The Illumination of Karen
Now that they felt somewhat safe again, Karen’s attention went straight to Chetna. She had not made a sound of complaint during their entire flight. But Karen remembered the violence of the blow and Chetna’s tortured face, just before she had expertly shut off the pain to run. “Chetna, how are you?” she asked, reaching out to the other. She could feel the hands of Thisha and Aadesh as well, on the back of her friend.
“It was a nasty blow, but I think I managed to block most of it by a concentration of force in my abdomen.” Chetna’s voice was strained.
It was Aadesh who replied. “Please Chetna. Don’t be too brave now, we can hear that you are not well. Karen, Chetna said that you are a master of The Art, just like her, is there nothing you can do?”
“I am afraid that I am nowhere near good enough to be of much use to her right now. But what we can all help each other with is staying warm. I also think we need rest. Let us see if we can’t find a good place to sit, or lie down for a while.”
Together they moved along a little further, until they came to a section where there was enough space for all of them to lie down side by side. First, they all sat down, eating and drinking a little, Karen donning her tunic again. Then, using Thisha’s and Chetna’s saris as covers, they lay down to get some rest.
Karen and Thisha kept Chetna between them, wanting to keep her warm. Aadesh lay next to Thisha. Karen felt Chetna lying still, concentrating. She recognized the basic breathing techniques, but it was obvious to her that her friend was far from fully focused. At her level of mastery, such breathing became second nature, hardly noticeable, but now she was struggling. Karen spoke softly in her ear: “I’ll help you a little. Follow my lead”. Then she commenced the same exercise herself, exaggerating her breathing to give Chetna a rhythm. “Thank you”, came the other’s voice in return. After a while, their breathing became synchronized and Karen could feel Chetna relaxing. Eventually, it seemed as though she actually managed to fall asleep too.
Sleep was difficult for Karen. She was exhausted, but the ground was hard. She had never tried sleeping on a hard surface before, and it was amazingly uncomfortable. After a while, it felt as though she was not merely lying on the ground, but being pushed into it. She shifted a bit. Lying on her back felt a little better. She had never used pain-negation to fall asleep, but now she thought it might be necessary. Focusing was a bit hard under the circumstances, but she managed after a while, making her back into a fuzzy cushion of senselessness. Then, feeling both warm and snug, she quickly drifted off into sleep. Still worrying about Chetna, she programmed herself to sleep for only three hours. But even so, it was a luxurious feeling to finally let go of all her mental and physical tension for a while.
These not being optimal circumstances, Karen could not sleep quite as well as she wanted to. But sleep-control and sleep-optimization are two of the more basic body-control skills. Most students master these within their first ten to fifteen years of practice. Thus, she woke up after three hours, feeling greatly refreshed, with a clear mind.
Beside her, she could hear her companions, fast asleep. She was glad to hear Chetna still breathing calmly, with just a touch of audible effort. Karen rose and stretched, then took a small swig of water, she had barely any left in her bottle. Standing absolutely still in the darkness, she tried to determine if there was anything her senses could tell her about their surroundings. She made her sense of touch more acute, but there was no significant movement of air to feel. She listened, there was the breathing of her friends of course, which she tried to ignore. Was there not something else? Like a soft and very dispersed murmur. Yes! She was positive now. It was difficult to make out where or what the source might be, but there was definitely a background noise of some sort. Beyond that, she could make out nothing by listening alone. She made another attempt at determining what the surrounding objects might be. Could there not be some valuable information there? Actually, she didn’t think so, most decorative work is just that, and nothing else. If she were an expert ethnologist there might be something to gain from an analysis. She imagined that such a person might, by examining the art, understand who had built this place. And maybe that person would be familiar with the standard layout of such a people’s buildings. Much like the layout of the temples of each specific deity on Magnama are standardised to some extent. Karen smiled a little to herself; this was just the sort of idle thinking that had driven her to the libraries so very often. Especially on the way home from work. She would come up with questions just like these while performing her daily chores at the bookshop. Then she would go and look them up at the library. Once there, time usually flew by. One entry in an encyclopaedia might raise other questions. Maybe she would just get curious about the source of information, the author, the binding technique of an old tome, etcetera, etcetera.
Focus! Karen admonished herself. The present predicament was dire and needed her full attention. For the second time since coming into those dark tunnels, she thought deeply over possible courses of action.
Presumably, their pursuers had given up by now. Had they kept searching in the right direction, they too would have reached this place long ago. So, would it be advisable to try and retrace their steps? The daily haunts of their monstrous foes still seemed like the most promising place to start looking for a way out. At least within their recent experience. But it was of course a huge risk, even if they managed to find the way back. Karen seriously doubted that they could. What other options had they? Instinctively she twisted her neck to look around. Only complete darkness met her. Wait! Was the darkness really complete though? She twisted her neck again. There! As she turned her head around, vague lights seemed to flicker at the corner of her eye. Was it real? She tried to determine where they were, and look straight at them. Nothing! But as soon as she turned away, they were back. Was it just her mind playing tricks on her? Hallucinations brought on by their desperate situation? Karen knew that they were in trouble, but at the moment she sure didn’t feel desperate. As far as she was concerned, she was thinking clearly and rationally. Also, right now, she had nothing to lose by assuming that the lights were real anyway.
Pondering on their fugacious nature, she remembered something she had read about the properties of sight. The book in question had stated that colour is more readily distinguished right in front of the eye. Conversely, it is more capable of picking up variations in light intensity when they are off to the side. So thinking, she slowly turned her head again, now concentrating all her attention on the periphery of her field of vision. And there they were. It was enormously difficult to keep them in focus. Both because one is naturally used to concentrate on what is in front of the eye, rather than to the side. And because she had to continuously struggle against her instinct to look directly at them. Karen found that the easiest way of perceiving them was to swivel her head slightly back and forth. Thus, making the light appear as a weak flickering in the corner of her eye.
There were, in fact, about a handful of such lights, but she had focused on one in particular to start with. Now that she knew that they were real, and how to keep them in sight, she tried to determine which one was closest. That was almost impossible. They just seemed to float in the darkness at an indeterminable distance from her. Considering how weak they were, and that they were underground, she decided that they were probably all within short and similar distance from her. Picking one out, she advanced towards it. As she expected, she bumped into, and had to make her way around and over, a few weird obstacles on the way. But in the end, it was not more than three or four metres from where she had slept. Once she had reached the light, she tried to examine it. Even when right beside her, it was so weak as to not reveal anything at all of its surroundings to her. Reaching out with her hands to touch it, she found that it was emanating from a jagged, hard object, like a crystal.