The Illumination of Karen
There was no good way of telling time, and no light at all. Karen walked slowly forward with one hand on a wall. Some debris littered the floor but not so much as to impede progress significantly. She felt the outlines of decorations on the walls and the openings for doors, many of which were missing. She had read and heard about these abandoned districts. On the lower levels, some areas are lively and densely inhabited down to several floors underground. This is usually near the distribution-points, where workers and shopkeepers live to be near their place of business. Many of the poor and criminal classes commonly live in the periphery of those places as well. After all, their business is also dependent on a presence of “customers”. But then there are districts like this one. Some of them have been abandoned for centuries. Sometimes, one of them will experience a revival, if a fruitful business manages to establish itself anew in one of them. That mostly happens if a neighbourhood above becomes popular, creating a greater need for servants and workers to live nearby, ergo below. But mostly, they are left empty. Of course, there must be some people who make use of them, Karen thought. They ought to be excellent hiding-places. That must be one reason why Alexia and her demon-summoning friends had elected to hold their rituals so near one.
On Magnama, there are many kinds of sentient, near-incorporeal beings. Most of which are referred to as spirits by its other sentient inhabitants. What spirits all have in common, is that they are instinctive focus masters. That is because they live by absorbing energy directly from sources around them. They pull it straight from all things, living and dead. Different kinds of spirits are specialized in drawing energy more easily from different sources. There are, for example, earth spirits, who live off the energy stored in rock and soil. There are also wood spirits, who live off the energy of trees, bushes or plants. It is very common for these beings to get emotionally attached to a specific place or source of energy. Therefore, they take very good care of these, and are often perceived as the guardians thereof by other species. A tree spirit will live in, and around, one or a few trees that provide it with sustenance for as long as possible. With their powers, they can help to mend it when it has been harmed, or protect it from attacks. They will usually also care for at least some of its offspring, so that they might have a new source of energy once their old one dies.
As focus masters, spirits can do nearly anything commonly associated with The Art, included taking corporeal form. But, as with all mind-focus, every act requires energy, and that is always limited. Because of this, most spirits only absorb a fraction more energy from their “hosts” than they need to stay alive. That little extra amount they usually save up for emergency situations.
But with powers such as those of spirits, there is always the temptation to do more than just live. Some spirits absorb energy indiscriminately, making them very powerful. The more power they absorb, the greedier many of them become. Such cases often end with them causing great harm to the world around them before being stopped. And the only ones who can stop them are other Focus-users. Such rogue spirits are called demons. But not all demons are so reckless as to rampage openly and risk annihilation. Some seek a sort of middle road, offering their services as focus-masters in exchange for enough energy to satiate their current desire. Actually, it is not uncommon for benevolent spirits to offer services too, such as healing, for a sacrifice. But they will only ask for a little more than what is needed to perform the task. A demon lusts for great amounts of power with every boon they give. The worst demand the life of another so as to take all their energy in one instant.
What had happened in the chamber with Alexia and her friends, was a man offering nearly all of his carnal powers to summon the spirit called “Bodel”. To Karen, dealing with a spirit who requires such a vast and unhealthy sacrifice, was terrifying. But only the sort of summoning which requires the taking of life (or “blood-summoning”) is forbidden in Arcaport. Therefore, what she had seen was entirely legal, explaining Alexia’s openness about it. But it was not a practice condoned by the general public in any way. Hence the secretive location. She wondered if it would not have been wiser to stay. Just because she had been so terrified, it didn’t mean that there was actually something dangerous or evil going on there. Whatever the case, right now she just wanted to go home.
Up until this point, Karen had proceeded in the conviction that she would eventually get out somewhere, and be able to make her way home from there. But if she was really underground, she might of course walk for a very long time without seeing light again. There was a very great risk of getting permanently lost and starving then. She stopped and thought for a while. What were her options? Should she just turn around and try to walk back the way she had come? She had tried to keep a straight course, so there was a chance that she would be able to retrace her steps. But there had been several places where she had gone into a wall blocking the way forward. At those places she had turned either left or right and then chosen the first path that seemed to continue in the direction she was originally travelling in. She doubted her ability to remember the correct order of those turns in the dark. Another option was to try and sleep or wait for a while. It was more likely that the sun would be up by the time she continued then. That would increase the chance of being guided by light filtering in somewhere. A third alternative was to shout for help. She tried to figure out the probability of attracting someone who would help rather than hurt her in this locality. In the end, it seemed to her that her best chance lay in trying a combination of all three. But before stopping to rest, she determined to follow the course she was on for as long as it kept going straight.
It was a little while later, about five minutes in Karen’s mind, that she thought she felt dizzy. It seemed like something was flashing at the corner of her eye, and so she stopped briefly. Was this a sign of sleepiness? Fatigue? She was hungry, tired and sore, but keyed up to alertness at the same time. Maybe taking that break now would be a good idea. She didn’t relish the thought of staying still here though. Apart from everything else, it was also getting chilly, and she doubted she would be anything but miserable and awake in her thin garments. In her bag was a water-bottle and two small apples. Sitting down with her back to the wall she had been following, she took a small swig of water and started eating one of the apples. It felt good, and despite the chill, incited a sensation of drowsiness. Maybe she could fall asleep before she had a chance to grow too cold. That might give her an hour’s worth or so of slumber. Just as she was about to give in to that feeling, something flashed again in front of her. Now she didn’t mistake it for dizziness. It was a reflection of light on a wall some distance away. As she was sitting with her back to the wall she had followed, this light came from a corridor perpendicular to her previous course.
Karen watched the light, it was weak and flickered somewhat, so she assumed that it was from a fire. Was there a wind blowing on a fire, or was it a light carried by someone moving? Despite straining her ears, she heard nothing. Her feelings were complex. She was relieved to see light, but uncertain if she would want to meet its owner. Rising carefully, trying not to make a sound, she got ready to hide or flee if necessary. For several moments she stood there, her back hunched over and her knees slightly bent, even more tense than before. The light grew gradually stronger, though still just a dark amber amid all the blackness. It had to be moving very slowly, because the increase in intensity took forever. Then she realized that it was actually starting to grow weaker. If it was a moving light, this must mean that whoever carried it had passed an opening which lead to the wall she was staring at. Seeing the light slowly fading gave rise to a slight desperation in Karen. She mustn’t lose the light!
Setting off down the hallway, she tried to move silently but not too slowly. Actually, the fact that the light was moving away was a bit of a relief. The best scenario would be if she could sneak up on the carrier from behind and get a look at them. Then she could make a more informed choice on whether or not to reveal herself. In a few moments, she reached the wall which had originally reflected the light towards her. By that time, it had nearly disappeared, but from that spot she could see it shine through a doorway down to her right. She followed it in this manner through a few shorter passages until she peeked out into another, longer corridor. Then she actually saw the light directly, about 70 metres down to her left. She caught a glimpse of a small group of people as they disappeared into another opening. One of them was holding a lamp. Even in that brief moment, Karen got an impression of people who were slight in build and moving with caution. This gave her a modicum of courage, and reinforced her determination to get a closer look at them.
In her eagerness she hastened her steps somewhat, and was soon near enough to the light that she could see her surroundings clearly again. Then the light seemed to stop. It didn’t flicker anymore, and she seemed to get closer to it very quickly. Peering around a corner, she saw a small, oblong chamber with three other exits. On a wall just beyond the furthest one, there were the diffused and distorted shadows of people standing in front of a light some distance away. Now tip-toeing across that chamber, she hardly breathed at all, her entire frame seemingly quaking with every heartbeat. Just as her outstretched left hand touched the opposite doorframe, she felt something else touch her. A hand had gripped her right shoulder.
A jolt of naked fear shot through Karen’s entire body. Crying out inarticulately, she twisted around and jerked away from that touch in one instinctive motion, slamming her head and back against the wall behind her roughly. Pinning her firmly in place, up against that wall, was a woman, slightly smaller than herself. “Who are you?” demanded the stranger, her face contorted in a threatening scowl, her other hand in a fist, ready to strike. She had spoken in Acadian, Karen’s native language, but with a Sikhrodian accent.
“P-please! I’m just lost! Please don’t hurt me!” Karen pleaded, shielding her face with her left hand against the blow she expected.
“Why were you sneaking up on us?” interrogated the other, fingers digging deeper into Karen’s arm. They felt like knives. Something snapped there and she cried out sharply. “Answer!” came a furious snarl in her ear.
“I was afraid!” she cried, tears of pain and fear flowing out of her eyes; “I wanted to know if you were dangerous or not. I just want to get out of here.”
The grip on her arm softened and Karen sank to the ground, bunching up into the corner.
“Thisha! Aadesh! Come here” the other shouted into the lighted corridor. Then she spoke to Karen in a far more amicable voice: “I am Chetna. I’m very sorry for hurting you, but we too are lost and scared. I thought you might be one of our pursuers, come to bring us back or destroy us.” Looking up, Karen was met by the concerned face of a beautiful woman in the traditional garb of Sikhrod. Chetna seemed to be about thirty-five, with a very fit, supple body and lustrous complexion. In fact, she looked as though she had just come from a spa. Most incongruous with her surroundings and dirty, tattered clothes, which told of recently rough times. Her two companions, a boy and girl in their late teens or so, were more in keeping with the situation. Though both handsome, they were dirty and obviously scared and weary to the extreme. To Karen’s surprise they seemed afraid of her despite her pitiable state. Chetna grabbed her again by the arm but with a much kinder touch. “I will just examine your arm to see if it’s broken. Don’t worry if it hurts.” It did hurt, a lot, but Chetna’s sincere face and competent manner calmed Karen. “It’s not broken, but your muscles are severely bruised. Unfortunately, I have no herbs with me to dull the pain.”
“That shouldn’t be a problem, just give me a moment” replied Karen, getting a grip on her emotions.
Now that the shock and fear had dissipated, Karen could concentrate again. She closed her eyes and focused on her arm. Yes, there were wounds there, and her bone, though not broken, was probably cracked. She identified the pain. It was like an iron bar, jammed through her muscles. She dulled that sensation to a slight ache. There was also bleeding, internally. Slowing her heartrate, it stopped in a matter of minutes. Finally, she allowed herself the luxury of heating her entire body to a comfortable temperature for a few moments. Even though the meeting had been a rough one, it had calmed her. Meeting friendly people and seeing warm light had allowed her to regain some of her normal composure. And with that returned her ability to focus properly again. She could not keep warm like this forever though, not if she wanted to preserve her strength.
Opening her eyes again she could see Chetna’s eyes widen. “You are a master of The Art. May I know your name?”
“Of course. My name is Karen, but I‘m no master, only a student. As are you, if I am not gravely mistaken.” She smiled at the surprised Sikhrodian. A slight but pleased answering smile played on that woman’s face.
“How did you know?”
“Oh, now that I look back on your assault with a clear mind, it is obvious. You are human, and smaller than me, but you have the grip-strength of a dwarven blacksmith. I verily believe that you could have torn my arm off, had you wished it.” It was good to see an amicable, smiling face. Karen rose again to a standing position, much encouraged. “I got lost down here, fleeing from a group of people that scared me. Maybe that was silly of me. I don’t know that they really wished to hurt me. What brings you here?”
“We are fugitives from a labour-camp in another part of these dungeons. Thisha and Aadesh here came to find work in Arcaport, I came to study. They were misled into entering that labour-camp willingly, I was abducted while exploring the lower parts of the city. I had only been here a couple of days then, and didn’t understand the danger. The camp is a factory where we work hard around the clock to make clothes and carpets. Those are then sold here in Arcaport as imported goods from Sikhrod. It is a horrible place where we are constantly mistreated in every way, so we made plans to escape. There were 17 of us who fled simultaneously, in small groups and in different directions. The idea was to increase the chance of at least one group making it out to alert the authorities. I don’t know if any of the other groups made it, but we are lost. We have walked for what seems like days, and I have no idea where that camp is anymore. We have nearly no food left, and there is no more extra oil for the lamp. We probably have less than a day’s worth of light left.”
Karen’s heart sank somewhat upon hearing this. From her perspective though, she was still better off than previously. Now she had company and, at least for some time, light. “That is truly horrible” she replied to Chetna’s explanation. “I must however say that I am thankful for meeting you here.” She shook them all heartily by the hand, learning that Thisha was the girl and Aadesh the boy. They both smiled shyly at her.
“Well. I was just about to rest when I saw the reflection of your light there. What were your plans?”
“We lost our steel during the initial part of our flight, so we have no way of lighting our lamp again if it goes out. We must keep moving for as long as it burns or be lost in darkness.”
“I know what that is like. Let us not tarry then, but move along.”