Written by Alexandria Nash and Echo the Healer
Alexa and Harry passed through the portal from the city of Consequence on Hellifyno and found themselves at the edge of a forest, close to the main road. This was the land known as Worlds’ Crossing. Across the road was the large and lovely Inn of Worlds, its windows lit and the front doors opening occasionally to let beings in or out. Behind them was a deep forest transitioning from summer to fall, and a short way to their right was a path wide enough for a cart heading north from the main road.
“Echo lives down that path about half a mile,” Harry told Alexa.
Harry supported her as they walked slowly to the head of the path, then turned north. Alexa, a phoenix in now in her human form, was getting weaker, and she was frightened. She put one small step in front of the other, making her way down the path, closer and closer to Echo, in whom her hopes rested – because Harry had said Echo could help, and she trusted Harry more than anyone else.
The walk seemed far shorter than half a mile. Echo’s cottage was just to the left of the path, surrounded by gardens, shrubs and then the forest, which stretched in every direction. An oil lantern marked the front door, and the windows showed warm light within.
Echo opened the front door while Harry and Alexa were still several steps away. It was obvious that she was startled to see Harry. But at first she didn’t even recognize Alexa, whose dark hair was now bright red. When she did, she was shocked at how ill the young girl looked.
Alexa wanted just to drop, there and then, into that wonderful garden and the smell that took all her pain away, even for a moment. “Echo …” she whispered and haste surrounded her, Harry waving to the healer and calling her name.
Echo reached them, putting an arm securely around the girl, and with Harry on the other side, Alexa hardly had to put any weight on her feet at all to get inside the cottage. There, the room smelled of pine, cinnamon and vanilla, plus scents Alexa couldn’t identify. Harry carried her to a sofa and rested her against pillows there.
Echo took two bottles from a table behind the sofa and put a couple of drops of each on the pillows. Faint scents of lemon and lavender arose – lemon for clearness, lavender for calmness. To the astonished healer, Harry volunteered the information that he had known Alexandria since she was a baby, and because of this she was special to him. Echo asked Harry a question with her eyes, and he gave her a slow wink. In return she gave him a slow nod.
Alexa, lying on the sofa bathed in fragrance that was neither overwhelming nor too faint, was thanking all gods, alive and dead, that Echo had been home. She groaned then, and Echo moved back to crouch in front of the girl where she lay.
“Tell me what is happening.” Echo’s eyes were deeply worried, but her tone was brisk.
“I don’t know … this began when I signed the Mouse’s contract, my hair turned red, my one eye turned blue … now there are changes in magical plants…” She made little sense, and the mere effort of speaking made her shudder, cutting her words short.
Echo’s eyes shot to Harry, who came over close to her for a quiet colloquy. The healer’s face went taut. “Hold on, Alexa. I will be back in a few minutes.” She placed her healing partner, the slim snake Aelu, on the couch beside Alexa, then walked out of the room briskly. Once out of sight, though, she ran to the herbarium.
Alexa let out a soft sigh, her head dropping back into the pillow. She didn’t really hear what Echo said, she just saw her leave. Her eyes trail to Harry, using his always impassive demeanor as a focus point.
Aelu tasted the air around Alexa, and his tongue flickered over her skin so lightly that she didn’t even feel it, then went in and out of her hair. Having gathered all the information he needed about the sick girl’s condition, the little snake whisked out, following Echo.
Harry pulled a chair closer to the sofa and sat watching her, the girl he had practically raised from infancy.
While Aelu hissed his findings to Echo in the herbarium, she put a mixture of herb leaves and powders on a square of muslin and tied it shut at the top. She poured white wine into a milk glass, put the muslin bag into it, and set the glass on a frame over a candle to warm. While the infusion was steeping, she made up a potion from liquids in different vials. It would be bitter, so she added a touch of apple mint and rose geranium for sweetness.
She took the second glass back into the cottage and brought it out to the living room. Pleased to see that Alexa’s color was a little better, she said, “Harry, please hold her up a bit so she can drink this.”
Harry raised Alexa, and Echo held the glass to her lips, tilting it slightly but only to let her catch the scent. “Drink it at your own pace but don’t stop till it is gone, child.”
The feeling of the cold glass against her lips gave Alexa a bit of a jolt, but she began to take little sips of the liquid. In spite of the mint and rose, it wasn’t actually a pleasant taste, but she persisted, bit by bit, until all was gone. Harry then gently lowered the young phoenix back onto the pillows.
In a low voice, Echo told Harry, “This potion is for strength and pain relief. It is fairly strong, but not so much that Alexa would overextend herself thinking she had more stamina than she actually does.”
The potion began to take effect, but Alexa was afraid to move. Then, when she felt her left eye burst into flame briefly, her entire frame relaxed. Before now, she had lost even that small amount of flame, and now there was a sign that her true self was returning. She let out a sigh of relief.
“Good, good,” smiled Echo. “Now Aelu needs to give you a bite. I promise, you will barely feel it, if you feel it at all. What he will do is help you absorb the magic of Worlds’ Crossing more quickly and deeply.”
The little snake, whose body was chocolate colored with stripes of scales that look like jewels, pulled his body up and nodded at Alexa. She nodded slowly. At this point, she would try anything, and she trusted Echo almost as much as Harry.
Aelu’s tiny fangs flashed in and out of her arm. As quickly as that, his magical medicine was painlessly injected, and he expected Alexa’s body to respond in less than 30 seconds.
The sick girl watched Aelu for a moment, then closed her eyes. Suddenly she gasped softly, as her body regained much of its rosy colour, warming up once again. “Dear Gaia!” she mumbled and opened her eyes. Her golden eye glowed. “I think I like your snake,” she said with a soft smile, looking up to Echo.
“I like him very much, and his name is Aelu.” Echo’s face lit up for a moment at the compliment to her partner and dearest friend. Then she went back to the kitchen, where she lifted the glass with the muslin bag away from the fire with a pot holder and just touched her tongue to it. She nodded. It was ready, and her patient, now coherent, was ready for it. She removed and discarded the bag, added precisely one drop from a vial she had carried from the herbarium in her pocket, and poured the warm infusion into a wine glass. Taking it out to the living room, she again asked Harry to prop the girl up.
“You have a decision to make now. This drink will prolong the effects of the first medication and Aelu’s injection, she told Alexa. “It will also perk up your mind and give you additional physical strength. But understand this: you will not be able to go to Hellifyno without losing the benefits of this drink, and the other medicines will dissipate more quickly. You could become weaker than before. If you want to go back soon, you should not drink it. So – do you want it? Think before you answer.”
Alexa’s choice didn’t really take much thought, though she dutifully mulled it over. But she felt so much better already, and knew she wouldn’t want to lose that by leaving. The hardest part would be not seeing Harry. As if hearing her thoughts, Harry told her he would send an imp to the cottage every day to check on her and carry messages back and forth. At that, she took the stem of the wine glass in her hand, and while Echo tilted the base, sipped it slowly, as Echo directed. “Good birdie,” said Harry, surprising a giggle from Alexa.
Then she said, “Echo, something is wrong with Hellifyno. In my research, before I became so weak and sick, I found changes in the DNA of plants.”
Echo replied sharply, “Any kind of plants, or only magical plants?”
“Magical,” said Alexa.
Echo’s face was tight now. “I expected as much.” She shook her head. “From what I have heard, the physical reconstruction of Hellifyno really was well done. The mice surprised me in that. But they had no power to restore the world’s soul. Gaia will have done as much as she could, for her roots have been deep in the earth for many years, but even she cannot call back all of a soul that was dispersed far throughout the solar system and by the explosion.”
Having more strength now, Alexa pushed the pillows higher against the arm of the sofa and shifted to her side. “How do you know this?”
“I know because 10 years ago I melded briefly with the soul of the world, giving it all my magic and life force, to heal the damage caused by the Slayers. Now I can feel that barely a third of it is there. I felt ill and weak. And because I am forever tied to Hellifyno because of my experience there, I still feel as if some part of me is missing.” Harry gave a short nod of understanding.
“Well, some plants are changing” Alexa said, “but I don’t know of anyone one else sick like me. I don’t understand that.”
Echo took a deep breath and let it out. “You said your hair and eye changed when you signed the Mouse’s contract. You sold a small portion of your soul, correct?”
“Yes. One percent.” Echo said nothing, and after a moment, Alexa’s mismatched eyes widened. “Oh, no,” she whispered. “Was it that? I was so anxious to get Hellifyno back that I didn’t think…”
Harry spoke up, speaking quietly as was usual for him. “Echo – I’ve heard that a Phoenix without a complete soul can’t be reborn. Is that true?” Of course he knew, thought the healer, but he said it for Alexa’s benefit.
It was not Echo but Aelu the snake who answered, hissing sadly. Echo’s translation was just a nod.
Alexa burst into tears.
“Aelu believes your incomplete soul is the reason for your illness much more than the inadequate magical essence of Hellifyno,” said the healer, “and he is a much better diagnostician than I am.” She caressed Alexa’s cheek. “Do not blame yourself so much, child. You did not know what would happen, did you? Harry told me no one was there to teach you the ways of the Phoenix as you grew up.”
“Well… no,” Alexa squeaked in a sob, but Echo’s words helped, quieting her crying.
Echo rose from her knees. “Do you think you can walk now? You need sleep and I would rather put you in a bed.” She chuckled. “The bed is extremely comfortable and adjusts its size to the people in it.”
“I think I can walk,” Alexa replied. She leaned over to pat Harry’s hand and gave him a watery smile. “Thank you, Snagglepuss. You had better get back to the tavern before people run amuck.” She sat up carefully, swung her legs around to put her feet to the floor, and slowly stood up, knowing that if she rushed, she might end up dizzy or even fall.
Echo helped her up, taking one elbow. Aelu, now curled around Echo’s arm, hissed genial encouragement.
Alexa chuckled to Aelu and walked with Echo. “We need to find a way to make things better,” she said. “I don’t know how this will affect the planet as a whole … and I’m not sure I want to find out.
Echo said nothing. She had thought of a few ways the situation could end for Hellifyno, and none of them were good. She would do anything – short of dying again – to remedy the situation. After all, she had given her life once already for Hellifyno, and was not willing to do it again. The first time, the gods of her pantheon granted her new life, but she knew they would not do so again.
She guided Alexa into the guest room. Harry walked behind them but did not assist, and Echo gave only light support so as to show Alexa how much strength she has gained.
“No more talk tonight, child. Rest. It is the end of my day, too.”
She pulled back the covers and, when Alexa lay down, covered her up, then kissed her forehead, “Sleep well, little one. Aelu will watch over you and wake me if I am needed.”
Aelu settled comfortably on the bed, not too close to Alexa, not wanting her to roll over on him.
Echo turned. Harry’s double was already gone. Instead of going to bed immediately, she returned to the herbarium to start a tisane to give Alexa in the morning.
She would have to return to Hellifyno after all.