Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 1

Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 1

~ 1 ~

Doctor Layla Safar couldn’t bear another failure, departing once more in exile, and starting all over again from scratch. Years of dedicated research had led them to the Antarctic. She had to have faith.

But what if we can’t find it? She gritted her teeth against the unbidden thought.

Frigid wind snapped against her face as she mounted the final ridge. She hugged the thick layers of her fur coat closer, fortifying herself against the chill, though the cold didn’t seem to bother her companion. It never had.

Shivering, she squinted against snow-studded gusts, seeking their destination. A wall loomed in the distance, obscured by the heavy white haze. Hard to say if it was man-made or just another glacier. Hard to believe it might be the temple. Their temple. She never expected to find it in the middle of a frozen, wind-blasted wasteland. She always thought it would be someplace warm, vibrant and full of life.

“Come.” The single word compelled her forward. “You must see this.”

Layla’s heart skipped a beat. Hope threatened to melt the ice in her chest and she couldn’t stave it off. After so many failed attempts, she cherished small victories.

The blizzard’s veil parted to reveal a roughly rectangular shape, worn smooth from years of exposure. As she approached, the details grew sharper; rising pillars, misshapen lumps that might once have been sculptures. The howling wind stole her breath.

“Am I dreaming?” she exhaled the words along with a puff of white vapor. She lifted one hand but held it just short of the ice-crusted wall, afraid the vision would shatter if she touched it.

Taking hold of her hand, her companion pressed her gloved fingers to the uneven surface. “This is it, Layla.” She could hear the grin in her friend’s voice, despite the thick, knitted mask covering her face. “What else could it be?”

Layla fought the burning sensation in her eyes. Tears would freeze fast to her cheeks the moment they fell. “There’s a snow drift here. Let’s see if we can get higher.”

It was difficult work, moving through the snow and across the ice while the wind drove them to their knees. Despite her protective clothing, Layla’s legs were beginning to numb. She envied the grace with which her companion navigated the incline, despite its unsteady composition.

Time and wear had created a hole near the top of the wall where the structure’s roof had crumbled away. When they waved a flashlight in front of the gap, something glittered in the distance. Layla’s heart took flight.

“You’re right, Hilda. This is the temple. The real one. Not a useless replica like last time. But how could it have gotten all the way down here? Even accounting for continental drift, the math doesn’t match.”

“We may not have been using the correct origin point,” Doctor Hilda Arnesen replied. Before Layla could protest, she added, “Our duplicate may not have been as precise as we hoped.”

“How is that possible? It should have been a direct snapshot the moment we initiated the process.”

Hilda’s shoulders rose and fell sharply. She had no idea. Not even enough of an inkling to guess. “It hardly matters at this point. What matters is that we’ve managed to accurately compensate for the discrepancy now that our filters are a tad more refined. We’ll need to assemble a team quickly. We can hardly dig this out of the ice on our own.”

“I rather think you could,” Layla teased.

“It’s too risky. Besides, there’s still an element unaccounted for.”

Layla sighed, her elation tempered by anticipation of the coming struggle. “As soon as news spreads, she will come. Like a moth to flame. The temple will draw her, as it drew us.”


~ 2 ~

“I don’t know what kind of self-respecting business would hire a hooligan like you, but this project has standards.”

Instinctively, Erica stepped backward to avoid the spittle flying from the corners of the senior geologist’s mouth. She had seen that crazed look in professors’ eyes before. There’d be no reasoning with him.

Failing out of university probably wasn’t the worst thing that could happen to her. Most of her goals would be harder to achieve without at least a master’s degree, but she didn’t believe in impossibilities. Besides, since she didn’t plan to open her own business, her parents had already deemed her a failure. Representing her university at this special archeological dig was supposed to get her off conduct probation and back in good standing, but her first day had been a disaster. Every one of her flights had been late, throwing the orientation schedule into disarray, and she’d already managed to offend her new boss.

“Sorry, the dress code didn’t mention regulations for hair dye.” She didn’t understand the devotion to such an outdated attitude. Yesterday, a barista with blue hair made her latte at the local coffee shop, and no one batted an eye. One faded strip of pink shouldn’t cause a fuss. But she had checked the site regulations with an obsessive eye for detail; she always did.

Flipping through a pile of papers pinned to a clipboard, her team lead eyed her over the black rims of his thick glasses. “Miss… Brown, is it? You’ll have to get rid of them by tomorrow. My team has a pristine reputation to maintain. And one hair color is all a person needs, don’t you think?”

Erica bit her tongue to contain a sharp retort. “I can wash out the pink, no problem. But the black doesn’t come out. It’s, uh… It’s not dyed-”

“What kind of simpleton do you take me for, Miss Brown? I recognize a rebellious youth when I see one. This isn’t the local Goth club, it’s a serious workplace environment.”

Were the other members of the team snickering in the background, or had Erica imagined the sound? She’d endured this same confrontation with half a dozen school principals. Trying to cut the black strip had only gotten Erica in trouble for ‘partially shaving her head.’ Her mother had the perfect exasperated tone for dealing with this issue. Even if she had been willing to pay for repeat dye sessions, that black lock wouldn’t bleach. Unfortunately, sass wouldn’t serve Erica here.

“I want nothing more than to comply with the dig site’s rules, sir.” She tried to sound contrite, repentant and humble. “But no amount of scrubbing will get rid of that black streak. It’s kind of like a birthmark.” The trouble was proving it. She was too old to provide a note from her mother.

“We’ll see about that,” her team lead snarled as he stalked off, chasing the sniggering geologists back to their assigned tasks.

Gulping, Erica glanced at her itinerary. At this rate, she’d be lucky to make it to dinner without being expelled.

“Don’t worry about him.”

Erica nearly leapt out of her skin. She shrieked and crumpled her orientation packet before she noticed a girl grinning at her antics. “Sorry,” she said with a sheepish smile. “It’s been kind of a rough day.”

“I didn’t mean to sneak up on you. I’m Shima, by the way.” She held out her hand. Her large eyes and rounded face seemed homely and familiar. Erica half expected her to smell of fresh-baked cookies. A cascade of curls framed her dark cheeks and, half-tucked behind her left ear, stark against the midnight field of her hair, Erica spied a brilliant silver streak.

“Nice to meet you, Shima.” She tried not to cling when they shook hands. “I’m Erica and I guess I’m already in trouble.”

“Don’t you worry too much about that.” Shima chuckled, a sound like tiny bells tinkling. Her words contained a slight southern twang. “I find it helps if you hide it.” She flicked the silver lock out from behind her ear, then tucked it carefully back into place.

“I’m not sure why that hasn’t ever occurred to me.” Erica removed one of her ponytail holders, folded the black lock among its blonde fellows, and tied her hair back in place. “You’re a life-saver.”

“When I reached high school, my mama marched into the principal’s office demandin’ to know why the way a kid wears their hair is a school issue. I’ve never been so embarrassed.”

“And here I thought I was a freak.”

“My mama used to say I was ‘touched by an angel in the womb.’ She claimed that’s why no dye ever covered the silver streak. I think she was strangely proud of it.”

“My parents don’t believe in anything supernatural. They didn’t even like to read me faerie tales when I was young. I never thought I’d meet someone who understood.”

“We’ll be our own support group.” Shima winked.

“Say, could you help me figure out this map?” Erica unfurled a crinkled piece of paper. “They cut my orientation short and-”

“Larson’s got a stick up his rear. It’s easy once you get the hang of it.” Shima gently drew the page from Erica’s grip, flipped it right side up and slid it back into her grasp. “Each research group has its own building. They’re color-coded. Geology, we’re purple. Don’t ask me how they came up with it, but we got purple. Green is medical, blue is psychology, orange is archeology and engineering is red, I guess cuz it’s dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doin’.

“All the buildings are connected by insulated tunnels. You only have to go outside to access the dig site. No one wants to don arctic gear just to get to breakfast, though lots of people carry it just in case. There’s even an easy access route to the dorms from each research area. Come find me when our shift ends and I’ll show you the shortcut.”

“Thanks.” Erica folded the map carefully this time and tucked it into her pants pocket. “Do our people spend a lot of time at the temple? I guess they don’t need a lot of geologists for the excavation.”

“You’ll be surprised.” Shima turned back to the files she’d been sorting. “But mostly the students go over samples and organize reports. We’re like glorified assistants. I really hope we get to see the inside though. I’ve been excited since I read the pamphlet.”

“Me too.” Since she lacked a task of her own, Erica followed Shima back to her workstation. “From what I understand, this temple wasn’t built by a civilization we recognize. Its discovery could rewrite our understanding of history.”

“Absolutely, but we’re here to study the materials it’s made of and identify their origins, if possible.”

Erica cracked her knuckles. “I’m ready to go cross-eyed from staring into microscopes all day. Where should I start?”

“For now, you can help me file these reports. It isn’t exciting, but I imagine you have enough to worry about today. I was a mess the day I arrived, and there wasn’t as much to get acquainted with at the time.”

“And I’ve already managed to make a fool of myself.”

“Don’t you worry. Last week, one of the new arrivals misfiled an entire stack of slides. Mistakes get buried pretty quickly here. Besides, I’ll show you the ropes.”


~ 3 ~

Blinking, Seika shook her head. For a moment, the engineer fixing her scanner seemed to grow a second set of arms. The skill and speed with which she wielded her tools must have summoned the illusion. It was difficult to stay focused while Seika watched the tech disassemble and reassemble the complex piece of machinery meant to help her catalog recently discovered artifacts. She could never duplicate the repair process herself.

She held the visions at bay better when she remained focused on a task. Unfortunately, she could only keep out of the way.

As the young woman bent to retrieve a smaller screwdriver from her tool case, the arms reappeared. They moved independently of her original arms, reaching for something at Seika’s feet.

Seika rubbed her eyes, but the image had taken over her vision.

There is always water, a voice whispered inside her head, flowing deep beneath the surface where you cannot see. The dowsers of old used sticks to divine these hidden locations, but I have no such need. A dusky finger from one of the secondary hands pressed into the loose-packed sand at her feet. When it withdrew, a hearty spring flowed from within the earth. Her companion bent and filled a golden chalice before holding it out to her.

Drink. Regain your strength. When we find the hidden rebels, our princess will have need of your secondary senses.

It is Aphrodite that senses the truth of words and intent, she protested, though she pressed the chalice to her lips and drank of the cool, clean liquid.

Perhaps. But only you can say what they might yet do…

Seika shook her head. Her heavy knit sweater was reminder enough of her distance from a desert, and there was plenty of snow outside should their water supply run low.

Strange flashes of insight had plagued her since childhood, but none so bizarre as this. She’d glimpsed the location of many a hidden object and, occasionally, a missing child. Her visions sometimes warned of terrible accidents or local murders, but she never shared what she saw. Her insights were only possibilities, after all. The future was mutable. When distraught parents came to the shrine to pray, she gently pointed them in the right direction. All else she left to the more competent forces of the universe.

But where she would encounter a four-armed water dowser, and who the stranger might want her to help, she couldn’t guess.

Prayer and meditation kept the visions under control, but she was far from the comfort and familiarity of her shrine. Could the unfamiliar territory cause these ludicrous leaps of logic?

As the engineer leaned toward her, a second set of phantom limbs shadowed her arms again. One of her right hands came to rest on Seika’s shoulder, the other lay against her back.

We all trust your vision. I am certain we will divine the proper pa…

“…rything all right?”

A hand squeezed her shoulder. Seika jumped.

“Oh, uh… Yes. Thank you…” She hurried to read the engineer’s nametag, “…Indrani. I’m surprised you managed to fix it so fast. How many have you had to repair?”

“Don’t mention it… Seika, was it?” Indrani chuckled as she closed her tool case. “This was my first, believe it or not. You work around machinery as much as I do and you get a feel for it. Let me know if it gives you any more trouble.”

“I will. Thanks.”

“Are you sure you’re all right? You look awfully pale.”

“I’m just not used to the weather.” Seika drew an abandoned artifact from the nearby table and placed it into the scanner. Hopefully activating the newly repaired machine would trigger the end of the conversation. How awkward did she sound at the moment?

“Tell me about it!” Indrani released an explosive sigh. “And I thought the winters in Canada were bad…”

“Pardon me,” a towering young woman with honey-blonde hair hefted a crate onto the table beside Seika’s scanner. “Don’t mean to interrupt,” she said between gasps. “Do you know where I’m supposed to deliver these?”

“New artifacts?” Seika rushed to check the label. The scanning process was automated anyway, and Indrani squinted at the new fittings, apparently eager to verify her work.

“Nothing important. Just scraps.”

“Either way, they’ll have to be catalogued. That happens in the far corner on the left.”

The new arrival, whose nametag identified her as Birgit, snorted. “Who put the delivery space as far from the door as possible?”

“If you ask me,” Indrani replied, “none of these research areas are well thought out. At least the scanner seems to be working again.”

Seika barely heard their conversation. She stared at the tall, muscular Birgit, who suddenly seemed cut and bloody, her breath a series of ragged pants. She wore half a set of gleaming armor over her clothes, including a helmet adorned with valkyrie wings. In her right hand, she clutched the hilt of a massive, bloodstained sword.

I will not yield. Not so long as there is breath in my body and edge to my steel. Shall I cut down another challenger? Or can we put an end to this useless charade?


Again, she jumped. Two sets of eyes narrowed with concern.

“You sure you’re all right?” Indrani laid a hand on her arm.

Seika longed suddenly for the meditation room in the shrine back home: the crackling fire in the hearth, the soft trickle of water from the fountain in the garden. Even the mundane, repetitive task of sweeping the front stairs would have been a comfort compared to blushing under the scrutiny of these two strangers.

“It’s been a long day,” she managed.

To her surprise, both women smiled.

“At least you science types get to spend most of it inside.” Birgit chuckled. “I’ve been trudging through snow banks all afternoon.”

“At least you get a nice view of the dig site,” Indrani countered with a teasing smile.

“Fair point.” Birgit swept her crate off the table with a grunt. “Let me just get these out of your way, Seika. Make sure you get some rest after your shift.”

The two women chatted as they departed. Seika wondered if they knew each other. She hadn’t made any friends since her arrival two weeks before. She’d never been an outgoing person; it was difficult to focus on a conversation with random images crowding her thoughts. She cringed when she considered what people might say if she admitted the truth.

She wished rest could solve her problems.

Luckily, the rest of her shift went smoothly. It was easy to put each object through the scanner, scribble notes on the report, and direct it to the proper team. Not quite mindless, but soothing. She almost felt like herself when she signed out.

Still, she couldn’t afford to go on like this, with each substantial interaction throwing her into a fantasy world. There was a counseling center beside the infirmary. Would it hurt to talk to someone?

The infirmary was the warmest building on site. A no food or drink sign kept the lunch traffic at bay, but Seika wondered how they prevented people dropping by during breaks. A second sign warned the psychologists and students on duty were conducting research and the results of any session might be included. It reassured guests in smaller letters that patient confidentiality would be maintained.

Seika sat in one of the waiting area chairs and took deep, measured breaths. How could she spin her situation so she wouldn’t sound bonkers?

She only waited five minutes before a cheerful young woman appeared behind the front desk, humming as she walked. Fiery red hair cascaded over her shoulders and freckles speckled her face.

“Oh, hello! I’m sorry, I hope I didn’t keep you waiting. There’s a bell.” She pointed to a small silver bell Seika hadn’t noticed. “What can I do for you today?”

Seika tried to ignore the fire in her cheeks. “I was hoping I could speak with someone.”

“Of course. Did you want to wait for one of the doctors? Or would you be okay talking to a student?”

Seika hesitated. Would a student be more open-minded? “I’m fine with whoever’s available.”

“That’d be me.” Grinning, the redhead pulled a folder from a stack and motioned toward the door from which she’d come. “Follow me.”

Drawing a deep breath, Seika followed the psychology student down a narrow hallway. Their destination was little more than a glorified cubicle, which the team had tried to make comfortable. Two padded chairs sat on opposite ends of the room and an abstract painting hung on the wall opposite the door. Seika sat in the nearest chair and her guide flopped into the other.

“My name is Calista. I’m not a doctor yet, so I don’t think you need to bother with titles.” She pulled a pen from behind her ear and held it poised above the papers in the folder. “What seems to be the trouble… Seika?”

She’d forgotten she was still wearing her nametag. “Well… I’m not sure. Oh, uh, I saw the sign. What’s your group studying?”

“The effects of extreme weather and long-term isolation.” Calista’s smile seemed oddly out of place. “If you really don’t want to be included in the study, I can put a note. But I can’t make any promises.”

“No, no, it’s fine.” Could the weather be the source of her difficulties? “It’s just lately, I can’t seem to focus. My mind is always elsewhere.” Apparently concocting some fantasy movie reel.

”Is this your first time away from home?” Calista asked as she jotted something on her notepad.

“Yes,” Seika admitted. “This is my first time leaving Japan.”

“Miss it?”

“More than I can say.”

Calista abandoned her notes long enough offer a sympathetic look. “You’d be surprised. For lots of participants, this is their first big trip away from home. It’s certainly worth the trouble. But homesickness doesn’t just afflict children. We’re not exactly in a foreign country, but there’s still a certain level of culture shock.”

Seika couldn’t keep up. The office decor had changed. The space was large and open. Cushions dotted the floor in the center of the room. Curtains whispered as they shifted in front of a large, open window. A stray breeze wafted through the room. With a serene smile, Calista extended a cup in Seika’s direction.

It wasn’t your fault. What happened, I mean. Lately, we’ve been relying too heavily on your intuitions, pushing you too hard. Your abilities are convenient, but we shouldn’t be leaning on them. Besides, it isn’t as if the rest of us don’t have abilities of our own…

”Seika, are you all right?”

Seika blinked. “What’s in it?” she asked before accepting the cup.

“In what?”

Seika bit the inside of her lip, her cheeks flaming red. At this rate, she’d convince the entire camp she’d gone mad. “I… in your notes. Do I get to see them before I go?”

“I suppose, if you’re that concerned-”

“No, I… I’ve just never done this before. What do you recommend? For people who are homesick, I mean.”

“Usually that they find something to anchor themselves in the present. A favored activity or a time of day to look forward to. But I think you might have something more than simple homesickness.”

Seika’s mind raced, grasping for any justification of her behavior that might sound reasonable.

“Don’t worry.” Leaning forward, Calista laid a hand on her knee. “I’ve got just the thing.” Straightening, she scribbled something on her notepad and tore the page free. “This note will allow you to skip a shift. A couple extra hours of rest and relaxation should be all you need. After that, try not to work too hard, okay?”

Seika showered the psychology student with profuse gratitude as she stuffed the slip of paper into her pocket. Then she hurried from the office and the infirmary before she could make a bigger fool of herself.

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