The Illumination of Karen
Could a crystal generate light? Karen had never heard or read of such a crystal. But she knew about other things that could. Fireflies, some algae etcetera. An idea was forming in her mind. If the light was produced by some sort of fungi or lichen growing on or inside the crystal, maybe she could make it brighter. It should be the same sort of principle as making her flower back at home bloom. She needed to channel her own energy into whatever this was, and accelerate the process already in progress there. Would she be able to do it? She could at least not ask for better motivation than this. She managed to make herself reasonably comfortable atop a bulging, hip-high object. Then, she put her hands on the luminescent crystal, and started to concentrate.
Starting with her breathing and heartbeat, she wrapped her consciousness, gradually, around all of her body. Her mind reached out and touched every moving, living process within her. First, she felt them all as individual parts. Then, slowly, they started to merge, one by one, into a single whole. Karen abstracted the feeling into a manageable metaphor. To her, it felt like many tiny lights that slowly coalesced, until they filled her with one great, intense brightness throughout. She then took a firm grasp on that light, and poured it into her hands, leaving the rest of her almost empty.
Her hands grew warmer, but she checked that development. There was to be no waste of energy. Then, she used the technique for heating her body intentionally, trying to focus it just beyond the palms of her hands: The crucial first phase of focus projection, where she had hitherto always failed. Several times she felt the palms of her hands grow warm, just like before, and had to reign in the process. This was just like she used to feel when working with the flower. She tried to increase the warmth slower, thinking it might give her greater control of the flow. It didn’t work. Even though in full focus, Karen could feel frustration rise in the back of her mind.
Of course, it was not the first time in her academic career that a new technique or aspect of The Art had vexed her. But it had been a long time since she had felt a similar lack of progress for this long. Every day, for almost half a year, she had attempted this very same feat without appreciable results. Judging from what she’d read about this crucial step in the development of mind-focus, she possessed all the necessary qualities to succeed. And yet it just would not work! Her only consolation from those sources consisted in the oft cited: “for some, it just takes more time than for others”. A cliché she hated with a passion right now. Another source of comfort was her age. She knew that she was still young. If she did actually master this technique within the next couple of years, she would still be in a limited and elite percentile of relative prodigies. But then came the usual worries: If she didn’t pass this exam she would undoubtedly fall behind, relative to those who did. And five years from now, her skills would be much less impressive. To this came the added horror of the old men and women she had seen at the demon-summoning earlier. What if she was destined to become one of those? Perhaps not mastering focus-projection at all, or at least not until it was too late to enter AU and learn about age-retardation. Would she become such a pathetic old amateur? Limited to amaze her few friends by lighting sparklers with her mind at festive occasions by the tender age of 80? Her spirits fell, as it had on many occasions, at these thoughts. Even worse: If they had no light, their chances of getting out at all were nigh on inexistent. Then neither success or failure would exist, they would likely just starve to death.
But another side of her soon asserted itself. “By Skophe! Stop whining Karen!” She cursed under her breath, face set in a self-reproaching scowl. Continuing her soliloquy, she murmured: “What is the matter with you? Have you not known since girlhood that you are a born wizard? Did you not promise yourself to reach the pinnacles of that profession no matter how long it would take? Little Karen would marvel at the level you have reached, and be so proud. This is a great barrier indeed, but your mind is strong and flexible. Now is no longer the time for lamentation. Now is the time for you to shine.”
Uttering those last words, she turned her attention to the lingering frustration within, and smiled. With a low, calm and deliberate voice, she said: “You are no longer my adversary; you are my ally. Come to me.” She let the feeling manifest itself. Rising within, and fill her, making her skin hot, and her muscles tense. Then, she flung her mind around it, like a throwing-net, and made it merge with the rest of her inner light. Her body relaxed, reaching neutral temperature again, and a tingle of delight ran along her spine.
Now, still smiling, she cast her consciousness towards the space right between her cupped hands, in the middle of the crystal. It felt slightly like stretching a limb to its furthest extension, but only slightly. For the most part, it was an entirely new sensation to Karen. Then, she had another one. Suddenly there was something else there, at the tip of her awareness, another energy, another life. It was a slow, and weak, but steady, pulsing sensation. Karen embraced it carefully with her mind and tried, gently, to merge with it, like she had with the rest of herself. It wasn’t the same though. There seemed to be a tiny resistance, and so she let go slightly. Instead, she gathered a little energy right around that other and tried to release it. It took her several tries, experimenting with the intensity of her “light”, as she thought of it. Finally, she managed it. Envisaging her projected energy, not as light, but as smoking breath on a cold day. Releasing a cloud, she let it drift away. In this manner, she proffered it to that other life, like seeds on an outstretched hand to a bird.
Feeling her detached cloud of energy lying around the other, Karen waited. Nothing seemed to happen at first, but then she noticed a slight diminution in it. Like watching the sands of an hour-glass drain into the lower chamber, she observed as her energy was absorbed into the other one. Much enthused, she offered up another amount, and as that too disappeared, she had a new idea.
When releasing her third tiny serving of energy, she changed the way she imagined it slightly: Instead of releasing a finite amount and letting it drift away, she now pictured it as a slow, continuous exhalation. It worked just as she had hoped. As the other entity commenced its absorption of the energy, she was still in contact with it. Karen let her consciousness be pulled into the other together with her gift, and finally achieved a real connection. It still wasn’t like merging her mind with her own body, but she could feel that other life now, and gain some understanding of it. Even if it was just a tiny lichen, she was filled with reverence and respect for it as a fellow living thing. In many ways, it was the most intimate connection to another that Karen had ever had. She wondered briefly how it must feel to connect in this manner to another sentient being, like an animal or a person. It made her mind reel, thinking of the vast abysses of knowledge that now lay open to her. But right now, she had one definite purpose to fulfil; increasing the intensity of the light emitted by this organism.
Actually controlling specific processes inside another living being is another of the very difficult skills that wizards practice. While Karen had a good level of control where her own body was concerned, she was a complete beginner at this. It is said that the experience gained through decades of practicing body-control is of great help in learning to understand the inner workings of other organisms. Even so, it still requires several more decades of practice to even approach the same level of control over another as Karen now possessed over herself.
It might seem odd then, that new focus-students are required to make a flower bloom at their entrance exam. It too is a very specific process. But there is a simple answer to that: Flowers are very simple. If given enough energy at the right time, they will bloom. Thus, apprentice wizards do not actually make the flower bloom. They merely supply it with energy. That, in turn, gives the flower the possibility to bloom faster, on its own. The kind of flower used in the entrance exam is also specifically chosen for its simplicity.
In light of this, what she was now doing might seem a somewhat futile endeavour. Karen had reason to believe in its success though. She hypothesized, based on her reading, that the light emitted was a function directly connected to the plant’s metabolism. This meant that any increase in metabolic activity would likely cause an increase in brightness. The most uncertain variable was not whether or not it would work, but rather to what extent. Any living thing has natural limits, and at Karen’s level, she had no chance of manipulating them. She knew this, and therefore, did not concern herself with it. She merely kept pouring her life in a tiny, but gradually increasing stream, into her lichen companion.
The first sign of success was when Karen realized that she could actually see the shape of the crystal. Hitherto, it had been a mere smudge of lesser darkness, but now, it was clearly defined. What’s more, she could look at it directly. Filled with joy, she had to focus even harder for a moment so as not to cause any disruptions in the energy-flow. Gradually, the world surrounding the crystal was revealed to her. Her hands became visible, and with them, several objects nearby. At first, it was just a jumble of alien shapes, protruding from darkness. It was with feelings of both dread and relief that Karen let her eyes explore the contents of that place. Evidently, all the complex shapes they had experienced here were parts of a very sophisticated decorative theme. The designs reminded her very vaguely of something, possibly something she had read about long ago. At the moment though, the only thing she felt certain of, was that she had never encountered its like before.
She was still sitting in murky half-light when she realized that there was no longer any appreciable increase in brightness. How should she proceed? To have any light at all was marvellous compared to the preceding blackness. But it was a completely stationary light. Karen observed the stem connecting with her crystal. Could it be broken off? It was worth a try once her companions had woken. Then she wondered to what extent the light would remain if she let go. She guessed that it would probably remain for a while, and then gradually dim as the plant consumed the remaining energy. Knowing of the slow metabolism of such organisms, Karen was relatively certain that it would last for a good long while; hours, if not days. With that thought, she slowly let the flow diminish as she withdrew her projection. Then she let go of the crystal with her hands. It kept glowing and she, smiling again, gave it a gentle caress. With pleasant surprise, Karen noted that she felt no doubt as to her ability to reproduce the feat she had just performed. In the end, the solution had felt so natural. She hadn’t done anything actually new. She had merely changed her mental approach, and now she knew. It was “The illumination of Karen”.