Sunday, 15 December 2013

The Princess Liberated

Frederick hadn't acted in his capacity as pest-controller for a while now. He had heard that, in the age of dragons, a jobbing knight would start small with giant rodents and work their way up through lizard men and vampires as a way of scaling their monster killing abilities to the level of dragon.

As the giant bat expired on the blade of Frederick's sword he found himself doubting this theory. Of course, to the layman the idea of working your way up the food chain to dragon slaying appeared reasonable. Frederick did not know for certain that it was not. However, if what he had heard about dragons, and their smaller, sentient cousins the draco, was to be believed the king of all mythical beasts was in a different league to the rest.

You could hack your way through armies of trolls, gryphons and giant snakes but it probably wouldn't serve you well when it came to facing the old, wise and wily dragons of yore. It was as desperate a comparison as saying that taking out a goblin horde was any sort of preparation for taking out an Ogre Champion. The two games were fundamentally different.

It didn't really matter, as far as Frederick could tell, how many foot soldiers you carved up, when you faced the lich in command those experiences counted for nothing.

Even taking on a giant bat was a different game to besting a minotaur, for example. The two monsters had completely different temperaments, strengths, weaknesses and common strategies. The one lesson taking on a bestiary of hostile creatures taught you was that no two were alike enough to be the same fight. There was enough variety within a single species to fox those who did not exercise the proper caution.

That said, sometimes you got lucky. The transformed Lady Crimzona had proven a much weaker foe than this similarly sized giant bat. Frederick imagined that this was due in no small part to the fact that Lady Crimzona was not used to being a giant bat, this fella had got very used to his capabilities. He had even landed a couple of nasty swipes on Frederick's chest and thigh.

So, possibly, there had been some variety in the capability and threat presented by dragons of various types. Maybe some dragons went down easier than others. If there was one comforting thought a knight could take into such a confrontation it was that maybe this dragon would be having an off day.

"Are you alright?" Phoebe asked from behind Frederick as he stood, instinctively holding his left hand over the scratches on his chest and hanging his weight so that it favoured his right leg.

"I'll be okay," he panted. "He was... feisty, is all."

"If I wasn't filled with magical potency," Harvey said. "I would have to get someone to remind me never to annoy you."

"You annoy me all the time," Frederick said. After a battle etiquette choices frayed and crumbled. Frederick allowed himself to be more blunt.

"Yes," Harvey said. "Because I am filled with magical potency. You might be good at monster slaying but you can't follow a simple logical through-line, can you?"

"Not the time, Harvey," Phoebe said absently, pulling a jar of unguent from her knapsack. "Then, it never is, is it?"

Harvey shrugged and subsided as Phoebe approached Frederick and started smearing the greasy paste onto his wounded leg.

Frederick had listened to lurid bardic accounts of fighting men and the women who tended to their wounds. The poetic temperament would have you believe there was some sort of romance, or passion, about a nurse tending a wounded soldier. In some instances maybe there was. However the undoubted, undiscussed presence of unsavoury ingredients in most of these pastes presented large challenges to the development of such a heady emotional atmosphere.

The unguent was enhanced with enchantments but that didn't stop it smelling of vinegar, fat and bad milk mixed together. Neither did it abate the deep burn it put into the wounds upon its application. The burn quickly faded, the odour of the healing medium lingered, in some cases for days.

"Well, now that we have that over, we should probably find that tricky crystal," Harvey said, standing by the entrance as if he were inspecting the hold of the arrow trailing rope embedded in the rock. The head of the arrow was a clockwork device powered by an alchemical crystal that burrowed into rock to form a tight bond.

As the mouth of the cave was where the party had entered the chances that the Quintessence Crystal was lying there, unremarked upon and undiscovered, was vitually nil. Everyone could tell that Harvey was mooching about adjacent to the nearest source of fresh air to avoid the smell.

"Good idea," Phoebe commended him. "Why don't you start somewhere other than where we came in?"

A look of disgust evident on his face Harvey complied with Phoebe's request. Frederick had learned that the djinn often did things voluntarily, rather than wait to be bound by Phoebe. Frederick believed he could understand the sprite's motivation. In a way it was a cruel trick of the binding that the one bound would often prefer to do something because they were obedient, not because magic was compelling them to do it against their will.

That left a question though: Was Harvey really doing what he wanted? Was he truly acting on his own agency? Just because he chose to obey did that mean that he had somehow 'beaten' the binding, or did it just serve to enslave him at an even deeper level?

Frederick's tricky philosophical puzzles would not be answered now as Phoebe cried out. She didn't say 'aha' but it was a noise that meant 'aha' so more or less the same thing. Phoebe carried a small wooden chest out from a dark corner in the back of the bat's lair. The front was closed and bolted but not locked. Frederick reasoned that the person who had left the chest here had believed that anyone who would slay that bat to get to the chest probably deserved the contents.

That bat itself had not been a terrible problem, any mediocre knight should have found it within themselves to dispose of it effectively. The chest's real security was that it was in one of the most distant shadows, right at the limits of organised reality, cloaked in deep magic that would hide the garden's existence from seekers and interfere with the memories of those who had visited. The bat was just a further inconvenience for one who had beaten the heavy duty barriers to entry.

Phoebe opened the chest to reveal the quintessence crystal. Frederick had hoped for something more than your basic glowing crystal, in this he found a small note of disappointment. The quintessence crystal was certainly a bit larger than other magic crystals Frederick had seen but it was, otherwise pretty much identical in every other respect. It glowed a soft yellow-white that filled the cave, there was a high, clear note, resonating from the crystal at a low volume.

"Let's see if this ring that the story-gatherers gave us does the trick then," Phoebe said, donning the small piece of silver jewellery. As it sat on Phoebe's finger the crystal in the ring began to resonate in sympathy with the quintessence crystal. "Oh," Phoebe said, alarmed. "It does work! Quick, grab my hands!"

She held out her hands, Frederick took hold of the left and Harvey of the right, there was a moment of uncertainty, an odd see-sawing feeling in Frederick's gut and then they weren't in the Skull Cave any more.

They were in a long stone corridor that stretched on for as far as the eye could see in either direction. Stone arches divided the corridor into sections at regular intervals. Frederick's ever-present knight paranoia noted that there was just enough space for an attacker to hide in the small recesses in the corners of each section. Doorways, tipped with pointed arches, were visible in some of the sections.

The corridor was lit from above with a soft, flat, grey light. Frederick looked up to see that the light was cast from a roiling layer of luminous clouds above their heads. The shapes of dragons heads, and the forms of people and buildings were occasionally visible in the ever-shifting cloud bank. As soon as you saw a shape, so clear that you could make out the pattern of a dragon's scales, the windows in a tall building or the lines on a person's face, it disappeared back into the mass, invisible once more.

"Well, this is in no way sinister," Harvey said.

"So, what now?" Frederick asked. "We've got into the crystal, what do we do now?"

"I don't know," Phoebe said. "I guess we just have a look about, see if we can pick up Anabyl's trail."

They took a few steps along the corridor, their footsteps making flat clamping sounds against the stone. Frederick found the noises quite disconcerting. He had been expecting a confident ringing echo, not this barely audible slapping noise. He imagined it was something to do with magic, these things usually were.

"Wait," Harvey said after they had gone about twenty paces. "I think..." he paused, closed his eyes and lowered his head. "I think I can feel the... her. I think I can feel Anabyl."

"What do you mean?" Frederick asked. "Feel her how?"

"This," Harvey motioned at the ceiling and the floor with some airy hand waves. "All of this is our minds interpreting the crystal lattice and the energies contained within. We're not part of the qualic stream, the, uh, essence of the Terra Draconis, locked into the crystal lattice. I think the energies are represented by the clouds up there. I don't think that Anabyl is part of that either. She's locked out of the stream, so she's somewhere else in the lattice. I'm made of pure magic so I can feel the resonance of her presence, it's not even that far away."

"Okay then," Phoebe said. "Well, let's get moving."

Harvey lead the other two down a number of corridors that looked, at least to Frederick's eye, exactly the same as the first one they had arrived in. The corridors were all identical and appeared to cross back and forth at random. The corridor intersections were not at the traditional ninety degree angles from one another but often at more a forty-five degree slant, some sloped up, or down, the passages themselves appeared straight but Frederick began to believe that they were subtly curved. Each segment was straight but connected to the next at an almost imperceptible angle.

After walking through this labyrinth for about ten minutes a figure became visible in the distance, standing at an intersection.

"Come on," Phoebe said. "That must be her."

As they drew closer they realised that rather than being a properly defined person the figure was like a three dimensional opaque black shadow. It was roughly person shaped but a little blobby on the right hand side.

"This isn't her," Frederick said.

"No," Harvey responded. "It is, but it's just... I think she's out of phase with us. The crystal resonates with a particular tone, when we're inside its lattice we are riding the waves of that tone, experiencing the crystal's reality as a series of tonal moments at the same part of a repeating wavelength. Anabyl's just experiencing the same thing on a different part of the same wavelength."

"I was with you right up until you said 'resonates'," Frederick said. "Look, I don't need to know what's happening. I just need to know that we can fix it."

"I can fix it," Harvey said. "Although it may bind us more tightly to the lattice. Getting out of here might be trickier than we thought."

"We can't worry about that," said Phoebe. "You'll have to do... whatever it is you need to do, Harvey."

"Very well," Harvey said. "Could we all, possibly, link hands again?"

They all did and Harvey closed his eyes again, concentrating. Frederick began to feel very giddy, the vertigo was sudden and he was forced to drop onto one knee.

"What's going on?" he asked.

"Quiet," Harvey said. "Need to focus."

Frederick's senses were beginning to see-saw, the corridor bending and shifting about him. There was a moment when he believed he could see a stone plaza in a great city beyond one of the stone arches then the image was gone and there was just the voice.

" long now Wish, you'll see, these shadows probably mean that..."

There was the sound of a sword being drawn.

"Who are you?" the voice demanded, its tone had switched from soothing to harsh in the time it had taken to draw the sword.

"Princess Anabyl Spireshine?" Harvey's voice asked. "I believe you know my companions. Give them a moment to recover."

"It's us, Anabyl," Phoebe said, her voice sounded shaky, Frederick's vision was still blurred and he felt very much as if he'd like to be sick. Frederick blinked a couple of times and tried to take a steady breath.

"Phoebe?" the woman with the sword asked. "And... Sir Cobb."

"Yes," Frederick managed to bite back the nausea and speak. "It's us. We've come to get you out of the crystal."

"Hear that, princess?" said a voice Frederick didn't recognise. "We're getting out of here."

Frederick's vision finally settled down enough that he could see who he was looking at now. Anabyl certainly looked a lot different than the last time they'd crossed paths. For a start she appeared to have ditched the penchant for frilly dresses for a quieter gender-neutral look in breeches and a thin wool jacket. She wore a long dark cloak bound on the left shoulder by a large metal brooch.

As Anabyl had grown her face had lengthened and become leaner, the light of chaotic mischief in her eyes had not burned out but now came with a kind of controlled danger. Her long dark hair was wrapped up in a bun on top of her head.

Standing to Anabyl's right was a young boy in more ragged clothing, the other speaker. Putting things together from the story they had read in the Archive Frederick realised that this must be Wish Forbetter.

"How long have we been in here?" Anabyl asked. "A while, I imagine, if you're the ones to come rescue me."

"We saw you off from the market after facing down Sir Vaskorn about a month ago," Frederick told her. "We understand that you found a way to visit the Terra Draconis in the meanwhile."

Harvey cleared his throat.

"As much as I hate to break up the reunion it's time I dispelled my own magic to get you all out of here," he said.

"Yes, probably a good idea," Phoebe said. "So how will that work?"

"You just all need to place your hands on me, preferably about the shoulders from my point of view and we'll soon have you all back to the cave."

"What about you?" Wish asked. "Aren't you coming with us?"

"I'm afraid not," Harvey said. "I have... other things to devote my energies to."

"What?" Phoebe's question sounded like some sort of reprimand, this wasn't unusual.

"Sorry, Feebs," Harvey said. "Guess I lied to you again. A while back, just before I found you, I was actually floating in the Undone. Didn't even know myself, to be honest, I was just stuff. I annoyed the wrong person, ended up dispersed. So the boss comes to me and offers me an out, not just out of the Undone, out of service to you, a chance to be something else, more than just Harvey Raine, the chaos sprite.

"He told me that if I took the out I would be bound to you again, the way Ma Moorshade always wanted it but the boss explained that if I sacrificed myself for a wish that I would be allowed to move on. The boss is like that, always talks in riddles. Guess it runs in the family. Anyhow, when I saw that the young lad here was called Wish I knew what was coming. If I'd told you about it earlier you might have argued or delayed and, honestly, I don't think you have time.

"If I expend every iota of magic I have I can probably get the four of you out of the Quintessence Crystal lattice, but there won't be enough of me left for me to exit. I guess I will just have to trust the boss to come get me."

"But we can't just leave you behind," Frederick said, he wasn't sure either why he said it or why he meant it but both were true.

"You can, and you have to, your journey's not over by a long chalk," Harvey said. "Come on folks, time's a-wasting."

Frederick could tell that Phoebe was itching to start a row about this. At the same time he could see the realisation on her face that Harvey intended to do this. Plus it was possibly the first selfless thing he would do in his existence. How could she argue with that?

So she didn't. Along with the others she put her hand on Harvey's shoulder. Once they were all in place Harvey looked around them all as if to say goodbye and then he began to glow. Harvey's glow, set against the flat grey-white from the ceiling of the lattice, was a warm and comforting orange-pink. It shone from his eyes and from the lines on his face. The light caught the djinn in a bright halo until Frederick thought that the sprite was no longer present in person, he looked, rather, like a painting of himself. Then the glow from his halo became too bright and Frederick's nostrils were suddenly filled with the scent of bat droppings.

Now there were four of them, stood in the skull cave staring at the Quintessence Crystal. For a moment they could not speak.

A voice from outside broke across the silence.

"If you expand that line so that it becomes the radius of a circle," said a voice that Anabyl, Phoebe and Frederick all recognised. "I mean, we could be months searching for this grave, if it's even here."

The three adventurers exchanged a glance.

"James?" came from Frederick's mouth before he had even really understood the concept fully.

And indeed it was James although no longer a mouse, and Lester, and Rachel, along with James's wife, Rachel's mother, Rebecca. But what they did when they all met once more in the Skull Garden I shall tell you next time.

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