Looking Red the Crystals Cry
     The red tailed hawk circled in the sparkling summer sky. Something about the pattern pulled Amma from the crystal ruins where she spent much of her time, down the grassy hill and away from her friends. Wild animals, like the hawk, called her more strongly than the spirits. The wind picked up, whipping her long chestnut hair into her face. She lifted her hand toward the shape in the sky, reaching upward as though to touch it.

     The bird hunted. When it dove, she’d run closer. Animals didn’t notice her the way they noticed other people. When the bird lifted with its kill, she might see the new spirit. Animal spirits didn’t stay long unless they were very old. 

     The hawk flew over the city of Jorvik, and Amma hesitated. She didn’t like being around people noise in her village. It hurt her head. Spirits sounded like music, but people were loud, grating. She didn’t understand what they said very often. The words were too hard to think about. If only they would quiet, let the softness of life sing without the noise. 

     Amma crawled through a hole under the palisade. It was a tight fit, but she was still small enough to make it. It kept her away from the guards. Looking back, she saw Blue Man, Yellow Dragon, and Black Spider pass through the wall, following her. She smiled in relief. She didn’t like being alone. The town’s people walked along the dirt paths between the longhouses. Amma kept near the log walls as much as she could while keeping an eye on the hawk. A few people glanced her way, but no one said anything to her. 

     The hawk landed on a low tree limb. It stood very still, which was strange. Amma expected it to dart its head in random directions, checking the surroundings. Instead, the hawk stood on the branch with its head turned to the left, unmoving. Amma rubbed at her collarbone through her chainse. Blue Man stood beside her, opening and closing his semitransparent fist. He didn’t like being in town. Yellow Dragon looked at Amma. He asked a question, but Amma was too distracted by the bird to figure out what it was. She stood next to a longhouse, hand resting on the wood, unmoving. Waiting. 

     Two strangers stopped under the branch. Amma couldn’t guess their race, but they weren’t barbarian. The tall woman and man were thin with pale, creamy skin. The man’s ears rose into points, but the woman’s were hidden in her long honey brown hair. The man wore dark brown, the color of tree trunks, and the woman wore a deep green, more a gem color rather than tree leaves in summer. Tree Man and Green Woman weren’t spirits. 

     Green Woman raised up her gloved arm, and the hawk hopped down on it, fluttering its wings for balance. Green Woman laughed. She sang to the hawk, gently stroking its head and neck. When she stopped, the hawk flew off her arm, circled once, and flew off toward the forest. When Amma lost sight of it in the trees, she looked back to the strangers. Green Woman’s startling ocean blue eyes locked onto hers. When the woman smiled, Amma ran.

#

     Lulan sighed when the child ran away. She always had a tender place in her heart for the shy ones.

     “You wanted to brush her hair, didn’t you?” Drel asked. He knew just what to say to lighten her mood. They were middle-aged by elf standards, and had traveled together for hundreds of years. Drel’s obsession with Helaque’s treasure couldn’t be quenched, so they came to Jorvik hoping to find the next clue to its location. 

     “It’s healthy for a child to be wary of strangers,” she replied.

     “And yet the other children were quite open. I’m glad we didn’t have to rely on that one to get directions.” 

     The girl was odd, and it had nothing to do with her wild hair. Many children ran around looking unkempt, their once white garments turned beige and worn. Lulan had learned to see nature like a color, to hear it like a melody. She was sensitive to plants and animals, but not usually people. The girl, no more than seven years old, pulsed. Lulan felt her in the same way she felt the hawk. Something was different about her. Lulan hoped to see her again before they left town.

     Following the directions an older boy gave them, they reached the tavern, the biggest building in town, bigger than the council hall and the two temples. Shaped like the longhouses, it differed by having a second floor with rooms for rent.

     A woman pulled away from a dice game and stepped behind the bar. She nodded their way.

     “What food do you have?” Drel asked.

     “Bread and soup. There’ll be turkey tonight.”

     They ordered food and drinks, then sat at an empty table. They were the only ones in the place except for the four huddled over dice. The woman brought the food, slapping it down on the table hard enough to spill some of the contents over the lips of the bowls.

     “You must be elves,” the woman said. “We don’t see elves much around here.”

     Drel nodded. “Our kind do not travel often. We are here to see the crystal ruins. I’ve heard it is a mystical place.”

     “The ruins?” The woman pressed two fingers into the skin below her lip. “Don’t know why you want to go there. The crystals shine with light, but they don’t work outside of the ruins. If you remove them, you can’t turn them on or off with a touch. It’s about as mystical a place as a horses tail! Ha! Nothing there but trouble, if you ask me. That crystal is sharp too. One little tumble is all you need to end your life.” She eyed Drel. “You don’t care much for what I’ve got to say on it though, I can tell. You’ll still go up there.” She rubbed her hands on her apron. “They always do,” she said, more to herself than Drel or Lulan.

     She started to turn when Drel reached out and touched her arm. “I’ve heard a children’s rhyme and been told it is of barbarian origin.” He recited it:

  Winter land and winter night,
  Claw of red dug in the light.
  Blood of red the power spilt,
  Golden flowers kept where he built.

     Lulan had heard the verse everyday for years. Drel believed if he said it enough, they would be able to decode the meaning and locate the treasure. 

     “Is that all of it?” the waitress asked.

     “Yes.”

     “Well, it isn’t ours then. Our rhymes come in threes. Six lines.”

     Drel frowned at Lulan. She chewed on a piece of bread but said nothing.

     “Unless you don’t have all of it,” the waitress amended. She opened her mouth to say more when a man burst through the doors. 

     “Rakel, come quick.” The man said. His face looked stern, a battle expression.

     “Amma?” the waitress asked, eyebrows pinched together. She sounded worried. The man nodded. “I’ve got customers and no help. She’ll get over whatever it is.”

     The man shook his head. “This is bad, Rakel. You need to come before someone else tries to move her.” 

     The waitress followed him outside. The legs of the chair along the wooden floor as Lulan rose.

     Drel’s eyebrows rose. “We haven’t eaten.”

     She felt a little annoyed, considering she’d followed him on his quest over vast lands, and now he was giving her trouble about a short distance within a city because of an empty stomach. She kept relaxed though irritated. “Stay if you like. I’ll only be a moment. Who knows who I might meet with this opportunity.” Leaving without looking back, she knew the hook had sunk and would drag him behind her.

     Lulan ran to catch up as the man and Rakel rounded a corner. She edged her way through the gathered crowd. 

     Drel stepped beside her. “That isn’t fair. You…” He cut off his words as she held her breath, then he turned and saw the three juvenile boys dead in the alley. The closest was bent at odd angles. Another lay in a pool of red with gouges in his front torso. The third lay face down, but she could still see the large hole ripped in his neck. Blood splattered the wall closest to his body. 

     Past him, the little girl from earlier sat smeared with blood. She had her arms around her knees, head down, rocking back and forth. The large rip in the bottom of her dress hadn’t been there before. Rakel knelt beside her, speaking softly.

#

     Amma didn’t know what to do when the boys surrounded her. She didn’t like being touched. The wind picked up as they drew closer. The big one pushed her down. Dirt scraped the palms of her hands. Shutting her eyes tight, she felt Blue Man beside her. He was angry. She’d never known him to be angry before. 

     Don’t Look. She heard the words in her mind, and kept her eyes shut tight. Holding her knees and rocking, she tried to block the boys’ screams echoing in her ears. 

     It got quiet, but she was still scared. They might touch her again. The scrapes in her hands throbbed. She knew people came, but didn’t listen to their incomprehensible noise. Her mother came too. She didn’t want to open her eyes, didn’t want to feel the weight of the crowd staring at her.

     Amma slowly relaxed, but kept her eyes closed. Her mother would know it was okay to touch her now, to pick her up. Glad to feel the familiar touch, Alma was wrapped in her mother’s comfortable warmth as she was carried away from the people, and still she didn’t look. 

     When the world quieted again and time had calmed her, Amma chanced opening her eyes. She found herself in the tavern’s kitchen in a corner. Green Woman sat in front of her, looking at a bowl of water and an empty cup on the floor. She wasn’t scary. Amma examined her narrow face and long, soft hair. Green Woman had tied the top part of her hair into a braid, and Amma could see her pointy ears. 

     “Hello Amma,” Green Woman said. She didn’t look up from the floor. “I am a healer, and I saw that your hands are hurt. Your mother says you don’t like to be touched.” The woman pulled something from a pouch. “The juice in this plant will ease the burn of those cuts, and heal them quicker. If I show you how to put it on, will you do it?”

     Amma understood the woman wanted to help her, but she couldn’t stand being touched. Not again! She looked for a path around Green Woman, somewhere to run. Her legs hurt with the need to escape. Amma bit at her lower lip.

     Green Woman kept her eyes on the floor, but she didn’t reach out as Amma expected. Instead, she dipped the cup in the bowl and poured water on the palms of her own hands. “First clean the dirt out of your wounds.”

     Amma looked at her scraped hands. Tiny pieces of dirt cut into bright red scratches. 

     Green Woman dabbed her wet hands on the end of her chainse. Then she broke the stems of the plant, starting on one end and working her way down. Liquid swelled into little beads on the bruised plant. Green Woman rubbed the wet stems on the palms of her own hands. “Then rub the plant on the scrapes.”

     The woman broke more stems and set them beside the bowl, then scooted backward. She didn’t leave, but still didn’t look at Amma. Copying what the woman had done, Amma rinsed her hands and pressed the plants onto her palms. She thought it would hurt, but it numbed the painful throb instead. The swelling and redness around the scratches disappeared. Amma smiled a little. She lifted her hands and showed them to Blue Man. Green Woman nodded and left the kitchen, stepping close to Blue Man without seeing him.

#

     Lulan and Drel carefully made their way deeper into the crystal ruins. Among the remains of a few buildings, yellow and red crystals rose from the ground, most anywhere from ankle-high to waist-high. Fierce wind lashed at their clothing. Lulan had braided the rest of her hair to save it from becoming a wreck of tangles. Dark clouds poured in and covered the sky. She didn’t worry about light, since the crystals provided plenty.

     Her mind turned back to the dead boys. She wondered if they would catch the killer, and why he had left the girl alive. Perhaps he’d been about to kill her, had pushed her down causing the scrapes on her hands, but before he loosed the final gruesome blow, he heard someone approaching. What would it matter anyway, if he let her live? Someone told Lulan that though Amma could speak, she never did. The girl wouldn’t tell anyone what happened. 

     “Wind storm?” Drel asked. He had to shout to be heard. “It wasn’t like this in town.”

     Lulan shrugged. “We’re exposed on this hill. Do you want to go back, try again later?”

     Drel shook his head. He pointed farther into the glowing lights. Among the half-buried yellow and red lights was a large blue crystal, taller than an elf or barbarian. It was the only blue one in the ruins. “We could see that one from Jorvik.”

     Movement caught Lulan’s eye. She turned, expecting some kind of animal struggling in the wind, perhaps even hurt from falling on the sharp crystal. A young girl leaned into the wind, hair frantically whipping about her face. It was Amma. 

     “Are you alright?” Lulan shouted into the wind. Drel noticed the child and stepped toward her until Lulan raised her hand, motioning him to stop. Amma cocked her head to the side and smiled a little. She turned toward the blue stone. The wind calmed and Amma walked near the large crystal, watching them. 

     “Looks like there won’t be a storm after all,” Drel said.

     Lulan nodded. Drel touched the crystals around the blue stone, turning the lights on and off in a random pattern. Amma watched for a while. Lulan was surprised when the girl came to stand beside her. Even more surprising, Amma took her hand. Then Lulan saw the spirits for the first time. Ghosts of men of various races, small dragons, giant spiders, imps, raptors, and hellhounds surrounded them. Lulan even saw the ghost of a lone scorpid in the distance. The spirits watched Drel experimenting with the colored crystal. 

     “Drel, be careful,” Lulan said. “There are spirits everywhere.”

     He looked at her, eyebrows raised. “Since when do you see ghosts?” Then he noticed Amma holding her hand.

     “The girl does.”

     “What is their posture?”

     “They don’t seem angry, only watchful, but there are many monsters in the group.” Lulan had a flash of understanding. “I think I know what happened to those boys.”

     “Tell me if something changes.” Drel continued turning on and off the red and yellow lights. 

     A transparent blue spirit stood in front of Lulan, a barbarian man. His eyes drew her in and painfully peeled into soul. Amma’s voice penetrated Lulan’s mind, but she couldn’t understand what the girl said. The blue man dissipated like smoke. Lulan fought the temptation to hold Amma’s hand tighter. A very small yellow dragon spirit crouched near Drel, and it looked ready to pounce.

     “You don’t know how, do you?” Amma asked Drel.

     He looked at the girl and then Lulan. The hair stood up on the back of Lulan’s neck.

     Amma surprised them by reciting the rhyme.

  Winter land and winter night,
  Claw of red dug in the light.
  Blood of red the power spilt,
  Golden flowers kept where he built.
  Monsters killed the spirits fly,
  Looking red the crystals cry.

     “That isn’t the end the way the spirits sing it though,” Amma said.

     “How does it end for them, Amma?” Lulan asked.

     The girl turned, looking at her with intense eyes. She seemed too calm to be a child. “Open mouth… and die.”

     Drel stood still. He probably was memorizing the verses. “I don’t understand.” 

     Lulan shook her head. She didn’t know either.

     “The worst monsters are dead. It is dark as night.” Amma started shaking but it wasn’t from cold. Lulan resisted the urge to hold her. “Light only the red crystals.”

     Drel began tuning off the yellow lights while turning on the red ones. Lulan wanted to help, but she didn’t dare let go of Amma’s hand. The monsters were getting restless. She watched the yellow dragon closely. The blue ghost stopped near the dragon, both of them watching Drel.

     “Now what?” Drel asked. Amma didn’t reply.

     “Try the blue crystal,” Lulan said. “That has to be part of it.”

     Drel stepped over a yellow stone to reach the large crystal. He had touched it before to no avail. Reaching out, he lightly brushed its surface with the tips of his fingers. The ground started shaking. Amma stumbled, but Lulan caught her. She was afraid the child would panic at being touched, but Amma stayed calm. A gap opened in the ground, twisting and breaking crystals on the surface. Stair steps led down into darkness.

     “This is it,” Drel took a deep breath. “After all this time, Helaque’s treasure. As much as I’m pleased to find it after these many years, it’s sad that the hunt will be over, once we enter the chasm.”

     Inside the cave, they saw chests and crates lining the walls in the crystals’ light. Lulan checked for traps by spread a purple powder made of ammeral flowers along the chests. When it didn’t change color indicating a trap, she flipped open the top of a chest. It contained gold coins, artifacts and jewels. Lulan brushed a finger over a diamond and ruby necklace. 

     Amma sat on a small crate, feet dangling. She watched Drel standing before a milky-green glowing orb in the center of the alcove. 

     “This isn’t it.” Drel shook his head.

     “What?” Lulan asked, moving closer.

     “This isn’t Helaque’s treasure.”

     “But all of the clues led here.”

     “Yes,” Drel said. “To the map room.”

     Lulan peered over his shoulder into the orb and saw leaves from a topical forest wave in a breeze. “Jungle? How is that a map?”

     Drel shrugged, light gleaming in his eyes. He loved a good mystery.

#

     Amma watched Green Woman looking through chests. She thought her name was Lulan. Being around her made Amma feel strangely warm. She felt something changing. Their noise started to clear of confusion.

     Movement caught the corner of her eye near the opening. Blue Man motioned for her to go outside. She heard his thoughts, soft like a thin whisper. He wanted to close the cave, trapping the adults inside. She wondered why it was hard to hear him. Blue Man told her the adults were taking her away from them. They were changing her.

     Yellow Dragon appeared in the opening. “She is one of them,” he said, and Amma heard the words aloud, not just the thoughts in her mind. “She’s alive and should go with them.”

     “No,” Blue Man said.

     Yellow Dragon circled around Blue Man. “We have caused her to be caught in the web around this place, like we are. It isn’t right to keep her here.”

     Blue Man’s shoulders slumped. “A prisoner.” 

     Yellow Dragon’s color brightened for a moment, but they were getting harder for her to see. 

     “It’s up to you,” Blue Man said, looking at Amma with sad eyes. 

     Amma couldn’t see him anymore. Crossing over to Lulan, Amma took her hand. She smiled, more than a little. 

     The elves stayed in Jorvik until season’s end. By then, Amma had connected with her mother and the town’s other children. She was sad to see Lulan and Drel go, the same as when she lost her spirit friends, but she was part of her family and people now. She found the place she belonged.

References: Lulan, Drel, Barbarian, Elf, Raptor, Giant Spider, Hellhound, Scorpid, Imp

 
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