue and grey and green. As I stared longer through the blue sky and down at the city, I began to pick out more of them. The city itself was so far below that the people had vanished, the hustle-and-bustle, and it looked serenely calm. For the first time since I had woken up in this strange and mystical land, I wished for a camera to capture the surreal beauty of the landscape below. My fingers itched, because the light was just right and the tableau would have come out perfectly, but I didn’t have a camera, so I resigned myself to watching the city fade as we flew up and up and up.
There were still so many things I didn’t understand.