The Illumination of Karen
Sometime, somewhere, in the vast vaults of the cosmos, around a star named Parastra, spins a large and bountiful planet. Some of its inhabitants call it Magnama.
Spread out irregularly across its deep, blue oceans, are several large continents, each offering different and magnificent vistas. There are towering mountain ranges, deep forests, glittering archipelagos and much, much more.
Then there are the cities. Dotting the landscape on most of the continents, they show the presence and influence of people. They vary in size and architecture according to the prevalent local species and cultures.
On the eastern coast of one continent, like a truly vast mesa of brick and mortar, lies the city of Arcaport. It is one of the largest human habitations on Magnama and the setting of this story.
It was noon on a fine day in Arcaport as it bathed in the rays of a generous late summer sun. From the roofs of the upper blocks, down to the dark, canyonlike ground level streets, people were enjoying the warmth. Everywhere seemed to be jovial faces, laughter and easy minds.
At one open window sat Karen, a beautiful view of a smiling city before her, and a deeply furrowed frown on her brow. She was staring intently at a small potted plant on the desk in front of her. Starting from her hands and from around her mouth, she could feel her muscles and sinews tightening gradually. The effect spread throughout her entire upper body and face, until she sat quivering from the strain. A slight breeze felt strangely cool against her skin, making her realize that she was sweating profusely.
With that insight, she relaxed her entire body and slumped back in her chair with a sigh of disappointment. Focus-projection had nothing to do with muscular effort. Once again she had lost concentration as she sought to cast the power of her mind outside the boundaries of her own body, and onto another living entity.
Karen was nearly fifty years old and preparing for one of the most crucial events in her life so far. In a few days she was about to take the entrance examination to Arcane University, the oldest and most prestigious academic institution in the known world.
Fifty years is not an uncommon age to enter Arcane University (or “AU”, as it is known colloquially). In fact, most of the freshmen are older. The entrance exam is exceedingly difficult, and it takes very long to master the necessary skills. Karen had been practicing since she was in her mid-teens, with the hope of one day becoming a wizard, for so are styled the graduates of AU.
At AU, those who are talented enough, study the skill of “mind-focus”, also referred to just as “focus”, or “The Art” by many of its exponents. In short: How to manipulate the world with the power of the mind alone. The possibilities are seemingly endless, but even the smallest measure of skill requires long and arduous study.
The entrance exam consists of one practical test only, making a flower bloom from a closed bud in less than half an hour. It requires that you are able to manipulate the flow of energy to the flower, thus showing that you have mastered the beginner’s level of focus-projection. Focus-projection are all forms of mind-focus that reach beyond your own body. Manipulation of your own internal properties is called body-control.
It takes most people around four decades to reach that level, starting with the simplest forms of body-control. Gaining mastery of the functions of your own body is considered the easiest way of attuning yourself to wielding matter by mind. It is also necessary; Most people are in their eighties when they graduate. And graduation only means that you have mastered the basics of all aspects of The Art, and can begin to specialize in a field of your own choice. Thus, learning how to keep your body healthy and, eventually, to slow down aging, is considered elementary. Without those skills, you can never expect to reach any higher level of mastery at all.
Karen looked listlessly out of her window, her thoughts drifting. She had a good level of body-control; she could adjust her metabolism at will, she could make her senses dull or acute, control pain and emotion and many other things besides. According to all that she had read, she should be ready for focus-projection. But still she could make nothing happen with that annoying flower. It was actually half open, but that was only because it had been standing in her window for days. She would soon have to exchange it for a new one to practice on. But it didn’t really matter if it was half open for now. At present she needed to just make something happen, to make contact, as it were.
The most frustrating thing was that AU held its entrance exam only once every five years. This was because very few people ever applied at any one time, and even fewer passed. Karen really didn’t want to wait another five years. Of course, it would matter very little in the long run, but right now, five years seemed an insurmountable barrier to her.
Karen’s fluffy white cat, Katarina, meowed at her feet, jumped up onto the table and sniffed contemplatively at the little flower. Karen stroked her head and back. The feeling of soft fur and Katarina’s lithe form under her fingers was a soothing sensation any day.
Her eyes wandered around her study. It was filled with books on every subject that had interested her to any degree in all her life: A scientific instrument here, an archaeological curiosity there; It was a very cosy room. Karen liked her life a lot, she liked living in Arcaport, she liked her studies and she liked her job at the bookstore well enough. But it was a life that had been the same now for more than two decades, and she wanted change. She knew that she would eventually master focus-projection. Just as she had mastered the numerous techniques of body-control that she had studied up until now. It was just a matter of time. But it was frustrating to think of the five years that would have to pass before her next chance, if she failed this time.
She glanced at her globe, reading some of the names of countries and continents she had never seen. She had read so much about the world, geography, ethnography, a bit of zoology and many other subjects. But she had hardly travelled at all, and those names still gave her a thrill with their, to her, innate exoticism. Students at AU could travel a lot.
It is very easy and common for them to get grants for long journeys all over the world, to meet with respected practitioners of The Art in other countries. It is very much encouraged, so as to expose the students to different philosophies and techniques. To Karen this sounded just fabulous; Imagine being paid to travel and study! Life could not become better than that in her mind.
Looking over at her clock, she saw that it was half past noon. Not strange that she had lost concentration then, she thought. She had been practicing non-stop for almost eight hours, and only slept for four or five hours last night. An empty feeling in her belly finally managed to attract her attention. Had she had any breakfast? A vague memory of an apple, a piece of bread, and half a glass of water drifted past.
Normally, Karen would not lose her concentration due to fatigue or hunger. She could simply switch those sensations off and let her body feed off of itself, keeping fresh for as long as she wanted. The only limit to that was the amount of energy stored in her body at the time. These were comparatively basic body-control techniques she had mastered long ago. Now however, she was using absolutely all of her concentration on her studies. Furthermore, it was very nearly impossible to make solid progress in any mental discipline without sound sleep.
The complete substitution of all the essential functions of sleep is one of the very highest disciplines of body-control. It has only been mastered by a few known individuals in recorded history. As far as is known, the youngest person to do so is Mandeep Kumar, a respected sage and honorary professor at AU from Sikhrod. He attained complete mastery of the skill at the tender age of 173. He was one of the people Karen would love to meet if she could get a travelling grant. Actually, he sometimes visited AU as a guest lecturer, but that was usually only once a decade or so. It probably seemed like every other year to him, Karen thought. Time must really fly by when you’re 316 years old. Unless you mastered the skills practiced by the “Sensationalists” of Xhillippa. Then you could make a day feel like a year or a week feel like an hour. That would be properly useful now, she reckoned. Especially as the Sensationalists also frequently used that technique to learn vital new skills in a short amount of time.
Karen shook her head. Indeed! There was certainly no lack of tempting fields of study for her in the future. But daydreaming about them could not help her current predicament. What to do? Right now she had only her own experience as a student to rely on. Surely though, there must be something or other hidden somewhere in her half-century of life-experience.
Her gaze drifted out across the city, maybe the answer lay there?
Yes! A walk. Exercise had solved many an intellectual problem for her in the past. The light, the fresh air. She could go through some of her favourite parks, and get something to eat in the sun. The idea grew on her rapidly and slapping her thighs resolutely, she stood up.