Something woke her.
Tap… tap... tap…
It wasn’t the moonlight, Penelope decided. Or the rain.
Tap… tap… tap…
Could it be that tapping noise? Lying in the dark of the early hours of the morning, she listened carefully and tried to work out where the tapping sound was coming from.
Her head swivelled back and forth in the dark… there! Near the mirror! No! In the mirror! Oh. How wonderful.
Fascinated, Penelope threw back the bedcovers and walked across her little apartment to the full-length mirror that was attached, for safety reasons, to the wall. The mirror was actually brighter than her room and her image was wearing something that wasn’t her night-dress.
There was a room behind her in the mirror, a nice, cozy, warm room with vases of flowers on every shelf and table, and bookcases around every wall. A white cat slept curled up on a red leather ottoman. The scene called to her and she wanted to be there.
Her image beckoned her closer, and she leaned forward. Words came through the glass, words she could understand.
In the mirror, the image that Penelope thought of as herself gestured to the room behind her. Unconsciously, Penelope copied the gesture.
‘Do you like this? Yes?’ Penelope nodded to her image. ‘Then it shall be yours. All yours. Would you like that?’
Oh, yes! She would indeed like that room. ‘Yes.’
Theolonia Crabbe was reasonably satisfied with things as she threw a cloth over her mirror.
The vision of the room had been a simple glamour, nothing more, and the language had been easy to assemble; with Danny’s aura well known to her, the words the null had spoken had found resonance within that knowledge. Her escape door was ready and she was under no illusion as to the place in which she would find herself when she transferred. Still, she reasoned, with my powers I wouldn’t put a miraculous cure beyond reach. All I need now is to keep those disgusting sorcerers and witches occupied for a day and then I’ll be gone.
She locked the attic door behind her and pocketed the key. Listening for sounds from the servant’s quarters, Theolonia kept to the shadows of her house. She didn’t want any contact with them at all. Least they demand her brother. Lest they use their black arts and attract attention. Silently, Theolonia entered her study… and went rigid with shock…
…lying on the carpet
…filthy, unkempt and incoherent. How can this be? How can he be back? What went wrong? Fear closed in on Theolonia.
He looked at her with pleading eyes. ‘Rid me of this parasite, sister!’ he begged. ‘Destroy this thing in my head!’
‘How did you return?’ She hissed
‘Dragons…’ he babbled, ‘…snatched me… flew back… here.’
‘Dragons? What do you mean… dragons?’ Impossible! Something’s gone wrong. They found him. That’s it, they found him. The OMM. Yes, it makes sense. They tracked him down. How? The mirror. In the lad’s home. The conduit was still open. That’s what happened. They lured him into it. And they had a dragon to assist so he couldn’t use magik. That’s it! That has to be it!
‘Cure me, sister,’ he drooled. But Theolonia placed her lips against his ear and said in a dread voice,
‘Why did you send the sorcerers here? To frame me? To double-cross me?’
Not all of Horatio’s wits were gone. ‘Nononono. You changed the plan. Remember?’ He grabbed his sister’s wrists feebly. ‘You said to swap back. You said I was to go to the mirror world. We needed a smokescreen, remember? I thought… I thought…’
You’re such a poor liar, Horatio, Theolonia thought. But then, I need you here while I attend my own plans. The wizard locked the door of her study and directed her brother to lie down on the large leather sofa that stood across the room from her desk. Already the young man’s features were starting to alter as Horatio’s personality gained more and more control. A dark scowl inhabited his brow, and grim lines of anger forced his mouth into a permanent grimace. The handsome young null was being turned into something entirely different. And ugly.
‘Lie down, Horatio. Close your eyes. That’s it. Now relax.’
‘Destroy the thing!’
Carefully, very carefully, the wizard Theolonia let her mind join that of her brother’s. Down through the layers of his warped and sickening essence she drifted, touching nothing… avoiding the inherent evil that was his soul.
Down she went, below the conscious level, through the unconscious…down into that small place that was so rare in her world. Here, like a tiny pool of quicksand, was the part of this other-world mind that was impervious to magik. Nothing flickered within the dark of it, it was inert. Dead.
YOU CAN SHOW YOURSELF. I WON’T HURT YOU.
I’ve heard that before!
YOU ARE MUCH MORE VALUABLE TO ME ALIVE THAN DEAD, YOUNG MAN. I HAVE A DEAL FOR YOU.
Get rid of this moron that’s got my body… then we’ll deal.
Yeah? What’s the catch? And who are you, anyway?
A WIZARD. NOW PAY ATTENTION. I NEED TO KNOW SOMETHING BEFORE I HELP YOU. HOW DID YOU RETURN? WHO KNOWS OF THE MANDRAKE?
Danny withdrew as far as he could. Once they knew what he knew, he reasoned, he was dead. Literally.
NO ANSWER? PERHAPS THIS MIGHT PERSUADE YOU…
PAIN!!! Lancing through his very soul! Pain in the secret place the mandrake hadn’t been able to reach. Pain that smashed his mind apart as it sought entry to his very essence!
ENOUGH? NOW TELL ME!!
Okay. Okay. Rufus Pendragon. He brought in a wizard to help. The wizard sent a dragon to bring him back.
DRAGON??? OH, GODS ABOVE… A DRAGON! THIS WIZARD… WHO IS HE!!??
His name is Ord. Master Ord.
SALAMANDER ORD??? A cold fist squeezed the heart of Theolonia Crabbe. Ord!! The Crown’s bloodhound!! If Ord knew about the mandrake, then chances were he was only a day or so away. He might even be here already! Damn! She needed time… not much… just a little. Time for the Book to do its job.
Yeah. Pisses you off, does it? Good! …
PAIN!!! Smashing into him again… following him to the furthest corner of his sanctuary.
DO YOU WISH FOR MORE? I’M QUITE CAPABLE OF TURNING YOUR MIND TO JELLY. YOUR BRAVADO IS AS STUPID AS IT IS FUTILE. I HAVE A DEAL FOR YOUR LIFE, YOUNG MAN. YOUR LIFE! UNDERSTAND??
I understand, witch.
I’M NOT… suddenly she gained an insight into the problems her brother was experiencing… and her respect for the young null skyrocketed.
WELL DONE, YOUNG MAN. MY CONGRATULATIONS. A VERY SUBTLE TORTURE THAT MY… THE MANDRAKE TOTALLY DESERVES. NOW. LISTEN VERY CAREFULLY. YOU WILL STAY QUIET IN THIS PLACE OF YOURS. YOU WILL LET SALAMANDER ORD DESTROY THE MANDRAKE. ONCE HE HAS REMOVED THE MANDRAKE FROM YOUR BODY AND MIND, YOU WILL BE FREE TO RE-EMERGE.
What if he destroys my body in the process? Eh? It’s a pretty lousy deal from where I sit.
SALAMANDER WILL NEED YOU WHOLE TO SWAP YOU FOR THE OTHER. HE WOULDN’T LEAVE THE LAD OVER THERE IN THE NULL WORLD. HE NEEDS YOU TO MAKE THE SWAP.
Danny had nothing left to fight with; he could resist and become a drooling imbecile, or he could play along and trust in Master Ord. Okay. It’s a deal.
GOOD. STAY QUIET. I WILL TELL MY…HORATIO THAT I HAVE SEALED YOU AWAY. BETRAY YOURSELF AND YOU BRING JEOPARDY TO YOURSELF AND GARRETH ROYAL.
How do you know the mandrake’s called Horatio?
PAIN! CRIPPLING PAIN!
I CAUTION SILENCE.
Following the threads of her invasive mind, Theolonia climbed upwards. Away from Danny’s quiet place, out through the levels of her brother’s fractured mind… and back into her own.
With a huge sigh of relief, Theolonia Crabbe slumped back in her chair. She had bought some time. Even if the lad re-emerged, it would only add to her brother’s woes, not hers. By then, she promised herself, she would be long gone.
‘It is done, brother. You are free. Now, remove these filthy sorcerers from my house!’
Horatio leapt from the sofa, his face blazing with triumph. Silently he gazed within, as if trying to verify her words. Then he turned his manic gaze upon her.
‘Yes. Yes. You’re right. I’ll send them away. I’ll send them back… with promises… with hope. Yes. You’ll be able to destroy them later. You’ll be famous.’ Horatio nodded contentedly to himself. ‘But you must send the spell out again, sister. You must bring me another body. Do it now. I must return to my destiny in the mirror world.’ With a glittering blaze in his eyes, Horatio strode from the room.
He’s mad, Theolonia told herself. Utterly, utterly insane…
Horatio Crabbe surveyed the two witches and three sorcerers. He had to keep them here… just for a little while. He had to seem convincing… they mustn’t suspect. Soon Theolonia’s spell would return…
They in turn stared back with looks that bordered on curiosity. They could see the light in his eyes; they could feel the power of his essence. They could smell in their minds the corruption of the nether-world. It pleased them and frightened them at the same time.
The room they were using for their planning was the formal lounge, a room of heavy drapes and gilded wall-paper. Solid furniture of exquisite craftsmanship dotted the floor and frosted gas-lamps hung on every wall. A crystal chandelier, its candles unlit, dominated the centre of the room.
‘I am very pleased,’ Horatio began, his voice svelte and cool, ‘to see such emissaries of their crafts. Do not, I beseech you, take this young body at face value. That… I assure you… would be a fatal mistake. We have business to discuss and plans to lay. I suggest we start immediately.’
Margaret Limewycke leaned into the ample cushions of a large easy chair and folded her hands in her lap. She wished her familiar was there to offer comfort and insight, but the silly thing wanted to go hunting instead. She would call it when she needed it.
‘Dark Lord,’ she said, addressing Horatio with the ancient honorific, ‘I am here initially to represent my covens and to listen to what is proposed. My powers of negotiation are limited to general terms… as I am sure you understand. Anything other than outline agreements will require corporate ratification, I’m afraid.’ She smiled sweetly and large dimples broke out across her cheeks.
Horatio kept his features rigid, giving nothing away, but, inside, his eyes were bugging out at what he heard. Corporate ratification?!
‘Dark Lord.’ Sylas Quarryman bowed his head slightly towards Horatio, while he pulled a sheaf of papers from his briefcase. ‘My Chapter welcomes your coming at this time and assures you of the total loyalty of the members. The Chapter’s initial response was one of affirmative action. Many of the brothers feel justly aggrieved at being denied the advantages that Guild mages enjoy.’ His voice had the deep resonance of one used to public speaking. ‘We feel there is an unfair restriction on trade that has little to do with the legal aspects of Triumvar politics, and many members seek redress.
‘Your guidelines on these, and other, matters will be fully expounded at the coming Chapter assemblies.’
Horatio’s mental eyeballs were doing cartwheels, and his imaginary jaw was flapping up and down. Danny was certain he heard… faintly… ‘ Affirmative action!?’
Gertrude Halfhand fell under Horatio’s gaze and she stood and gave a little curtsy before sitting down again. She looked back at the mandrake through rimless spectacles.
‘Dark Lord. Welcome.’ Her smile was as warm as a snake’s bite. ‘Our northern covens have waited a long time for the nether-regions to send forth one such as yourself. We have already formed a task force to evaluate the protocols of behaviour and conduct that I’m sure you will want to implement, and a steering committee will look into inter-departmental and inter-craft lines of demarcation and co-operation. We look forward to an exciting period of arcane readjustment.’
Horatio thought his heart had stopped… certainly his breathing had… Silence tinkled through Horatio’s mind, and dark spots floated across his vision…
George Appleby coughed a nervous cough, and stood up. ‘Dark Lord. My honour is in the representation of disadvantaged folk; the folk who, through no fault of their own, fall outside the acceptable parameters of magikal determination. Poor hapless souls that are forever knocking on the door of the nether-world looking for a crumb or two of compassion.
‘I speak of the necromancers, Dark Lord. Their time-honoured skills and crafts would, I’m sure, be of benefit at this point in time, if a certain amount of recognition was granted to them.’
‘Ha!’ The word erupted from the throat of Calwyn Andersson before Horatio’s whirling mind could take in Appleby’s ramblings. The big man pointed a finger at the little tailor, his eyes dark and fierce.
‘This is a serious moment here, you carrion eater! You were told not to bring the subject up, weren’t you? And what do you do? Listen! I’ve got five Chapters of reasonably competent sorcerers who want a voice on the Dark Lord’s council, but not one of them will join if necromancers are involved. Got that? Not one!’ He turned to Horatio.
‘Think what that’ll do for your power base then, eh? And guess where they’ll go when the next mandrake comes along. There has to be solidarity in this movement. We have to take it to the establishment and shove it up ‘em! We will only get our rights if we’re organised…and having necromancers on the team…’
‘SHUT UP!!!’ Horatio’s voice cut through the bickering like a brick through a window. Five pairs of eyes looked sullenly at him.
‘Teams?’ he asked, in a silky voice. ‘Ethics Committees? Demarkation? Negotiations?’ His eyes were now positively glowing, and he was struggling to maintain a calm… ‘CORPORATE RATIFICATION?’ he screamed, all pretence of calmness deserting him. Against his will, and his plans, Horatio was getting sucked in.
‘Let me be very clear,’ he continued, forcing himself back from the brink. ‘I called you people here to assemble a power base for higher magik. Magik that will restore my supreme right to lead, and magik that will bring you out of the dark and into the light.
‘There are no corporate idealism’s here, good people. No guild structure, no philanthropy. I will decide… and you will do. Simple.’
‘Ermmm,’ Margaret Limewycke began, switching all eyes her way, ‘there’s a problem with that, Horatio. A big problem, I’m afraid.’
‘Shouting will get you nowhere, young man, unless you want a walk-out. We’re here to listen to your proposal and report back to our members. That’s all.’
The magician-at-law took up the rebuff. ‘Simply put, we are not invested with the commensurate authority to enter into agreements at this stage of negotiations. There has to be proper accountability and delineation of duties and responsibilities.’
There was a rage building inside the mandrake. A great rage. ‘Is anyone,’ he hissed through clenched teeth, ‘disputing my authority!?’
‘Horatio.’ Gertrude Halfhand gave him a motherly smile, one that was guaranteed to send shivers up the spine of a lesser mortal. ‘I may call you Horatio, may I not? It’s so much less formal than “Dark Lord”, don’t you think? Not that there’s anything wrong with “Dark Lord”, of course; it does have a certain ring to it among the less enlightened members of our fraternity.
‘But, Horatio, you must try and understand that a lot of progress has been made since the last gathering under a mandrake. The bloody lessons of that time have reverberated through our ranks. Members want security, not mayhem. They want negotiations and fair representation. Achievable goals with reward for all; a fair day’s pay for a fair day’s magik. They want, Horatio, legitimacy!’
‘And profit sharing,’ Margaret interjected. ‘A fair division of the spoils, as it were.’
‘SILENCE! GIVE ME PEACE FROM YOUR SENSELESS PRATTLINGS!’ Panting with anger, Horatio walked in a circle to collect his thoughts. There seemed to be a serious lack of respect here, he noted. Surely underworld society hadn’t moved that far down the track....
‘What I want from you… let me rephrase that… what you will give me is total loyalty, and a willingness to do my bidding without question. That, dear people, is known as the master/servant principle. It has been used for millennia with considerable success, and will continue to be the main form of getting things done in the dark arts. Can we, at last, please begin?’
‘I’m afraid not, Horatio.’ Sylas Quarryman said, standing up and collecting his paperwork together. ‘I’m not sure that you got the message that each of us… in his or her own way… has tried to convey here tonight. But I shall make one more attempt to clarify our collective position before I leave.’
‘No one… no one, leaves this place without my approval!’ Steam was all but erupting from Horatio’s ears.
Sylas held his hand up in weary fatigue. ‘Dark Lord. And I use that term advisedly, Horatio. You have a great destiny and a great responsibility. The fate of thousands of sorcerers and witches is in your hands. Or, will be in your hands if we have consensus. That, I’m afraid, is the key word… consensus.
‘It was decided long ago that there was no future in following bloodthirsty maniacs to our mutual destruction if there was a better, more profitable way of doing business. I don’t know if there is any committee of mandrakes that scrutinizes the politics of the day, but after today’s events… I suspect not.
‘You are, Horatio, hopelessly out of date. Despite your prodigious powers and awesome temper, there is nothing, I repeat, nothing, that we can put our names to… let alone act upon, until our members have had a vote on it.’ He shrugged. ‘I’m sorry.’
‘VOTE??? Since when do you vote on mayhem and murder? Since when does the tearing of souls require a show of hands?’ An hysterical edge crept into his voice. ‘Since when did world domination require written permission!!??’ Spittle flew from his lips.
‘Since the last twenty years, Horatio,’ Sylas Quarryman calmly informed him. ‘You should have done your homework more thoroughly, I’m afraid. However, all is not lost. Once there is agreement in principle, certain powers are enabled that allow us to supply some devotional assistance. Full acolyte status is subject to the terms of the contract and full agreement by the rank and file thereof.
‘We cannot offer you any support whatsoever, Horatio, until we strike accord.’
Horatio made his way to an unoccupied chair and sank into it. His mind reeled. The world had changed on him and his traditional views of the dark path. Contracts? Is that what the nether-world has come to… contracts and productivity agreements? He covered his face with his hands; Oh ye insufferable gods, Horatio moaned in the dark recesses of his mind, what have I done to deserve this? It’s just as well that there’s another world to bend to my will… and it’s just as well these fools are all going to die!
‘Let us, then,’ Horatio said, putting on a smile that came easily to the face he wore, ‘get down to business.’
The night was going perfectly for Theolonia Crabbe.
Her personal preparations were in place, her means of escape were ready, and her brother was tied up in the tedium of consensus politics. For the first time in a long, long age, Theolonia’s face broke out in a genuine smile; all she needed to do was to keep the pot boiling… so to speak.
With the house warded against intrusion and the transmission of noise, the meeting downstairs continued in muffled debate. Upstairs, Theolonia was busy changing, organising for herself a set of clothes similar to those her double beyond the mirror wore. There was a slight difference, however; her new clothes were lined with secret pockets that carried miniatures of her equipment. Books, maps, powders, herbs and crystals that carried in their structure the schematics and maths of so many spells and incantations.
The meeting downstairs dragged on… and on. Satisfied that her plans were secure, Theolonia rose to visit the attic for the last time. The single gas-lamp in her room flickered and died as she turned it off, and, with a final glance out of her window… a final look across the lawns and gardens she had known all her life…
…a cat was out there!
Quickly, the wizard returned her eyes to the small tea nook below her window. A cat was out there… sitting quietly on the small lawn licking its paws and washing its face. Lying in front of it was the dark, immobile form of a black cat.
With a shock of disbelief, Theolonia recognized the marmalade cat… and that the dead cat at its feet was the witch’s familiar!
Ord!! He’s here!!
Mr. Toast halted his grooming. Slowly… very, very slowly… he lifted his yellow eyes up to the window that the pale face of the foul wizard looked down from. Their eyes locked for the briefest of moments and the thrill of the hunt coursed through his body.
With some haste, Theolonia opened the door to the attic and mounted the stairs. She ran to the end of the room and pulled the cover from the big mirror. The room beyond was dark, but a vague shape could be made out on the bed.
Yes! She’s there! With her heart racing, Theolonia began to tap on the mirror… tap… tap… tap…
‘Wake up Penelope,’ she called.
As the figure stirred, Theolonia had one last thing to do. Tracing the outline of a door in the air, she nominated it with a small equation of proximity and then reversed the symbols. With her palm she pushed the metaphorical door.
Good! All was ready. ‘Penelope… wake up!’In the shadows of trees by the front wall, Salamander Ord called a council.
Others had joined his band of hunters under the trees, wizards and mages called to witness events, and assist if necessary.
The looming bulk of Master Theodric Ironmonger towered over everyone, and he had to bend a little to stop his head from hitting the low branches. He was the senior wizard of York and had been the first to arrive with a contingent of mages and proctors. Everyone wore an oilskin cape and waders, the propensity for exponents of the dark path to use chemical weapons of foul excretions and other odorous and noxious materials was well known… nobody wanted the job of washing the stuff out of their clothes.
‘Pay attention,’ Salamander said. ‘We know the five people we saw enter are still in there, and are in the front of the house. An assumption must be made on Afferton’s information that those present are of the dark path. Witches and sorcerers certainly, but don’t discount a necromancer.
‘For some reason yet to be determined, the back door was opened a few minutes ago. There could be things in play here that we can only surmise.
‘Master Ironmonger, I suggest that Master Pendragon and your Proctors command this position as witnesses; no magik is to be used in that capacity until I say so. The remainder will encircle the house.’
Master Ironmonger’s voice rumbled down from somewhere in the lower foliage.
‘You, I take it, Salamander, will of course charge in through the front door?’
‘No, Theo; the rear door, actually. And I shall be adequately protected by your good self.’ He smiled at the look on his friend’s face.
‘Two words of caution before we move.’ He pointed to one side where everyone was giving the were-wolf a wide berth. The sunglasses Afferton wore had turned clear in the dark, and his great golden eyes seemed to shine with a power all of their own. They looked at the wizard with the light of intelligence behind them.
‘Don’t panic, and do try to remember that Afferton’s on our side.’ He looked towards the house…
Salamander, said Afferton, look up.
Jemma had decided that flying by dragon was not all that she had imagined it to be.
Her initial excitement had lasted all of half an hour, after that the clouds gathered around and it turned cold. Freezing! The lights of York were a very welcome sight as Luther began to spiral down. Somehow the dragon seemed to know exactly where to go, because there, in the shadows, was Master Ord!
‘Well done, young lady,’ Salamander said as he helped her down from Luther’s back. ‘You too, Luther. You’re just in time. I’ve got a job for you.’
Danny Royce peered out at the room from behind his own eyes.
Very slowly, so as not to disturb the mandrake, he had climbed out of his dark place. He desperately needed to see…to know what was going on. Just one quick look, he promised himself, then back to his little corner. Anyway, the mandrake seemed rather busy at the moment.
‘Right,’ he heard Horatio say, ‘let’s get this straight. All the Covens and Chapters that you represent will provide a list of candidates that I can draw on…’
…Danny could see them all now, sitting there scribbling on pieces of paper, crossing things out and writing other things.
He could see something else, too, something out of the corner of his eye. Something that the mandrake hadn’t seen. A pair of huge silver eyes looking at him from beyond the window! The dragon! A huge weight lifted from Danny’s soul… and he made a mistake…
… Master Ord’s here!
WHAT??? WHO SPEAKS???
Danny went dead still. If the mandrake knew he was back, he’d call his sister down and she would get rid of him once and for all. There was only one thing to do… throw caution to the wind… trust in Master Ord… and go for it!!
‘…BAA BAA BLACK SHEEP…
…HAVE YOU ANY WOOL?
…YES SIR, YES SIR…’
Horatio almost fell over with the shock, and five members of the dark path jerked back, mouths agape at the strange words their Dark Lord was singing at the top of his voice!
Now the legs, Danny thought, sensing the hesitation in the mandrake. Savagely he yanked on the nerves for the leg muscles, metaphorically throwing himself on the floor…
AAAAARGGGHHHH!!’ Horatio screamed as his legs gave way and he crashed to the ground.
‘…GIVE IT TO THEM MANDY!… No! Wait!’ Horatio gasped, as his five acolytes-to-be took a collective step backwards, a look of horror on each face.
‘You… you …don’t understand,’ he said from the floor, arms flailing as he tried to stand. ‘It’s not what you think… IT’S THE DEE JAY FROM HELL, YOU FREAKS…’ Spittle dribbled down his chin. ‘Nononono. Give me a minute…’ All five were backing up to the door, their hands making anti-hex wards, their eyes bugging in disbelief.
‘…I’LL TAKE REQUESTS, YOU DIRT BAGS! Oooohhh…noooo,’ came the drooling sigh from the Dark Lords’ aching throat…
‘… NOOOO!!’ he fell down again with a crash as Danny made sure his feet missed the floor.
I WILL DESTROY YOU NOW. AND MY STUPID SISTER
You couldn’t pick your nose at the moment, Dark Dope.
‘…I SAID…YOU COULDN’T PICK YOUR NOSE, YOU DARK DOPE…’
‘I think we should… er… er…’ Sylas Quarryman said in a very small voice as he watched the gibbering, twitching form of the mandrake throw itself around the floor, alternatively screaming strange words to strange music, then talking to itself in gibberish. Sweat and saliva sprayed from its face as it thrashed around, and its eyes were trying to turn inwards.
‘…put a lot of distance between us and this place,’ Calwyn Andersson finished for him, his own features turning a paler shade of dark. ‘I agree.’
CRASH!! went the chair Horatio was trying to steady himself with as his arm seemed to twist itself away.
‘…I’LL EAT YOUR HEARTS OUT, YOU MORONS!!!… Help me up. Please!’ he whimpered.
‘Not…’ said Margaret Limewycke with some emphasis, ‘… on your life.’
A coldness settled in the inner being of the mandrake. There was nothing left, no reserves to fight this tide of madness that was engulfing him. Nothing, except… one final throw of the dice…
…to summon everything he was
…for one enormous effort
…spectral fire, black as sin and shimmering with the inner fires of hell, speared from the mandrake’s fingers and found a target in the chest of George Appleby. The necromancer had no inkling, no time to prepare, before the fire entered his body and coursed down the pathways of his soul.
Everything that was George Appleby, all the mean, bad, evil, stupid, cowardly, awful, scary and horrible things were sucked from him, drained by the nether-fire. His essence… his life… was pulled from his husk and dragged by the searing black fire into the being of the mandrake.
Four people gasped in awe as the desiccated shell of George Appleby collapsed to the floor and broke into powdered fragments.
The silence was painful.
Glowing with the infusion of so much power… so much power! Horatio cast a manic eye on the four survivors, particularly singling out Margaret Limewycke. She in turn began to tremble in her shoes.
‘Would you care,’ his voice grated, ‘to repeat that, witch?’
‘She said… “Not on your life”,’ said Salamander Ord.
All five heads snapped around at the sound. The wizard stood in the doorway and looked rather ridiculous in oilskins and waders… but no-one laughed.
‘And that could very well be the case, mandrake, unless you surrender your powers to me this instant.’ The boy’s changed, Salamander noted. There’s an ugliness to his face and a mad light in his eye.
In the background, their backs hard against the wall, the four practitioners of the dark path were breaking all sorts of speed records in setting up personal wards against the mandrake’s anger. But Horatio had more important things to worry about now.
‘Too late, wizard!’ he cried, sending a bolt of his dark power towards Salamander. The very air crackled and the smell of ozone was as thick as cordite; power echoed off the walls with a clap of doom…
…but nothing reached the wizard. With a swat of disdain Salamander brushed the bolt aside, whereupon it cannoned off the wall leaving a black scorch mark behind. Having seen the demise of George Appleby, Salamander rightly identified the spell. Rapid reconfiguration of the maths for his inverse proximity ward was a simple task. But now came the hard part…
The schematics of all the main weapons of restraint were in his mind and all he had to do was to recall the image, and its power was at his fingertips. All of them were rooted in the base laws, but they were heightened and strengthened by adding to them variations from the higher houses of the Equilibrium of Calculus.
In other words, there was some very serious firepower at Salamander’s command.
First came the Fist of Power, with the mathematics of causality suitably moderated; after all, he didn’t want to destroy Danny’s body… just bruise it a bit!
A tiny orange ball formed between the open hands of the wizard and sped towards the mandrake, growing in size as it neared him. There was a smirk of confidence on Horatio’s face as the ball reached him… and… flared into nothingness!
Yes!! Oh, yes!! smirked the mandrake.
‘Do you see the power of Null?’ he asked his followers, holding his hand out to them. ‘Do you see?? Now give me your powers.’ His baleful eyes turned on the wizard, as behind him four minds concentrated their power into his being… and all the hate surfaced in his mind… and all the anger. Vileness became a living thing… loathing took a shape…
…mental imperatives and mathematical paradigms formed them… altered them…
…above Salamander’s head the ceiling… changed… moved… dripped! Liquid vile ran down the walls… ghastly ropes of ectoplasmic malodorance fell on to him. Pungent… sticky… loathing…
A corner of the wizard’s mind stood aloof and watched, surprised at just how quickly the mandrake had put his spells together, despite him only running on low power… What if he were fully charged? Think, Salamander, he admonished himself. You can’t break Danny’s null… but what about Garreth’s residual input… what about degrees of separation? Get moving!!
The Fist of Power came together again, but this time it headed for the gap behind his followers… reached the point between them and the wall… Horatio saw and moved to block, unsure of the wizard’s intentions…
…WHAMMM!!! The concussion was deafening… it blew his followers over like ninepins and the shockwave lifted him and threw him against the wall…
…BANG!! Paintings and mirrors crashed to the floor and Horatio felt his breath go in one sharp whooosh!!!
The ceiling returned to normal as the mandrake’s concentration was broken.
‘Help me now!’ he ordered his four minions. ‘Now!!’ There was a fierce light in the mandrake’s eyes that was getting brighter by the second, and each of the four knew that their Dark Lord was capable of turning on them if he felt it warranted.
As one, the dark mages frantically iterated the maths for Morgan’s Shield, and in seconds the room was divided by a shimmering network of cross-hatched lines of force. And they were on one side of it, and the wizard on the other.
‘You merely trap yourselves like fish in a barrel,’ Salamander informed them as he released a variant of the Fist… and a thin beam leapt from his pointing finger. This was The Dagger, and there was no moderation in its causality aspects, everything was cranked up to the max… this one was designed to do some serious damage.
The Dagger punched a neat little round hole in the shield spell, and then proceeded to do the same to Calwyn Andersson’s chest. The sorcerer collapsed with a sigh, a rattling sound coming from his lungs.
A wall of flame burst from Horatio’s eyes, flame that spread and grew, oozing between the strands of the shield spell, seeking the wizard with tendrils of white-hot agony.
‘Simplistic earth-magik, mandrake,’ Salamander shouted, enveloping himself with a Mask of Darkness. Within the cocoon of conflicting probability and paradox, Salamander Ord watched the flames waver as their target disappeared. In seconds they had withered and flickered out of existence.
Horatio seized his chance. Grabbing hold of his four remaining terrified acolytes, he quickly coordinated them into the crafting of a Slo-Time Ball. This conundrum of temporal paradox took everything they had, as he leached their powers to elevate the base spell up into the highest house of the Equilibrium of Calculus. The very room hummed with trapped power, and the crystals in the big chandelier began to vibrate; one by one they cracked with a sharp splintering sound… then exploded into shards of rainbow light…
…and the Slo-Time Ball grew before them… a translucent darkness that glittered with sparkles of light on the outer surface. Whatever it absorbed became trapped in time that moved like treacle. With gestures from his hands, Horatio directed the spell to where his enemy hid behind his Mask.
‘Now who’s simplistic?’ he shouted back above the sound of exploding crystal… and the ball floated through the Shield and headed across the room.
Salamander collapsed the Mask, its job done. The Ball was a different kettle of fish. Slo-Time was a relativity anomaly that was totally subjective… it relied on the continuing goodwill of its creator to exist. All Salamander needed to do was to subvert that goodwill. And because there was a Garreth component to the mandrake’s mind, it would also work against him.
‘Theo! To me!’ he shouted. His friend ran through the door behind him, as fast as oilskins and waders would allow, and almost lost balance on the slimy floor. ‘Give me a push!’ he asked and his friend applied his will to his.
‘Now!’ Salamander shouted, shaping the focus of his thoughts through the torus he drew in the air before him. Golden lines of magik quivered with the energy of the power of thought…
…and the Ball slowed!
‘Harder,’ screamed Horatio, and the three re-applied their own minds.
The magik resonated and hummed as so much energy was confined to so small a space and the very air seemed to shimmer as misdirected power leaked from the spells. The last of the crystals in the chandelier exploded… then… with a bang that made everyone jump… every window in the room burst outwards, throwing splinters of glass far into the gardens. A strong wind blew through the gaps, flapping the drapes like so many harpies wings.
Inch by inch the Ball began to creep towards the wizard; inch by inch, it was followed by the mad, glowing eyes of the mandrake.
‘Harder!! Harder!!’ screamed Horatio.
‘Push! Push!’ urged Salamander, drawing on everything he had.
The Ball crept inexorably towards Salamander
Sweat poured down the faces of all six people.
Now that the mandrake was occupied, Danny Royce could sit behind the eyes and watch events without fear.
Also without understanding. He had no idea what he was watching, although he suspected it was what everyone called magik. But for the life of him he couldn’t make sense of it…
…there were only four witches and sorcerers now; he assumed the horrible mess on the floor that looked vaguely human was the missing one,
…then Salamander was at the door, dressed like he’d just come off a fishing boat, and waving his hands in a complicated design,
…the wallpaper behind Salamander turned black,
…Salamander pointed his hands at Horatio,
…and nothing happened,
…then… oh… yukkk!!! Snotty stuff dripped all over the place…
…and he was lifted into the air and slammed into the wall!!
He felt the breath go and heard the grunt of pain from the mandrake. Then…
…the mandrake asked for help and the five waved their hands at something in the middle of the room, but he couldn’t see anything at all,
…Salamander said something about fish… fish… and pointed his finger at the big, ugly sorcerer,
…who promptly fell over, holding his shoulder and moaning. There was blood coming from his mouth!
…he saw Horatio reach out to Salamander, his fingers like talons,
…and Salamander laughed, weaving a complex schematic in front of him. He heard one of the witches say something about a mask, saying that the wizard had disappeared
…yeah, right! So who’s that in the dripping oilskins, eh? King Neptune?
…then Horatio shouted for the others to help him, and the four of them stood holding hands and breathing very, very hard together,
…and all the crystals started to shatter! Thousands of pieces, like rainbow snow, rained down from the ceiling,
…a very tall man burst into the room, and then both of them stood there glaring at something in the middle of the room
…while sweat poured down their faces,
…and all the windows blew out!!!
‘Harder!! Harder!!’ screamed Horatio.
‘Push! Push!’ urged Salamander.
‘That’s it, Penelope. Just a little further.’
The voice was very insistent that she go to the mirror, so she shuffled across the carpet and stood before it, looking at herself.
Only it wasn’t herself, was it? Or was it? It was very dark in there, just like her room… but where was the other room? Where was the nice room she was promised?
‘Where’s my nice room?’ she asked herself. ‘What have you done with it?’
‘It’s right here, dear,’ her image said. ‘If you come closer, I’ll turn the light on for you to see.’
‘Oh, yes!’ Penelope moved that one step forward
…the mirror seemed to expand all around her
…her eyes in the glass got bigger
…so close, so… so…
…a shiver went through her entire body, an itch tickled her mind
…her breath gave a hard gasp, and her stomach did a little flip-flop.
Then the bare floorboards came up to meet her.
‘Harder!! Harder!!’ screamed Horatio.
‘Push! Push!’ shouted Salamander. ‘Luther! NOW!’
Luther pushed his head through a broken window and bared his great, blue teeth. His eyes were narrow slits focused on the four sorcerers…
…magik began to unravel in his presence
…threads of temporal energy curled up like rubber snakes and wriggled off into the night, where trees in the garden exploded in flames. The Slo-Time ball deflated and flew off around the room like an escaped balloon. It made rude noises as it diminished into nothingness.
Luther opened his mouth…and breathed! Super-heated air blew over Horatio and his followers and hair singed and crisped. Wisps of smoke rose off smoldering clothing.
‘THEOLONIA!!!’ Horatio shouted, staggering backwards into the door.
‘HORATIO!!!’ his cohorts screamed, staggering back with him…
…the door bulged under their weight,
…and gave way,
…and three panicking mages spilled out of the ruined room to sprawl upon the tiles of the foyer.
Relief flooded the mind of Sylas Quarryman, and he scrambled to his feet, ready to bolt for the front door. But while his feet were willing, he wasn’t making progress. A deep growling sound brought his head around to notice the huge black were-wolf that had his tail-coats in its very large jaws… its very large jaws that were filled with very large fangs. Blood-flecked golden eyes watched him with interest… as if weighing him up… to eat… or not to eat?
Sylas Quarryman rolled his eyes back in his head and fainted.
‘Well done!’ Salamander boomed, striding through the door with Rufus and Theodric close behind. ‘Very well done, indeed!’ They had pulled off the sticky oilskins, but the smell of the stuff followed them.
The front door burst open and mages and proctors came running in from the all directions.
Salamander surveyed the miserable group still lying on the floor.
‘Where’s Horatio?’ he barked.
Afferton Smythe released the sorcerer’s coat, and bounded for the stairs. He knew exactly where the mandrake was.
Penelope lay in the chill dark of a place she didn’t recognise.
Her body was trembling and there was a deep, deep ache along her left arm. Polished boards were under her hands as she pushed herself up and vaguely wondered where her carpet had gone.
There was a large mirror standing next to her and she caught sight of her reflection… but surely there was something wrong, she thought. This is the woman in the mirror… no, the other woman in the mirror… the one I see at night. The one wearing the long grey dress… but she so looks like me.
The ache in her arm became intense and Penelope gasped for air. A band of pain clamped around her chest and her vision blurred. Thoughts of the woman in the mirror disappeared as she turned to find help, staggering down the attic towards the stairs at the end; a faint light grew brighter as a door opened, illuminating the stair well, and she tried desperately to reach it.
But the pain was now crushing, and a voice was shouting something…
…and a shape appeared, running up the stairs with a crooked, jerking action
…songs in a language she knew spilling from his mouth…
‘YOU CAN’T WALK AWAY FROM MEEEE!!
… YOU GOTTA RUUUUUN!!!’
…and the pain in her chest was killing her.
‘THEOLONIA!!! HELP ME!!! PLEASE!!!’ Horatio was a gibbering wreck as he tried to climb the stairs to his sister. He needed her protection more than ever now, more than ever…
‘You must help. He’s back! In my head! NONONO!!! I don’t want him, Theolonia! Please!’ Spittle dribbled down Horatio’s chin.
Partners for life, dopey. You wanted my body… you got it. You can check out any time you like… hey!… do you like the Eagles?
Reality percolated through the fog of Horatio’s thinking… his sister was completely indifferent to his plight! She stood there screwing her face up in denial… turning away! There’s nothing left, he ranted. I’m lost!!
‘NO I’M NOT, HAG!! I WILL HAVE LIFE!!! YOU WON’T DENY ME ANY MORE!!!’ With the very last of his arcane strength, Horatio Crabbe did that which he had done twice before in his life… he launched the essence of his soul into another body… into another mind. Smashing aside the feeble protestations of his sister, he brutally wrenched her mind apart as he sought to totally control his new body… the body of a wizard!!
‘YES!!! THE POWER IS STILL… Aaaaggh!’ Pain lanced through his chest… crippling, awful pain. Blinding pain… ‘AAAAARRRGHHH!!’ Even the scream hurt!
He searched the ruins of his sister’s mind, seeking some fragment of reason or remnant of knowledge that would help him to understand, and then repair, the pain that debilitated him. But wherever he searched, there was nothing there! Amid the drooling idiocy of his sister’s… wait… something’s amiss… something… is… very… wrong!
WHO ARE YOU???
Her mind only echoed to his question,
…Salamander must be close behind
…this body doesn’t work
Afferton Smythe bound up the stairs three at a time and skidded sideways as he turned at the top. The attic door was open and up he raced, his claws digging into the wooden stair-treads. The body of Danny lay sprawled at the top step, and as he leapt over it, his senses told him the lad was alright and was now free of the mandrake aura. Which was good, because his quarry was ahead of him, half-way down the attic.
Afferton’s nose told him the truth… Aha… he’s taken the witch’s body. As silent as a dagger in the night, the were-wolf padded towards the form that knelt in agony on the floor; the form might have changed, but it was the same old evil inside.
Time, Afferton told himself, to put the thing out of our misery.
Doggy, the feeble tendrils of Horatio’s shattered mind queried, I need your body.
Not a chance, my old son, Afferton’s mind sent back, as the great fangs sliced through the back of the mandrake’s neck and buried themselves, with crushing power, deep into the cortex.
Horatio’s thoughts faded to white… and
…arcane power dribbled away in the sands of entropy
…life seeped across the floor in pools of scarlet
…the soul poured through the final doorway
…into a grey nether-place of shadows and mist
…where four white ladies awaited him.
‘Before you pass on, mandrake,’ the White Lady of Earth informed the haggard, grey apparition before them, ‘before your sins are stripped and you go to the other side as your true soul…’ the Ladies parted, revealing a crowd of very senior, and very grim, ecclesiastical mages, ‘… there are a few people that would like a word.’
Someone lifted his eyelid and looked inside his eye. Someone else held their hand over his forehead and yet another listened to his heart.
Danny wished they would leave him alone. He wished… HE WISHED!! HE WAS BACK!! BACK!!
‘I’m OK,’ he managed to mumble. ‘Help me up.’ Willing hands lifted him to his feet and he experienced a little dizziness for a second. And his face ached! The first person he saw was a beaming Jemma who threw her arms around him and squeezed. Then came Rufus Pendragon who gripped his hand and pumped it up and down.
‘Well done, Danny. Welcome back.’ The attorney looked genuinely happy to see him. So did all of the people who crowded the landing, although he only recognised two… Luther and Mr. Toast.
‘Where’s Master Ord?’ he asked, looking about him. As if on cue, the wizard’s voice came down the stairwell, immediately followed by the wizard himself. And Afferton.
‘Fret not, young Danny,’ Ord boomed. ‘All is well, thanks to you. You did a marvellous job… marvellous.’ He clapped his hand on Danny's shoulder, and looked up into his eyes. ‘The power of null, eh? The mandrake and his crazy sister were completely out of their depth trying to control it. Completely.’
It was strange talking with his own voice again, and he had to take two attempts at it. ‘Horatio. It was called Horatio. What’s happened to it?’
‘The mandrake?’ The wizards face turned grim. ‘Dead, I’m pleased to announce. Stone cold dead. So is Theolonia along with him. And the White Ladies are in possession of what passes for its soul.’ Then he smiled again.
‘That, it would seem, is the last we’ll see of him. Isn’t that right, Afferton?’
The great beast lifted its bloody snout and Danny saw the light of contentment and humour in the golden eyes. The long tail lifted
…for the first time ever in recorded history
…wagged its tail.
Luther had to go home. Not that he wanted to, he was starting to find the world of humans interesting and entertaining. But Salamander decided that the seclusion and isolation that the dragon-folk had maintained for millennia should not be unduly breached. Popularity was definitely not in the dragon-folk’s interest.
The young dragon stood in Theo’s garden, a very large box of cigars clasped to his chest.
Interesting this has been, Master Ord. Old powers regained for this one. Powers to be experienced, perhaps
Ssssssssttthhhhhsssssssssszzzzzzzzttthhhhhhhhsssss Luther began to expand. Blessed also with a name. And friends.
Ssssssssssttttttthhhhhhhhhssssssssssssstttttthhhhhhsss two silver orbs looked down on the wizard. Farewell and fortune, Master Ord. Luther’s wings unfolded and began to beat. Downdraft ruffled the wizard’s hair.
‘My thanks, Luther. Also, please convey my gratitude to the old one, will you? I shall brief it later when my report is finished.’
Iteration of your words may be detrimental to this one’s well being. Substance of your message this one will deliver. Farewell. The wings beat faster and Luther rose into the night. In seconds he was gone, a flash of black light marking his entry into the other reality.
As far as wizards’ houses go, Danny felt, Theodric Ironmonger’s was a let-down.
It was certainly not what he expected from the countless books he had read. No robes, no dark corbelled ceilings, no crypts, chains, crystal balls or big, wooden-framed globes of the Earth… or wherever. There were no pointy hats, no flowing capes with stars and moons on them, no arcane lightning working its way down mysterious glass towers, no eldritch creatures curled up on the floor.
Well, if you discount a werewolf, that is.
What a let-down, he thought. It’s just a job like everything else…a profession. I bet they keep office hours.
There was, however, a nice little cottage with a decorative, iron-framed conservatory out the back, a glowing coal fire that hissed and popped, and a rather nice cup of tea. There was also an amazingly tall man of indeterminable age, but obviously old, dressed in slippers, a brown pair of old gardening pants… dried mud was still on the knees… and an old and often patched beige cardigan.
Also a nice grey-haired lady popped in now and then to top the tea up, and called the wizard ‘dear’ and reminded him that getting upset only aggravated his indigestion and she had a nice leg of lamb for supper because she remembered that Salamander was always partial to lamb.
Para-phone calls had brought cheer to the Aldredge and Mayhorn households… and Danny had been delighted at Jemma’s response to his safe delivery. At Garreth’s safety, he corrected. To her he was Garreth… or almost. So it was for Garreth… I wonder if Emily… He foundered on the thought. On the name. I really just want to go home.
Theodric Ironmonger was upset because the events of the previous day had kept him up half the night and all morning answering testy paraphone calls, between bouts of therapeutic gardening, from several important sources. First, the Guild of Magicians wanted full details of Wizard Crabbe’s involvement because the press were banging on their door demanding full disclosure in the interests of freedom of information. Then the Office of the Triumvar had been most insistent that a full report be tabled immediately and wanted everyone back in London post-haste. The Office of the Triumvar, Theodric knew, could think in italics.
Next, the Crown prosecutor demanded a list of all the charges against the dark practitioners. The local neighbourhood watch association then chimed in with concerns about the unfettered freedom given to a were-wolf and did he realise the danger he was placing tax-payers in? And the animal cruelty league wanted to know who was responsible for placing dumb animals at risk by subjecting them to acts of criminal magik!
‘Paperwork,’ Theodric sneered. ‘Magik’s ninety percent paperwork!’ His guests nodded in sympathy, faces buried in steaming cups of tea, secretly pleased it wasn’t them who had to do it.
Salamander Ord, Rufus Pendragon and Danny and Jemma sat around the fire, still tired from the night’s activities. The tall Master Wizard of York had put them up for the night as the clean-up at Theolonia’s house had taken until the small hours of the morning to resolve.
Salamander slurped tea, and then looked over the rim of his cup at Theodric.
‘Obviously, old friend, all these things will be sorted out in the fullness of time. Meanwhile,’ he inclined his head towards his scrying crystal, ‘I have already had contact from the Druidic asking for the sacred sites to be re-opened. And that most devoted attendant of His Majesty’s person, the redoubtable Grenfell Whittaker, has called to suggest that our presences at the Tower would be… shall we say… favourably looked upon.’
Jemma went white. The Tower! ‘Master Ord,’ she asked, ‘what does “favourably looked upon” mean?’
‘It means, young lady, that should we not present ourselves there immediately, things would be unfavourably looked upon.’ He smiled kindly at her panic-filled face. ‘It’s a summons. We’re all going to pay a visit to His Majesty.’
BONGBONGBONGBONGBONG! The strident sound of an emergency paraphone call filled the room and in one corner of the conservatory a figure took shape.
‘Salamander!’ The matronly figure of Gwyneth Tyler, White Lady of Earth, peered at him with concern. Something was wrong, Salamander could tell.
‘Salamander, the soul of Theolonia has been examined…’
‘Yessss…’ he asked, cautiously.
‘It’s not Theolonia.’ She looked worried, an unusual state of affairs in one so… elementally… powerful. ‘I have seen nothing like this, Salamander. The life spiral is… backwards. I don’t…’
‘I do, Gwyneth.’ A coldness gripped the heart of Salamander Ord. ‘It’s alright. I understand what has happened.’
The wizard pointed to Danny. ‘Your corpse and Danny here, they share the same spiral.’
Understanding was immediate. ‘Ahhh. I see now. Theolonia has swapped herself with this poor soul. Tragic, Salamander. Tragic.’ Then she was gone.
‘Very clever, Theolonia,’ he whispered, his eyes focused on some inner vision. ‘Who would have expected a double swap?’
This was all above Danny’s head. Too many adventures, too many fears…they had all taken their toll. He wished he was home; he didn’t want to know any more about magik. In fact, he was on magik overload; but he asked the question anyway…
‘What does that mean, then?’
‘It means,’ Salamander said, through gritted teeth, ‘that she’s fooled us. It means that this isn’t finished yet.’ He launched himself out of his seat. ‘Theo, fire up your steam-buggy would you? Rufus! Contact the proctors. Have them meet us at Theolonia’s house, urgently. Now. Where’s my bag of tricks…?’
A glowing ribbon cordoned off Theolonia’s house, a ribbon that pulsed slightly and bore the word “Proctor” every few feet.
A crowd of sightseers and journalists was still congregating at the front gate, and as Theodric’s steam-buggy slowed down to enter the driveway, bright bursts of flash-powder went off in their faces as photographers finally had something to snap.
The ribbon was a spell, and unraveled as Danny passed through. Inside, most of the debris had been swept into piles, but a few shards of crystal still sparkled around the skirting boards as the group entered the foyer. There was a small table to one side of the staircase, one that the day’s mail was usually placed on. Salamander went to it, removed the silver tray and doily, and placed his battered bag of tricks there; he then proceeded to open the bag and cover the surface with bottles and jars, a small capped brazier and a little set of balance scales. Finally, he fished a pair of silver scissors from the bag and turned to Danny.
‘We need a few of your ample locks, if you don’t mind.’
While the charcoal in the brazier heated, Salamander laid out small white squares of paper and placed a jar or bottle on each one. Danny’s snippets of hair were split into two lots; one went onto the scales, the other he threw into the brazier. As smoke began to pour forth, he covered the brazier with a glass bell-jar, trapping the smoke inside. The bell-jar had a small rubber bulb on the top.
Danny watched everything Salamander did. As the smoke stopped swirling, the wizard began to squeeze the bulb, pumping air in. In seconds the smoke consolidated into several layers, each one a different thickness, each one a slightly different colour.
‘That’s you,’ Salamander told Danny, pointing to the smoke. ‘Your chemical analysis, anyway. All I have to do…’ he began to hold a colour chart against the jar and tick off each one he identified ‘… is match the composition.’ Then he measured the thickness of each layer and wrote that next to the sample. When he had finished all the measurements, Salamander began opening bottles and jars, ladling their contents one at a time onto one of the pieces of paper then placing it on the scales.
Slowly, a small collection of minerals and trace elements was formed. When the last one was weighed, Salamander Ord removed the bell-jar, expelling the smoke. The brazier was still lit.
‘If what I suspect is true,’ he told Danny, ‘you are the only way of tracing Theolonia. While Horatio inhabited your body, his persona influenced yours. He left traces behind… and those traces will be very close to Theolonia’s. Watch!’ One by one Salamander tipped the powders into the brazier and followed them with the second sample of hair. Quickly he replaced the bell-jar and waited until it was full of dense smoke.
‘These essences will be attracted to their equals. Where Theolonia’s persona was most concentrated, so too will be our pungent, diaphanous hunter.’ With that, Salamander pulled the bell-jar away and clouds of pure white smoke billowed upwards.
Danny nearly gagged… the stench was vile!! Jemma covered her nose and turned away.
Tendrils probed the boundaries of the foyer, some sneaking under doors, others seeping up the stairs. But the largest cloud drifted straight for the study, banking up against the door.
‘Ah hah! Rufus, the door, if you please.’ Rufus waded through the smoke, a handkerchief held over his mouth, and released the door. Immediately the smoke was sucked into the room, and everyone followed it.
The scene that met Danny’s eyes was the strangest and most memorable thing he had ever witnessed to that point. He stood at the door with his mouth open and a look of wonder in his eyes.
Inside the study, amid the gloom that the draped windows had created, Theolonia’s desk stood wreathed in a cloud of white and within the cloud shone a dome of spectral force. Glowing lines traced a three-dimensional spider web in the smoke that hovered there, each line dimming and brightening as the smoke swirled. Like an ethereal geodesic dome, Theolonia’s spell covered the desk with shimmering power. Some of the lines were red, some green, others white. Most were gold.
‘Wow!’ Danny managed to articulate. ‘Look at that…’
‘That’s beautiful,’ Jemma breathed.
‘Stay by the door, Danny…’ the wizard ordered, his eyes fixed on the desk, his hand held palm up towards the lad, ‘…lest your null factor corrupts the spell and jeopardises us all.’ Salamander was already walking around the desk, peering intently at each junction where the lines of force came together. Dimly, around those junctions, numbers and letters also appeared in the smoke.
‘Not bad, Theolonia,’ Salamander muttered quietly; but everyone heard the admiration in his tone. ‘Not bad at all.’ He continued to inspect the spell. ‘I haven’t seen one of these in years…’ his voice drifted away as he concentrated. Slowly he removed his frock-coat and draped it over a chair, then he rolled up his sleeves to the elbows; his braces were very wide and very red and he hooked his thumbs behind them as he contemplated the conundrum before him.
Danny’s admiration for the short, white-haired rotund wizard cranked up several notches as his Garreth-knowledge kicked in and reminded him just how dangerous this trap was. Because it was a trap… and that fact showed in the cold, hard look in the wizard’s eyes.
‘This…’ Salamander informed everyone, unhooking one hand from his braces and pointing to the lines of force above the desk, ‘… is known as a Gorgon’s Knot, and each thread is inter-dependent on at least three others. Usually. Hmmm.’ He scratched his chin. ‘Unfortunately, no two are ever the same. Depends on who tied the knot. Aha! This point…’ his finger stabbed at an outer junction of five white lines and the table of numbers that accompanied them ‘… is a temporal nexus. It supports the causal schematic… here.’ He pointed to a knot of red that developed into lines that weaved their way through the gold ones. Good! A starting point.
‘So… we just experiment with a little creative mathematics… here…’ Salamander picked a sequence of numbers at the white knot and with his index finger wrote a new line, ‘… and here… and here.’ As each one was written, he erased the one next to it by rubbing it out with his fingers. And… a white line blinked out!
Danny gasped in surprise. This was unbelievable!
Salamander walked around the desk, writing here, erasing there, and several more lines disappeared, then… ‘Ah! Runes! Probability integers,’ he muttered to himself. He re-wrote one… and the whole network began to pulse! Quickly he replaced the original formula.
‘Very clever…’ he continued to mutter, his eyes never leaving the spell for a moment ‘… using runes for binary. So…’ Again the figures changed, and this time a whole network of golden lines vanished.
‘Now for the paradox…’ numbers were written and re-written ‘… ah hah… a loop! You nearly had me then, Theolonia!… but… I just need… to move… yes… not erase… this tiny… quantum anomaly… no… no… it needs a differential added…’ more lines went down, and now there was only a skull-cap of red lines left.
Sweat rolled down Salamander’s face as he worked… moving here… moving there, following the threads of magikal logic that Theolonia had crafted… reaching in to re-write a formula here… adding a bridging string there.
‘Only this last inverted causal statement…’ his fingers wrote rapidly ‘… and we should have…’
The spell collapsed with a feeble whimper and Salamander quickly availed himself of the rogue wizard’s chair. It groaned under his weight.
‘Brilliant work,’ Theodric applauded.
‘Bravo,’ chimed in Rufus.
‘Let’s see what we have, shall we,’ Salamander asked as he pulled open the top left-hand draw. ‘Nothing there… what about… this…’ he reached for the top right-hand drawer, ‘… mmm. What have we here?’ He lifted a small linen-covered package out of the drawer and laid it on the desktop. Carefully he peeled each fold back until the Book of Null lay exposed before them. Everyone held their breath as Salamander opened the little book and quickly flicked through the pages. It felt dead in his hands; inert.
‘Had she used it?’ Rufus asked.
‘I don’t know,’ Salamander admitted, closing the Book of Null with a snap. ‘She may have used a copy; but I won’t know until I’ve examined it fully… but that wasn’t Theolonia we found, Rufus. Damm! She did it! Proof notwithstanding, she did it!’ He looked around the room, seeking something. ‘We need to find the mirror she used.’
‘Upstairs,’ Danny informed them. ‘It’s in the attic.’ Every eye turned towards him. ‘That’s where Afferton found her,’ he explained. ‘That’s where the mandrake was heading.’
‘He’s right!’ Rufus shouted. ‘To the attic!’
Danny got there first, because his legs were the youngest and so much excitement had bottled up inside him that he felt fit to burst. Jemma was right behind. When the others arrived he was looking at a tendril of smoke that had made its way up the stairs and then into the attic. The tendril was trying to stick to the glass; but that wasn’t what kept Danny riveted to the spot. As the others came up behind him, he pointed to the faint tracery of grey runes that could be seen where the smoke touched the mirror… appearing and just as quickly disappearing as the smoke moved and drifted.
But there was enough to tell the tale. And as they watched…
…the runes altered
…cracks appeared in them
…then they fell in pieces to the bottom of the mirror
‘She’s destroyed the mirror,’ Salamander said. ‘She’s gone.’ Anger was written all over his face. ‘And there’s no way we can get her back! Damn the woman! Twice damn her!’
Rufus Pendragon had never seen his old friend so upset at a case before… and said so.
‘That’s because we… no… I … was completely fooled! She had an escape clause; there was no way she would depend on her brother, certainly not after carrying his evil presence in her mind for sixty-three years. She didn’t care about Horatio; she just wanted him out of her head… at any price!’ He surveyed the attic, his eyes finally falling on the dark stain at the top of the stairs.
‘Well,’ he continued, more subdued this time, ‘the price was paid. By an innocent woman.’ He smacked his right fist into his left palm… smack! This is my fault… I rushed things… I concentrated on Danny too much...
‘There’s no way of forcing her back, either,’ Theodric spat, ‘now that her double’s dead.’ He had a thought. ‘Salamander! What about Luther? Could he get her back?’
Slowly the wizard shook his head. ‘There are sixty million people over there, Theo. Where would you even begin to look?’
The drapes were placed over the mirror, and silently everyone left the attic. The sound of the key locking the door echoed around the rafters for a long time.
The crowds were getting bigger as news of a mandrake travelled throughout York.
Sightseers and newshounds jostled each other outside Master Theodric Ironmonger’s cottage for the best position as proctors erected more barriers to keep them back.
Cecilia Ironmonger ran an endless supply of tea and kaffee to the proctors without and the wizards within; Master Ironmonger was trying to organise the coroner, the report and travel arrangements for Salamander all at the same time, and Rebus Pendragon was trying to forestall the press, the PV people and the sightseers.
Salamander Ord was sequestered in a private room, where a rather heated discussion was taking place with the image of Master Sebastian Portello, Wizard Temporal of the Triumvir. Danny and Jemma had also been called to attend by the most senior mage in the kingdom. But if Master Portello thought that that office protected him from an angry wizard who was, arguably, one of the most powerful in the land, then Master Portello thought wrong. In fact, Master Portello was beginning to regret having chastised Salamander Ord for… as he had so injudiciously put it… charging off with all guns blazing.
‘I merely expressed an opinion that the altered status of a were-wolf contravenes accepted protocols, and your authority.’ The image of Sebastian Portello mopped his brow with a large ‘kerchief. The Wizard Temporal was a portly man of advanced age, wearing a formal pinstripe three-quarter frock coat of deep charcoal over a golden weskit; a large fob-watch hung from the weskit. As a measure of his wisdom he affected a large bushy beard that spread over his ample stomach like a grey-brown tide. He also grew it to hide his rather weak mouth.
‘I think,’ Salamander replied, frostily, ‘that the White Ladies might just have a different opinion.’
‘Ah. That’s another thing! Taking normals through the interface is expressly forbidden. I’ve got the Protocols department on my back over that! And who gave you permission to approach the dragon-folk? Eh? Now there’s this nasty business of the death of an innocent person. Dear me, Salamander!’ Portello’s face was starting to get a little red, but that didn’t stop the onslaught. ‘And… and… you let Theolonia escape!’ He wagged a finger at Salamander. ‘This won’t look good on your record, you know. No. Not good at all. Your recklessness has even endangered children. Children! This young boy and girl might be seriously traumatized by your unthinking acts of aggrandizement, Ord! I…’
Danny couldn’t stand it any longer; in fact, he’d had enough. ‘Just a minute,’ he interjected as Portello spluttered to a stop. ‘Who’re you calling children? Where do you get off being so bloody rude?’ He couldn’t help the swearing, it just popped out. Portello’s mouth was going up and down and he was making gurgling noises in his throat.
‘Where I come from, porky, I’m old enough to drive a car; I’m not considered a child. My future’s my responsibility, not my parents or any well-meaning old fart’s. In fact, I know “children” that could knock your block off!’ Images of Barry Oldham crossed his mind.
‘Yes!’ shouted Jemma.
‘And another thing! I’ve spent days with an evil, sick, slime-ball stuck in my head…’ he was panting now, ‘…but he wasn’t as arrogant as you!’
Jemma saw a perfect opportunity to strike a blow for her own independence.
‘My parents,’ she informed the image, ‘trusted me to make the decisions about Danny. Not you! Garreth’s parents trusted me. I’ve had a were-wolf save my life. I’ve flown across the country on a dragon’s back. If you think I’m a child to be dismissed and treated with such arrant condescension, just wait until I grow older… then see what I can do!’
‘Go Jemma!’ Danny pumped his fist in the air. ‘Whoohoo!’
Salamander Ord forced himself to keep a straight face, but he too wanted to cheer. What he did do was say, in a measured voice, ‘You do understand that a young man had been possessed by a mandrake, don’t you? And that the young man’s life was in danger? Good. Then please accept the facts that young Jemma’s life was also at risk, and that a meeting of sorcerers and witches was already in attendance to welcome their Dark Lord. Now, given all that, my Lord Temporal, just what the hell would you have done in my place?’ His anger was rising and he was too tired to curb it.
The Wizard Temporal was reeling from the outrageous behavior of the chil…young people. And he was angry about that. ‘You go too far, Ord!’ Portello’s face was livid. ‘Too far above yourself! That’s always been your trouble, that’s why you’ll never…’ with a visible effort, the most senior mage in the Angle Isles brought himself under control, ‘…yes… well. I think a full accounting before the full bench of the Triumvar is called for here, Ord. Present yourself immediately.’
‘Certainly,’ the warmth of Salamander’s smile could chill fruit. ‘Just as soon as my prior appointment is concluded.’
‘Nonsense! No-one takes precedence over the Triumvar, Ord. You know that. Get yourself here!’
‘His Majesty does, Portello. His secretary just called and insisted I bring everyone down to London for an audience. It seems His Majesty has been following developments rather closely, and would like an update.’ His Majesty Alfred Peregrine Roland Johanssen-Kell was himself a mage of some ability.
Portello spluttered into his beard, his face turning bright red. ‘You’re taking a were-wolf? To see the King? To the Tower?!’
‘Absolutely.’ Salamander was enjoying the old wizard’s discomfort. ‘But don’t worry… he’s house trained.’
‘Good-day!’ Sebastian Portello’s image faded out.
‘Excellent!’ Salamander said, rubbing his hands together. ‘Theo? Round up Afferton, will you? I think he’s outside with the press.’ He turned to a grinning Danny. ‘”Porky”?’
Theodric’s front garden was thick with the smell of flash-powder as the press took their photographs.
This was the scoop of the decade. As far as the reporters were concerned mandrakes, magik and rogue wizards made great copy, but the absolute winner, the front page story, was the big were-wolf that was wearing sunglasses and looking as cool and composed as if this was an everyday occurrence. No-one had been told about the dragon, Salamander Ord had seen to that.
‘Look this way... er… doggy?’ one confused journalist said, nervously.
‘I think,’ said Rufus, overseeing proceedings from his ever-present cloud of tobacco smoke, ‘that “Howler” might be better.’
‘This way, Howler!’ the brave one continued.
‘Give us a smile, Howler,’ another insisted.
‘Don’t be stupid, dogs can’t smile!’ said the first.
‘Not a dog, is he? Were-wolf, he is. Who says they can’t smile if they want to?’
‘Yeah? Right. Give us a smile, Howler. Show us your choppers, eh?’
A deep rumble issued from Afferton’s throat and his lip curled in anger… hairs on his back stood on end... and saliva dripped from fangs that were suddenly exposed. The press backed away rapidly.
‘Maybe not, eh?’
‘Good boy… good boy… nice dog… whoops!’
‘Some other time, I think! That suit you?’
‘OK! OK! We’re going!’
Afferton went inside with a satisfied swagger. It’s nice, he thought, when people show a little respect.
Salamander Ord left Jemma and Danny to Rufus’ care and the demands of the press. He returned to the safety and quiet of the conservatory, falling back into an easy chair. There was a fresh pot of tea on the side table and Salamander poured himself a cup.
‘You had to go and do it! You couldn’t resist, could you?’ With a jerk the wizard’s gaze was drawn towards the wall… above the fire… to a picture of some dear old family aunt with a sour-faced cat in her lap. Except…
…except that the old girl had disappeared, and in her place was Salamander’s ego-savant! And the look on his painting’s face was anything but jolly.
‘How did you …?’ Salamander began.
‘…find you? Easily, you old fraud. A guilty conscience will always overcome a rather vague restraining spell. Where you transgress, Ord, I follow!’
‘Good grief!’ Salamander refilled his cup and added a little milk. ‘There is nothing, you pastiche of paint, to transgress. There is no law…’
‘HA! Quote me no quotes, babbler of words. Legal me no law, bender of arguments. There is an… agreement!’
‘Sometimes,’ Salamander intoned in a clipped voice, ‘sometimes, the bounds of an agreement need to be… altered. Relaxed a little as circumstances require.’
‘As you require, you mean. Dragons, man! Upsetting time-honoured and inviolable treaties. Consider the ramifications… no… no… why should you, eh? That’s my job! But you can’t escape, Ord! You will have to answer for what you’re about to do.’
‘I should have painted a miniature, you gas bag, then you would be just a squeaking little voice in my ear. Listen! What Theolonia has done has the capacity to seriously damage our society and the one of Danny’s world. I need…’
‘I? I? There is a structure to things, you maverick magician. Others can…’
‘No!’ There was thunder in Salamander’s retort. ‘I am the one who failed here… not “others”. I am the one…’
‘Ahhh,’ sighed the ego-savant. ‘Pride! Say no more. Do as you will.’ The painting gave a sniff of disdain. ‘You always do, anyway. Sometimes I wonder why you need a conscience at all…’ The ego-savant slowly faded into the canvas, and the old lady with her sour cat took back their rightful place above the fire.
Salamander Ord puffed out his cheeks and let out his breath in one long exhalation. ‘But he’s right,’ he said to the sour-faced cat. ‘There’s a piper to pay. But I’m going to write the tune he plays.’