Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 3

Crystal Shrouded Goddess – Part 3

~ 7 ~

Blue light spilled from an array of screens, illuminating the shadow-shrouded command center. Boxes and papers littered the outskirts of the room. Organized chaos. They kept the lights off when they were alone in the office; it allowed them to be more comfortable.

Layla turned her head. Three loops of the security feed had satisfied her curiosity and ignited her anxieties. Now, she watched Hilda’s hands curl into fists.

“You’ve seen the crack?” Hilda demanded as the screen turned black. Ten seconds later, the footage started over.

Layla nodded as she killed the video feed. “It’s deceptive. At first glance it seems insignificant, but it runs deep.”

“She could have shattered it, if she wanted to. Ten thousand years those protections endured. And one upstart teenager nearly destroyed them in an instant.”

“I don’t think she knew any of that.” Layla laid her hand over Hilda’s, trying to soothe the woman’s anger before it swept her away. “You saw the shock on her face. Her power has just awakened.”

“As you said, the temple called her here. Now that she’s aware of its secrets, she will no doubt plunder them quickly. We cannot allow her to perform her ritual before we are ready for ours.”

“We have to be certain,” Layla hissed. “There was another girl with her. This Shima girl. She could have used Erica as a decoy.”

“She did seem strikingly calm during the interview.”

The entire camp spent the afternoon in a frantic flurry after the geology students reported the incident. At worst, Layla and her partner had assumed they would be unable to gather the sample. It was obvious to them this was no act of incompetence. But no one outside this room, save one of those two girls, was aware of the crystal’s true nature. Just as none of the panicking scientists had any idea how much was at stake in the wake of this incident. Always before, they had a chance to start over, to rise from the ashes. If they lost the temple…

“The goddess is still protected.” Layla tried to sound reassuring. But who am I trying to reassure? Hilda or myself?

Hilda slid her chair backward as she stood. “We must eliminate the threat as quickly as possible. The need has never been so dire.”

“Then we must ascertain which girl unleashed the percussive blast.” Layla remained in her chair. She felt calmer that way, more confident.

“If her power awakens fully-”

“We cannot harm an innocent human.” Layla kept her voice low but it carried significant force. “We have come this far without breaching our oaths. Would you undo us now?”

Hilda set her jaw. Her eyes were cold as ice, but Layla knew her well enough to detect her unease. “We’ll start tonight. If Erica manifests her power, she must die.”

“Are you certain that’s wise? Every time we manipulate the matrix, we weaken it.”

“If you want to be sure, what choice to we have?”

“None,” Layla admitted, her voice barely more than a whisper.


~ 8 ~

How Erica got through the afternoon without bursting into tears, she couldn’t say. She’d never been this embarrassed. Shima had done most of the talking when they returned to the geology department. Erica wished she could regain her own confidence. She spent the discussion fidgeting, trying to hide her shaking hands behind her back.

No one believed her. Except, maybe, the two lead archeologists. Doctors Safar and Arnesen hadn’t flinched when the received the news. Each reassured the frantic geologists several times that nothing should have been able to damage the crystal, least of all two young women bearing delicate and carefully calibrated scientific equipment. Unfortunately, no one seemed placated.

Though Doctor Safar declared the matter closed, Erica still considered her head on the chopping block. She’d be lucky to spend the rest of term sorting results and filing reports. But if she returned home without data for her final paper, she’d still face university exile. Not that it mattered. She was a geological laughing stock and she hadn’t even started her career.

She skipped dinner, unable to face a crowd of her fellows. The entire site already knew about the incident. She heard whispers in the hallway on the way to her dorm. Shima smuggled her a cup of yogurt and an apple, but it wasn’t enough to placate her stomach after the initial panic wore off. By now the cafeteria was closed; there were no night shifts.

Hunger gradually shifted to a strange desire to see the stars. As if a clear view of the night sky would set everything right. Rumor had it the southern aurora — Aurora Australis — was just as brilliant as the Aurora Borealis to the north. And Erica would never have a better opportunity to glimpse it.

It was past curfew and most of the hallways were deserted. She had to avoid the research areas, where scientists and archeologists worked late, since they didn’t have the same restrictions as the students. There would be harsh consequences if she was caught, but they seemed insignificant compared to what had already happened.

Erica wandered the halls of the dorm area, searching for windows. There were none, and all the outside doors were locked. The temperature dropped steeply at night. Even her heavy weather gear would be hard-pressed to protect her from the icy winds. Not that any of these factors deterred her.

Alone with her clinking footsteps, Erica’s mind drifted back to the vision she experienced just before the crystal cracked. She hadn’t mentioned it, not even to Shima, afraid she’d lose her friend’s support. The two events must be related, but she couldn’t fathom what the images might mean. The altar and courtyard had clearly been the same, except open to air and surrounded by the warmth of a jungle. Could there be a second such site? Or had the temple somehow drifted to the southern pole after it was built? Was that even possible?

A series of thuds drew Erica’s attention. They echoed through the hallway like heavy footsteps, but who else was crazy enough to risk a reprimand?

Even as she turned, a loud crack split the stillness, followed by the creak of rending metal. An oblong section of the roof collapsed, along with a sizable portion of the attached wall. A large, white and silver hand accompanied the rubble. The impossible appendage lifted, patting the hallway on the other side of the gap before the fingers wriggled in her direction.

Erica screamed. No one came to investigate. The fingers brushed her leg before she managed to unfreeze her limbs and flee.

She didn’t have time to contemplate the impossibility of a hand that could close around her body with room to spare, nor the torso that must be attached. She hadn’t made it to the next corner when the rending of metal reverberated through the hallway a second time. A new hole appeared in the wall in front of her and she skidded to a halt. A blast of cold air stole her breath as she backpedaled, fumbling in her pockets for the rest of her cold weather gear.

Why didn’t the people in these dorms come to investigate? Am I dreaming?

The silver-white fingers returned to search the empty space. As quietly as she could manage in clunky boots and a heavy coat, Erica shuffled to the hallway’s inner wall and flattened herself against it. She held her breath until the hand retracted.

When the heavy thump of footsteps receded in the opposite direction, Erica nearly fainted. Arms and legs shaking, she crawled on hands and knees to the jagged opening and peered past the frozen metal.

In high school, she had been enamored with mythology. The creature tromping around outside the dormitories looked exactly like illustrations of giants from Norse myths. It was unfathomably tall, its skin tinted pale blue. Muscles rippled as it moved. Long white hair cascaded across its shoulders and, as it turned, she caught sight of a matching beard. Erica shoved a gloved hand into her mouth to keep from screaming again.

Too late. The creature narrowed its yellow eyes in her direction. Scrambling to her feet, she dove toward an inner hallway where she ran headlong into a wall that gave way the moment she fell.

“Look out!” Strong arms dragged her further down the hallway just as the huge hand swooped through the hole and crashed against the floor inches from where she had fallen.

Head spinning, Erica blinked, trying to regain her bearings.

A figure sidestepped her swiftly, darting toward the massive arm. Belatedly, she recognized Seika, the shy girl from breakfast. Seika slapped two strips of paper against the retreating limb and muttered something in Japanese.

Outside, the giant howled.

“Get the rest of your gear on,” Birgit chided as she helped Erica slide her facemask into place.

“Hurry,” Seika hissed. “We don’t have much time!”

“What are you doing?” Erica demanded. “Are you crazy?”

“I sleep down the hall.” Birgit jabbed a finger at an open door.

“And I had a bad feeling,” Seika added. “Never mind, I’ll explain later.”

“I don’t know what you expect me to do,” Erica grumbled as she fastened her oversized jacket. But even as she spoke, she realized their intentions. They were wearing their cold weather gear, after all.

“We will go somewhere it can’t hurt anyone else,” Birgit announced as she hauled Erica to her feet. “Besides, Calista and Indrani are going to need help.”

The creature’s howling subsided, replaced with the thud and crash of heavy footfalls. Erica didn’t want to know what Calista and Indrani were up to. She caught sight of two distant figures as she followed Birgit and Seika into the night. Who were these people? Had they lost their minds?

“We need to get help,” Erica called over the whipping wind. “Sound the alarm for evacuation or something!”

“Even if we did, no one would come.” Birgit must have been screaming, but Erica could hardly hear her.

“What do you mean? People have to be aware of this by now-”

“They’re asleep. All of them. The volunteers have roommates. I tried to wake mine, but no matter how hard I shook her, she didn’t stir. I checked that she is breathing, but she would not budge.”

“Indrani came from the engineering lab,” Seika added when they paused to catch their breath. “She said everyone slumped over their work at the same moment, like mass narcolepsy.”

“What are we going to do?” Erica’s voice pitched toward hysteria. How could she hear at all over the pounding of blood in her ears, an echo of her heart’s mad thunder? Why wasn’t she one of the lucky sleepers?

“Run.” Birgit grasped her wrist. “Toward the temple.”

Toward it? Haven’t I done enough damage already? That thing could level the whole structure if it wanted to.”

“Probably,” Seika agreed. “But I get the impression it won’t.”

“And why is that?”

“Call it a hunch.”

Erica bit the inside of her lip. They didn’t have time to argue. “What about those two?” She gestured to the madly flailing figures circling the giant. “We can’t just leave them.”

Seika chewed her bottom lip. “No. You’re right. Birgit, take her ahead. I’ll handle this.”

“How?” both girls demanded at once.

“Go!” Seika roared with such force, both her companions instantly obeyed.

Birgit muttered something in Norwegian as she turned. Erica assumed it was a curse. She stumbled in the larger girl’s wake, her footsteps awkward and halting as she glanced over her shoulder.

Seika held a wooden bow. Where had that come from? It looked old and worn, but well cared for. She lifted it in front of her and drew the bowstring back. But she had no arrows.

From her angle, Erica could barely see Seika’s face. It was dark. The site lamps were off and not much light spilled from the ruined corridor. She thought Seika’s eyes were closed, her lips moving rapidly. When she opened her eyes, they seemed to blaze with fire. Her expression calm and confident, she released the bowstring.

A spark of flame shot through the night.

Erica stumbled and Birgit caught her before she sent them both sprawling. She had to abandon the spectacle and concentrate on where she set her feet. This can’t be real. You’re dreaming. You hit your head on that crystal and you haven’t woken up yet.

But when she glanced over her shoulder and saw the flaming arrow strike at the giant’s feet, where it exploded into a grand inferno, she knew everything around her was terrifyingly real.

*   *   *

After the flash of impossible interaction with her friends dressed in all manner of strange clothing, Indrani hadn’t known what to do. She had been lucky, and grateful, she hadn’t been fiddling with delicate or dangerous machinery at the time. She had been careful for the remainder of her shift, unusually skittish with her tinkering, afraid it would happen again.

If Seika hadn’t peeked into the workshop under the pretense of needing help with the scanner again, Indrani might have lost her mind. How the archeology student knew exactly what to say remained a mystery, but Indrani was grateful for her efforts.

On her way to a meeting with the vision’s three other witnesses, news of Erica’s incident with the crystal reached her ears. Indrani could hardly imagine causing irreparable damage to the dig’s most valued find on her second day of work. Seika believed the shared vision and the damaged crystal must be related, though their attempts to locate Erica and Shima failed.

After a lengthy and whispered conversation, the group reluctantly agreed to keep the vision secret. They would have to trust each other and work together to solve the mystery. They would try to talk to Erica or Shima in the morning.

Indrani spent the evening trying to forget about it. Rather than fear or uncertainty, guilt kept her awake. She hadn’t made much progress on her invention, too afraid she’d lose a finger if she had another vision while working. The lead engineer eagerly awaited a working prototype of her archeological drone for digging out the temple foundation.

That guilt sent her slinking through the hallways to her workshop. The full-fledged engineers, who understood the drive to work at all hours, turned a blind eye to students violating curfew. She was on her own if she got caught in the corridors, though.

She had just hit her stride when her companions started to slump over their workstations. Confused and fearful, Indrani tried everything to wake them, even dumping the head engineer out of his chair. When that failed, she sought Seika, who had given them her room number during their meeting. She seemed to have a far better handle on these bizarre happenings than anyone else. If anyone knew what to do, it would be her.

The rest of the events leading to this moment were a blur. Approaching the giant took more courage than Indrani thought she possessed. Yet she and Calista danced in circles for ages while her heart lodged in her throat. It must be a dream. If the monster crushed her, she would only wake up.

When the fire arrow illuminated the night, it only increased her surreal detachment. None of this could be happening. It defied all scientific law. Calista’s gloved hand clutched hers as they fled. Seika joined them moments later, ancient wooden bow still clasped in one hand.

She looked different now. Taller. Rather than the coat, boots, gloves and mask that would keep her warm, she was dressed as she had been during the vision. A kimono-style top terminated at her thighs, bound by a pair of long ribbons that never seemed to impede her movement. A pair of long white pants covered her legs, flaring wide at the ankles. Over top it all she wore a golden breastplate and stylized shoulder guards. Jewels trailed from a pair of pins in her hair, tinkling as she ran. The cold didn’t seem to bother her and she appeared to glide across the snow.

The giant’s outraged howls faded quickly. How fast could it catch up to them? Indrani didn’t dare glance over her shoulder. Could Seika fire another of those arrows? Would that drive the creature away?

Erica and Birgit waited at the base of the temple stairs, crouched behind separate stacks of crates, the only hiding places available. Seika and Calista joined Erica while Indrani knelt beside Birgit.

“What’s happening?” Birgit demanded in a terse whisper.

“I’m still hoping to wake up in bed,” Indrani admitted.

Seika made a slicing motion in front of her neck. Everyone fell silent.

The ground shook as the giant approached. Seika believed it would turn away from the temple. Indrani held no such faith.

The giant did pause one massive stride away from their hiding places. It shifted, sniffing one direction, then the other. Its eyes narrowed and it took a tentative step forward, digging its toes into the crates hiding Indrani and her companion.

Time seemed to slow.

Erica clamped her hands over her ears and squeezed her eyes closed. Seika grabbed her shoulders and jerked her to her feet, yelling something Indrani couldn’t discern. The falling crates swept her and Birgit backwards and she focused on rolling out of the way of the falling debris. How many artifacts had they just damaged? What a thing to worry at a time like this!

Artifacts and packing foam littered the snow bank in which she and Birgit came to rest. Her companion gasped and panted or, perhaps, it was Indrani’s breath struggling to fill her lungs.

With a soft cry, Calista leapt from her hiding place. How she would distract the creature, Indrani couldn’t guess. They had nowhere to run. Nowhere but the temple, where Seika dragged the struggling Erica.

Calista unzipped her jacket and pulled something from inside. It was scratched and splotched with age, but easily identifiable as a mirror. If she hadn’t pulled it from inside her jacket, Indrani might have worried she had stolen it. Hands shaking, she held the mirror aloft until it reflected the giant’s face.

“Back!” she cried.

Impossibly, the giant hesitated. It stared at its face in the tiny mirror, then it stumbled backward a step. Calista took a step forward, her hands and the mirror trembling. As she moved, her coat seemed to melt into flowing blue skirts and rippling grey sleeves. A silver chest plate reflected the light as she moved. A matching silver circlet sat on her head.

Indrani shook herself free of her stupor. What can I do? She cast about for something in the snow, anything that might help their situation. Beside her, Birgit did the same.

At the same moment, their hands closed around objects. Birgit stood faster, more used to the heavy clothing and the biting chill. In one gloved hand, she hefted a sword. As she lifted it, the rust and tarnish of age fell away until the steel glittered sharp and polished in the external floodlights. With a strange fascination, Indrani watched another of her friends transform.

A more detailed examination of Birgit’s strange costume revealed an emerald dress and light leather pants. Her steel chestplate was plain, but feathered valkyrie wings crowned her helmet.

Indrani examined the ruby-studded, golden chalice she held. She couldn’t recall seeing similar objects among the dig’s findings. She couldn’t remember any swords either.

As she cupped the goblet in both gloved hands, energy rushed through her, leaving her fingers tingling. She knew she had transformed, but she didn’t feel different. No; that was wrong. She felt stronger. And she knew what to do.

As the giant recovered from whatever strange thrall Calista cast over it, Indrani tipped the chalice. She set both her left hands beneath the rim to catch the falling water, then made a sweeping motion with both arms.

A shimmering wall of ice appeared between her friends and their attacker. Rather than halt its lunge, the creature barreled into the barrier. The ice cracked, but held.

She exchanged glances with the others. Erica huddled on the ground at Seika’s feet, rocking slowly back and forth.

“Can you fire another arrow?” Indrani asked.

Seika nodded.

Birgit thumped the hilt of her sword against her chest. “Present me an opportunity, and I will slay the beast.”

The others nodded. Everything seemed natural now, as if it was always meant to be this way.

The creature slammed against Indrani’s shield again. Still, it held. As the giant braced for another strike, Seika drew back her bowstring. Indrani lifted one right hand in warning and let it drop. The ice wall flickered and blinked out of existence. Seika let the arrow fly. It landed at the giant’s feet, sparked, blazed and drove the creature back.

The reprieve was short-lived. With a snort of defiance, the monster surged forward, through the flames. Calista raised her mirror again, this time with confidence. Her voice rang clear through the night, though Indrani couldn’t place the words. A dreadful wave of fear washed over her, knotting her stomach before it passed.

Their foe hesitated, raised one arm as if to ward them off, and stumbled backward into the flames.

Unleashing a war cry, Birgit surged forward. She sidestepped the flames and drove her blade deep into the giant’s foot. As the hilt came to rest against the pale flesh, a bolt of lightning struck just above her hands. The energy surged through the blade and into the giant’s body. Its cries of pain turned to gurgles as it fell.

Birgit jerked her sword free of the corpse with a cry of triumph. By the time she returned to the group, the heady sense of victory had faded. The four of them locked eyes with each other in turn, the night’s events slowly taking root in their minds. They had a lot to discuss.

Calista knelt at Erica’s side. Already her snow gear had replaced her dress and armor. Glancing down, Indrani noticed gloves on her hands, only one on each side, but the chalice remained clasped between them.

Frozen tears clung to Erica’s cheeks. Seika and Calista braced her between them. Birgit led the way back inside.


~ 9 ~

Two figures stood over the smoking corpse. One glimmered in the darkness, a mirror of the sparkling stars above. The other was so pale, she could get lost in the snow.

“We did not anticipate the guardians,” the pale woman said, her voice as cold as the arctic winds.

“A mistake,” her star-studded companion agreed. “They are powerful. Especially when they unite.”

“But it means she is here, or they would not be.”

“Agreed. But the girl did not react.”

“Yet the guardians came for her.”

“They might come for anyone. Their mandates match ours.”

Silence. The pale figure raked her fingers along the slightly furred hide of the giant. Where her fingers passed, the flesh melted away, momentarily revealing opaque hash marks. The framework of their temporary creation. Steam filled the air as she finished her circuit. When it cleared, only a skeletal figure remained. Soon, that too would fade, its energy repurposed for necessary repairs.

Their attack might have caused more problems than it solved.

“You may as well lift the enchantment,” the shimmering woman suggested, unable to mask her disappointment. “We can do no more until night falls again.”

“Indeed. But we dare not let another sunrise pass without identifying the interloper. She must be eliminated before she causes irreparable damage.”

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