04 - CHAPTER IV Binding Crystals
etcee spent the next few weeks laying on her tummy in the soft warm sands watching the little crab go about his business. Mostly he just wandered around looking at stuff, trying to decide what was edible and what was not. And he barely even noticed her any more. He still kept a safe distance from her, but she no longer felt him growing afraid every time he looked at her.
She’d taken to offering him little bits of fruit as well. She pull a little sliver of meat off of a papaya with her fingernails and flick them over toward where he was foraging. He’d pick them up in his little claws, examine them and then eat them with delight. They were evidently much more tasty than bugs. He never figured out that it was her giving him these special treats however. She had to be subtle, cautious, not make any sudden moves, and not approach him, or he would go scurrying away in a panic.
But she was learning more and more to tune in with his various emotions. They were simple emotions: pain and pleasure, indifference and intrigue, fear and contentment. By contrast to the complexities of human emotions, these were even less than a child’s capacity of understanding. But they were pure, and that’s what Betcee needed.
She needed them because she had to learn to stop blocking emotions out when they came to her. She had so trained herself to do this, that it was nearly instinctual for her, a habit that she no longer even thought about. The more time she spent focused on the crab’s feelings, the more she got used to just letting them flow when they arrived in her mind. She got used to noticing her resistance flare up, and soon she was able to shun the resistance, rather than the emotion itself. It took her a few weeks to get to that point, but she was making some progress.
Her Mîm’rae were getting better too. She still found herself producing this invisible, latent magîce, but there seemed to be a little more of it each time. She also found she was able to arrive at the peak more quickly than before. As she allowed herself the indulgence of a bit of emotion in the act, she found things suddenly flowed more easily, sensation were heightened, mental energy was increased (though more difficult to focus and control), and she was left with an overall sense of accomplishment when it was all over; she felt a strange happy glow.
And then she would dance. She found, when the latent magîce power absorbed back into her flesh, she suddenly had wellsprings of energy and was exhilarated to just be alive and moving. She leapt and turned, and jumped and ran, like a child at play, moving for the sheer joy of it. She had been alone so long that she no longer felt even slightly self-conscious indulging in the silliness of somersaults in the sand, and cartwheels across the beach that sent her crashing into the sea. Everything was ecstasy in her flesh; she was joyful just to be alive and in motion.
And she found that when she allowed herself to feel an emotion now and then, she was joyous to let those feelings flow, even when they weren’t part of the Mîm’rae. There was no logic in it, no reason for it, not even any point to it, but that was perfectly acceptable to her. Like the dancing, the feeling was a comfort in and of itself.
Nights were still lonely though. She spent many nights sitting beneath the papaya tree, staring up at the stars. Thinking, dreaming, imagining how bad things may have gotten in the realm of Arta in the months since she’d been stranded on this island. With the last of the mages arrested, destroyed, lost at sea, Empress Inarzia had free reign to increase her powers, unchecked by the protestations of the Order. Surely the country was in chaos.
Then she had to make her way back into the cave, up the stone stairway, and into the tunnel, in total darkness, moving purely by feel. She didn’t mind though. She’d traveled the route so many times, she had almost perfected it. There were a few stones to watch out for, a few extra high steps on the stairway that seemed to want to catch the hem of her robe, but other than that, she moved through the dark as quickly as a cat.
She made her way to the bed in the chamber, and as she approached, the crystal necklace stand began glowing, confirming her route.
She’d also spent a great deal of time rearranging things in the chamber as well, over the course of many days. She sorted through all the boxes and chests, studying the artefacts, trying to decide which were useful and which weren’t. Betcee had found several handwands as well amongst the clutter. She raised an eyebrow and smirked. Apparently even demigoddesses enjoyed the extra stimulation these instruments afforded. They were said to intensify the sensations of the Mîm’Rae when used, producing a little extra magîce. Betcee had never used one though. The mages considered such things a crutch. They offered a little extra power when used, but they made one weaker over time, dependant. It only seemed natural that a hedonist indulge in such toys though. They cared for nothing but immediate pleasures.
Beyond that, there was mostly clothing, robes, blankets. The more crates and chests she opened, the more she wondered how they’d all gotten there. Had there been a ship? It would have taken an entire crew all day to fill the chamber with these crates. And there were no stairs.
Betcee reflected on this puzzle for a few moments as she lay in the nest. The nest soothed her quickly though, holding some magic in its textiles, and she was soon asleep.
She dreamed though, and the vision was distressing. She saw the kingdom of Artar, and as she had imagined, the empresses had indeed grown in power. She saw dungeons full of women, young and old. They were cold, hungry, crying, huddled together in chains. She saw guards arrive and drag some of the women away, screaming and fighting until they were subdued. She saw these women return, hollow shells of the people they had been, catatonic, sometimes drooling, their shredded clothing stained with urine and blood. Attempts were made to care for them, but they were for all intents, gone. The bright white of their hair, and the blankness of their eyes confirmed it. Betcee stared down at a pretty young girl in such a state, and wept. This girl had been a mage. She had a green leaf embroidered upon her collar.
“Complete your training, daughter,” an old woman said. “You can save them, but you must advance. You must master your studies, or soon the very last of the mages will look like this.”
The girl on the ground lurched, coughed up some blood and quit breathing. A woman, shoved her body away with a foot, and covered her face in her hands, trying to block out the horrible vision.
“Save them, daughter!” the old woman said, suddenly loud and demanding. “Save them!”
Betcee awoke with a start. For she realized at the last moment of the dream that the old woman was Master Camaria, and Master Camaria was dead.
There was emotion now, and plenty of it. Horror, anger, hatred flood up through Betcee and when she felt them, she let them flow, icy and cold in her veins, like the rushing river that chilled the pool. She stumbled from the chamber gnashing her teeth and slipped and skittered down the stairs at the back of the cave. She kept the memory of those cold dead eyes in her mind, the blood and the stink of unwashed flesh and urine, and she fell to her knees by the pool, commencing her mim’ra, her hands shaking with rage.
It worked though, she brought herself quickly to climax, and this time it was not the latent magîce she conjured, for she was icy and angry and focused. She was determined to conquer the flow of water and retrieve the crystals at the bottom of the pool. The crystals would store the latent magîce and give her enough energy to get herself off this death trap of an island.
The magîce flooded through her body and she summoned up the words she needed to convert it to ice. But just before she launched the spell, she stopped herself, remembering what the ancients had told her about control. She’d been ready to throw her rage wildly into the magîce and she may have done serious damage to the cave, and even herself, or simply wasted it all in a pointless flash of cold.
So she steadied herself, concentrating on both the emotions she was feeling, and the effect she desired. Her eyes narrowed, her head bowed. Her body shook. And then she released it.
“Shî-eng-rä, mîth dae-mä!”
She threw all her rage and horror and anger behind it, still seeing the young girl’s lifeless terrified eyes, and seeing the waterfall freezing to a solid block of ice, stopped like a cork. And when she threw her hands toward it, a great blast of chilled energy stabbed right through it, jabbing deep into the crevice from which the water poured.
And suddenly the cave was silent. The incessant roar of the waterfall was stilled. Betcee opened her eyes and saw a great chunk of ice protruding from the cavern wall. Drops of water fell from it, plopping into the pool, but otherwise it was solid, and massive. She hadn’t realized how wide the spout of water was until she saw it as a solid object. It seemed huge to her now.
Had she really done that? Apparently she had. The magîce had worked. The focus had worked. The emotional punch behind the whole thing had worked as well. She could see it with her own eyes, and if it wasn’t so high up, she probably could have touched it.
Most importantly, the pool was still. The last ripples faded from its surface it suddenly it was as flat as a mirror. The drips disturbed it a bit on one end, but not much. Now all she had to do was wait for it to warm. A few hours perhaps. A whole day a most, but soon she would be mining the crystals from the bottom of the pool. Soon she would be heading home.
“Aren’t you forgetting something, daughter of mages?”
Betcee jumped. The voice had been so clear. And so near. Almost inside her mind.
“What am I forgetting, Ancients?”
“You must ascend to the Blue City and discourse with the demigoddesses. There you will be given a champion’s quest, and only then can you return to Artar to challenge Inarzia.”
“The Blue City? Where is it? How can I get there from here? We were on our way there when the ship-”
“You are already here, daughter. Look up. The Blue City is above you.”
Betcee was confused.
“No, child. Atop the great cliff, upon the Tower of the Sea. This island as you’ve been calling it in your mind is a great tower of rock upon which the Blue City is founded. You must ascend the tower and address the demigoddesses on behalf of the mages.”
The Tower of the Sea! That’s where they’d been headed. Why hadn’t she thought of it sooner!? O foolish girl! O withered leaf! You were here beneath the Blue City all along and didn’t know it.
“Do not condemn yourself, child. The Blue City does not wish to be found. It hides itself from your understanding until you are worthy to approach it.”
“And I am worthy now?”
“One challenge remains. You must study the magic of Kinesis.”
“Kinesis? The motion of matter?”
“Yes. You know what it is. Now you must learn how it works. You’ve discovered the ability of Thermopathy and put it to good use here, now you must focus on Kinesis. Only with Kinepathy can you ascend the Tower.”
“Kinepathy! That’s how Lanajia flew in and out the chamber without stairs.”
“It is how she ascended the mountain.”
“But where… where did she ever get that much magîce from, to make such a long journey? Surely the handwands do not offer such-”
“Do not be crude, daughter. You only expose your own ignorance.”
“Forgive, gracious Ancients. I meant no offence.”
“Lanajia simply used her own magîce, and when her own reserves were spent, she drained latent magîce from a crystal she had charged ahead of time. She continued this cycle until she reached the summit.”
“I am indeed a withered leaf. I should have guessed that.”
“No withered leaf would stand so near the ascension to the Blue City. You are wise beyond your years, and stand humbly before the founts of knowledge and understanding. This is why you were chosen.”
“I was chosen?”
“You think it coincidence that you were selected to accompany the Master and her Branches on this fateful voyage? You, out of thousands of Twîgs, many more advanced than yourself?”
“I did not know why I was selected. I was called, and I went. I thought myself a mere handmaiden to the elders.”
“And they made no error in choosing you, daughter. For we have need of you. We must restore balance to the world of Arta. We chose you. We called you. And we will assist you on your journey.”
Betcee was stunned. All this time she’d thought herself cast away, forgotten. Now she’d been told her ordeal was all according to a higher plan.
“Why did you wait so long to tell me these things, great Ancients? I’ve languished here for months. Why do you speak now?”
“Because your magîce allows us to. It is your energy that allows you to hear our voices. We could have been talking to you all along, if you’d only known how to summon your magîce properly. And we will continue to speak with you, as long as there is still some magîce flowing through you, allowing you to hear us.”
“Why didn’t you tell me this sooner? I would have worked harder at it. The isolation has been…”
“Wisdom comes with time, dear child. You will look back on these many months one day and see them as mere moments as we do. Do not hasten toward your goals. Learn your… and focus… until many…” The Ancients' voices were fading in and out. Betcee was only catching snatches of phrases.
“Ancients! Can you hear me? I don’t understand! Where have you gone?”
Betcee knew though. They hadn’t gone anywhere. Her magîce was not drained away and she could no longer hear them speaking. They were right there with her though, listening to her every thought, watching her every action. Suddenly she did not feel so alone.
She walked out to the now dried up stream bed outside the cave and waited in the sunshine for the pool to warm.
A few hours later the temperature was tolerable, but still uncomfortably cold. A few hours after that, it had warmed even more. She still found herself shivering though, and her hands ached after a few minutes of shifting through the rocks at the bottom of the pool. So she went out and lay in the sunshine some more.
She was in the sand next to the papaya tree and she saw that the little sprouts she had seeded around its base were a hand span tall now. They were a long way off from producing any fruit, but within a few years there would be a veritable grove standing there. Betcee smiled.
She fell asleep on the sand, sleeping in the sunshine as contented as a kitten. She awoke a few hours later when the shadow of the Tall Queen passed over her eyes. The sun had swung around to the west, sending the shadow of the tree east, directly across the sand where Betcee lay.
“I’m awake, friend. Thank you.”
She got up and shimmied slowly up the tree to grab some fruit. It was while she was up in the tree that the new words came to her. The whispering congregation suddenly chanted a clear and audible line into her mind, startling her and almost causing a fall.
“Méne-ma ämé î-sträté.”
As soon as she heard it, she knew what it was. It was the kinepathy spell.
Betcee repeated them aloud, trying to write them into her memory. As she did, she got a sense of their meaning. The chanting voices repeated the phrase over and over, and somehow she knew what it meant: move at my command, or rather, be moved according to my instruction. This was a command to be directed at an object. How it worked from there, she was not certain, but she would investigate it after her next Mîm’rae.
She pulled a couple of papayas from the tree top and slid down to the sand again. She sat down and ate. Then she went to check on the pool.
The pool was not quite warm yet, but it was no longer chilling her to the bone either. She dipped into it and ducked down to the bottom. She grabbed a couple of rocks and brought them to the surface. They were just rocks. Where were the crystals? She threw the rocks to the back wall of the cavern, next to the stairway and dove down again. Rocks again. Just jagged old rocks. She tossed these away as well and went back a third time. Rocks.
Now she was shivering again, and her hands ached. She climbed out of the pool and hugged her knees, breathing warmth onto her shivering fingers. It seemed she had quite a dig ahead of her. She knew the crystals were down there. It was merely a matter of getting to them.
A few hours later the pool was even warmer. The sun was nearly set by then however, and there was not much light left. She dove to the bottom of the pool once more and once more brought up only rocks. This was hopeless. She’d never reach the crystals with so many rocks down there. She needed a more efficient way of searching.
Inside Lanajia’s chamber, she found a small blanket. She wasn’t sure what its purpose was. It was too small to be an actual sleeping blanket. She thought maybe it might be a kneeling mat. Whatever it was, it would serve the purpose she required of it. She also found some sturdy cords from various robes. She tied these to the four corners of the little blanket and tied the ends of the four cords together with a fifth cord. Then she returned to the pool.
She dove in, dragging the little blanket, which was now a net, with her. She quickly filled it with rocks, handfuls at a time and soon it was buried, except for the cords. She rose from the pool and hauled it up. There. Twenty or so rocks at a time was better than two. Still no crystals though.
Now it was dark. She spilled the rocks into a pile next to the stairway and headed up to bed. The silence was so complete that for a while she wasn’t sure if she was even alive. And then she was asleep.
She continued the next day, hauling up pile after pile of rocks, diving down over and over until she’d made a bit of a hole in the bottom of the pool and had to dive even deeper to get down to the new level of rubble. The water was a fine temperature now however, cool and comfortable, and the work was easier the second day.
She finally found a crystal on the third day. She brought up a net full of rocks and began tossing them away into the ever-growing pile of discards next to the stairway. There near the bottom she saw a white one. Except it wasn’t simply a white rock. It wasn’t a rock at all. It was crystal, translucent and milky in color with various flat sides; it was about the size of two of her fingers. Betcee almost screamed when she found it.
Was it supposed to be white though? Crystals were supposed to be clear, weren’t they? Betcee wasn’t sure. She also wasn’t sure what she was supposed to do with the thing now that she found it. She would have to figure it out as she went along.
She got another notion. She’d received the kinepathic spell when she was up in the tree, perhaps she would bring the crystal up there. She wasn’t sure why insights would strike her in the top of a tree, but she was willing to try it again. So she retrieved her robe from where she’d placed it across the old chest and slid the crystal into its inner pocket. Then she went to the tree, and climbed it. Then she waited for a new revelation. None came.
Now that she was up there, she saw a serious problem however. The tree, the Tall Queen was drooping. Her leaves were hanging limp like withered hands.
“Oh no! The water! She needs the water! What have I done!?”
Betcee looked down at the dried up stream bed. The sands were no longer wet around it. The ground at the base of the tree was no longer damp. The little saplings were withering as well.
She scurried down the tree and grabbed her net. This time, instead of hauling rocks with it, she hauled water. Most of it dripped through the fabric before she got to the tree, but she was able to trickle some of it out around the saplings at least. She went back again four or five times until the soil was significantly wet again.
Now she had a problem. The tree and her daughters needed water to survive, but she needed the water stopped so she could gather crystals. Would she sacrifice the tree for her own ends, no matter how important they were? No. she couldn’t even imagine it. She would simply have to mine faster, and if she hadn’t found a few dozen crystals within a few days, she would have to simply give up, unstop the water, and restore the lifeblood to the tree.
“Forgive me, sister. I meant no harm.”
Five. She found five altogether. By the end of the fourth day, the discard pile was up to her chest, and she’d only found five crystals. Each time she found a new one, she went to the half-buried chest by the cavern wall and slid it into the pocket of her robe with the others. But there were only five by the time she was done. And the Tall Queen’s leaves were hanging limply now, no longer simply wilted a bit. Another day and she might be permanently damaged.
And so she finished her work and settled into bed for the night. She would unstop the waterfall in the morning. But how? She wasn’t sure of that either. She fell asleep restlessly.
She began the next day doing the Mîm’ra ritual beneath the papaya tree. She was relatively rested and calm though, so the climax was not so intense. And the magîce she produced was the invisible kind.
“Ah well, the dancing is nice anyway.”
But the invisible magîce faded quickly; within moments it was gone, and her flesh didn’t feel its usual invigoration.
“What odd new twist is this?”
Betcee did not like being confused.
She figured it out soon enough though. After pondering for a moment, she decided to investigate the crystals further. Perhaps they had something to do with-
The crystals! She pulled one from her pocket and found it almost perfectly clear. It sparkled too. It was no longer dull and waxy on the surface. It wasn’t perfect, clear and transparent as a diamond, but it was nearly there. She pulled the others out and studied them as well. All were the same. Apparently they had absorbed the latent magîce.
Astonishing. The magîce she had produced could be stored, like water in a bottle, for later retrieval. How to extract it again though? That was the new puzzle. But first, one more thing spurred her curiosity.
She lay down upon the soft robes again and repeated the ritual, focusing more intently and adding deep reserves of energy into it. She climaxed ecstatically, shaking all over and soon felt the magîce humming in her flesh. She picked up the crystals, all five of them, and watched. She saw the last of the milky whiteness in the center of the crystals slowly disappear. They were now clear and sparkling, casting little rainbows upon her hands as the sunlight shone through them. They were now fully charged.
But were five enough? Would they get her up the mountain?
No time to worry about that now. She needed to restore the stream again.
She went into the cave and knelt on the robes by the pool, studying the block of ice lodged in the wall of the cavern. The rock around it had become frosty as well as the ice chilled the stone. It was stuck fast.
Betcee knelt in meditation, trying to figure out how to reverse the thermopathic spell to produce heat instead of ice. Nothing came to her. And to make things even more difficult, she was suffering little snatches of visions once again, the troubling ones. She saw a mine with peasants digging exhaustively for crystals, kneeling in chains trying to knock out loose rocks from the wall with other rocks, searching for crystals just as Betcee had been doing.
This was the treachery of Inarzia. Torturing prisoners to death was not her only evil it seemed.
A young girl freed a pile of debris from the wall of the mine and discovered a crystal behind it. She dug it out and called to a guard. “I’ve found one! I’ve found one!” But before the guard could get to her, an older woman grabbed at it and tried to wrestle it from her hands. “No! It’s mine! I found it!” the girl cried out, but the older woman was too strong, and when the guard arrived she presented it to him. She was unchained and led away.
“Good work,” the guard said. “Inarzia will be pleased with this one. You may eat today.”
The girl who had found it took a moment to weep, clutching her aching belly, and then went back to digging.
Betcee was angry again. The anger boiled inside her. Inarzia had to be stopped! She rushed through the mim’ra without even realizing she was doing it, and produced an unusually large charge of magîce, the active kind too. But this time, instead of focusing on the ice spell, she turned to the kinepathic words. She spoke them slowly, angrily extending her hands toward the block of ice, willing it to be pulled from the cliff the way the old slave woman had yanked the crystal from the young girl’s hands.
“Méne-ma ämé î-sträté.”
She repeated the phrase over and over again, watching for the slightest movement in the block of ice. Nothing happened. Soon she realized that the power was not in the words themselves but in her will to make the words take effect. As soon as this thought occurred to her, she felt the magîce pull down her arms, up toward her head, where it tingled and crackled and made her feel suddenly powerful. Suddenly she felt that she really could move the block of ice by pure will. And she did. She yanked on it with her mind and it pulled loose a bit with a deep grinding sound.
“Méne-ma ämé î-sträté,” she said again, and this time she gave the thing a hard yank. That was a grevious error however. The block came flying out of the cavern wall like a popped cork and just barely missed taking her head right off. There was a sudden roar of rushing water and she ducked at the very last instant, just before it sailed right over top of her. Then she was hit with a blasting gush of the icy river that knocked her right off of her knees. She was pushed by it, hard, tumbling, rolling and gasping almost all the way to the cavern’s entrance, smashing into the great jagged chuck of ice as she went and then rolling past it. She scrambled to her feet and staggered away, slipping and falling as she went. Then she simply stood there gasping as she watched four days worth of built up water pressure slowly subside down to its normal gush into the pool.
“Fool!” she said. “You absolute fool! You nearly killed yourself!”
The stream was restored though. The papaya grove would be nourished once again.
Betcee had to wander down the entire length of the cave and retrieve the five crystals which had been scattered all across the cavern floor as she tumbled and rolled. She found them all and then sat down on the stone stairway and wept. She felt foolish and useless, having nearly killed herself, and she resented being left to figure out all these puzzles with no assistance. She was battered, scraped, and bruised once again, and badly shaken up; the weeping felt strangely good, comforting.
“Why did you duck, child?” one of the ancients asked her in a calm soothing voice.
“Why did I duck!? That thing nearly took my head off!”
“You have enough magîce in your flesh right now to create a whole new cavern. Surely a tiny chunk of ice should not have alarmed you.”
“Tiny! That thing is bigger than I am!”
“And yet you pulled it from the rock, though it was stuck and frozen fast, with bonds strong enough to hold back a blast of water that nearly pushed you right out of the cavern. You yanked it free. But you must learn control, focus; you must keep alert.”
“You’re saying I could have caught that flying bullet of ice with my mind and tossed it away like a pebble?”
“That is what we are saying. Your position in the cave wasn’t exactly ideal, but you did not expect the blast that occurred.”
“Why didn’t you warn me!?”
“We did. Why didn’t you hear us?”
“I… I was not listening. I did not ask. I did not think. Forgive my impertinence.”
“Take heart though, child. You have passed the final test. The demigoddesses will hear you now. You need only ascend the mountain side.”
“How do I do that?”
“With the kinepathy, and the crystals. You will need something to stand upon however, as you can not levitate yourself. There is a large circular rock outside the cavern, across from the papaya tree. Stand upon that, and command it to ascend. When your magîce runs low, recharge it with the crystals. It is a long journey.”
“How? How do I extract the magîce from the crystals?”
“How do you extract spirit from the air around you? You simply breathe it in. The crystals are the same: hold them in your hand, and draw their power in, like breath.”
Betcee understood now. She decided she would ascend in the morning, after a good night’s rest and a fresh mim’ra ritual.
She could not get back into the chamber however. The gushing river had washed away some of the topmost stones from the stairway, and she was too weary to rebuild it now.
“Use the kneeling mat as Lanajia did,” the Ancients told her.
The mat! Of course! She’d been using it as a net to haul rocks from the pool. Apparently it had less mundane uses as well. She knelt upon it and gripped its edges. Then she commanded it to be moved according to her instruction. It rose up, lifting her from the cavern floor. It was almost effortless. A few moments later she was gliding down the tunnel and coming to rest next to the bed in Lanajia’s chamber.
She went to bed for the last time on the shores at the base of the Tower of the Sea.