Sunday, 23 June 2013

Phoebe's Burden

Phoebe September had been born far away from the Crossway Realms, outside of the Hundred Kingdoms in a small Shadow Realm called Overwyrd. There are not many happy Shadow Realms, the number of benevolent ones ruled by a powerful council of magicians numbers in the single figures. If we wanted to be particular about it the single figure in question was one.

Overwyrd contained with in its borders five cities, one for each of the main magical disciplines and the City of Celestia, known by many in Faerie as the Capital City of Magic. Although the Celestian Council of Twelve (the ruling body of Overwyrd) had no objection to this assignation they all knew it was a lie.

Magic did not, in fact have a capital city, it couldn't, magic was everywhere, permeating everything. It is a joke often told in The Hermetic Academy of the neighbouring city of Ergus that they had wanted, as their coat of arms, a circle whose limit was nowhere and whose centre was everywhere but they couldn't get it on the flag. Alchemists have an odd sense of humour, by and large.

Phoebe was born in the times of the old heroes, before Avan Weatherstrong had fought his final battle, during a period of time dubbed the Thaumaturge War in Volume XI of "The Tales Of Avan Weatherstronge". She was born in the city of Neiros the child of two witches, although in those days they were referred to more properly as druids or priests, until they went bad.

This was before the convention of the Celestian Council, when the land was ruled over by the Overwyrd itself. The Overwyrd was a sprite that had grown to significant power, an elemental of magic itself. Using a variety of geis it had set itself up as a powerful force for all magic, a controversial role in and of itself. The more powerful the Overwyrd became the more aloof it became, even as magicians of all disciplines came together to study at its feet so the political turmoil inevitably rose to the boil.

By the time the child of Cyrus and Megara September was named Phoebe the city of Neiros had already been at war with the neighbouring city of Ytha for a generation and no end to the conflict was in sight. Those in the sight of the Overwyrd had expressed concern about the motivations of an entire city of sorcerers, this gossip had done little but fuel the growing unrest and quicken the Ythan's thirst for conquest and domination.

Although Ytha had begun attacking both Neiros and Ergus the druids and alchemists were finding their own peace process difficult. Both cities had signed peace treaties with Oph, the city of bards, Oph themselves had taken a position of neutrality in the conflict that raged around them.

Ythan forces had attempted to march on Oph, of course, but the concerted effort of the Ophans has resulted in the bloodthirsty Ythan warband settling down for a coffee around the many excellent cafes of Oph. During their short, placid stay the hardened mage-warriors discussed the ultimate nature of reality and the power of music to unlock powerful sensory experiences, before leaving peacefully having bought a large number of 'I Heart Oph' tourist trinkets such as mugs, tunics and novelty belt buckles. The one thing all three warring cities could agree on was that Ophans were not to be trusted and far too rich for their own good.

Phoebe learned quickly of the follies of her elders and learned first hand of the constant dread that played companion to those living in the heart of a mage war. As far as Phoebe could tell you took charge or you got flattened along the way. War, she decided, was for idiots, peaceful resolution to any situation was by far the preferred option.

This was a shame for Phoebe who, temperamentally, had a short fuse and, magically, had a talent for the manipulation of various forms of plasma. Against her better judgement she pledged to the Circle of Elements at the Hallowed House (the Neiran equivalent of the Hermetic Academy) and learned to be one with the primal spirit of energy; specifically Ouro, the serpentine embodiment of the energetic principle.

Being one of those whose natural gifts tended towards both healing and harming Phoebe was groomed for a life of military service. It was during this time that the first peace pacts were signed between Neiros and Ergus. Phoebe lived in hope that her temper would not be unleashed upon the Ythans because she was, at heart, a peaceful person and wanted nothing to do with killing or death.

All that had been several lifetimes ago, even to one of the elder folk. Now Phoebe was cut adrift from her past by the hand of an Ythan sorcerer by the name of Vikas Moorshade. Moorshade had been killed as Phoebe had lain entombed within a crystal coffin at the foot of Moorshade's throne. Phoebe's former life could not have found itself more effectively erased with the most powerful entreaties to Chronos, the spirit of time.

Phoebe September found herself without family, without home, without much of a purpose in a world she barely recognised. She was helping a mouse find a little girl because she didn't know what else to do. Right at this moment she was moving this greater goal on by applying an unguent to relieve pain in an old woman's spine for which she would receive the princely sum of two shillings.

So far this morning she had earned two crowns in various health treatments, she was still a good way off the Bronze Mark she had set as a target. Still, there was time enough until the day bell, noon bell hadn't sounded yet although it couldn't be far off. There were plenty of ill people in the magic enclosure of Steephill Fell's market square, all Phoebe had to do was show some efficiency.

It wasn't even too much of a chore. Dispensing head poultices, potions, tinctures, balms and unguents, all juiced with various types of raw magical plasma, was by far the most mundane and peaceful activity Phoebe could remember engaging in for years.

No wonder, she considered, that she was remembering the Hallowed House. Her college days would have been the last time before the Battle of the Gates of Bone that she had enjoyed a period of calm reflection.

"Ooh, that's a relief," the old woman said, shifting her shoulders and smiling a wide and toothless smile. "You're ever so good, what herbs are in that stuff?"

"It's a little white fire," Phoebe said. "Not herbal, direct from the source."

"Oh I don't understand all that alchemy stuff," the old woman said, apparently she didn't know about alchemy seeing as the manipulation of raw plasma was something only witches did. "All I know is that I can walk comfortable. There you go dearie."

The old woman dropped some coins into Phoebe's outstretched hand. Phoebe placed the coins into her purse and by the time she'd looked up the old woman had wandered off. Phoebe wiped the last of the unguent from her hands with a rag.

"Who's next?" Phoebe called out to the crowd. "Relief from pain, cessation of minor ailments, all natural, all straight from the source." If there was one thing they taught you in the Circle of Elements it was how to sell your services. Druids had to earn a living.

"I heard that someone dug you up, Phoebe September," said a voice Phoebe recognised. After all that melancholy regarding her lost history the sound of a voice she had hoped never to hear again was another cruel stitch in the pattern of the weave. The noon bell began to strike in the background, providing a sombre note to accompany this sudden irritation.

Standing at the corner of the small pitch she had hired all day for a shilling was a short, rakish gentleman whose bright green eyes were the first thing that anyone would notice. He had odd, wiry red hair, a freckly complexion and the general demeanour of one you couldn't help but like, even though you knew you could not afford to trust them under any circumstances.

"Really, Harvey Raine?" Phoebe stared back at the youth, refusing to show how upsetting his presence had made her. "And who did you hear that from? I'd love to know seeing as everyone else who would care is presumably dead."

Harvey Raine raised his chin a little, as if proud to be caught out in a lie, he laughed, a smooth sound that somehow managed to be dangerous.

"Well observed, Feebs," he said. "Indeed, I believe you are right about that. There's only one person in all of the realms of Faerie I am bound to by my geis, that person is you. I knew when someone had freed you from the crystal coffin, I knew when you visited the patchwork market, it didn't matter how fast you flew to Steephill Fell I came, once more, to stand by your side."

"I'm touched," Phoebe replied, her tone flat. "You need not have troubled yourself."

"Don't be like that Feebs," Harvey said. "You know the ins and outs of geis when it comes to sprites. I could not stay away. You think I want to be tied to a grumpy lump like you? Not likely. I came because I was compelled. So we might as well make the best of things."

"I didn't think the bond would last beyond the point of the sorcerer's death," Phoebe said. "I thought if he died with the ring on his finger that his death would dissolve the geis."

"Apparently not," Harvey said. He appeared to be bored by the conversation, he pulled an apple from his pocket and took a bite out of it. "Vegetation," he said with some disgust. "I still can't get the hang of it."

"Well, now you're here you can sit at my feet and wait patiently until I conclude my business," Phoebe said. "This I-"

"Now wait!" Harvey cried out, shocked out of his langour. "There's no need to use force. I remember how this works. Here." He threw her the apple, which she caught on instinct. Then Harvey Raine collapsed, deflating, melting, changing form, until there was no rakish young man just a ginger tom cat that looked as if it had seen too many cat fights. The cat padded over to Phoebe and sat at her feet, managing to look offended that it was even present.

"Good boy," Phoebe said. "Now, let's get back to business."

Before Phoebe could call out for any more business a large man wearing a stained leather apron forced his way out of the crowd.

"Oi," he said to Phoebe, "where'd that fellow go, the one with sneaky eyes."

Phoebe knew that the man must have been referring to Harvey, but she wanted to move on from her encounter with her burden's human face as quickly as possible. Besides she didn't know what he'd been up to without her there to control him.

"I'm sorry," she said. "He went off into the crowd, I didn't ask him where he was going."

The man scanned the crowd, trying to look over the heads of the people in the market to find out Harvey. Phoebe felt a little guilty, knowing that the mischief maker he sought was at her feet, currently licking at his paws like he didn't have a care in the world. That was the problem, of course, he didn't.

"He was hanging around my stall," the merchant said. "I don't get many people stupid enough to thieve, I'm an alchemical apothecary. You steal an unmarked bottle off my stall the contents could kill you, or worse."

Phoebe began to feel the murmur of a deep and terrible concern. Harvey wasn't above thieving, that she knew, but if he was hanging about next to the pitch of an alchemical apothecary there were worse things he could do than steal.

"I think that maybe-" Phoebe began but it was too late.

There was the sound of a terrible explosion from a few stalls back. The merchant spun on the spot, aghast.

"My stall!" he cried out and hurried back into the crowd.

"We'd better go and help," Phoebe said to the ginger tom. "We'd both better be as helpful as we possibly can be, a full and honest confession might not go amiss." The tom's face darkened. "This," Phoebe said and felt a little thrill of moral satisfaction as the tom's face turned to a comical mask of panic at the syllable. "I do command thee."

As the final 'e' left Phoebe's lips the ginger tom transformed back into Harvey's human form. Face like thunder he found his way mutely into the crowd. Feeling a bit better about the current state of affairs Phoebe followed on behind.

As she reached the ruins of the Alchemical Apothecary's stall Harvey was just explaining that he had set a vial of one chemical he knew would combine with explosive effect with another to the merchant. The merchant was clearly both furious and bewildered at the unexpected resolution to the destruction of his livelihood.

"What I don't understand," the merchant said, bunching and unbunching his fist. "Is why you have decided to own up."

"I wouldn't have," Harvey said miserably, "save that I have been compelled to do so."

"Compelled?" the alchemist asked. "By whom?"

"Hey," a voice said behind Phoebe, she turned to see Frederick's honest but slightly damaged face behind her. "What's going on? Are you okay?"

"Currently," Phoebe said, "but watch this space." With that she turned back to the unfolding scene of unwilling contrition and called out: "Compelled by me, sir." She stepped forward. "I must apologise for my burden, we have spent some time apart and it seems that he has forgotten who it is he answers to."

"You?" the alchemical apothecary said, "but I don't understand, you were just... you said he'd gone..."

"That was before he blew up your stall," Phoebe said. "I promise he will answer for what he has done, as will I. Here," she held out her coin purse. "This is all the money that I have in the world. It cannot make up for what you have lost but it is all I have."

The merchant looked at the meagre collection of coinage, it did not appear as if this was going to mollify him much. He had every right to object, Phoebe just hoped she could avoid a street fight, more for the merchant's sake than for her own, although things could get even uglier if some plasma ended up burning the wrong backside. Places like Steephill Fell were less prone to get so burn-at-the-stake crazy than shadow towns like Hamsamperburg but every burgher had their limits.

"I think, I may be able to offer something a little more substantial," Frederick chipped in from Phoebe's side. He held out a sovereign that Phoebe had not expected to see.

This went a little further towards cooling the merchant's ire. He shot a poisonous glance at Harvey.

"You just keep him well away from me, that's all," he said and tramped off into the back of his stall to assess the damage.

"Harvey," Phoebe said. "Heel."

"I'm not a dog," Harvey complained, but not too loud. "I'd forgotten what a kill joy you can be, I wish I'd not come back to you."

"You know as well as I do," Phoebe said. "Neither of us has a choice in that while Moorshade still has that ring on his finger."

"Um, excuse me," Frederick said behind them. "I don't believe I've had the pleasure of an introduction. I paid quite a lot to that merchant, I think, well, I, um, deserve one."

"Oh, yes," Phoebe said. "Frederick, this is Harvey Raine, my burden..."

"I'm a djinn," Harvey said, his tone cold. "Calling me a burden is so... so... negative."

"You just cost me all of my money and Frederick all of his," Phoebe said. "You're a burden."

Harvey tutted and collapsed back into cat form.

"Where the hell did you get that from since the trader's bell?" Frederick asked.

"Oh, he's from way before that, he's from before Vikas Moorshade put me in that box," Phoebe explained.

"Why?" Frederick asked. "I've met evil sorcerers, they don't tend to get annoying sprites to irritate you into submission, they pretty much tend to just kill you."

"I don't want to talk about it," Phoebe said. "Come on, we'd better find the others and get ready to move on. I think we've burned our bridges here."

"Um, yes, I suppose," Frederick said as Phoebe pressed into the crowd making her way towards the stone arch holding the market bell.

Phoebe's stomach had turned to water. She felt a warm flush of anger, embarassment, shame, sadness all of her least favourite emotions, fighting for attention in her gut. Since she had been freed not one good thing about her past had come back, only the very worst things had returned to haunt her.

She decided it was probably best not to think about such things, it might lead to accidental plasma leakage and that was never a good thing. As she came within sight of the market bell she nearly unleashed a torrent of electric fire in a random direction when she saw that Lester was not there.

"This is not acceptable," she grated, stomping across the cobbles to the now redundant meeting place. "How dare they disobey me."

"Phoebe," Frederick said, his tone carefully modulated. "We're not in charge of them. Besides, maybe they didn't want to leave. Maybe something happened to them."

That brought her up short. Shame won the battle for the dominant emotion. She stopped stomping and sighed.

"Oh," she said. "Yes, I hadn't thought of that. We should look for them then, I suppose."

"Nothing else we can do," Frederick shrugged. "Maybe they aren't too far away."

So the two of them, followed by a sullen looking ginger tom cat, searched the nearby streets of Steephill Fell, it didn't take them long to find the trader's wagon, an owl sat upon the edge of its roof. They talked with the owl and found out where their friends had gone but what they did next is a story for another time.

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