The Illumination of Karen
The little group on the floor still slept, which gave her an idea. She wanted to show off her new ability, and also give her friends a boost in morality. Would it not be a lovely thing for them to wake up in light, after all the darkness?
Moving around the chamber, she started lighting the crystal flowers one by one until the whole room shone and sparkled with wondrous brilliance. While so employed she discovered what looked like a door set in a slight depression in one of the walls. It appeared to be the only other gateway to the chamber. It meshed so well with the surrounding reliefs that she could not be entirely sure whether it was merely a part of the décor or an actual portal. It intrigued her with its weird designs. But as she felt reluctant to open it by herself, she returned to lighting crystals.
It was about the time that she was feeding the twentieth or so lichen, when Aadesh woke up with an exclamation of utter astonishment. Of course, that roused the two other sleepers who, in turn, also cried out with surprise and delight. They sat open-mouthed for a few moments before directing a short barrage of nearly articulate questions Karen’s way. After a brief explanation, Aadesh and Thisha looked at her in awe. From Chetna she received that which she treasured more though, a nod and smile of respect from an accomplished fellow student of The Art.
“How do you feel now, Chetna?” she asked.
“I have slept better than I had expected. Thank you.” She was obviously still weak. Her face was pale and her speech somewhat laboured.
“Now that I’ve learnt how, please let me share some of my strength with you.”
“You are so kind, but maybe later, if you please. Right now, I think we had better evaluate our situation, so as to determine how to get the most out of said strength.”
Karen reflected on how much of a born leader this woman was. She suspected that Chetna was in greater need of help than she let on, but also that she would not deny it if it would serve their purpose directly.
“Have you discovered anything else useful to us during your waking time Karen?”
“There are two things. First of which is this door. I didn’t dare open it by myself, but it interests me a great deal. It is almost as if the entire design of this room centres upon it.”
“I see what you mean. Do these designs mean anything to you, by the way?”
“No. I mean, I think that I might have read about something similar once, but it is probably decades ago. No definite memories present themselves.”
They tried to open it, at first very carefully, but even though the handle turned, the door did not move. They exerted more force and experimented with the handle, both without progress.
“There must be other locks on the inside” remarked Thisha.
“I suppose so. But there is no give in it whatsoever, and there’s no visible crack between it and the frame. It’s as if it was fused to the wall” replied Chetna with a puzzled expression. Then she turned to Karen: “While this is an intriguing mystery, I don’t think we should spend much more time on it. You mentioned that you had made two discoveries of interest; what is the other?”
“Well, try to be completely quiet and listen closely. Do you hear that slight murmur?”
“Indeed, what do you think it is? Some kind of machine?”
“I have pondered that question for some time, and now believe that it is running water. There are many subterraneous rivers and channels under Arcaport, especially towards the sea. Now, I don’t know exactly where we are, but I know that I was only a few kilometres from the harbour when I got lost. Much transportation goes on via underground channels in that area. So, I think our best chance, at present, is to find this water and follow it downstream. Unless we reach a barrier of some sort, it should eventually lead to a channel, or directly into the sea. What do you think about that?”
Chetna nodded. “I agree upon it being the preferred course of action right now. As you say, it might of course lead us to a dead-end, but let us at least explore the option. If it doesn’t work, I believe we should, despite the obvious danger, try to find our way back to where we encountered those monsters. At present however, I am in no hurry to run into any more of them. Do you think it is possible to bring one of these crystals with us for light? Or can you light the lamp again with your new-found abilities?”
Karen explained that, actually, igniting easily flammable material is not much more difficult than what she had just accomplished. It is, after all, also merely a question of transferring energy. But it requires greater precision and usually takes somewhat longer to master than the “flower-blooming technique”. To conclude her statement, she added: “Also, it would seem that we have only an hours’ worth or so, of oil left. Hence, I believe that breaking one of these crystals off is our best strategy. I don’t think that the stems are in any way connected to the life-process of the lichen inside, so they should remain luminescent even after the fact. Do you think you could help me with that, Thisha, Aadesh?”
Those two immediately attempted to remove one of the crystals by breaking off its stem. The design looked thin and fragile but resisted every attempt by the two youths. To get more leverage, they finally wrapped two saris around one of the shining sculptures so that all four of them could pull together. It still did not budge.
Eventually, Chetna announced that she would try to use her strength-enhancement technique for this purpose. “I think that now, Karen, I will need you to supply me with extra energy, for this rock seems incredibly strong.” So saying, she grasped the twisted sari and braced her legs, waiting for the boost.
Karen placed herself behind Chetna and put her hands on the small of the other woman’s back. Performing the now familiar feat of initializing the connection, she was greatly surprised at the difference in experience. Not only was Chetna another sentient being, but a master of body-control far superior to Karen. She could feel the immediate acceptance of her flow. And as Chetna began pulling at the improvised rope, an enormous increase in absorption rate. That amazing woman now exerted powers hitherto unseen by any of her present companions. Her lithe muscles stood out starkly with the strain, all over her body. Under her own hands, Karen felt the back of her friend turn almost scorching hot, and hard as rock itself. What little fat there had remained seemed to melt away. She realized that Chetna was using all available reserves in this attempt. At the same time, the rate of energy absorption shot through the roof. It was a draining sensation that left Karen sweating and gasping for air in great gulps. Her heart raced, and her body ached all over. The lighting of the lichen she had performed earlier had in no way prepared her for this feat.
There was a loud report, like the firing of a cannon, and a spray of rock splinters around the room. Chetna shot backwards violently, smashing into Karen. Both of them landed in a heap of limbs, up against some other ornamental inventory. Thisha and Aadesh were by their side immediately, trying to help them to their feet. Karen could hardly move for the pain, and remained in a cramped position on the floor for some time. She barely managed to look up and assure the others that she was fine. After a while, the immediate pain subsided. Still drawing deep breaths, she crawled over to where Chetna had been laid, swathed up to the chin in saris. To her horror, she saw her friend emaciated, as if having starved for weeks, and gasping for air as one in death’s grip. “No!” She exclaimed. “What have you done?! I will give you more strength! Try to breathe calmly!” But as she embraced the other anew, to give her the power to live, she couldn’t. This time there was no acceptance of her flow, and Chetna could not be tricked like a lichen. “Why won’t you let me help you?”
The answer came slowly, between tortured inhalations: “The blow I received when fighting hurt me deep. For a while, I thought I might be able to stave off death long enough to get out and receive help. However, when I woke up earlier, I felt a great weakness from blood loss. I knew then that I would die soon, but determined to be of as much help as possible to you three before that.”
Chetna made a short pause to catch her breath here, then continued.
“This is at least a wondrous and beautiful place.” Her eyes took in the chamber. “Aadesh and Thisha, you are good friends, thank you for putting your trust in me. You must follow Karen now.” They both wept profusely, hugging ang caressing the dying woman.
“Karen. I believe you are one of the most gifted students of The Art that I have ever encountered. If anyone can get out of this abysmal maze alive, it is you. Please take care of Aadesh and Thisha for me.”
“I will” Karen responded quickly, that Chetna might say all she wanted while there was still time.
“Good. Also, take care to rest a while before you go. I tried to take as little as possible, but breaking the rock required even more strength than I had anticipated. Methinks I took a little more of you than would be advisable. Please forgive me.”
“Speak nothing of it” Karen interjected with a lump in her throat.
“It saddens me that you and I will not have time to know each other better. Fare well, Aadesh, Thisha and Karen. I pass in peace, surrounded by beauty and excellent companions. Thank you.”
With those final words, Chetna closed her mouth in a faint smile, her last breath leaving her slowly. Thisha and Aadesh were completely heart-broken. Karen could see that they had projected unto Chetna their love for, dependency on and devotion to a mother-figure. The death of a parent could not have been more painful to them.
She herself felt a great pain as well. While their friendship had been very short, she had already developed a sincere respect and affection for Chetna. She had sensed many mental similarities beyond what little had been obvious.
There was no possibility to bury Chetna in any way. Everywhere was solid rock, and they had none of the paraphernalia required for either a sikhrodian or acadian ceremony. They swept the body in Chetna’s sari and sat around it for a while.Karen did indeed feel incredibly worn and could hardly stand up at all. The ache that had come after the great energy-drain subsided but slowly. And she felt both tired and hungry again, even though she had been awake for only a few hours. Thus, heeding Chetna’s advice, she ate and drank again before lying down to rest, telling Thisha and Aadesh that they would leave as soon as she felt up to it. Sleep didn’t come easily, not until she had negated nearly all the pain she felt, mental and physical. It took some of her energy to do so, but she knew that their survival now likely depended entirely on her. She must be in as good form as possible to succeed.