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Monday, March 3, 2014

Beneath the Triple Suns: Dark Crystal Author Quest

I posted this up on the Dark Crystal Fan Fiction site, but it's impossible to link directly to one story. Now, it's been buried in the other entries making their way to the site. So, for those who wish to read it, here is my Author Quest entry, which ended up as an Editor's Choice. (Top 25)

Let me know what you think. ;-)

Chapter One – The First Attack
Woodland Clan
The attack came in the morning, swift and without mercy. While my whole clan slept, Garthim swarmed through our village, killing or imprisoning everyone they could find. The darkness hid their black forms, making it difficult to avoid them. The soft clicking of claws and rattling of their armored bodies the only give-away to their location.
                Somewhere outside of our hut, my mother called to me. “Rian!”
                Inside our hut, I hid in the cupboard where we kept food. When the screams first reached our hut, I squeezed myself in the small space, leaving the door open a crack so I could still see out. The space was cramped, but preferable to being outside with the Garthim.
                “Rian!” Mother called to me again. If I answered her, my position would be given away. The Garthim would find me and I’d be taken away with the others. No one ever returned from a Garthim raid.
                “Ri-ahhhhh!” A shriek interrupted her third attempt to locate me. My nails, short as they were, bit into my palms as I fought the urge to run to her. Mother was either dead or captured.
                Please let her be captured, I silently prayed. No one knew what happened to captured gelflings. Whatever it was must be preferable to death.
                A crash near our hut’s door filled the air with dust and debris. Through the crack in my hiding spot I saw a black claw click and wave, seeking out anyone barricaded in the main room. Finding no one, the Garthim withdrew its claw and a scuttling clacking retreated from our hut.
                Over the screams and sobs of the other gelflings, my mother’s voice floated through.
                “Stay safe, Rian. Wherever you are, stay safe.”
                She was alive. For how long, I didn’t know. Long enough, I hoped, for me to free her.
                Sounds of fighting gradually replaced the cries of despair. Given enough time, some of the clan’s men took up weapons against the attackers. Too late to be of much help. Already the shouts of help from those captured faded in the distance. Only a few Garthim remained, toying with our small contingent of warriors. Our weapons were no match for their hard armor and the Garthim knew it.
                Moments later, the clicking of claws retreated, following their leaders back to their homes. Wherever on Thra that happened to be. They left behind only the moaning of the wounded and grieving.
                I stayed in my cupboard, waiting to make sure the Garthim were gone and not waiting for movement so they could attack again. My legs and arms went numb from being pinned underneath me. When I finally decided it was safe to come out, my legs buckled beneath me, pitching me forward onto the floor. My hands flew in front of my face to break my fall, but they were equally useless, crumpling as the sensation of circulation returned.
                My face hit the packed dirt floor. Turning my head, I managed to avoid breaking my nose. Instead, a sharp-edged stone, exposed during the Garthim’s brief home invasion, cut a gash across my right cheek. Sticky wetness pooled along the cut, making my cowardice visible for all to see. I would be known as the Gelfling Who Hid. I should have helped protect our clan, for the little good it would do. Instead I cowered while others died and were injured attempting to save our captured numbers. Among those captured was my mother.
                I lay on the floor for a little while, willing circulation back into my hands and feet. Once I was certain they would support me, I climbed over the broken door and out into the village.
                The wreckage surpassed anything I expected. Buildings destroyed, their support posts shattered and poking through the torn skins that no longer kept out the cold and damp. Only three still stood untouched.
A gaping hole in the side of the village kiln revealed smashed pottery. Sparks from the fire below popped and sizzled, escaping into the dry grass around the base. Small fires burned brightly for a few seconds before extinguishing themselves on the dirt beyond the kiln base, packed down from countless Gelfling feet.
Bodies lay everywhere, their eyes wide and staring at the Rose Sun rising in the distance. Staring, but not seeing the dawning of a new day.  Behind the Rose Sun crept its brighter brother, the Great Sun, washing Thra in clear light. On the opposite horizon, the Third Brother prepared to go to bed. The Dying Sun brought so little light we considered its time in the sky to be night more than day.
Groans and cries of anguish filled the air. Not all the Gelflings were unable to see the coming day. Their eyes, unlike those of our dead brothers and sisters, weren’t turned to the sky. Their eyes, like mine, took in the wreckage and death from the previous night.
“Tir! Tir!” An older Gelfling mother searched through the carnage for her daughter. She’d stop to roll over bodies lying face down and gasp, covering her mouth in recognition of each. Her own daughter was nowhere among them.
Another girl a few trine younger than my own seventeen cycles of the Great Sun, knelt over a still body. Her tears splattered across the deceased’s face, creating rivulets in the blood and grime covering it. I recognized the Gelfling lying so still. A potter for our village, always kind to the young ones. His daughter huddled over him now. She was too young to deal with this.
I made my way over to them, careful not to step on any of the bodies. We would need to collect all the dead and send them on their journey to the Dying Sun, where the Gelflings who passed on before wait. We experienced death before, but never so many at once.
“Nulr,” I whispered, my hand hovering above the younger Gelfling’s shoulder. I dared not touch her for fear of Dreamfasting and what she would see in my memories during our brief contact. Memories of hiding in a cupboard while those around me died or became captives.
She sniffled in response, still bent over her father’s body.
“Come, Nulr. There’s no sense in wasting tears. Death is natural. We learned that lesson from Aughra long ago. Long before the First Great Conjunction and the arrival of the urSkeks. Before the urSkeks became two. Death is something we have always known.”
“But not death like this. There is nothing natural about the Garthim or the death they bring.”
“No. But death is death, no matter the cause. We should prepare your father to venture to the Dying Sun. He is one of many who must make the journey tonight.” I may be cowardly, but I would not leave the dead for the Arduffs to eat. We would send them on their way as we were taught.
Nulr sniffed once more, running the edge of her hand under her nose. She stood and looked at me for the first time. A small gasp escaped her lips.
“Rian! Your face.”
I lift my hand to my cheek, reminded again of my fall. The cut stopped bleeding, forming a scab. Parts of it were sticky where the scab flaked under my fingers.
“It’s nothing. I fell on something sharp during the raid. I count myself lucky to receive no more than a small cut.”
“Rian! Rian!” The desperate shouts came from near our hut. I spun around and ran back the way I came.
“Father!” I was running so fast I couldn’t stop. We collided in a tangled hug, the Dreamfasting happening before I could pull away.
Fire, hot and hungry, eating the buildings near the forest. Father returning from hunting. Screams and cries greeting his arrival. His house empty. The door broken. Pottery smashed on the floor. Droplets of bright blood leading out of the hut. So many of his clan dead and injured. His wife and son missing. Him calling out for me.
Me, huddled in my cupboard, terrified. Listening to my mother screaming. She’s captured. I stay hidden. Climbing out when I knew it was safe. Falling and the gash on my cheek. Outside there’s so much destruction. Nulr and her father. We must send the dead off. They deserve to go to the Dying Sun.
We break contact. It’s too late. Father knows he has a coward for a son.
“It’s ok, Rian. I’m glad you’re safe. Sometimes it’s braver not to fight when you know you can’t win. Even if it means others died. If you had fought you could have been captured. Or being prepared for your final journey to the stars.” Father’s words didn’t blame me for Mother’s fate. In his eyes, the accusations were harder to hide.
“Yes, Father.”
“Let’s help with the clean-up. Our leaders will want to have a meeting before the Rose Sun sets on this day.”
I follow along, helping tend the wounded and prepare the bodies of those no longer with us. The tasks are difficult, taking all the survivors the rest of the day to finish. When we gather for the Sending Off Ceremony, the Rose Sun hovers just above the horizon, casting a red haze over the proceedings.
Fires are lit under each body by our clan leader, Myi. She whispers words over each and places purple flowers on their chest. The flames reach to the sky, turning dark purple. A flash of pure white causes us all to turn our eyes away from the dead. When we look back, the bodies have gone.
“They are gone from Thra, taken to the Dying Sun where those who went before wait with open arms,” Myi says. Her voice echoes through the clearing.
At the edge of the forest, not far from where I stand, movement catches my eye. I inch closer to the shadow hiding near the trees.
“Gelfling do as they should. Why Garthim attack Gelflings? Don’t know.” The voice of Aughra, spirit of Thra, reaches my ears. The gravelly noise, like the rocks she’s form from, is unmistakable. Next to her, a smaller shadow detaches from the trees.
“Mother, I do not like this. It is the Skeksis. They are bad. Even when they were one with the Mystics, I did not trust them.”
“Hush, boy. You do not know as much as you think. The star-beings are good. They bring many things. Things Aughra never saw. Give Aughra a new observatory and orrery, they did.”
“Look at all the bad they brought. New creatures like the Garthim. The Three Suns dimmer in the sky. Raids on Gelflings.” The squeaky cadence of Raunip was as distinct as his mother’s deeper voice.
“Come. Gelflings finished. We should go. No more talk of suspicions. Much to be done.”
Both shadows melded together, disappearing back into the forest.

Chapter Two – The Vapra Clan

                Deep in the woods, the fires of the Woodland Clan’s Sending Off Ceremony could be seen. High in the treetops, Kha watched the flames change from orange to deep purple to white.
                “So many fires. So many flames. They have lost a great number.” She couldn’t see the other tribe gathered around the fires. From their proximity to the Dark Forest she guessed they were Woodland Gelflings. Whatever their tribe, they were Gelfling and they suffered a loss.
                “Kha, do you see? Purple and white flames.” Another Vapra Gelfling, pale and lovely, fluttered down next to her, tucking away gossamer wings when her feet touched the branch.
                “I see them, Rhe. Why are there so many? Do you think there is sickness?”
                “We have heard of attacks on Gelfling villages. Garthim attacks. They are stealing away our people and killing any who fight back.”
                “What could Garthim want with Gelflings?”
                “I don’t know, Kha. The attacks make no sense. The Garthim make no sense. We need protection from them, but who knows how to defeat them?” The young Gelflings sat on their branch, swinging their long, slender legs. Both lost in their own thoughts.
                In the distance, the twin tones of a firca signaled the end of the Sending Off ceremony. The reedy notes of the pipes filled the air with sadness.
                “Wasn’t there a time when Gelflings didn’t know sadness?” Kha asked.
                “I have heard tales of such a time. The Age of Innocence, before the coming of the uRskeks and the Great Divide. When Aughra was the only voice of Thra and all our wisdom came from her.”
                “But the uRskeks brought such wonderful things with them. Even now, the Skeksis protect our clans and guard over the Crystal.” Kha stood, her wings unfurling. A light hop and she floated to the ground. Rhe floated down a moment later.
                 “If the Skeksis protect us, why do the Garthim invade our villages? Why does the Castle of the Crystal glow purple when it once was white?”
                “Oh Kha, the Skeksis can’t protect us all the time. They may not know the danger our clans have been in. As for the Castle, it’s always been purple.”
                “Not always. My grandmother told me when her mother was young, the Castle of the Crystal shone white, like the end flames of our Sending Off ceremony. Then one day it went dark.”
                The two Gelflings made their way back to their village, hovering above the ground to avoid snapping branches or rustling leaves.
                In the shadows of the forest, another figure followed them, loping along on gangly legs. Occasionally it made use of its long arms, using them to propel itself forward, keeping up with the Gelflings without giving away its position.
                The village center thrummed with activity. The entire village, from the sturdy Root Dwellers to the winged Treetoppers, filled the small space.
                “Why is everyone gathered?” Kha whispered. Only for deaths and celebrations did the whole village come together. Today was not a celebration day.
                “I don’t know.” Rhe’s brow furrowed. Her wings fluttered faster, rising her above the heads of the other Gelflings. A sea of white filled the space below her. Long tendrils of soft white hair stirred in the breeze, turning a calm sea into waves. At the other shore, a podium stood with the village elder raising her hands for silence.
Frail and delicate in her beauty, Jona once flew higher than the treetops, nearly touching the Rose Sun when it hung midway through the sky. Once, when she still possessed youth and strength. Now her wings hung limply from her shoulders, the edges tattered.
                Rhe folded her wings, dropping silently next to her friend.
                “What is it? What did you see?”
                “Jona is giving a speech,” Rhe replied. A ripple of quiet spread out through the crowd, Root Dwellers and Treetoppers both anxious for their leader’s words.
                “Many of you have heard the tales of the Garthim raids. Some have seen the fires of our Woodland brothers and sisters. Something is happening on Thra, something bad, and we need the wisdom of our Great Queen to set it right.” Her voice was old but strong, commanding her people to her bidding.
                “What of Aughra? Would she not know?” a Root Dweller asked.
                “Aughra knows much, but there are some things even she cannot see.” A creature entered the clearing from the forest, walking up to the Elder’s podium, long legs and arms the color of mud drying under the Great Sun. The same creature who followed Rhe and Kha from their treetop post.
                “Raunip. We welcome you as we welcome your mother.” Jona tilted her head, a slight dip of recognition.
                “I thank you, Elder Jona, and I share your fears. Thra no longer thrives as it once did. The star beings brought with them a darkness, one Aughra is blind to. The darkness was there before their division. Now they have split into two, their darkness grows.”
                “But the Mystics have been banished. How could they continue to harm us with the Skeksis watching over us?” another Root Dweller asks.
                “It is not the Mystics you should fear. The Skeksis are dark, darker than the uRskeks. Darker than the sky when all Three Brothers are in bed.” Raunip’s thin tail swished as he talked.
                “I am sorry, Raunip, but the Skeksis never gave us reason to be wary of them. They have helped us always. It was them who warned us of the Mystics and their plans to enslave the Gelflings. Many a Gelfling has gone to the Castle of the Crystal to serve the Skeksis in return for their help.” Jona placed a hand on Raunip’s shoulder, her pale wrinkled flesh a contrast to Raunip’s darker brown.
                “I am sorry, too. I hoped you would listen. Hoped your eyes could see as mine do. I wish your clan much happiness.” Raunip pushed the elder’s hand off his shoulder and slunk off into the darkness.
                “Do not leave us in anger, Raunip,” Jona called out to him.
                “I do not leave in anger, Gelfling. I leave in sadness. Sadness that we may never meet again on Thra.” A flick of his tail and Aughra’s child disappeared.
                Murmuring spread through the crowd. What did Raunip mean? Was he threatening or warning them?
                Jona raised her arms for quiet, but the talking continued. None of the Gelflings even looked in her direction. Too distracted were they by the implications of Raunip’s visit and words.
                “Silence.” Jona’s voice was gentle but firm. Around her the Gelflings quieted down. “What Raunip says may be true. He may see shadows where there are none. We will send out a group to find our Queen and seek her advice. Until we know what we face, all remaining Gelflings are to stay close to the village. Stay hidden, stay safe.”
                With another wave of her hand, Jona dismissed the Gelflings. They huddled in groups of two of three. Chatter, softer than before, echoed through the trees.
                “Do you think Raunip’s right? Are the Skeksis to blame?” Rhe asked. She flitted alongside Kha, back to their treetop house.
                “You always think the Skeksis are to blame. Have you no faith?”
                “Not in them. I have faith in our clan and in our brothers and sisters. I believe in our Great Queen and her wisdom. I trust Thra and Aughra, our land’s eyes and ears. Skeksis and Mystics I have no such feelings for.”
                “We’ll find out soon enough.” Kha skipped over a knot in a branch and ducked into her small dwelling among silver and indigo leaves. “Goodnight, Rhe.”
                “Goodnight, Kha.”
                The village fell to the night sounds of fizzgigs on patrol and the lowing of nebries in the adjacent swamps.
                Far off, a firca played out a lonely tune.

Chapter Three – From Raunip’s Journal

                I do not understand. Why do the Gelflings still look to the Skeksis for help? Can they not see all their problems begin and end with these strange beings from the stars? They think the Skeksis and urRu can help them, but I know the truth. I know their secret.
                The urRu might help, but the division weakened them. They have no power. Too peaceful, too calm. No good to fight the evil plague they helped unleash on Thra. Banished. Banished far away to Valley of the Mystics. Only I know this. Skeksis hunt for urRu to enslave and imprison. They don’t know what I know. They don’t know their own secrets.
                Today the Woodland Clan near the Mountains sent many on their way to the Dying Sun. So many. We saw the flames from Aughra’s observatory. No need for special eyes. The fires so big and bright, the flames visible from all over Thra. Never have I witnessed so many Gelfling deaths at once.
                What I saw in those flames scares me. The deaths will continue. Worse and worse each raid. Gelflings being taken away by Garthim. Far away. Why? What good are Gelflings to Garthim? To Skeksis? So many Gelflings freely work for Skeksis, why steal them from their homes?
                Aughra says I am silly. That I don’t understand the ways of Thra. I was born on Thra long before the urSkeks arrived. Well versed with all the trees and plants, animals and people, I am. It is the urSkeks and what they became I do not understand. With this, Aughra agrees.
                Mother sees so much. She knows what each plant needs and animal wants. Lately she turned her gaze to the skies, learning all she can. While her eyes are on the stars, the Skeksis go unwatched.
                I watch, though. I see. Aughra does not believe. I will make her believe. Gelflings do not believe. I will make them believe.
                I must make them believe.
                If I don’t, Thra will cease to be.

Chapter Four – Seeking Help
Woodland Clan

                We meet the next morning. Myi gathers all who remain of our once large village. We are less than half now, our other half imprisoned by the Garthim or awaiting us on the Dying Sun. Over two hundred Gelflings gone in less than the time it takes to shape a clay pot or mend a worn shoe.
                Father limps alongside me. His leg bruised violet and black from the fighting. His injury at least is real.
                “How’s your cut?” Nulr fell in line with us on my other side. Her footfalls so soft I didn’t hear her until she spoke.
                “It’s fine.” I reached up to touch my cheek. The cut was sore, but would heal with time.
                “Do you think it’ll scar?” She peered intently at my face. “I don’t mind a scar.”
I coughed and shuffled closer to my father.
                “Of course you don’t. It’s not on your face.” My words came out angrier than I intended. A scar was the last thing I wanted to remind me of that night.
                “I’m sorry, Rian.”
                We continued to the crafting hut. A hastily erected podium stood against the back wall. Myi stood at the center, waiting for everyone to arrive. Already the small hut writhed with the number of Gelflings inside. If we still had the village numbers of yesterday, we wouldn’t all fit in this hut. We’d be out in the open, hoping for no more attacks.
                Myi opened the discussion and we answered her back with concerns of our own. “Gelfling brothers and sisters, I have called you here to discuss what must be done concerning the Garthim attacks. We can’t stay here. The Garthim know where we are. We need to be better prepared. We must protect ourselves if they come back.”
                “Like the Spriton?” a Gelfling near the podium called out.
                “Pah, not like the Spriton. They fight for no reason. They fight because they like to fight. We fight because we must.” Myi thumped her wooden cane on ground, punctuating her last words.
                “Do you think we can become warriors?”
                “What choice do we have? Be imprisoned and killed by Garthim? Not a choice I like.”
                “We could move. Find another place the Garthim won’t find us.” A mother with a small child clinging to her legs offered as a solution.
                “If only it were so simple. Who thought the Garthim would ever attack us? No, the Garthim will find us even at the edge of Thra.”
                “What if we asked the Skeksis for help? They have protected us before. They will help us again,” my father called out.
                “We could ask the Skeksis. If we did, we would have to offer proof of our faith and trust in them. Some of our younger Gelflings would go to the Castle and offer their services in return for the village’s protection. I will not ask any to do this if they are unwilling.”
                “I will go.” The words hung in the air. All eyes turned to me. What had I done?
                “Rian, you offer your services to the Skeksis in trade for their protection?” Myi’s crystalline blue eyes settled on me. The sharpness of those old eyes reinforced the wisdom behind them.
                “If it will save the village.” I was a coward during the raid. Now, I could do something to save the rest of my clan.
                “I will go, too.”
                “Nulr, no!” I grabbed her hand, trying to drag her back from where she stepped forward.
                “Can you think of anywhere safer than the Castle of the Crystal?”
                I couldn’t and didn’t want to admit that was part of the reason for volunteering. Part of me still cowered in fear of a return attack. With no reason for the Garthim to raid our village the first time, there was no reason for them not to attack a second time. Or a third. If I went to the Castle of the Crystal, the Skeksis would protect me. No Garthim could breach the Castle walls.
                “No. The Castle of the Crystal is perfectly safe,” I said, my fingers lingering on my cheek.
                “It is settled. Rian and Nulr will go to the Skeksis and ask for aid. In return, they will serve the Skeksis at the Castle. Does anyone else wish to accompany them?” Myi’s sharp blue eyes glanced around the murmuring crowd, seeking out volunteers.
                “I will.” It was the Gelfling near the podium who had been yelling out questions the entire meeting.
                “Good, Gip. The young ones will need a more experience Gelfling to guide them on their journey.”
                When no others stepped forward to volunteer, Myi lowered her head, her eyes closed. “So it shall be. Let the three who have agreed to undertake this journey go home and prepare. At morning first light tomorrow we shall see them off.”
                Myi descended from her podium, hobbling through the crowded crafting tent and off towards her own hut. As she passed, she whispered, “Never let your eyes deceive you or your heart betray you. Trust in them both, but let your instincts lead you.”
                Before I could work out what she meant, she was gone. I went out of the hut to ask her, but the village center was completely deserted. 

Chapter Five – In Search of a Queen
Vapra Clan

                A group selected from the Vapra clan prepared to journey to the Gelfling Queen. To keep her safe, few Gelflings knew where she lived. In order to keep the secret, only a handful were chosen.
                Rhe received her notice before the Great Sun appeared in the sky. Jona knocked on her hut door as the Rose Sun lit up the forest. Without waiting for a reply, she pushed aside the leaf covering and entered the small hut.
                “Elder Jona! What are you doing here?” Rhe sat up, confused by the sudden appearance of her village leader.
                “Pack food and clothing for your journey. You were the last one chosen. Already Kha, Pyrn and Vizi are preparing to leave once the Great Sun shines in the sky.”
                “Where are we going?” Rhe stumbled out of her bed, taking the bag Jona held out. The rough fibers rubbed against her hands. Woven from roots, it was more basket than bag, but the sides were soft enough to collapse, making it less bulky than a basket.
                “To find the Queen. The four of you are now charged with this task. The rest of the village will be waiting for your return. You must hurry, child.” Jona tossed extra clothes to Rhe. Without a word, Rhe gathered them up and put them in the bag.
                Never before in her life had Rhe ventured further than a day’s walk from her village. Now she was being asked to travel to the Gelfling Queen, certainly a distance greater than a day.
                Finished tossing things at Rhe, Jona left her to pack. “When you’re done, come down to my hut. The others are waiting.”
                Rhe shoved everything into the bag, no longer taking the time to pack neatly. She had been chosen to speak with the Queen and save their village. Why her?
                A moment later, Rhe floated down to the ground and raced toward Jona’s hut. Despite being a Treetopper, Jona chose to live among the roots of the great trees. She was elder for all the Vapra and believed in being accessible to everyone in the clan. Since Rootdwellers couldn’t fly, Jona stayed close to the ground.
                The other three members of their group had assembled in the small hut before Rhe arrived. Clouds of sleep still clung to them. They stared at Jona, waiting for her to speak. Jona stared at the door, waiting for the final member of the travel party.
                With a slight huff, Rhe pushed the leaf covering from off the door and tumbled into the middle of the group. Two Rootdwellers sat on one side of the room and Kha sat on the other side, patting the seat next to her. Conscious of all the eyes on her, Rhe carefully made her way over to her friend and sat.
                “Thank you all for joining me so early this morning. Thank you even more for the task you are about to take on and the journey you will be embarking on today. What I ask of you is not easy, but for the good of the whole village, you must try. Thra crumbles around us. So many strange creatures and new dangers appearing every day. Though the Skeksis offer us protection and wonderful new knowledge, they themselves are strangers to our planet. Our trust in them must be limited.
                “I ask the four of you now to seek the advice of our queen. She alone has the interest of all Gelflings in her heart. She will know what to do.”
                “What if we can’t find her? Or if we do find her, she doesn’t know what can be done about the raids?” Pyrn fidgeted in his seat as he spoke, twisting the hem of his shirt between his long fingers.
                “That is something I do not wish to think about. You four must all work together and return to us with whatever information you can.”
                “Why us?” The question burned in everyone’s minds, but it was Rhe who asked it.
                “Because I have watched the four of you since you were small. You all possess a great amount of bravery which will serve you well on your journey. More than bravery, each of you put great stock in loyalty. When all else fails, your trust in each other will help you continue on.”
                The other Rootdweller, Vizi, stood, his gaze focusing down at the floor rather than meeting the eyes of their elder. “How will we find the queen? Thra is large and we don’t know where to start.”
                “You must travel with the Great Sun to your backs for four days. When the Rose Sun rises on the fifth day, journey with the Great Sun warming your left hand until the Rose Sun sets. You will be at the edge of the Crystal Sea. Cross this with the aid of our brothers and sisters of the Dousan Clan.
On the other side of the Crystal Sea you’ll be in the mountains surrounding the Valley of the Mystics. The Gelfling Queen resides in a great cavern carved into the rock half a day’s climb from the valley floor. The entrance is marked with a wallagig tree. Beneath its trailing leaves you’ll find the cave.”
                “We’ll do as you ask,” Kha said, standing and unfurling her wings. “But don’t you think it best for Treetoppers to go rather than Rootdwellers? We can fly and get there and back faster. The Rootdwellers will slow us down.”
                Across the room, Pyrn and Vizi stared at the ground. Neither of them could argue with Kha’s logic.
                “You must all go and you must all work together. Each of you were selected because of your bravery and loyalty to the clan. Both of those will be tested on your journey. But more than those, each of you were selected because you possess a special talent, ones I felt would aid you as a group. All of you are equally important.”
                “What are they good for?” Kha pressed on with her questions. She wanted to get this over with a quickly as she could. If they were allowed to fly, she and Rhe might be home within a day or two.
                “You will discover that soon enough. Now, there will be no more arguing and no more questioning my choices. The Great Sun is already in the sky and you all are late. Be off with you.” Jona shooed them all out of her hut. The four young Gelflings hurried out of the hut and past the edges of the village. Behind them the Great Sun blazed full above the horizon.

Chapter Six - From Raunip’s Journal

                Rumors float through the woods and mountains. I hear the trees whisper through their branches. I do not understand their murmurs the same way as Aughra, but their intent is clear. Gelflings are on the move. They do not trust in Aughra to keep them safe. They do not know who to trust.
                Some Gelflings go to the Skeksis for protection. They think this is good. Raunip told them this is bad idea. Still, they want to believe Skeksis are friends. Believe Skeksis are good. I know. Will end bad for Gelflings who put trust in these star beings. Soon, Gelfling will see, too. But it will be too late. More Gelflings will die and go up to the Dying Sun. More Sending Off Ceremonies and fewer and fewer left on Thra to send them off. If they don’t listen to Raunip, there will be no Gelflings left to send off their clan members.
                Vapra clan is smart. Raunip hear they send Gelflings to find great queen. They find Gelfling Queen and she know what to do. She will tell them what to trust and what must be done to stop Garthim raids. Queen is wise and will not be fooled by the pretty presents of the Skeksis.
                I try to tell Aughra my fears about the Skeksis once more. She still blames me for the Great Division. Yes, it is Raunip’s fault. But, if she would see the bad in the urSkeks before, I would not have fought against them. The Great Crystal would still be whole. Even now, Mother can’t see the shadows the Skeksis cast.
                They are shadows that grow. Soon, those shadows will cover all of Thra. Nothing good can grow in darkness. All living beings need the light of the Great Sun to live. Only poisonous creatures and plants thrive in the shade.
                Thra will soon be nothing but shade. Only the evil will survive.

Chapter Seven – In the Service of the Skeksis
Woodland Clan

                Less than a day passed before we presented ourselves to the Skeksis. Landstriders, their long, webbed legs racing over the ground, shortened the journey. Without their help the three of us would have walked for two or three days before reaching the Castle of the Crystal.
                Dark purple light, nearly black, radiated from the Castle walls. Shadows concealed the landscape surrounding the castle. Even the Great Sun above us did nothing to lighten the bare ground and craggy mountains. What hid in those caves and ridges? Were the Garthim somewhere among the ruts and darkened overhangs?
                The three of us dismounted from the Landstriders. Nulr said something to them in hushed tones and they bellowed in response. A moment later, they were loping back to the forest and safety. Out here in the open the Landstriders were easy targets for the likes of Garthim and other predators.
                I watched until they disappeared into the tree line, their shaggy white coats blending among the greens and silvers of the foliage. We were fortunate to call such creatures our friends.
                “Do you think the Skeksis will be able to help us?” Gip asked.
                “Of course they will. They always have before.” Nulr’s voice lost some of its confident tone when we drew closer to the Castle doors. From far off, the Castle of the Crystal appeared pretty, even shrouded in the darkness. Once we were on the Castle doorstep, intimidation overcame the beauty. The crystalline outer walls absorbed the light rather than radiating it out as I first supposed.
                For a moment I thought this was all a mistake. We didn’t need to consult the Skeksis. They were far too busy for trivial Gelfling problems. Our clan was strong enough to protect those who remained.
                The guttural clearing of a throat drew my attention to the great doorway. On either side stood a Gelfling sentry, guarding the Castle from outside dangers.
                Two long spears crossed over each other, barring our little group from entering. The sentry on the right spoke, his voice rough. “What business do you have in the Castle of the Crystal?”
                “We seek help from the Skeksis. Our village was raided by the Garthim a few days ago. Many in our village were killed and many more are missing, stolen away.” Gip’s voice carried with it authority and assertion. For the first time I’m grateful he volunteered to join us.
                “What clan do you represent?” The same sentry spoke. His partner on the other side hadn’t moved since they crossed weapons to deny us access to the Castle. I keep my eyes on him while Gip continues speaking with the guard in charge.
                “Woodland Clan. Our village is not far from here. Two days walk. Three at the most. The Landstriders make short work of the distance. The smoke from our Sending Off Ceremony must have been visible from here.”
                “We saw no smoke.”
                “Were you on duty two nights past? That is when we sent them off.”
                “I am always on duty.” A purple glaze coated the sentry’s eyes. The same for his partner who still hadn’t blinked. Prickles danced up my back, like Crawlies under my shirt. Something was wrong.
                “What clan do you come from?” Nulr asked.
                “We are part of the Crystal now.”
                “Before you came to serve the Skeksis, you must have come from another Gelfling clan.”
                “We have severed all allegiances with our previous clan. Only the Crystal matters. The Crystal provides us with life. The Skeksis are our masters.”
                The Crawlies returned to creep over my skin. I studied the Gelflings keeping us from our destination. Shorter and thicker than we Woodlanders, these guards wouldn’t be comfortable up in tree branches. Definitely from a clan of ground-dweller Gelflings.
                Their skin had a slight green cast to it and thick tufts of hair popped up from the necklines of their shirts. Instead of long, thin noses like me and my companions, their noses were squashed with larger nostrils.
                “Drenchen. You’re from the Drenchen Clan,” I said.
                The purple haze cleared for a second from the leader’s eyes. He blinked and the haze returned.
                “Maybe once. Now we are part of the Crystal.”
                Gip moved in front of me, taking over as leader again. “Can we get in to see the Skeksis? We must ask for their help. We’re willing to serve the Skeksis in return for their protection over our clan.”
                The sentries were silent and unmoving for far too long. Help would not be offered for our village.
                “You won’t let us in? When we need –“ Gip wasn’t able to finish. Both sentries returned to attention on either side of the door, their spears tucked by their sides. The entry to the Castle of the Crystal stood unblocked before us.
                We walked past the guards, Gip leading us into the Castle and to our new lives. The scent of mold and decomposing plants filled my nose, a lingering reminder of the sentries’ former lives.

Chapter Eight – Across the Crystal Sea
Vapra Clan

                The Crystal Sea sparkled, spreading out before the Gelflings from Vapra. Somewhere on the other side was the Valley of the Mystics and the Gelfling Queen.
                “I thought Jona said this was a sea. It’s nothing but sand.” Kha bent over and picked up a handful of the glittering dust. It slipped through her fingers in a shining cascade, the particles so small they flowed like water.
                “This is the Crystal Sea. Those are grains of crystal covering the ground.” Pyrn spoke little in the presence of the Treetoppers. Both Rootdwellers kept to themselves during the five day trek to reach the shores of the Crystal Sea. When they did talk, it was to warn the others of hidden dangers or instruct them on ways to find food among the plant roots.
                “Jona said we would need help to cross. If it’s nothing but sand, why can’t we cross on our own?” Kha’s impatience showed. Five days they had been gone from their villages. Five days away from her tree and her little hut. Now they were close to their destination. An expanse of crystal dust was the last obstacle to cross.
                “It’s not safe,” Pyrn said. The sturdier Gelfling stared out over the sea. A wind blew, creating little waves and sending crystal particles whirling through the air. Nothing rose from the sea to serve as landmarks. No trees or tall rocks. Just flatness to the edge of the horizon.
                “Where are the Dousan? Jona said to seek their help crossing.” Rhe joined Pyrn surveying the vast sea. She looked along the shore, but it was as empty as the sea. No buildings or spiraling camp smoke to indicate a village anywhere nearby.
                “Maybe the Garthim raided their village, too. If we stay here, we could be attacked. We should continue on.” Kha took a step out onto the sea. The sands slid apart beneath her foot, shifting and resettling, covering over the toes of her shoe.
                “We should wait. The Crystal Sea is not safe,” Pyrn repeated.
                “It’s nothing but a little crystal sand. Under the Great Sun it’s very pretty. Look how it sparkles. How can anything so beautiful be dangerous?” Kha smiled and took another step out.
                “If we wait, the Dousan will find us. If we wander out into the desert sea, no one will ever know where we are. We’ll never be found.”
                “We don’t need to be found. We’re the ones doing the looking, remember?”
                “For this part of our journey we need help. Do you know how to navigate across the Crystal Sea?”
                “The same way we navigated our way here. We’ll keep the Great Sun to our left. If we keep going, we’ll reach the other side. There must be another side.”
                “Our destination may not be a straight walk. The Dousan know the sea. They know the dangers and how to survive.”
                “Now we will, too.” Kha was several feet away from the group and still heading farther. She stopped and look over her shoulder at her companions. “Are you coming?”
                Rhe rushed along after her friend. Wherever Kha went, she went.
                Behind the Treetoppers, Vizi exchanged a glance with Pyrn. The dangers of the Crystal Sea were unknown to all of them. Perhaps together they had a better chance of surviving.
                Pyrn set his foot down in the sea and watched as the crystal waves lapped over his shoe. Maybe the Treetoppers were right. How could anything this beautiful be dangerous?

Water ran dry before the Rose Sun disappeared on the first day. All around them was desert and they no longer could be certain of the direction they headed.
                Overhead the Great Sun shone, turning the sparkling crystal sand into scorching terrain. The heat leaked through their thin shoes, burning their feet. No one complained. Complaining now did no good.
                For the first part of the crossing, Kha skipped ahead, laughing at the glittering land all around. Occasionally she’d unfurl her wings and flutter just above the surface of the sea, her toes dipping down and leaving little trails behind. Seconds later the wind or small wave would come along and erase all evidence of her passage.
“I don’t know why you were so worried,” Kha yelled back to Pyrn. Pyrn took his time, pacing his steps with Vizi. The heat began to take its toll on the Rootdwellers early. The two men plodded along slower, lagging farther behind the girls who fluttered on ahead.
The Treetoppers remained unaffected for longer, chattering back and forth as they skimmed along the surface.
All talk ceased when the Rose Sun dipped down to sleep. Spare clothes were tied around heads, poor substitution for leafy hats to block the Great Sun’s burning rays. The makeshift hats and bandannas kept the Gelflings’ fair skin from burning, but added to the suffocating closeness of the air they breathed. All mouths in the group were parched, leaving them no moisture to speak. Swallowing became painful and lips began to crack.
Rhe and Kha no longer flew. Their wings hung like wilted flowers down their backs. Even furling them up required too much effort in the stifling heat. They walked with Pyrn and Vizi, each step painful, their feet becoming raw.
The rising of the Rose Sun found the four of them lying in the middle of the Crystal Sea. Unable to continue on, they stared at the emptiness surrounding them. Waves of silver and lavender lapped around their bodies. Soon they would be covered and reclaimed by Thra.
A sea breeze blew over the desert, erasing the tracks left behind. Nothing remained to point rescuers in their direction, if any rescuers existed in the first place.

Chapter Nine – From Raunip’s Journal

I followed the Vapra Gelflings to the Crystal Sea. They should wait on the shore. The sea is not friendly even to those who know her secrets. Hot, so very hot on the desert sea. Not fit for little Gelflings who live in trees where water is plentiful.
Raunip thinks Gelflings will wait. Wait until desert Gelflings show themselves and ferry tree Gelflings across. The Dousan are there. They hide in their sparkly cloaks, becoming part of the sea, but I know how to spot them. Mother Aughra taught them how to hide and she taught me how to find them.
A boat draws close to the shore, the Dousan watching their moister brethren. Judging the Vapra intent before taking them across.
The cloak still shields the Vapra eyes from the Dousan when a girl Gelfling with wings runs out into the sea. She doesn’t wait. She yells to her companions then runs deeper.
On the shore, the boy Gelflings look to each other. They’ll call her back. Tell her the sea is dangerous.
A moment later they join her on the sea, walking in the wrong direction. The Dousan boat lands on shore and I run out to them.
The Dousan will help them. They know the desert. They know the dangers.

I hope they can reach them before it is too late.

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