content-location: file:///C:/796B91B3/WhiteCrystal3.htm content-transfer-encoding: quoted-printable content-type: text/html; charset="us-ascii" mime-version: 1.0 White Crystal

 

That night they camped in = the crumbling remains of a castle, perched on one of the few completely dry pa= tches above the unending marshes.  = Red flowers bobbed on the water’s surface, dripping crimson pollen in la= nguid streams.  Soft gray grass str= etched into the distance, proliferating with hopping brown birds.  Their bent needle-shaped beaks du= g into every corner of the mud as they poked and prodded the marshy shore with surgeonlike touches.  Andrea could see nothing beyond the wetlands, nothing but tufts of straw-colored grass in any direction except for the lingering trail of tre= es they had left, reaching out like an arm waving farewell. 

After climbing steadily up= hill, Andrea and her friends had reached the foot of the gently sloping hills ea= sing out of the marshes.  The smoky campfire Kreliss lit helped to scare off the mosquitoes, but did nothing for the murky smell that drifted toward them a= t all times, thick and mildewed.  S= weat dried on Andrea’s skin, turning stiff and dry as sandpaper against t= he unending dampness.  Every mom= ent she felt sticky.  More than anyth= ing, Andrea longed for a long, long shower in clean ice-cold water.

The dark blue expanse lapp= ing against the base of the hill, covered in floating shadows and grass clumps, looked indescribably welcome to Andrea’s tired eyes.  She knelt beside it, pressing her fingers into the stagnant water.  Fragments of broken red stems bobbed at her fingers, floating in the murky greenness.  Andrea yank= ed her hands from the wrist-deep pool.  “No way I’m drinking this.  Could we dig, you think?”

   &nb= sp;        Kreliss shrugged.&n= bsp; “Our canteens won’t kill us.” 

   &nb= sp;        “We don’t have that much water in them,” Geom= e said, prodding the wet ground with a shoe.  He plucked a spike off a thick-stemmed red plant and used it to dig= a few inches.  “We should restock, if we can.”  <= /p>

   &nb= sp;        “I don’t plan to drink from a s= wamp,” Kreliss said.

   &nb= sp;        “It should be fine if we dig.”

   &nb= sp;        “Okay, I’ll grab some sharp sticks.”=   Andrea hurried off, out of the range of their argument.  Why did those two always have to squabble?  Geome might have forgiven Kreliss for attacking him,= but he seemed determined to bait her at every opportunity.  Andrea found some likely specimen= s and tossed them to Kreliss.  Digging dried meat out of her pac= k, along with a few mushrooms they’d gathered on the road, Andrea reali= zed how much she missed chocolate.

   &nb= sp;        “Leathery stew again?”  Geome asked.  “Isn’t there something fresh we could eat?  Before the midges eat me, that is.”

   &nb= sp;        “If you’re in the mood, you could summon up a glorious feast for us thro= ugh magic, overflowing with delights.  <= /span>Though anything’s better than your watery porridge.= 221;  Kreliss dug the sticks into the ground as if emphasizing her point. 

   &nb= sp;        Geome flushed.  “My talents run in other directions.”

   &nb= sp;        “I’ve yet to see they run in any direction.&nbs= p; Other then endangering us all, of course.”= ; Kreliss smirked.  “Your bracelets are probably swallowing all the power you haven’t burned up making explosions.”

   &nb= sp;        “Oh, you’re one to talk, after that display earlier.  Why Sidaria<= /span> trusts you—”

   &nb= sp;        “Watch it!”  Kreliss’s hand clenc= hed around her digging stick.

   &nb= sp;        “Stop fighting already!” Andrea exploded.

   &nb= sp;        Two abashed gazes greeted her.  “It bothers you?” Geome ask= ed.

   &nb= sp;        “Yeah.  <= /span>It just does,” Andrea muttered.

   &nb= sp;        “You’ve certainly held your temper,” Kreliss poi= nted out.

   &nb= sp;        Andrea shrugged.  “In theater,= I kept pushing people.  But I found = out they worked better without my help.”

   &nb= sp;        “Yes, but Andrea, we’re a team,” Geome s= aid, his voice apologetic.  “= ;You can tell us if we’re putting you in the middle.”

   &nb= sp;        “I just wish someone else would say that,” Andrea muttered to herself, remembering her parents.  May= be she could tell them the truth.  <= span class=3DGramE>If she made it back home.  “Now that we’ve settl= ed down, there’s something you need to know.”  She told them both what the fairi= es had revealed about the lodestone.

   &nb= sp;        “Wait.”  Geome= cleared his throat.  “Forget on= e of the Seven.  We already have t= he most powerful crystal in the world, right next to the lodestone.  The White Crystal.”

   &nb= sp;        Andrea struggled to follow this.  &#= 8220;So we somehow reverse the White Crystal’s polarity, to fight the lodest= one instead of helping it?”

“= ;Exactly.  It’s perfect.”  Geome= slammed one fist into the other.  = 220;But that’d require an enormous amount of power, directed into the crysta= l at the precise opposite frequency.  No mage in the world has that much.  Even a group of mages could perish if they tried, with the crystal = so desperately depleted.”

   &nb= sp;        Kreliss grimaced.&n= bsp; “Well, we won’t find help there.  At least we’re close to the fortress, now.”  She st= ared down at her hands, looking so despondent that = Andrea ached to comfort her.  But th= ere were no words.

Kreliss, you dropped your knife,” Geome said, hol= ding it out.

Her brow knitted.  “I did?”  She took the knife and tried to t= uck it in her belt, only to find her own was already there.  “Not mine.”

“Of course it is, look.”  Geome pointed at the knife.  It cha= nged into a yellow butterfly and fluttered onto Kreliss= 217;s head.

“Hey!”  Kreliss batted at her hair and tried to dislodge the straggler.  With a sparkle, the butterfly van= ished.

“= ;Magic?” Andrea asked.  It was nice to= see it used for something pleasant.

“= ;Of course.”  Geome caught Kreliss’s wary look and sighed.  “Just lightening the mood.”  He raised his eyebrows.  Kreliss, I can purify the water.=   Would that satisfy you?”

   &nb= sp;        Kreliss nodded, accepting the peace offering.  Geome= knelt, slipping on the slimy grass.  He raised his hands over the hole Kreliss had dug= .  His breathing slowed and his eyes half-closed.

   &nb= sp;        Andrea watched him as Geome knelt there, motionless.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  Silhouetted against the rosy suns= et, he looked like a statue.  Beyond= him, furlike marsh grass coated the pink and gold water.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  “Anythi= ng worth drinking?”  Andr= ea rubbed the back of her neck, where condensation trickled into her shirt.

   &nb= sp;        Geome winced.  “Never disrupt a mage casting a spell.  If he can’t focus on the ma= gic, it’ll backlash.”  He must have seen her grimace, because his voice softened.  “You didn’t blow my h= ead off this time, at least.”      

   &nb= sp;        “What’s your Academy teach you?”  Kreliss asked.  She pulled a leather pouch of sour-tasting elv= ish pepper from her pack.  “= ;Where I’m from we learn to steady our magic, no matter what.  An instant’s distraction co= uld kill.”

   &nb= sp;        “Since dryads and centaurs are so deadly?  How would you know anything about magic?”  Geome’= s tone wasn’t challenging, only puzzled.  Kreliss stared at him.  He glanced away, tos= sing a stick on the fire.  “Pe= rhaps we should stop arguing and cook.  The tzalmaveths are waiting.”  &= nbsp;         

Andrea tossed a stick on t= he fire, and it flared up, red as paint.  She closed her eyes, relaxing into the glow against her eyelids and the fire’s incredible heat.  She felt a memory surge.

 

“I need to face the witch, whoever she is,̶= 1; Andrea told her friends the next morning.  “She’ll return until I do.”  The cloying swamp swelled up around them.

   &nb= sp;        Kreliss shivered.&n= bsp; “Some witches live near here.  Keep your nose to the wind.”

   &nb= sp;        “Nothing about tzalmaveths= ?” Geome asked.

Andrea shook her head, and= drifted into silence.  Kreliss and Geome were squabbling about how long the t= rip would take, and neither of them heard the faint sound that halted Andrea i= n her tracks.  “What was that?”  The other two s= topped arguing and she heard it again, a low soft moan.  “Someone’s nearby.= 221;

Kreli= ss jumped.  “That came fro= m below us!”  She pointed down = the hill of yellow straw-grass.  “There.”

“Hello,” Geome called.  “We’re here to help you.”

“Don’t be so c= ertain of that,” Kreliss hissed.  She snatched Geome’s arm.  “One of the swamp witches could be trapped.”

“= ;Help, help!”  This tim= e they all heard it.

“Where are you?̶= 1;  Geome asked.  “Are you hurt?&= #8221;

Feminine panic filled the voice.  &= #8220;Near the ruins.  Please, co= me help me.”

The three travelers exchan= ged glances.  Finally, Kreliss dug in her pack and found a long rope. 

“We’re coming,= ” Andrea called.  “Just wait.”

As they approached the voice’s source, the puddles coating the ground like spilled motor oil deepened from shoe soles to ankles and then higher.  The travelers waded through gummy= water that bobbed against their knees, cold and thick with floating grass.  At last, they reached the source = of the voice.

A young woman struggled wa= ist-deep, against some unseen adversary.  When Andrea looked more closely, she saw the woman’s flowing golden curls= had tangled in a fence of jagged reeds and thick cattails.  The woman’s violet eyes wid= ened with panic.  She pulled, but = the fluffy cattails yanked her back against them.&nb= sp; Each time, more flowers tumbled from the daisy wreath propped precariously on her head.  Te= ars on her pale pink dress reflected how much she had already struggled.  Despite the woman’s bedragg= led appearance, Andrea instantly envied her looks.

Geome= hurried forward.  “Calm= down, please!”  He gripped he= r arms and eased them down from where they tugged her tangled hair.  “I have a little knife.  I’ll cut you loose.”<= /p>

The woman let out a small = sob.  She pressed her hand against her forehead.  “Not my hair= .  Please don’t cut off my hai= r.  It’s my only beauty.”=

Andrea raised her eyebrows= .  Even with the thin scar curving o= ver her cheek, this woman was one of the most beautiful she’d ever seen.  Short hair would hardly endanger that. 

Geome= slid his knife back in his pocket and stepped even closer to the woman to = untangle her hair by hand.  As he circ= led the jagged reeds, Kreliss suddenly shrieked, “Stop!  Don’t move.” 

Geome= froze, mouth dangling open.  “What is it?”

Kreli= ss seized one of the pieces of deadwood floating languidly on the green surfa= ce of the water.  Splashing, she ra= ced around the reeds to poke the sandy ground behind them.  The stick sank into the sand with= a sickly gurgle.

“= ;Quicksand?”  Andrea asked.  “But I thought wood floats,= even there.”

“It’s not quicksand.  Or at least, not anymore.  N= ow it’s something far worse.”&nb= sp; Kreliss stared at = Geome accusingly.  “Can’= ;t you feel the magic coming off it?”

Geome= tilted his head, considering.  “Now that you mention it, I feel a trace.  I’m surprised you could.= 221;

“The question is whe= ther she knows about it,” Kreliss said, staring a= t the lovely prisoner.  “He could’ve freed you by now if he’d used his knife.”

The woman’s eyes widened.  “I didn’= ;t know it anything about enchanted sand, I swear!  The witch just left me here, trapped by my own hair, and said she&#= 8217;d return for me soon.  Oh, you = brave travelers, can’t you free me somehow?”

Geome= considered for a moment, pacing from side to side.  Andrea saw his eyes light up with inspiration.  He drew his kni= fe once more and the woman flinched, probably anticipating the destruction of her hair.  Instead, Geome carefully knelt at her feet and sawed away at the root of the reeds with h= is blade.  White fluff from the plants’ tufted tops blew into his face and clung to his hair.

The plants creaked and gro= aned, then toppled.  Geome snatched them in a bundle before they could fall and further tug the woman’s curls.  “= Now we can untangle everything somewhere safer.”

The woman’s eyes glo= wed.  ”How in= credibly clever.  Thank you so = much for saving me.” 

Kreli= ss rolled her eyes.  “That enchanted sand could’ve killed him,” she muttered to Andrea.  “Good to see you being prac= tical for once,” she said, louder.

Geome= escorted the woman from the place of her confinement with all the gallantr= y of a noble at court.  She clung = to his hand, allowing him to help her over thickets of reeds, and around the most treacherous marshy puddles.  = Andrea didn’t see why the young woman had to act so delicate, especially considering the white dress hung in tatters.  Andrea slapped away a buzzing insect.  The last thing they = needed was a fairytale princess.

All four of them climbed b= ack toward the dry ground and stood there, water streaming off their cloaks.  Geome= sat beside his damsel-in-distress and untangled every strand of reed taking, in Andrea’s opinion, far too long about it.  Andrea glanced at the woman uncertainly.  Kreliss and I have spare clothes, but you look too t= all for them.”  The woman had t= o be at least five and a half feet.

“Here.”  Geome= stopped a moment, and snatched his dry poncho from where it lay on his pack.  He draped it around her, maroon s= ide out. 

The young woman didn't even acknowledge it, staring as she was at the three of them.  Her violet eyes widened.  “But you’re only children!”

Geome= turned bright red.

Kreli= ss crossed her arms.  “We’re on an important quest and I expect you not to de= lay us.” 

“Of course,” t= he woman said, voice trembling like a flower petal caught in a windstorm.  She huddled into the borrowed clo= ak, suddenly smaller.  If Andrea = had ever thought the woman secure in herself, the thoughts were instantly banished.  “I would nev= er wish to trouble you.  If you could= only escort me away from the swamp, that would be far more then I could ever repay.”

“That isn’t ou= t of our way,” Geome said.  “You’re welcome to jo= in us.  There, done.”  He dropped the last lock of hair.=  

“And what’s our guest’s name?”  <= span class=3DSpellE>Kreliss asked.  “I believe you neglected to tell us.”

“Oh, forgive me.  My name is Dalia.”

Geome= made introductions all around. 

“So how long have yo= u lived here?”  Geome asked.  “If you live he= re, I mean.”  His voice barely restrained his eagerness, as if he were chasing a new puzzle.

Dalia took a shaky breath.=   “I’m on leave from the Academy.  While I was traveli= ng through this horrid swamp, a witch caught me and demanded I pledge to join her.”

“Anyone you knew?= 221;  Geome= asked.

“I don’t understand.  Why would she kn= ow a witch?”

Both heads turned swiftly = toward Andrea, as if they had forgotten her presence.  “Witches are mages, just as= I am,” Geome explained.  “They usually attend the Academy.”

“Well, they hardly s= ound like nice people.”

Geome= nodded, a scowl touching his features.&nb= sp; He kicked a rock down the hill and into a swampy puddle.  “That’s just it.  Witches are students who break the Academy's laws, cast out as punishment.&n= bsp; Many live in the swamp here, for lack of anywhere better.  Some join the Crimson Circle.”

“They plot their rev= enge on everyone who cast them out,” Dalia said.  “Some day, they will attack= the Academy and make Calithwain’s mages suff= er as they themselves have suffered.”&nbs= p;

“We’ll be read= y for them,” Geome said.  “I am also a pupil there.&#= 8221;

She turned her wide eyes on him.  “You’re = that Geome?  = The one who blew up the Academy last year?”

   &nb= sp;        “You blew up the Academy?”  = Andrea asked.

   &nb= sp;        The tips of Geome’s ears burned red.  “Of cou= rse not.  Just a storag= e shed.”

   &nb= sp;        Geome seemed to notice that three pairs of eyes stil= l fixed on him.  “I was formula= ting an explosive undetectable to magical senses.=   If I can succeed, Moren’s Defende= rs could destroy the Crimson= Circle before they know what’s happening.&= nbsp; It’d be an invaluable advantage.”

   &nb= sp;        Dalia’s eyes lit up.  “You̵= 7;re battling the Crimson Circ= le?  You must be terribly brave.”= ;

   &nb= sp;        Geome drew himself up, preening.  “It’s my duty, as a w= izard from Alcanster,” he said with false modesty.  “Even if the = king can’t stop the evil destroying my country, I, and others like me, wi= ll tear apart the Crimson Ci= rcle piece by piece.”

   &nb= sp;        “Who are they?” Andrea raised a teasing eyebrow.  “Bad people who steal inventions?”

   &nb= sp;        His gaze turned toward her, completely serious.  “A hundred years ago, Vornak the Shadowlord se= duced the mages of Alcanster into servants of evil.  The queen at the time exiled them= all, but those loyal to the new Crimson Circle ignored her decree.  Now, if anyone displays a hint of= power, he’s banished.  Most ma= ges are innocent, but the king doesn’t care.  Only evil wizards of the Crimson Circle live in Alcanster= anymore, casting spells for extortion and murder.”

   &nb= sp;        Andrea shivered, even in the thick stillness.&nb= sp; “What a horrible place!”       

“No, it’s a be= autiful country, just north of Calithwain, but the overwhelming fear of magic strengthens every day.  Some = of the mages who come here to Calithwain vow to fight the Crimson Circle until we can come home.”

Dalia stepped closer to hi= m.  “Defying them is an ambitio= us task.  I suppose the witch who captured me would never have stopped you.=   You see, my defense magic is rather weak.  Your powers must guard you from everything, even possession.” =  

Andrea winced.  The reminder of the tzalmaveth speaking through Geome’s lips still lurk= ed in her mind.

   &nb= sp;        “Let’s sit and eat a little,” Dalia said.

   &nb= sp;        They usually walked a few more hours before stopping to make camp, but Geome scurried to wait on his new friend.  Not even Kre= liss’s scowl made him hesitate.  Geome generously did Dalia’s share of the work= , and less generously left his own chores to Andrea and Kre= liss. 

   &nb= sp;        “Oh, Dalia, you’re too delicate to work, let me wait on you hand and foot,” Kreliss said when Geome brought her the piled supper plates.  As if oblivious to Geome’s glare,= she added, “Yes, and lick your boots while I’m about it.”

   &nb= sp;        “Stop it.”

   &nb= sp;        Kreliss raised her eyebrows at Andrea.  Andrea found she couldn’t resist.  “Well, if you = really want, I suppose you might carry me for the rest of the trip,” she sa= id in a voice nearly as high as Dalia’s.

   &nb= sp;        Geome straightened.=   “You girls know nothing about it.”  Striving for wounded dignity, he = walked back to where Dalia sat, but he tripped on a tree root, still a gawky adolescent.

Andrea sat down on a tiny = hill of dry grass, feeling it crunch agreeably beneath her.  The steady buzzing of flies and t= he warm sunlight were making her drowsy.  She blinked a few times, only to see Kreliss nodding as well.  Andrea let = her eyes drift closed again, just for a moment…

 

 

Andrea’s eyes burst = open and she sat up, or rather, tried.  With each movement, pain exploded through her body in the worst cramps she could possibly imagine.  Every musc= le screamed in agony, so badly she couldn’t even shift to relieve the p= ain.  Andrea gasped for air.  She gave a last wiggle and tumble= d down the hill, inflicting scratches she couldn’t even feel over the fiery needles piercing her stomach.  Around her, she heard faint signs of distress through her own agony.  O= ne mid-pitched, the other lower.  Kreliss and Geome.  But where was Dalia? 

   &nb= sp;        “How does it feel, to know you wasted your strength coming this far, only to fa= il now?  Look at you, playing at heroes.”  Eyes watering, Andrea looked up to see a blurry Dalia standing over them.  “I spent years devoting my = life to magic only to have it ripped away when Master Melnor<= /span> expelled me.  He’s alre= ady ruined everyone’s magic, so I might as well finish it.  Everyone at the Academy deserves = to fail.  What’s wrong, don’t feel like speaking?”&nb= sp; She pointed her wand at each of them in turn.  Andrea felt the pain ease slightl= y.  It burned her guts far too much f= or her to sit up, but she could breathe more easily.  Her hair dangled in her face, but= she didn’t even have the strength to jerk her head.  She stared at her knees.  Focus.

   &nb= sp;        “We saved your life,” Geome said.  His voice was tight with his own = agony.

   &nb= sp;        Dalia fingered her long blue wand, tapping it like a flute.  “Don’t be naïve.=   I saw you arrive and tricked you = long enough to take this.”  = She held up the amber crystal Geome normally wore = around his neck. 

Geome= groaned.  “Why’d = they throw you out— did the Academy Master catch you strangling kittens or something?”  He lay beh= ind Andrea, out of sight.  The on= ly person she could see was Dalia, towering over them and smiling as if she’d eaten someone’s soul.

Dalia glared at him for an= instant before her voice congealed into honey.&nb= sp; “With every spell they bind our power tighter into restrictio= ns and rules and consequences.  Where’s magic’s joy?”

“You broke your oath= .  I know what that makes you,”= ; Geome snapped.  He breathed heavily, sounding as sore and cramped as Andrea. 

She tossed her hair.  “Yes, I am a witch, and I t= ake power from those who waste the gift.  Still, your weak focus will hardly benefit me.  Perhaps I should smash it.”=  

Geome= groaned, more pain in his voice than Andrea had= heard when the shadow had taken him over.

“But this,” Dalia’s cold finger brushed Andrea’s forehead, smoothing close= r to the Forest Gem.  Andrea shudd= ered as Dalia groped, but she still couldn’t move.  “This belonged to my mistre= ss, centuries ago.”

“No!”  Heat and electricity jolted again= st Andrea’s head.  The sho= ck pushed her back into wet grass.

Dalia screamed and jerked = her hand away.  “She said you we= re travelers, easy prey.  She pr= omised a simple victory, a chance to win what those mindless tzalmaveths failed.”

As Dalia talked, Andrea= 217;s arms clenched tighter around her middle.&= nbsp; The pain was fading.  = Was the Forest Gem protecting her from the witch’s spell, or had Dalia ceased paying attention?  Or both?  Andrea cradled her stomach and simply listened.   

Dalia’s voice sank i= nto a purr.  “You’re fr= ee to join me, Geome.  You were exiled from the Academy just as I was.”

   &nb= sp;        “I’m not expelled.  I just need to= think my actions over during harvest month.”  Under his indignant protest, Andr= ea could hear a hint of vulnerability.

   &nb= sp;        “You have other choices,” she coaxed.&nb= sp; Dalia’s violet eyes glowed like eerie magnets.  “The Academy stifles studen= ts, exiling them for perfecting their craft instead of nu= rsemaiding others.  But I can teach you = magic without limits, without restraints.  While you twiddle with your gadgets, the world is changing.  You could take your place in a new order.”

   &nb= sp;        Geome’s voice chilled.  “The wizards of the Crimson Circle said something similar to my mother.  She refused to join.  As do I.”

   &nb= sp;        Dalia shrugged.  “Then die, a= long with your friends.”

        = ;    Andrea tensed.  Neithe= r of her companions had moved; the pain must still be binding them.  Andrea felt well enough to act, b= ut what could she do?  Take her dagge= r and stab Dalia?  Never!  Even the thought made Andrea want= to vomit.  = Kreliss, too far away, still had the amolir.  What could she do?  Then Andrea smiled, remembering defeating the evil witch onstage.  All right, the Forest Gem hadn’t sparked the memory, but she = had no choices left.  Dalia was p= acing back and forth, gloating over all three of them.  Soon.<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  Dalia stepped closer, almost close enough.  Now!  Snatching the canteen from her be= lt, Andrea hurled the contents straight at the witch.

   &nb= sp;        Dalia shrieked.  The spell trapping= Andrea vanished in a wave of soothing green light.  Dalia shook the water out of her = face, but didn’t show any sign of melting.  She slapped Andrea hard across the face.  “For that, your death will = be twice as painful, Sorceress’s pet.”

   &nb= sp;        Cheek stinging, Andrea forced herself up.  She had only distracted the witch.=   However, if she could stand before Dalia renewed her spell, then she could stop her.  The mud slid= when Andrea climbed to her feet, like treacherous ice in a parking lot. 

   &nb= sp;        “Stop!”&= nbsp; Kreliss’s sword pressed against Dalia’s throat.  “= ;Stand up slowly.”

   &nb= sp;        Geome gestured, and his focus flew out of Dalia̵= 7;s hand and into his own.

   &nb= sp;        As Dalia stood, something glinted gold against her neck.  “What’s that?”<= span style=3D'mso-spacerun:yes'>  Andrea asked, staring at the tiny= charm.  The diamond shape trapped inside a circle teased a memory from her childhood.  “Where’d you get it?”

   &nb= sp;        Dalia smiled.  “You recognize Sorceress Jixil’s emblem?  She’ll be so pleased.  Soon you’ll be able to ask = her yourself.”  Dalia still= held herself like a princess, despite her muddy dress and = Kreliss’s sword brushing her neck.

“You aren’t ta= king anyone anywhere,” Kreliss said

Jixil’s been imprisoned under the Perilous Cliffs for thousands of years,” <= span class=3DSpellE>Geome stood, ineffectually brushing mud off his shir= t.  “I don’t care how many Academy students try to worship her; she’s gone.”

   &nb= sp;        “Sorceress Jixil has powers you cannot envision.”  Dalia’s voice sharpened lik= e a knife, cutting through the damp breeze.&n= bsp; “Mistress, I entreat your help.  This child sorceress has powers y= ou didn’t warn me of.  The Forest Gem h= as accepted her.”

           = ; *Incompetent magician!  Foolish woman playing with cheap tricks.*  

   &nb= sp;        Andrea’s head snapped up.  “The voice!  It’s spe= aking inside my head again.”  She saw Dalia’s eyes flash with fury and, could it be, jealousy?  “I think she hears it, too.= ”

   &nb= sp;        “What voice?”  Geome asked.  He gave up cleaning h= is clothes.  “What’s= it saying?”

   &nb= sp;        “What do you mean, again?”  <= span class=3DSpellE>Kreliss asked.

   &nb= sp;        “Mistress,̶= 1; Dalia coaxed.  “Aid me.=   Give me the = tzalmaveths’ place.”

The voice spoke again, thi= s time directly to Andrea.  The voice caressed her, warming her in a burst of deep sympathy.  *You recognized my necklace, didn’t you, Andrea?  Ha= nd the Forest Gem to Dalia.  That’s why you came to Calithwain, to rescue me from my imprisonment.  You know me, Andrea.  You’ve sought = me for so long.  Free me and take yo= ur destined place at my side.  Y= ou need never return to the troubles of Earth.*

   &nb= sp;        “There’s only one person I want.”  Andrea desperately kept her voice steady.  “She isn’t here.̶= 1;

            The voice hissed in her head.  *I= know everything you are, the worst things you’ve done.  You cannot bury the truth.*