MIME-Version: 1.0 Content-Location: file:///C:/ABCB5C8C/WhiteCrystal.htm Content-Transfer-Encoding: quoted-printable Content-Type: text/html; charset="us-ascii" The stage shimmered in Andrea’s mind, with its backdrop of tre= es painted in strokes of creamy brown, sponge-dabbed with green

The stage shimmered in Andrea’s mind, with its backdrop of trees painted in strokes of creamy brown, sponge-dabbed with green.  In the corner of the canvas rested the red autumn leaf she had painted.  The hardwood stage, pitted and sti= cky with glowtape, pressed against the thin soles o= f her ballet slippers.  Andrea could= smell fake coconut and oil paint.  H= er eyes drifted shut.

   &nbs= p;        The plastic jewel warmed in her hand until Andrea nearly dropped it.  Instead, she squeezed tighter.  Mother, where are you?  You’re an actress, like me.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  You understand why I had to perform tonight.  Mother, take me away= from here.

Green light glowed against her closed eyelids.  As Andrea concentrated, the image = in her mind shifted.  Painted trees expanded from the canvas to become a real forest, brushstrokes strengthening into branches and bark.  Pines= ap permeated the air, thick with redwood dust.  A cool breeze blew against her.

        &= nbsp;   Andrea jumped up, eyes open.  The for= est solidified around her in a horde of evergreens.  She took a stunned step backward, = and lost her balance.  Arms flaili= ng, Andrea tried to catch herself.  Her fingers scraped the rough tree bark of a gray and white birch.  She steadied herself and then look= ed at her hand.  Stinging white scra= tches marked where her fingers had grazed the tree.  A real tree. 

Wherever she had traveled, = she wasn’t dreaming.  Andrea looked down at the dusty path cutting through the towering evergreens.  A single leaf lay there, burned wi= th scarlet.  Cloudless clear sky = blew chilly goosebumps up her exposed arms.  The complete silence of the forest unnerved her.  Dry pines blend= ed with the damp smell of soil and a faint tinge of smoke.  Her room, with its soothing vanilla scents and the Brahms CD, had vanished.&nb= sp; Andrea still held her mother’s jewel in her hand, although the script had vanished.  She star= ed down at the jewel, and found it was shining bright as a green stage light.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  She slipped it around her head.

In the distance, the trail = opened to a clearing.  Within its spa= ce, Andrea counted a dozen buildings, their rectangular forms shrouded in thatch and bark.  The houses sagged, silent, with limp thatching drooping over them.  A pile of logs slumped against one house, while the center building was draped in blue banners.  Andrea stood there, under pine and= elm branches, completely alone.

“I’m supposed t= o be your bodyguard?” 

   &nbs= p;        Andrea spun to face a girl about her own age.&nbs= p; A few inches taller than Andrea, she had dark red-brown hair cascadi= ng to her waist.  Andrea instantly envied it, thinking of her own scrubby curls.  She stood like an athlete, all lon= g legs and firm muscles.  Andrea felt= every dumpy pound bulging around her waist and knew she was freckled and ordinary. 

   &nbs= p;        Kell.”  The word spilled from Andrea’= ;s lips.  Aside from the human ea= rs, this girl could have been the sylvan warrior from the play.

   &nbs= p;        The girl’s narrow nose sliced precisely down the middle of her flawless chocolate-colored face, wrinkling when she eyed Andrea.  She wore plain brown hose, shirt, = and tunic with a deep red sash.  “Huh?  Don’= t tell me Our Sorceress sent a half-wit.”&n= bsp; The girl sized her up with a self-important sniff. 

I am= Alenna, summoned by the Sorceress.  I won’t rest until I save yo= ur people.

   &nbs= p;        “I—I’m Andrea, and I have no idea how I got here.”

“Wonderful.  Helping a half-wit would be preferable.”  She crosse= d her arms, creasing her leather tunic.  <= /p>

   &nbs= p;        Andrea blinked at the animosity in the girl’s voice.  She certainly had Cindy’s attitude.  “You’re trying to help me?”  It certainly didn’t sound that way.

   &nbs= p;        With a sigh loud enough to inform Andrea just how much she was stretching the li= mits of patience, the girl said, “You certainly need it.  I’m Kre= liss Eaglewing.&nbs= p; Our Sorceress, Sidaria, Guardian of the Forests and Lady of Light—did you get all that?—sent you vital information.  The sylvans—”

   &nbs= p;        “Are dying.&nbs= p; I know that part.  But = Calithwain’s just a script.”  Andrea didn’t believe her own words.  This place felt like t= he Calithwain she had imagined through every minute of the play.  She had wished to come here and he= r wish had come true.

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss tossed her hair.  Calith= wain’s as real as you are.  Sidaria brought you here with her last strength to cu= re the White Crystal before her people die.”  The girl looked her over from pony= tail to loafers, taking in Andrea’s theater costume.  A smile tugged at the corner of he= r mouth.  “You don’t know anythi= ng about magic, do you?  If lives didn’t depend on you, I’d laugh.  Now, come.”  She took wide purposeful steps.

   &nbs= p;        Andrea didn’t follow.  In the s= cript, Kell had been loyal and steadfast, without the abrasive attitude.  Someone had definitely misrepresented this place.  I’m your champion?”  She had only pretended to be Alenna, the sylvans’= ; mystic heroine.  How could she possib= ly save people’s lives?  &#= 8220;I can’t even fix the screw-ups between my parents.  Why would the Sorceress choose som= eone as useless as I am?”

Krelis= s met Andrea’s panicked gaze, this time with recognition in her eyes.  She hesitated.  Animosity drained from her, leavin= g a girl as uncertain as Andrea.  “I felt the same way when I arrived here from the West.  But Calithwain does something to people.  = Sidaria’s never chosen a champion wrongly.  And you have her Forest Gem.”

Andrea pulled the circlet o= ff to stare at it.  A glimmer of lig= ht stroked its surface, and it sparkled, far more than a chunk of plastic.  The play was becoming more real by= the moment.  Andrea shivered.  “This?  It’s fake.  Costume jewelr= y.  I’ve had it for years.”= ;

Krelis= s stared, a strange longing filling her eyes.  She reached toward it.  “I’d hoped to wear it = one day.”  Her lips parted slightly.  Andrea held the cir= clet out.  The girl yanked her hand= back as if Andrea had slapped it.  “Put it on.  Its = power will protect you with all Sidaria’s remai= ning strength.  When Sidaria recovers, she’ll use it to send you back.”

Andrea arranged the circlet= around her brow.  Why would her mothe= r have owned a priceless jewel from Calithwain?&n= bsp; Thoughts of her mother and the O’Keefe Award stabbed through Andrea.  “If what’s happening is real, your sorceress shouldn’t have brought me here.  I mean, I belong in my world.  Tonight I’ll find out if I g= et to meet my mother.”  Andrea= bit her lip.  This girl was the fi= rst person she’d ever told.

“Well, you won’= t have a chance to meet her if the White Crystal fails.  All of nature’s dying, first= here, then in all the worlds.”

   &nbs= p;        “All the worlds?  Mine, too?”  Andr= ea swallowed.  The script hadn= 217;t warned her of a threat to Earth.  This job should go to the President, not to her.

“You can’t sepa= rate the realities.”  Kreliss’s eyes widened, taking on a new intensity.  “Your world hasn’t fallen into the twisted realm yet, but if the goodness here di= es, this world will stop pulling yours toward the light.”  Stepping toward Andrea, Kreliss extended her hand coaxingly.  “You’re not my idea of= a champion, but we need you.”  She swallowed.  “= Since, well, since Sidaria didn’t want me to save the sylvans.” 

“You’ve got the= wrong person.  Send me home, now.”  Andrea had had en= ough of this confusing place, and she felt fed up with being polite.

“Only Sidaria can send you home, and she’s dying.&= nbsp; Seems you’re trapped here until we succeed.”  Kreliss’s eyes flashed, and her voice slapped A= ndrea with disdain.  “Now, come.”

Andrea walked behind her guide.  Memory opened in her m= ind like a heavy-scented blossom, pulling her back three months to when she had found Sidaria’s script.  The Forest Gem burned against her forehead.  Puzzled, Andrea tri= ed to dismiss the memory, but it raced through her mind, dragging her away just as suddenly as she had come to Calithwain.

   &nbs= p;        ?  “The birdsong’s ended,” Andrea said without thinking. 

   &nbs= p;        “I know.”  Kreliss looked back for an instant, and Andrea saw pain flash across her face.  “All of nature’s dying= with the White Crystal.” 

Andrea looked away, gazing = into the thinning forest.  Trees and br= ush crowded both sides of the well-trodden path.  Closer to the village, pine trees gradually changed to fruit trees.  Apples dangled just out of reach, while grapevines draped trees, dro= oping sullenly with clusters of purpling fruit.&= nbsp; Andrea blinked.  Her parents’ apple tree grew half the apples one of these trees did.  And these apples themselves were h= uge, as big as grapefruits.  Well, = Andrea could see how the sylvans used their magic.  A ticklish feeling of excitement s= pread through her.  Magic.  Kreliss didn’t offer any of the scenery a second glance.  Around them, leaves were purple an= d gold with autumn’s chill.  Th= e land slowly sloped uphill, as if barring Andrea’s passage.  “Where are we going?”<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  Andrea asked at last.

   &nbs= p;        “To meet Sidaria.  Then east, to find the villain kil= ling my people, whoever he is.”  Kreliss spoke curtly, biting each word.  Apparently, concentrating on her o= wn thoughts had darkened her mood. 

        &= nbsp;   Andrea stubbed her toe on a tree root, and winced.  Kreliss expected her to save everyone, but Andrea couldn’t even watch her own feet.  “So we don’t know?  I could be stranded here forever.”  Andrea heard a tremble of panic in her voice and forced it down.  Hysterics wouldn’t help.

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss stopped and turned to face Andrea.  Anger still colored her voice, but= under it, her words shook.  “W= hat do you suggest?  In less than a w= eek, when Sidaria’s last magic vanishes, every= one will die.  My friends are dying.” 

Maybe it was obvious, but A= ndrea had to ask.  “In my play= , a witch attacked the White Crystal.  Could that be the solution?”

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss resumed walking, and Andrea followed her.  Tripping on the slippery leaves, A= ndrea winced when Kreliss eyed her.  The other girl’s watching on= ly made her clumsier.  “I d= oubt it’s so simple,” Kreliss said.  Sidari= a can’t see all the future, only glimmers.  Don’t rely only on the scrip= t; as Sidaria’s message traveled through all the worl= ds to reach you, it twisted.  The pl= ay will trick you.”

   &nbs= p;        Andrea swallowed.  Trapped in this world with only Kreliss, who clearly didn’t like her. 

   &nbs= p;        Sidaria said to bring you here.”  Kreliss gestured into the clearing ahead.

   &nbs= p;        Inside rose an ice sculpture of a tower, pristine white.  Andrea= drew in a deep breath and felt a delicious serenity steal over her.  She stared, trying to soak in as m= uch of the tower’s presence as she could.&n= bsp; This before her was magic.

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss pressed her hand against the sealed door.  “It’s never been shut before.”  Her voice trembled.  “Lady Sidaria?”

   &nbs= p;        Golden lightning arced out of the ground to spread over the white tower like a cancer.  Andrea yanked Kreliss back hard toward herself.  Both girls tumbled in a heap.  Though neither girl was touching t= he tower, electricity shot toward both of them.  Dying here is so stupid, Andrea = thought.  I’ll never even find out about the O’Keefe Award.

        &= nbsp;   A white shield, wobbling like a soap bubble, extended around the two girls.  Andrea= stared at Kreliss, still reeling.  “Did you—”

   &nbs= p;        The other girl shook her head.  Sidaria.”

   &nbs= p;        A voice chimed faintly in Andrea= ’s head.  *Go, children, quickly.=   Find and stop her.*

   &nbs= p;        “Find who?” Andrea demanded.

   &nbs= p;        Silence.  The bubble wavered, and Kreliss pulled Andrea up.&nb= sp; “C’mon.  We’ll manage on our own.” 

   &nbs= p;        “But—”= ;

   &nbs= p;        Sidaria’s spending herself fast enough just kee= ping us alive!”  Kreliss hauled Andrea to her feet, and dragged her in the opposite direction from the one they’d come.  They ran until Andrea’s breath was thundering in her lungs, then, at last, Kre= liss slowed.  The tower and its lig= htning had vanished from sight.

   &nbs= p;        “What was that?” Andrea asked.=

   &nbs= p;        “It should be obvious.”  Kreliss breathed heavily, though she wasn’t sweating.  “Whoever̵= 7;s draining the crystal was waiting for us.”  She swallowed.  “I just wish we could’= ve helped Sidaria.  I’ve seen her blow away an avalanche without breathing hard.  She must be terribly weak.”<= /p>

   &nbs= p;        “So, now what?” Andrea asked.

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss’s face closed.  “Someone’s slaughterin= g my people.  We have to stop her i= n the next four days.”

   &nbs= p;        “Without a clue where we’re going?”<= span style=3D'mso-tab-count:1'>    

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss hesitated.&n= bsp; “I may know someone who can guide us, after we finish here.= 221;

   &nbs= p;        The scattered wooden huts stood before them, with paths worn between drifts of = gold and crimson leaves.  Trees dro= oped like crippled skeletons, while empty branches grasped at the gray sky, bare= ly sheltering the houses.  The girls’ own crunching footfalls echoed in the silence.  Andrea couldn’t see any peop= le or animals. 

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss stopped before a house.  The squat wooden cottage slumped f= rom age, yet under a thin cover of vines every board was pegged in snugly.  Two flowerboxes hung under windows draped in stiff yellow cloth.  Several thick trees leaned so close against the walls that, still growing, they had been built into the house.  The cottage blended into the forest behind it as if they were only separate by accident.  A little rag doll lay discarded be= side the doorstep.  Kreliss picked it up.

   &nbs= p;        She paused on the threshold a moment and then walked into the hut.  Andrea followed, glancing at the c= lumps of green in the window box.  E= ven the flowers here were fading; the orange and yellow blossoms sagged.  The scent of flowers pierced the a= ir, even dying, as they spent their last energy sending up clouds of fragrance.=

   &nbs= p;        Inside, a woman lay sleeping on a bed, cradling two little girls, one on each side = of her.  The girls were perhaps f= our and six, or would be if they were human.&n= bsp; All three had pointed ears and golden skin, and wore loose leather dresses.  The woman’s du= sky hair rested in elaborately braided coils, woven with green feathers.  A round pendant of silver knots la= y at her throat.  She was obviously pregnant, stomach round as the lid of a treasure chest. 

Krelis= s’s footfalls echoed through the hut, breaking the silence.  Andrea backed against a shelf of b= askets and clay pots.  Overhead, livi= ng vines of blossoms drooped in the rafters.&= nbsp; The smaller girl huddled in a ball, tight against her mother.  The mother’s arm spread over= her, as if protecting her child from all the harm of the world.  It seemed she had failed.

   &nbs= p;        The older girl’s face lay serene and calm, confident her mother and the adults of the village would care for her.&= nbsp; If the sylvans slipped from their slumbe= r into death, that peaceful look on her face would echo forever in Andrea’s mind.  Andrea swallowed hard a= nd looked away.  They’re= only sleeping, she reminded herself.  Yet the three sylvans lay there, barely breathing, silently reproaching her for being healthy.  The excitement of the adventure di= ed as Andrea stared at her shoes, vividly aware of the White Crystal’s vict= ims only a few feet away.  In the = play, she hadn’t had to look at the sylvansR= 17; dying faces.  She scrubbed her= hands against her costume’s stretch pants.=   “They— they aren’t—”

   &nbs= p;        “No.”  Kreliss’= ;s voice softened, losing its barely restrained contempt and anger.  She laid the doll under the younger sylvan girl’s hand.  = 220;Sidaria’s people vanish when they die, and rejo= in nature.  The sylvans are all asleep, just like Lyral and her daughte= rs here.  In = every house.”

   &nbs= p;        “Everyone?”

   &nbs= p;        “Yesterday, the entire tribe chose to give their strength to Sidar= ia.  They poured it into the White Crys= tal, like pooling your last cups of water in a dripping sieve.  The shared power will last a few d= ays longer, to give Sidaria more of a chance to save us.  We must seal that = sieve while Sidaria still has people to protect.”  Kreliss glanced around the silent cabin.  “They made a great sacrifice.=   Lying helpless, waiting for death to come claim them.”  How could= she look so calm and determined?  = Andrea wanted to shrink away from the mother’s still face, weary in sleep.  Now the children and Lyral would pay the price if Kreliss and Andrea couldn’t save them. 

   &nbs= p;        Forcing herself to gaze at the youngest sylvan girl, little more than a toddler, An= drea felt her chest tighten.  While= pale and still, the girl looked adorable, with eyelids wrinkled up as if they we= re buttoned.  The rag doll lay bu= rrowed under the girl’s arm, pressed against a dainty pointed ear.  She could have been a human girl, almost, just ready for preschool.  Andrea’s breath caught in her chest.  “There’s no one else, = is there?”

Krelis= s shook her head. 

   &nbs= p;        Andrea swallowed, but the words spilled out.  “Then I’ll help you.”

   &nbs= p;        “You will?”  The surprise and= joy spreading over Kreliss’s face gave her an innocent girlishness.

   &nbs= p;        “Definitely.”  Andrea smiled back, feeling cheerf= ul for the first time in this world.  “We’re a team.”&n= bsp; Kreliss believed in her; maybe that would suffice.

   &nbs= p;        Kreliss smiled foolishly and then seemed to realize h= ow open she looked.  She hurried = to an intricately carved chest against the wall, flung it open, and dug to the bottom.  = Kreliss thrust a dark blue tunic and a pair of brown hose at her.  “Try these, see if they fit.=   Lyral’s= sister left half her clothes here from the last stay.”

   &nbs= p;        “What?”

   &nbs= p;        “We need practical clothes and food for the journey.”  Andrea could hear an edge sharpeni= ng Kreliss’s voice.  Perhaps the other girl felt as helpless as Andrea did.  In a more level voice, she continu= ed, “The sylvans share everything, and give f= reely when another asks.  Please tak= e the clothes.  I promise Lyral wouldn’t have— won’t mind.”  Kreliss’s voice quieted until Andrea could barely recognize it.  Andrea took the clothes.        &= nbsp;  


Krelis= s also found a rope, extra clothing, two leather satchels, canteens, scratchy blankets, and plenty of dried meat.  Dumping everything in a pile, Kreliss da= shed among the houses collecting supplies, and left Andrea to organize the two packs. 

“What’s the hurry?” Andrea asked when Kreliss barely = paused as she dumped a bundle of bandages and sour-smelling salves between them.

“Without guards it isn’t safe here,” Kreliss said.  “Keep your ears like a fox&#= 8217;s for scavengers.”

Keeping alert, Andrea sorte= d two battered pots into one pile, and the copper kettle into another.  The canteens could hang on the out= side, but a fishing net and the pouches of dried fruit= would have to be padded with spare clothes.  Andrea hoisted a satchel, longingly remembering the wadded paper she= had stuffed in last year’s backpack to play Alenna. 

Was that a birdcall?  But all the birds had vanished.  It sounded again, a hawk’s c= ry, but higher and shriller.  Andr= ea peered in all directions.  Nothing.

At Kre= liss’s insistence, Andrea had traded her school loafers for a pair of stout leather boots that rose high over her ankles.  Their hard shells creased against her toes.  She pulled on one of the heavy wov= en cloaks and huddled gratefully into its folds.  Her only guide acted distant and h= ostile and Andrea had accepted a hazardous quest with no escape home.

A wave of soothing comfort = flooded into her mind, offering reassurance so profound Andrea felt her legs turn i= nto spaghetti.  Memories of the pl= ay crowded into her mind too insistently for Andrea to shut out.  The Forest Gem flared against her forehead, burning.  Then Calit= hwain melted away. 

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