Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 2

Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 2

~ 4 ~

Calista had penchant for meddling. Which was why she perched near the entrance to the cafeteria at the beginning of breakfast service, hoping to encounter the shy Japanese girl she spoke to yesterday. It was her professional opinion that Seika needed friends more than she needed rest, but she couldn’t offer it as a psychological diagnosis. She couldn’t articulate exactly why she believed this to be the case, but she had long since learned to trust her gut instincts in these matters.

Of course, if the archeology student took the opportunity to sleep in, Calista couldn’t fault her. Luckily, her search located plenty of friendly faces to fill her table.

“Sorry, Indrani, I thought I recognized someone. Have you heard from your father yet? I know you miss him terribly.” During the first meal they shared, Calista sensed the absence of Indrani’s father like a yawning void in her gut. But today, their separation seemed like a distant shadow, a speckle of cloud cover that may or may not become a storm.

“It gets a little easier every day,” the Indian engineer replied, a hint of sorrow tingeing her smile. “I got my first letter yesterday. I think Father might be having a harder time adjusting than I am. He’s used to being in frequent contact since I left for school. Neither of us ever imagined moving beyond the range of Skype.”

“No one contemplates Skype’s limits anymore,” announced a young woman with pigtails as she and Shima set their trays down at the table. Calista exchanged a knowing smile with her friend, then arched an eyebrow in question. Who is the newcomer? she asked silently, And why does she radiate such an odd sense of presence? Calista could almost swear she knew the new girl, but she would have remembered someone roving the dig site in pigtails.

“This is Erica,” the geology student indicated her companion. “She’s new. This is Calista and Indrani and… I’m sorry, I don’t know your name.”

“Birgit,” the towering Norwegian at the far end of the table replied with a sweet smile. “Nice to meet you, Erica.”

The newcomer bowed her head, causing her hair to sweep her shoulders. “Likewise. Anyway, my mother was furious when I told her she wouldn’t be able to call.” Calista sensed a hint of underlying glee in this statement, though Erica’s face gave no indication of it.

“My mama made me promise to write every day.” Shima laughed. She first appeared in the counseling center two weeks earlier, when homesickness got the better of her. Since then, Calista shared meals with her whenever their breaks coincided. Shima had a warm presence, as if she carried most of her home with her. It helped Calista keep her own isolation at bay. “I’m gunna have to lie and tell her the post office lost most of my letters. Who has time to write every day?”

“I keep a journal of project notes,” Indrani admitted. “Whatever I can jot down between jobs.”

“I’m lucky,” Birgit grinned, “my mother is happy to get one email every month.”

Calista caught a hint of movement by the door and let the conversation drift into the background. She straightened, a triumphant smile splitting her face when a familiar figure darted toward the food line. She waited until Seika departed with her tray to rise and wave.

Their eyes locked. For a moment, Seika hesitated. She seemed utterly horrified that someone had taken notice of her. Then, head down, the archeology student scampered across the room and perched at the edge of their table. She looked like a squirrel, curious but ready to bolt at the slightest provocation. The hearty round of greetings she received seemed to set her at ease.

“I’m glad I caught you, Seika,” Calista said, seizing a lull in the conversation. “How are you feeling?”

“It’s a new day,” Seika replied. She spoke with a weary caution that caught Calista’s attention, though she couldn’t yet divine its source.

Shima held out her hand. “I don’t think we’ve met. I’m Shima and this is Erica. She just arrived yesterday.”

Seika shook hands with each girl in turn, her eyes growing wider with each second she maintained contact. She was obviously struggling with something that threatened to overpower her. But what? Calista bit the inside of her lip. Had she thrown Seika too far into the deep end with a group this large?

“You look like I feel,” Erica said as she drew her hand back. “The sheer number of people moving through here is overwhelming.”

“Yes,” Seika agreed, sounding relieved. Calista relaxed. “I realized yesterday how much I miss Japan.”

“It’s strange,” Indrani mused, “I’ve only spent the last two years in Canada, but I miss it since I got here. I guess it grew familiar while I wasn’t paying attention. One day, I woke up and it didn’t seem strange to be outside of India. Now I keep wishing I was back there.”

“I don’t find Antarctica all that different from Oslo’s winters,” Birgit joked, summoning a round of laughter from the table.

Seika remained pale, her features strained. But the more the other girls engaged her, the more she seemed to relax. The more the tension eased from her shoulders, the smugger Calista allowed herself to grow. Though she had long since finished eating, Calista lingered. They had time before the first duty shift started, and the psychology department wasn’t as strict as the others. Every time Seika started to withdraw, Calista or Shima drew her back into the conversation. Between Erica and Birgit, they spent most of the meal in side stitches.

Birgit was the first to stand and offer a reluctant farewell. Volunteers worked longer shifts and their tasks were twice as hard. Calista didn’t envy her hauling heavy cargo all day. Indrani followed her example, eager to resume her latest project. Seika took the opportunity to flee.

“Don’t overdo it,” Calista warned with a gentle smile when the archeologist snatched her tray from the table. “And don’t forget about your free pass.”

“I think I’ll use it today,” Seika admitted as red tinged her cheeks. “You were right. I need to ground myself in the here and now.” She scurried away before Calista could reply.

Calista hoped one of Seika’s new connections would blossom into friendship. Considering how well the meal had gone, she was pleased about the prospects.


~ 5 ~

The temple would have been a marvel of modern engineering, constructed as it was of materials from around the globe. Yet some ancient civilization built it without a hint of modern technology. No rock cutters. No shipping cruisers to carry tools, materials and manpower. No heaters to shelter the workers from the bitter cold.

Erica approached the main entrance with a sense of awed disbelief. Twice, Shima had to elbow her ribs to keep her moving. She forgot about the disorganized chaos of her arrival. It was a stroke of sheer luck the leaders of the expedition, Doctors Layla Safar and Hilda Arnesen, wanted samples from the temple interior on the same day a rash of important tests swamped the geology department. The students weathered several glares when Larson presented them with their task. Full-fledged scientists waited weeks to set foot inside that temple and Erica got to waltz into its heart on her second day.

From outside, the construction mirrored the ancient Greek style. But there was evidence that an Aztec-style pyramid might once have risen from the roof. Not to mention the half-eroded symbols hinting that dozens of other cultures had been involved in the project, as if the whole ancient world had a hand in crafting the wonder.

The stairs outside were slick and Erica extended both arms to keep her balance, even if her heavy weather gear would pad her fall.

Aside from the missing upper levels of the roof, most of the structure was still intact. Plastic covered a small ceiling collapse in one corner to keep the weather at bay. The team had been raising the temperature slowly, trying to thaw the interior without damaging the artifacts.

Bypassing the side chambers, filled with what remained of the temple’s wonders, the girls entered the altar room, which took up the majority of the building’s space. Paintings and carvings covered the walls, which had protected the art from erosion. A massive obsidian altar dominated the center of the room, adorned with the same symbols carved into the exterior. A statue rested in the middle of the altar, its features obscured by a solid wall of crystal.

Erica and Shima walked a full circle of the shrine before they set down their toolboxes and took off their gloves.

“This is something,” Shima murmured. “I’ve heard a lot about it, but I’ve never been inside.”

“She seems so lifelike.” Erica kept her voice low as she peered at the goddess figure. Who was it meant to represent? And how had the carving been inserted into its protective covering? It almost looked like the crystal had grown around the statue. The stone itself was entrancing, not quite clear, but not any discernible color either. Its many internal facets distorted her reflection, and its composition seemed to change based on the angle of the striking light.

“It’s eerie,” Shima replied as she prepared their instruments.

Erica’s hands shook as she lifted the drill. She drew a deep breath and released it all at once.

“Nervous?” Shima glanced up from her preparations.

“More than a little,” Erica admitted.

“Why?” Shima flashed her a smile. “We’ve been takin’ samples all morning.”

“Yeah, from the surrounding landscape. I don’t think anyone minds if we leave a lasting mark on the ridge.”

“I get it; you feel like we’re tamperin’. Like we’re invadin’ some sacred space. I feel that way too. But Doctors Safar and Arnesen are world-class archeologists. They wouldn’t have asked for samples if they were the tiniest bit concerned about damage. And samplin’ this crystal is no different from samplin’ the ridge. Same concept, same process. Here; you keep the instruments steady, I’ll do the hard bit.”

Nodding, Erica stepped forward. The moment she laid her hands against the crystal, a strange sensation enveloped her. The ground fell out from under her feet and she tumbled into darkness. She landed with a jolt that sent electric tingles through her limbs.

She stood in a forest. It was warm. Leaves whispered overhead and skirts rustled as she strode forward. Shima sat on the obsidian altar. She looked different, older, her facial features more defined, her hair slightly longer. Stars glimmered through the gaps in the canopy above.

“Are you certain your mother will approve?” Shima asked without her southern twang.

“She sent me to learn about your people. To introduce you to our ways. That I found happiness during my stay should be welcome news.”

“I still worry my people will not fit. We are so different…”

“That’s why Mother sent me. All will be well. You will see.”

Sound exploded in her ears. Shouts. Screams. Moments later, the ground shifted underfoot.

Blinding light filled her vision. As it retreated, a sharp crack split the returning stillness.

Gasping, Erica stumbled backwards, watching in horror as the crack which formed between her hands spread across the crystal casing. It stopped mere inches from the top. She couldn’t tell how deep it penetrated. She glanced at her hands, then back at the crack, fighting a frantic wave of panic.

“What the hell happened?” Shima breathed beside her, eyes bulging as she surveyed the damage.

“I don’t know!” Erica’s voice sounded unusually shrill. “I didn’t do anything! I swear I-”

“I know you didn’t do anything. I didn’t even set the drill against the surface! Our team has already tested this crystal several times. They said it’s harder than diamonds. Simple contact shouldn’t have been enough to-”

“I’m dead. Oh my god, Shima, I’m dead.”

“Calm down-”

“No. Nononono… You don’t understand. I’m on conduct probation. I only got access to this program as a last ditch effort to save my skin. As soon as they find out I…” Erica grasped her ponytails and fought the urge to tug them from her head. “I’ve only been here two days-”

“Calm down!” Shima grasped both her shoulders and gave her a firm shake. Erica blinked. “Stay with me, Erica. Don’t forget, I saw what happened. There’s no way you did this. We’ll talk to Larson. He’ll contact Safar and Arnesen. Maybe the temperature change had something to do with it. We’ll get a chance to explain. It’s gunna be okay.”

Again, Erica nodded. But the heavy feeling in her gut warned otherwise. How was she going to explain the strange vision just before the crystal cracked?


~ 6 ~

Seika woke from a dead sleep and snapped bolt upright in bed. Her visions had never been strong enough to wake her before, even when they came as dreams. She simply couldn’t seem to catch a break today. The incident at breakfast had been bad enough.

Closing her eyes, she tried to ignore the rush of her heart and the drumbeat in her ears. She drew one deep breath, then another.

Shima Watson had summoned Seika’s first vision in the Antarctic during a chance encounter in a hallway. It had been mild; a shift in her appearance, a flutter of leaves on non-existent trees and an innocent question she asked the young woman to repeat. It had opened the floodgates.

Touching Erica’s hand at breakfast transported Seika to another world. Together they stood in a vast room with towering walls so white they seemed iridescent. Intricately decorated pillars rose at regular intervals, supporting arched entryways. The roof was open to air and there were no glass panes in the many windows. Beyond the room, thousands of stars glittered in a night sky so dark, it could have been the void of space. A complex compass pattern covered the floor. In the center stood a being made of pure light. Only when Seika stood beside her could she discern the outline of her face, flowing hair and magnificent gown.

Have you come to take the vow?” The glowing woman’s voice echoed in the vaults of Seika’s mind, as if it came from many sources. It left her head spinning even after Erica withdrew her hand.

When she got back to her room, Seika worried she might be losing her mind. Could isolation and sub-zero temperatures cause this? Her visions had always been strange, but also grounded in reality. Never before had sheer fantasy flashed before her eyes.

Her heart still raced, but her head was clear. Seika counted three more breaths before she opened her eyes. Her dorm was small, barely more than a closet. It contained only her bed, a narrow desk and a flimsy chair. There were no windows, though the room was well ventilated. The walls were thin, but the privacy was appreciated. With all her neighbors at work, only the click of the furnace disturbed the stillness.

The group from breakfast had been in her dream, all but Erica and Shima. Indrani sported the same four-armed, alien form Seika glimpsed while the engineer repaired her scanner. One set of hands grasped a golden chalice brimming with clear liquid. Birgit had been with her, bearing the sword and armor from Seika’s last vision. Calista stood between them, dressed in the flowing gown, clasping a golden mirror to her chest. Panic-stricken horror marred each of their expressions.

A manic sense of urgency called Seika to action before the vision devolved into chaos. Shouts and screams gave way to some unseen cataclysm.

Then she woke.

It was crazy to count this dream among her visions. True, they sometimes warned of future events, but a distant instinct insisted this event had already taken place. Why, then, did the desperate sense of urgency linger when she woke? And what in blazes was she supposed to do about it?

Another moment and she made her decision. She would rather be crazy than let something bad happen to this camp.

Seika swept to her feet and hastily donned her outdoor gear. As an afterthought, she stooped to snatch the aged wooden bow propped against the side of her bed.

*   *   *

Tropical wind swept the cold away. Birgit blinked at a sudden splash of green across the sky. Calista drifted into view, dressed as though she belonged in ancient Athens. Beside her stood Indrani — or someone who looked strikingly similar except for the extra pair of arms. It took a moment to identify the final member of the group, the shy Japanese girl from breakfast, who looked like a geisha without the face paint.

As if somehow divining the meaning behind their concerned looks, Birgit hefted a sword in one hand, thumping it against her heavy breastplate. But her bravado seemed misplaced. Even her dense metal helmet did nothing to quell the oncoming cacophony of light and sound.

“It is time,” the geisha-dressed Seika announced. “Open your eyes.”

Birgit blinked. Howling wind filled her ears. Snow leaked through her woolen facemask.

“That’s it, Birgit,” Seika encouraged. “Wake up. Slowly, now.”

Her head hurt. Gritting her teeth, Birgit leveraged herself onto one elbow, pressing her other palm to her forehead. The snow caked to her gloves melted as it made contact with her warmth. It had happened so quickly. She must have cracked her head on the ice.

“Are you all right?” Concern creased Seika’s face. She set a hand under Birgit’s armpit and helped her into a sitting position.

Birgit glanced around, but the others were gone. Now that she thought about it, she noticed Seika was wearing normal gear again as well. Her temples throbbed. She shut her eyes a moment, hoping to ease the pain. “I don’t understand…” The last few minutes made no sense. One moment she had been carrying a crate of artifacts and the next she had been preparing for battle.

“You saw it, didn’t you?”

“I…” Birgit drew a deep breath. “I don’t know what I saw, but… Is that a bow?” Had she awakened from one level of delirium to another, like a dream within a dream?

Seika’s cheeks turned red. “I… Yes. It’s a family heirloom. Don’t ask. I saw the same thing you did and overreacted.”

“But how did…” Birgit shook her head. It made a certain poetic sense that Seika had seen her vision. After all, she had been part of it. Did that mean Indrani and Calista experienced the same flash as well? Or have I completely lost my mind?

”Are you okay?” Seika asked again. “It looks like you took a nasty spill.”

“I think so. Shit!” Birgit shot to her feet and nearly tripped a second time. Thinking better of bolting, she knelt and scrabbled on hands and knees to the dropped crate. The snow had padded its fall. There were no visible dents, but it rattled as she lifted it. “Damn! Why couldn’t I fall while carrying foodstuffs instead of precious artifacts?”

“It’s not your fault.” Seika squeezed her wrist. “The archeology department has been arguing for weeks about the flimsy and rushed packing used for transportation, even if it is only across the site. Accidents happen with snow and ice everywhere. If you mention the shoddy packing when you make your delivery, no one will blame you.”

“I feel a bit underhanded shifting the blame,” Birgit protested.

“Honestly, you’d be doing us a favor.”

Birgit considered for a moment. “I don’t suppose I have any choice. Thanks Seika, I owe you.”

“No you don’t. If anyone should be thankful, it’s me.” The archeologist smiled. “This morning, I thought I was going mad.”

“I’m not convinced we haven’t.”

“We can talk about that later. Do you need help delivering your crate?”

Birgit took a few wobbly steps. Strength and certainty quickly returned to her limbs. “I’ll be fine, thanks. What about you?”

Seika chuckled. “Don’t worry about me. I was laying down when the vision hit me. I’ll go check on the others. Let’s meet outside the cafeteria when everyone’s shifts end.”

“That sounds like a good idea. Be careful, Seika.”

“You too.”

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