02 - CHAPTER II The Chamber of Lanajia
etcee was hauling rocks. Her arms ached as she dug around yet another stone, freeing it from its partial grave in the cold, wet sand. Then she wriggled it lose, and hauled it up into a two-arm embrace against her chest. Her legs were weakened, shaking with fatigue, and she almost fell. It was a heavy one. But she took a step forward, and then another, stomping the ground, searching for footing she could not see. Then she staggered with the weight of it all the way to the back of the cave, and dropped it onto the pile she was making. The mist from the waterfall made the rocks slippery, and she’d dropped some heavier ones a few times, nearly crushing her own feet. But she expected this now, and adjusted her grip before she got near the pool.
She’d been doing this for a week now, and the pile was now over her head, sloping upward from the sand by the pool toward the hole in the rock she’d noticed high up near the ceiling of the cave. She wasn’t even sure if anything was up there, but she had a feeling. She’d thrown pebbles up there and heard them rattle and echo down what sounded like a long tunnel in the rock. It went somewhere, but where? And so, not having anything better to do with the endless days of her life on the island, she’d begun constructing a crude stairway of piled stones.
She’d already cleared out every sizable stone she could find from inside the cave, carrying them first one by one, the larger ones, and then one in each hand, once she’d gotten around to the smaller ones. It was exhausting work, but it was blissfully mind-numbing as well. She found she could blank out for hours at a time, escaping the mental torment that idleness inflicted upon her, and she would just walk out to the beach, dig out rocks, and haul them back to the cave, one by one, over and over again. And the pile got higher.
That was her life for two whole weeks.
She’d made a friend of the Papaya tree. She talked to it in the mornings while she ate her breakfast. The tree never answered her in any discernable way, but she knew it heard her when she spoke. It was a tall, majestic-looking thing, and she took comfort in its presence during the idle hours of her day. She’d named it Gînarzia, (zhee-när’-zee-ä) the tall queen. Its branches spread out like a crown, and it watched her as she wandered back and forth, hauling stones.
In the late afternoons, when she could no longer even lift another stone, let alone carry them, she would lie upon her cloak and practice her Mîm’rae. So far she had not been able to cast another ice bolt as she had on the day she’d had the dream, but she was getting better day by day, as her focus improved. When in a trance, the sweet intensity of the mîm became a blur, and she saw things, heard things, and knew things that she could not quite understand. But at least now she knew what she was supposed to be focused upon.
There were flashes of blue light, like drifting dust specks that glowed inside her mind, and when she concentrated, she found she could make them cluster together, into a ball that looked like the bulging seed bulb of a kingflower. And from this ball, there were dull murmurings, like that of a congregation in group mediation. They were whisperings that she merely had a sense of, more than actually heard, but they were there. They were in another language too, an ancient, forgotten tongue that seemed to hold power in every word. When she focused upon these whispers, and concentrated, she found she could make the scattered mutterings come together into a single voice, all speaking in unison. And she was learning the words they spoke by slow repetition, even if she didn’t understand them. She was slowly learning them, and as she joined the whispering chorus in her mind, she began to get a sense that she knew what they were talking about, if not the exact meanings of the individual words.
They were talking about bolts of ice that fly from one’s fingertips. They were talking about shields of energy that protected you from heat. They were talking about ancient energies in the air, in water, in rocks, in people and animals, and how the will of a focused human being could control them.
But invariably, the sweetness of the mîm would overwhelm her. Tingles and spasms of physical joy would spread through her like devouring flame, and she would climax, suddenly snapping back into the awareness of her flesh and shaking with ecstasy, panting and shivering, and crying out with frustrated moans that echoed off the walls of the cave. Her focus would be lost and it would take her hours to summon enough energy to repeat the mental effort.
It was not unlike hauling rocks. Except with Mîm’ra, the rocks were as large as the universe itself, and all its energy, and it took every inkling of her mental effort to even find and understand these great stones of ancient wisdom, let alone control and move them.
“If only the mîm were not so beautiful,” Betcee said, sighing aloud and writhing sensuously upon the cloak as the aftershocks tingled through her. “I was nearly there.”
“The mîm is the power,” child, her Twîg had once told her. “We do not wish them less intense; we do not seek to reduce our enjoyment of them. We seek to absorb them, control, harness, and direct their intensity into magîce; they are not a distraction, they are the objective.”
Betcee had not understood this lesson then, and she was having trouble with it even now. She wasn’t even sure if her Twîg completely understood it herself. She was a mere Twîg after all. The pinnacle of the Mîm’ra, the actual manifestation of magîce, was a result only achieved by the Bowers of the Order and higher. She’d seen it happen with her own eyes, saw the blue glow of an unwavering Master, and the electric crackle of power she summoned. And Betcee sat in awe at the time.
But now she was discouraged by the demonstration she’d seen so long ago. If such intense focus was so difficult, even for a Master, how could she ever be expected to learn it, and without guidance, here on this forsaken rock of an island where her only companion was a tree? How could she be expected to concentrate on the mysteries of magîce when such beautiful spasms of ecstasy flooded through her, reducing her to a shivering mass of tingling flesh right when she needed her intellectual facilities most?
But she was getting closer. At least now she was seeing the mîm, and hearing their whispers inside her, not just feeling them. And though she had no guidance, she had all the time in the world, and none of the daily chores that were imposed upon the Leaves and Twîgs back home in the fortress of the Order.
And her stairway was getting taller. She now had to walk up the pile of rocks a bit and place the new ones carefully on the top. She’d selected mostly flat, square stones, and heavy, so her footing was for the most part secure. But a few of them wobbled, making the climb difficult. She’d get to the summit of Mount Stairway and drop the new stone in a suitable place, adjusting its angle and rotation until it fit securely, like bricks in a wall. Then she’d step up on it, and check how much higher she still had to climb.
“One hundred more, perhaps.”
But when she’d added a hundred more, she still couldn’t reach, even when taking a small hop. She was not even close yet. And when she hopped, the stones shuddered beneath her feet. And she would slip a bit too; the stones were as wet up here as they were when she carried them. Hopping upon a precarious mountain of rock, no matter how flat and heavy they were, was an extraordinarily bad idea.
“Maybe just a hundred more.”
And she’d stop for a meal now and then. More roots, herbs, and fruit for dessert. She gave thanks to Gînarzia the tree, and spread the seeds around at her roots. Some of them had sprouted since she’d begun, and she used their growth as a measure of the time that passed, that, and the cycles of the moon. When every day seems like a blur of the same old thing, you begin to measure time in months instead of minutes or hours or days. She was already up to the third moon, and the sprouts were ankle-high, and she’d lost track of how many hundreds of rocks she’d added to her stairway.
Finally, a week after that, she was able to do the magic of ice again. She figured it out after an injury that nearly killed her.
Yet another stone was added to the top of the pile, and the bottom of the pile was nearly five paces out from the rear wall of the cave. She stood tip toe on the top of the pile, reaching up for the bottom edge of the gap above her. She could almost reach it now. She was so close, but the wall was as slippery as the rocks were, slippery with the mists of the waterfall, and when she took a little hop to try to grab for the ledge, her feet slipped out from beneath her. She found herself tumbling down the stairway, rolling, scraping, and crashing all the way down to the soft sand at the bottom. And she lay there, glowing with black agony, gasping with the sharp shocking pain of the fall. She cursed aloud, and rolled onto her back. Everything hurt. Everything was fire and angry flesh, stinging, burning, pulsing with heat and the quick, hot flow of blood to the wounds.
She lay there for almost half an hour until her body grew numb. She stared up at her stairway and the doorway near the top, and tried her best to ignore the ache. Finally, she rolled over a couple of times and sank into the icy pool up to her neck. Her body screamed again, but this time it was from cold, not the stinging heat of scrapes and cuts and bruises. But she was only cold for a few minutes, and then everything went numb.
She cleaned her wounds and rose from the pool, feeling better. She wrapped herself in the cloak and rested for the rest of the afternoon, feeling frustrated and helpless. She had not been badly injured thankfully. She had no broken bones, and no serious cuts, but she had been banged up pretty bad. Some of the stones she’d piled had even come loose under the crashing weight of her body.
What’s the point? Why am I doing this? Why am I even alive?
Betcee was near weeping once again, near giving up on her resolve to master her own heart. But as she stared up at the mountain of stones she’d created, and the doorway above it, she had a revelation: The mountain of steps was a kind of Mîm’ra. Yes! She was building it up to a peak, atop which she could access a goal, a doorway into another place. This was the lesson her Twîg had been trying to get across to her! All this time she’d been wishing for the mountain to be lower, the ecstasy to be reduced, so she could concentrate more clearly on the doorway above, but she needed it to be tall, unstable, precarious, so she could actually reach that doorway, instead of merely concentrating on it. It was the premature collapse of the mountain, or rather, her falling off of it that was the problem. The problem was not the height of the mountain. She needed the mîm to be higher, more intense, more dazzling, more beautiful, and she needed to ride through it without thinking of it as a failure when she got to the peak.
And so, with this new understanding she attempted the ritual once again. She went out and stood in the sunshine beneath the tree, ate a piece of fruit, and found a rock to lie upon. Her body ached however; every posture she assumed, every movement she made throbbed and ached and burned. She could not concentrate at all. She would have to heal first.
So she dropped the robe in the sand and went to swim naked in the sea.
This time she did not resist or restrain the mîm as it built up within her. She envisioned herself standing upon the peak of ecstasy and being lifted upward toward her goal, and the more intense it got, the more aware she was of the sparkles, the whispers, the ancient words and their meanings. She whispered along with them, inside her mind, commanding the invisible mists in the air around her to freeze. Nothing happened, not yet, but she knew she was now saying the correct words.
And then, when the Mîm’rae arrived, she simply let it happen. It was supposed to happen. It was not there to knock her off of the peak, it was there to thrust the peak upward, quickly and suddenly and powerfully. And she let it. She climaxed and felt a sudden rush of power flood through her body. Every muscle, every hair, every bit of flesh tingled, and she was shaken by it to the very core of her being. She felt the surge of energy sizzle and crackle in every part of her. And then the gushing surge slowed to a stop, leaving her swollen with its energies. She lifted her hands from her womanhood, raised them in front of her, and saw the pale blue sparkles dancing slowly around her hands, turning and flowing in tiny points of light, like stars.
When she moved her hands, the blue glow moved with them. She brought her hands together. The glow coalesced into a globe shape with a shining core. She pulled at it, stretching it into string-like tendrils of light, and when she released it, it snapped back into a ball shape again. Fascinating! When she parted her hands, the ball faded and the sparkling points of light danced around her fingers once more. And she was humming with power in every part of her, like she was storing a storm in her flesh. Every hair stood on end, and every nerve tingled with the sweet soothing glow of the Mîm’rae. She had become ecstasy and power. She was filled with it.
Now the words, Betcee. Say the words.
She commanded the invisible mists in the air to freeze in the ancient and powerful tongue she’d learned, and as she did so, she flung her hands at the wall, throwing some of the magîce in her flesh in that direction. She felt power go out of her arms and the energy in the rest of her body rushed in to replace it. There was a flash. A stream of blue flew from her fingertips and struck the wall. It shattered into tiny crystals of ice and they fell, sparkling on the ground like ten thousand diamonds.
I’ve done it! I’ve finally done it!
But her hands were still charged with power, and her body still hummed with energy, less energy now, but still lots of it. So she did it again.
The energy rushed into her arms again, balancing out the loss from the jolt she’d delivered at the wall. The overall hum faded somewhat, but there was still plenty left. She tried it a third time, with more will behind it.
“Shî-eng-rä, mîth dae-mä!”
Freeze, invisible mists!)
The echo startled her. What a wallop! If there had been an enemy over there, the bolt of ice would have blasted right through them. She felt the chill of the blast from across the cave.
After the fourth shot, her body no longer tingled. The little sparkles were gone from her hands. She had drained away the magîce. There were the tiny crystals of ice all over the floor, and some frost clung to the wall. She walked up to it and breathed up on it, melting it with her life-kiss, and she could see her breath in the chill. It was really real. She’d really done it. And this time, not accidentally.
“You lack control yet, daughter of the Mages.”
Betcee spun about and flung her back against the wall. The voice had been so clear, so near, it was almost inside her mind, a woman’s voice, young-sounding, and yet as sure and powerful as the eons of time that had hewn this cave from the rock.
No one was there. She was alone. The roar of the waterfall droned on, and the sound of an occasional drip of moisture from the ceiling that plopped into puddles on the rock below.
“You have enough power in those mortal hands to destroy a mountain, but you lack control. You waste magîce in petty little sparks of ice.”
The voice spoke slowly, calmly, without anger or reprimand. She was being told things she was meant to understand. The voice was not mocking her ignorance.
Betcee spoke again, but somehow she could hear the words she was about to say, echoing in her mind before she spoke them.
“Who are you? Where are you?”
She pressed her hands to her ears, confused.
“We are the Ancients, once demigoddesses, until we gave our lives to the Artifact for the salvation of Arta. You have heard the tales.”
She had. It was said that a jewelled necklace of incredible power was lost eons ago and would be recovered by a champion when the world of Arta needed the assistance of the Ancients once more. Each jewel was an Ancient, and contained all her wisdom and power in a beautiful, glowing orb. It was also said that the Ancients ruled the forces of nature, time, the very laws of reality.
Betcee had dismissed them as mere tales, the prophecies as myths.
“Doubt if you will, daughter, as long as your doubts are a search for truth, and not the fear of it.”
“You hear my very thoughts?”
“And we speak without voices. You hear ours as well.”
Chills ran up her flesh. She felt more cold than she had since she’d set foot on this quest.
“How do I get off this island? How do I get back to my mission?”
“The island is your mission, daughter.”
“I don’t understand. I must get to the Blue City. I have knowledge the demigoddesses need-”
“You must learn.”
“Yes. Learn. The cavern you now stand in was hewn out by a young mortal woman very much like yourself, with a single blast of magîce from fingertips just like yours. Yet this was a trifling feat. Daughter Lanajia is a demigoddess now, because she learned, she understood that the smallest sparkle of magîce holds enough power to save the world. You doubt now, but you will learn in time.”
"You need only admit one lesson to your stubborn mortal mind, daughter, and all others will follow behind it.”
“Do not fear your emotions, mage child. They are power as well. They will intensify this Mîm’ra ritual you use to channel magîce. You must learn to control emotion, not destroy it.”
“I don’t understand…”
“Take comfort in knowing that young Lanajia did not understand either, not at first. Yet now you stand within the cavern of her revelation.”
“We are watching you, daughter. Continue your practice. Learn control. We will speak again.”
And though Betcee called out for an hour, the voice did not speak again, not for many months.
She continued her practice the next morning, and her hauling. Not only did she not destroy a mountain with her magîce, she was having trouble even getting to the Mîm’rae. Her mind was just too cluttered now, with so many questions, so many puzzles. She found herself standing there, daydreaming about what a mighty blast it would have taken to cut this cavern so deep into the rock. She found herself wondering if she’d dreamt the whole thing. Perhaps the isolation was getting to her now. Perhaps she’d hit her head harder than she thought in the fall. Perhaps…
Betcee shook her head. She was standing there naked, staring up at the cavern entrance, lost in thought. She dropped her eyes to the sand and picked up a large, flat square stone. She’d given up on the Mim’ra for the day. She couldn’t even concentrate on her own train of thought, never mind summoning the energy of the universe.
By the end of the next day, she’d laid the last stone on top of the pile, and when she stood up on top of it, her fingers were able to reach up and grab the bottom of the ledge, without even hopping. She tried to pull herself up, but her arms were too exhausted from the work. The highest she could get was pulling herself up to peek over the edge of the doorway.
There, way back at the end of a long tunnel, was a faint glow. Her eyes widened. And then her arms gave out and she dropped back down to the top stone, almost slipping and falling down the mountain of rocks all over again. She kept a handhold on the edge though, and steadied herself, with little more than a slight wobble.
She climbed down the steps, slowly, carefully, laid down upon the outspread cloak beside the empty chest, wrapped herself in its warmth, and slept.
“There’s no hurry,” she told herself. “All I have is time.”
She ate breakfast the next morning, heading out to see Gînarzia before she even looked at the stone steps.
There was a crab near a boulder a stone’s throw away from where she sat under the tree. Cheswick? No. This crab was more grey than Cheswick, and Cheswick was all the way down the beach. She got up and walked toward it. It turned to look at her as she approached and she suddenly felt afraid, like the thing was gigantic and planning to destroy her. She stopped. The little thing was barely the size of her foot. It couldn’t possibly hurt her in a million moons, even if it wanted to. And yet she felt afraid. She was not used to feeling afraid. It was the one emotion she’d always been able to control. But this overwhelmed her.
Then her forehead tingled, like she was being tickled on the front of her brain. Suddenly she heard a voice.
The word sounded in her mind, thin and rattling, almost a squeak. Betcee froze in place. Were the Ancients talking to her again? She knew it could not have been her own thoughts. She didn’t even know what the word meant.
Her brain tingled again, right in front.
And then the crab was skittering away. Its feet clicked across rocks, sounding thin and rattling, a lot like the voice inside her mind.
The voice was the crab’s! That was it. Somehow, the crab had spoken into her mind. Could it really be? She doubted at first, but then realized how strange things had gotten for her lately on this island. Cheemosh? What did it mean?
“F… fear? Flee? Fearsome one?”
Once again, she got a sense of what the word meant. It was not exact. All she knew was the concept behind the word, and she wasn’t even sure how she knew that. And what of the fear she’d felt, the fear that the giant thing would destroy her?
She was the giant. The crab had been afraid of her. Somehow she’d felt it in her own body as though it were her own emotion.
She went back to the tree and thought about it. The more she thought about it, the less she understood. Finally, she gave up and just enjoyed the taste of the fruit.
When she was refreshed and feeling relaxed in the cool air of the morning, she headed back into the cave and ascended the stairs. At the top, she grabbed the ledge, took one last hop and hauled herself up, finally pulling her body onto the cold wet stone in the doorway of the tunnel.
The tunnel was taller than she’d thought. She could stand on her knees and lift her arms above her, touching her elbows to the ceiling. She couldn’t stand up, but she wasn’t exactly cramped either. And the tunnel was round. It had looked like a crooked little hole in the rock from the outside, but kneeling there inside it, she saw that it was a long oval shape, all the way to the opposite end. And she saw the glow again. She listened, but heard nothing—the roar of the waterfall behind her, and nothing else.
So crawled on her hands and knees down the throat of the mountain, and after a few minutes arrived at the opposite end of the tunnel, peeking over the edge into a stone room filled with fantastic clothing and artifacts of all types.
And there, in the center of the room, on a stone pedestal, was a silver necklace, encrusted with jewels of all types.
It glowed, filling the chamber with ancient light.