A/N: This story was originally published in Skyline Magazine, Summer 2007 issue.

Earth's Key

Aznea had always known that there was something strange about her foundling sister Alyssum. Her age was uncertain, but she was tiny, hardly taller than a five-year-old child, and unusually delicate in appearance as if she were part bird or flower. Yet her face was ageless, untouched by childhood plumpness. The village elders claimed she belonged to a beautiful, diminutive race of unknown origin. . . but they couldn't say from where.

That was not all. Alyssum, who couldn't recall anything regarding her past, could fly. Only Visitors from the parallel world Realearth could do that. The main talent that denizens of Dreamearth possessed was Illusioning, the ability of a person to temporarily change her appearance. Even this was fairly rare, bestowed on a lucky few. Gifted Illusionists usually found careers as Substitutes, those who interacted with Visitors by taking on the likenesses of people whom that individual knew in his waking life. However, the Visitors could do almost anything during their brief jaunts such as fly, create objects from nothing, and transform things.

Neither Aznea, nor most of the other villagers that lived here on the shore of the great Archetypal Sea, possessed any such abilities. Her parents, as well, were quite ordinary: her mother designed props for the Visitors and her father was an Artifact Collector who looked for objects that the Visitors conjured during their brief dreams and left behind. Most of the stuff was junk, but he continued to hope for a treasure. So far, his greatest find had been Alyssum, whom he'd discovered a little less than a year ago, wandering alone on the shore with no memories. They had searched for her parents but no one in their village, nor the neighboring ones came forward to claim her. Aznea was secretly happy about that since she had always longed for a sister.

She and Alyssum were on their way home from watching the merpeople, who lived in glass orbs beneath the sea, frolic amongst the vivid turquoise waves.

"Come one, Allie, it's getting late," Aznea said with one final glance at the sun. It was fading, clinging to the darkening waters, tingeing them with a carbuncle shimmer. The crescent moon overhead began to take on its nightly glow and the sea-fragrant air grew noticeably cooler. The evening zephyr slipped through Aznea's cottony tunic. She shivered.

"Watch this!" Alyssum called, leaping into the air. She floated over Aznea's head, flipped over in a somersault and landed gracefully on the sand several feet away. "I can't fly very high yet but I'm working on it."

"Yes, that's wonderful," Aznea said, struggling to conceal her envy with enthusiasm. She'd always longed for the freedom that Visitors often experienced here; they and Alyssum made her even more aware of her earthbound status.

"Perhaps I can teach you," the girl said, her incandescent violet eyes glowing even more.

Aznea laughed and ruffled Alyssum's shimmering hair. "That's not something you can teach. You have to be born with that gift, just like anything else."

"Just where was I born?" Alyssum asked as they started toward the rows of sphere-shaped cottages that made up their village. "All I remember was wandering around until Father found me while he was doing his job." She chuckled. "He said I was the greatest treasure he had discovered that day."

Aznea laughed. "Well, you certainly were the first person he's discovered. You— "

She stopped as a tall, ethereal woman stepped onto their path. Her hair, robe, and skin were shockingly white like the brightening moonlight, and she was as diaphanous as an insect wing.

Aznea froze. The woman was a ghost. But what was she doing here? She'd always been taught that ghosts very seldom left the Nightmare Realms, which was their land.

The stranger placed a white hand beneath Alyssum's chin and stared into her eyes. "Don't be frightened of me, pretty girl." Her voice hissed like the constant waves.

"Who are you?" Aznea whispered.

The ghost-woman ignored her but gave the answer to Alyssum. "My name is Umbra. I have a special task to ask of you. One that will help my kind."

"What kind— "Aznea started to ask just as Umbra vanished, taking Alyssum with her.

Aznea screamed. She ran forward to where the two had been standing just a moment ago. All she could see were Alyssum's tiny footprints in the sand.

I must get to the Nightmare Realms, she thought, striding toward her cottage. Her parents would be home soon, but she didn't want them to find out about what had happened to Alyssum. They loved the girl as if she had been born to them. Besides, Aznea had promised to look after the child when she and Alyssum weren't in school and when her parents were working. Both their jobs required long hours.

Her heart was jumping around in her chest like a nervous bird as she hurriedly grabbed a cloak and wondered if she should bring any other supplies. Just what did one use to fight ghosts? She tucked a kitchen knife into her belt, not sure if it would do any good against ghosts. Anything can help, I suppose, she thought. I just have to find Alyssum and bring her back.

She stepped into the hall closet, the only active portal in their cottage. We may not have the same gifts that the Visitors have when they are in our world but at least we can travel to different parts of Dreamearth much faster than they can in their own world, she thought. "Take me to the Nightmare Realms, to wherever Alyssum was taken," she whispered, practically praying to the closet's transportation magic.

After the initial spinning, Aznea found herself standing beneath an arch, which would be their portal home. She stepped out and looked around. Ruined structures, some square, others domes and spires, scattered the hillside before her. The moon painted these structures eerie silver and sketched their images upon the ground in long dark shadows.

"Alyssum! Allie!" she called as she followed a narrow dirt path, littered with pebbles and debris, up the hill. Where was she? Aznea shuddered. Everything smelled of moss and things long dead.

She entered a courtyard surrounded by stones and pillars, the remnants of once magnificent structures. Huddled upon the broken mosaics in the center of the courtyard—Aznea's heart lurched—was a small form that, at first, she had thought was only a wisp of moonlight.

It was a tiny girl, sitting with her head resting on her knees. Her long hair covered her like a silvery white cloak.

"Allie!" Aznea shouted, racing toward her. She slammed into an invisible barrier and was knocked backwards. Gasping for breath, she stood, brushed herself off and pushed against it. It didn't budge and appeared to be a wall built of air, completely encircling Alyssum. The child didn't seem to notice her.

Where was Umbra? she wondered. If I could penetrate that barrier and grab Alyssum, we could get out of here before Umbra noticed her missing.

Aznea tapped against the barrier, hoping that the noise wouldn't alert Umbra. Alyssum raised her head. The moonlight and shadows played against her face, bringing the fragileness of her high cheekbones into sharp prominence. Her vast eyes, holding an intense amethyst glow, stared past Aznea.

Doesn't she see me? she wondered in despair as she waved at the girl, desperately trying to capture her attention.

At that instant, Umbra, accompanied by several other wispy ghosts, appeared. They slid through the barrier and surrounded Alyssum.

"I've brought my companions," she said in her airy, sibilant voice. "It has been a while since they've seen you."

"I-I met them before?" Alyssum whispered.

Umbra nodded. "You are the Key that bridges both worlds, Realearth and Dreamearth. You alone can awaken all the sleeping Dreamers of Realearth, just for a second. That's all it takes to destroy Dreamearth and set us free. All you have to do is form an image in your mind of it happening and concentrate hard."

Aznea swallowed sour bile that was rising in her throat. Her hands and feet grew suddenly numb.

"That's impossible," Alyssum said, raising her chin. "No one can wake all the Dreamers as once. My teachers have always told me that there are billions of Visitors from Realearth so somewhere, someone is sleeping and continuing to dream. Our existence is safe because of that. Besides, if Dreamearth ended, you'd be destroyed along with everyone else."

"No. As ghosts, we would be able to travel between the worlds but, as it is, we are trapped here. We can only leave the Nightmare Realm for minutes at a time. Realearth would still remain in tact. With Dreamearth temporarily destroyed, we would be free to escape into Realearth. Besides, as soon as any Realearth denizen fell asleep, he or she would begin to dream this world back into existence. That's all it takes."

Aznea froze as Alyssum's eyes slid toward her. "What about. . .my family? Would they be restored when Dreamearth is?"

Umbra and the other ghosts laughed, a sound like wind howling through the ruins. "There is no guarantee that anything here would ever be the same again. Dreamearth, even as it stands right now, is constantly changing, shaping itself to the whim of the Visitors. They are the ones with the real power. Besides, what family is it that you speak of?" Umbra glanced at Aznea. "Do you mean her? She's not your real sister. You know that, don't you?"

"Leave her alone!" Aznea shouted, pounding against the barrier. "She won't listen to your silly command." Rage tore at her when she saw that Umbra and the other ghosts continued to ignore her.

"Think back, child," Umbra said, stroking Alyssum's hair. "What are your memories? Those you had before this Dreamearth family found you?"

Alyssum looked at the ground and shook her head. "I have none," she whispered. Aznea felt a twisting within her chest. Why was Umbra asking her that?

"What a pity. No memories of being held in a mother's arms? Of being carried and fed?"

"Stop tormenting her!" Aznea shouted, feeling her voice grow hoarse. Alyssum's eyes were growing especially bright with unshed tears. "She's my sister! That's all that matters. Did you hear me, Alyssum? Don't listen to her." Tears sprang into her own eyes and trickled warmly down her cheeks. "You're my sister. You always will be."

Alyssum started to look toward Aznea but Umbra grasped the child's chin, forcing her gaze away. "That's because we created you," the ghost-woman said. "We formed you from the thought-essences that the Visitors leave behind, ethereal substances that not even your junk-collector father can find. That is why you share talents such as the ability of flight with the Visitors. We placed you in that seaside village so you could learn a few things before we reclaimed you."

Aznea pulled out her knife and, not sure if it would do any good, began to saw away at the invisible wall. To her surprise, it took on the texture of a cobweb beneath the blade, allowing her to rip a large hole in it.

"Alyssum," she rasped, pushing her way through icy ghost bodies and grabbing her sister. "Fly us away from here. I know you can— "

A sharp chill on her shoulder froze her words. "If you try anything, we will destroy her." Umbra's breath was icy against her ear. "It isn't easy to form something like her but we can create another child, a more corporative one if we have to."

Aznea looked down at Alyssum. Tears streaked the child's delicately beautiful face. Aznea swallowed. This was truly the Nightmare Realm; both were sharing the same nightmare yet they were not Visitors. If Alyssum didn't use her innate magic to awaken all the Dreamers and temporarily destroy Dreamearth, the ghosts would dispose of her.

"Which will it be, girl?" Umbra said, focusing back on Alyssum as the other ghosts stared and whispered, "You must choose. You must choose."

"She will awaken the Dreamers," Aznea said at last as an idea tickled her mind. Nausea gnawed at her stomach. What if it didn't work? What would oblivion be like?

"What?" Alyssum's voice was a choked gasp.

"But please." She looked at Umbra and the others, struggling not to blink too much or allow her gaze to falter. "I will be instantly destroyed. Can't I have a few moments alone with my sister? That's all I ask."

Umbra stared at her for an endless amount of time through eyes like liquid moonlight. Aznea held her breath. "All right. But don't be too long. We are anxious to leave this dreary realm and escape into Realearth."

"What are you doing?" Alyssum whispered once they had separated from the ghosts. "I'm not going— "

"And risk being destroyed?" Aznea nearly laughed as Alyssum's mouth dropped open in shock. "Never mind that." She struggled to keep her voice low so that the ghosts couldn't hear. "I have a plan. I just hope it works. Umbra said that since you were created from the essences of the Visitors you possess their abilities. We already know you can fly. That probably means you can do other things as well. I've seen Visitors turn objects into other things and their magic is often permanent. Father has even collected many of these transformed items. Do you think— "

"That I might be able to transform the ghosts?" Alyssum's voice started to rise in excitement.

"Shh!" Aznea chided.

"Sorry." She shook her head. "I don't know. I've never tried that. Do you think it will be able to work on ghosts?"

"Try it now. If you can you might be able to save all of us. Remember, all the ghosts want is to be set free."

Alyssum closed her eyes and held out her hands. Aznea stiffened, felt her stomach tense with nerves.

Umbra and the other ghosts glided closer. "She's doing it!" some whispered. "She's going to awaken all the Realearth Dreamers."

Alyssum began to glow with a brilliance that faded the moonlight. Aznea swallowed. Her throat felt like sand, her palms were wet. What if this didn't work and she did awaken the Dreamers? What if the ghosts discovered their plan?

"What are you doing, girl!" Umbra shrieked. "This isn't right."

Aznea looked at her and the others. Their diaphanous bodies were shrinking and growing more solid, hardening into glass. They continued to shrink until they turned into tiny crystal statues that dotted the ground.

"Allie, you did it!" Aznea gently shook her sister.

The girl stood still for several moments, breathing hard. Her glow faded and perspiration glistened against her skin. Aznea drew her into her arms. In spite of her magic and strength, she still felt so fragile, so breakable as if she were made of fish bones.

"I-I did, didn't I?" Alyssum said, gently pulling away. She brushed wisps of hair from her face and knelt amongst the tiny figurines. She picked one up. "You can't try control me anymore, Umbra!" She tossed her head and laughed.

Aznea picked up another and studied it. The former ghost's features were flawless, a finely chiseled figurine. Its robe and hair, which held a rippling effect as if caught in a breeze, glistened with iridescent sparks against the moonlight.

"Allie," she gasped, struggling to keep her voice from trembling with excitement. "Do you realize what you did? These aren't ordinary crystals. We'll have to take them to the village jeweler to be certain, but I believe they are diamonds. We can finally bring Father the treasure he has been looking for. And you did it all yourself."

Alyssum blushed. "Not all by myself. This was your idea and I will be sure to tell him that."

"Come on. Let's go home."

Not minding the cold, Aznea slipped off her cloak. She and Alyssum bundled all of the ghost-figurines into it before they headed down the hill, to the arch that was their portal home.

The End