❇️ Chapter 3 ❇️

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"Marian Spritz," called out Professor Caustica. "Please lead the class by selecting the first assignment."

Exhaling, Marian briefly searched the crowd. She caught the eyes of her mother, who offered an encouraging nod. Her younger brother, Blaine, looked on with a smirk. He'd been as surprised as Marian was when she found out she would be commissioned.

By the time she reached the center of the platform, she felt the empowerment of the Great Lights beginning to slip away, a sickly film of doubt taking its place. What if I mess this up?

Professor Caustica fanned the envelopes out before her, right under her nose.

"Whichever one I want?" Marian whispered.

Her teacher nodded. "Some assignments are more difficult than others, but you've proven more than capable."

Marian sniffed. She hadn't expected the calls for help to be organized. She thought that after being commissioned, she'd wait around ready to answer calls from wards. As far as she knew, Glistens weren't in charge of the calls. How would they know they were coming?

"Are these calls from wards?" she said, finally, looking up into Professor Caustica's yellow eyes.

"No," her teacher murmured, her voice haughty. "They're leftover assignments-problems that have yet to be solved. Make your selection, Miss Spritz. You're taking up others' time."

Marian bit her lip and snatched the nearest envelope before returning to her place. She didn't pay much attention to the other Glistens as they selected their assignments. With a slow breath, she stuck her finger in one edge of the envelope and slid it across the top. Then, wrinkled her nose as she peered inside.

The envelope had been crisp and new. The paper inside did not match. She pulled out a crinkled scrap of newspaper that appeared to be cut from a missing persons section. A single name had been circled in red ink.

Marian lifted a hand to her mouth and swallowed as she silently read the circled name.

Fraya Lumen.

It was not a human name. It was the name of a Glisten. If Marian had any doubt, she only needed to look at the rest of the paper. All the names listed were those of missing Glistens. She recognized some of them as well as she recognized the source of the newspaper clipping-the Glistens' own secret publication, Spark Daily.

Marian glanced to where Sal stood staring at her own scrap of newspaper, tears streaming down her face. They looked at each other and frowned, though some part of Marian was relieved. Their assignments meant the Glistens community had not forgotten the missing Glistens-those who had disappeared, like Sal's father. It was suspected that the weaker Glistens, the un-commissioned, had been hunted and chased away by rabbits.

Professor Caustica's voice broke the silence. "I expect many of you have questions," she said. "This class of newly commissioned Glistens has received a special assignment due to their success with the rabbit who attacked Minx Gullion. That rabbit has since been destroyed."

Gasps from the assembly fluttered throughout the hall. After filling in everyone who hadn't been present for what happened outside Minx's bedroom, Professor Caustica lowered her head.

"The rabbit problem has gotten worse," she explained. "Like all commissioned Glistens, the newly commissioned may take on human wards, as needed. But finding the Glistens who have disappeared is the highest priority."

Her declaration was met with mumblings from the crowd.

"This is an absurd waste of time!"

"Why would Glistens want to take an active role in defeating the rabbits?"

"What about our wards? They are our first priority; this is nothing but a distraction!"

"It's wrong to attempt such a mission when we should be helping the humans."

Marian squinted at the male Glisten who'd last spoken, certain he hadn't been one of the Glistens who helped defeat the rabbit.

"You didn't see what happened out there," she challenged. "Our light that they feed on can also be used to defeat them. Wouldn't things be different if instead of being hunted by rabbits, Glistens were the predators and the rabbits became the prey?"

Maz stood from the crowd. "Mari's right," he said. "We need to get to the source of this once and for all. For the protection of our own kind. We cannot protect human wards as Glistens if we cease to exist."

Marian's stomach flipped at how his eyes burned. Like Sal and her younger brothers, Maz had lost his father to the rabbits. All because Mr. Minikin had been considered a weaker, non-commissioned Glisten.

"Your motives are selfish, Maz Minikin!" A female glisten with spikey blue hair sneered. "You hope this rabbit chase will lead to finding your lost family member."

"Whether that's true or not, I hope so," said Marian.

At the crowd's narrowed glances, she sucked in a breath. She pressed a hand to her chest, then added, "I was surprised to learn my ward was a Glisten. One of us. I think Minx called precisely because things have gotten as bad as they are now-to the point where we as guardians must guard each other. From the rabbits."

"Then why not destroy only the rabbits here in Applewold?"

Marian shook her head. "If we destroy all the local rabbits, there won't be any left to find their source. We have to follow them."

"But how?"

"We need to explore the Rabbit Holes and see where they lead."

"It's possible the missing Glistens are corralled in one place," said Maz, stroking the purple stubble on his chin.

"Marian, wait!"

She snapped her head toward the familiar voice, that of her mother. Mrs. Spritz sat a few rows' distance from Marian, wringing her hands. Marian's father had an arm around her shoulder.

"Please don't be hasty in making this decision," said Mrs. Spritz. "Give it some time."

Marian lowered her gaze. She glanced over to Sal, whose black eyes shined with tears.

"I'm sorry, but I can't, Mom," breathed Marian. "I wouldn't be standing here today if it wasn't for Sal. I owe this to her, and to her family."

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