The Other Side of Magik

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Chapter 7

ENGLAND

Early in the morning, very early in the morning, in fact, is the best time to construct the spells for the day.

Well, maybe not exactly spells, Garreth admitted to himself, between yawns, but guises are a kind of simplistic magik. And they worked! He could still see Gloria’s face when he first came down stairs with his black hair and a simple guise made from Danny’s spare watch. Because Gloria had wanted to see Danny, that’s what she saw. She had leapt up in delight and thrown her arms around him before Arthur’s smile gave the game away.

Sitting up in bed with a pool of light around him and the grey half-light of post dawn prising the dark from his room, he was adjusting and recharging the tools of his success. Several sheets of plain white paper lay before him on the bedspread, and each one carried the symbols of its function; runes in columns represented the colours of an aura, numbers in a seemingly meaningless formula made a power circuit around a name; a school class photo with a subject circled in a particular colour. Each one bore a pictogram of one or more of the four elementals… earth, air, fire and water.

All I need now, he mused, is … he drew something across each one… his mandala… the power switch. Ah, yes! He could feel the slight tingle that his young Talent still responded to as the natural energy of the earth filtered through him and onto the paper. What he had written would have caused his math’s teacher’s eyes to bug out in surprise, for what Garreth had written was pure calculus. On the papers, the harmonics of time and energy wove the fabric of the wards together.

At home, he would have used well-thumbed almanacs to get the basics and then used a slide-rule to adjust them. Here… he grinned … computers were bloody wonderful! That’s where Emily had been so indispensable. He was very grateful for her help; so he would help her in return… a small gift for Danny.

In this world, blind eyes, it appeared, were selectively opened when one of their own triumphed. Faults of attitude and background would be overlooked if… if the one climbing his way upwards exemplified the correct dosage of apology and embarrassment about his new status. It was a market and Garreth was learning to read it, aided in no small way by the alter-memory in his mind.

He rather liked the feeling it gave him.

There was only one fly in the ointment. Barry Oldham. Vain and tough. It mattered not that Oldham had enjoyed years of domination over his less gifted school-mates, to Garreth’s new way of thinking the guy would always want more; would always be there as a challenge. Sure, he could see and understand Danny’s subtle challenges and feigned indifference to the bully, but things were different now. Weren’t they? Yes, he told himself… and if he wasn’t to be a thorn in Danny’s side, something has to be done about it.

OUTER THULE

The communications mage was a large man made to look enormous by the fur coat and heavy boots he wore.

He stood before the two dragon-folk and opened a scroll he carried. ‘Your inquiry to the Office of Magikal Malfeasance has been answered, Elder.’ This last was to the old dragon and was delivered with a small bow of respect. ‘It appears that they are aware of just such an anomaly that you described and they further inform me that an investigation is underway in the hands of one…’ he consulted his scroll, ‘Salamander Ord.’

Salamander Erasmus? The old dragon’s eyes lit up. Oh, dear me. A surprise this is of some proportion. To hear such a name after so long a time.

‘Is he known to you, elder?’

Before you were hatched, youngster. It would be twenty years or more since we last met… but I hear things. The old one tapped the side of his nose with one long finger. Wizard Emeritus he now is. Well, well.

‘Is there any further message I may convey?’ The mage handed the scroll to the scribe.

At this point in time, good mage, the answer is no. However… I suspect things will change soon enough. Oh, yes. Soon enough.

ANGLAND

Danny Royce remembered the tea.

He also vaguely remembered the room spinning around and around, then voices saying things he couldn’t understand. Two voices. But there was a problem. One of the voices was a woman. The other was his own…

…but I’m not speaking!

He was in pitch darkness, trying to put it all together. The tea, the fall, the voices. The dark. Fear rose…

Nothing made sense. It was like being half asleep after anesthetic, with snatches of conversation drifting in and out. “Partial embodiment” was one phrase he heard, and “molecular acceptance” another. He really should open his eyes and find out what was going on.

Nothing happened. His eyes wouldn’t open. My eyes won’t open! He tried to scream with lips that didn’t exist…

…but something came into the dark. Something silent and heavy

…something monstrous

…something evil!

And it pushed him away. Not with hands, but with thought and energy and… power. An image of a face appeared before him; an image of a terrible grey face with glittering, sunken eyes and hooked nose. A face of power that probed the darkness looking for…him! It pursued him, pushed him further into the dark… squeezed him into a smaller shape… a tiny shape… cowering… somewhere… in his own mind! And the pain!

Pain! The remnant of his mind screamed.

SILENCE! The image shouted, in a voice that echoed in the vast anonymity of the darkness. A voice of harsh sound, dripping with triumph. DO NOT HINDER ME, FOOL, OR THE PAIN WILL RETURN.

Who are you? Where the…?

QUIET!! LEAVE MY BODY BE! INTERFERE NOT!

Body? Body?! No! Let me out! Let me out!

NEVER! CEASE RESISTING. OR ELSE… The pain came towards him again, but this time he retreated; back… back… into a smaller place… a quiet place… a very, very tiny place. A right-hand sort of place.

Horatio Crabbe staggered to his knees and looked wildly at his sister. There was an insane smile on his new lips and a fierce light in his new eyes.

Rapidly he began to pat his body, as if checking that everything was there. Arms. Chest. Legs. Hair. Tottering on unfamiliar legs he lurched to the wall mirror and stared into it.

‘Yes!! Yes!!’ Dark hair around a thin, handsome face… green eyes and a smile of flashing white teeth… all mine!

‘Mine, Theolonia!! Mine!!’ Gasping with delight he lurched back to the table and crashed down into the chair that Danny had so recently occupied; grabbing sandwiches and cakes he stuffed them into his mouth. ‘Food…’ he crooned, ‘… real food… texture… TASTE!’ Crumbs dusted his jacket and tea dribbled down his chin. ‘I am real,’ he whispered, ‘…real.’

Theolonia let the breath she had been holding go with one long rush. He was gone! After all these years he was gone! Sweet, sweet relief, her soul cried. But she wasn’t a fool. Quickly she examined her mind, running through her psyche with practiced self-ease; searching for the hollow he had left; shutting down synapses within that had allowed him in the first place. No way will you get back into my mind, she promised

‘Old hag! Pay attention! We must act.’

‘What?’ Theolonia was jerked back into the present. ‘Old hag? You dare to call me…?’

‘Shut up, sister! Look at me! Look!!! I’m young! Young!! Look at yourself! Look at your rotting body!’ Horatio could feel the power of youth course through his new body…could feel the power of his Dark Talent spread through every fibre and muscle, through every part of his soul… except that little corner hidden way down deep inside. His mind raced there.

SHOW YOURSELF!

Sod off!

COME OUT! OR I WILL DESTROY YOU!

Silence greeted his words.

I WILL WATCH FOR YOU. I WILL…

‘Horatio! Snap out of it!’ Theolonia’s voice cracked like a whip. ‘It’s only residual personality, don’t fight it. You need it to keep the body working, you fool! Without that last shred of original soul your body would be nothing but a drooling imbecile.’

‘You dare to speak to me this way?’ the mandrake hissed. ‘ME?’

Theolonia regained her equilibrium, and the wizard re-emerged within her. ‘Be very careful, brother dear.’ Her voice was oily and sleek. ‘Threaten use of your mandrake powers now and the whole of the county will know of it in seconds. And remember also… until you access your nether-hell, your powers are no match for mine.’

‘You are the drooling imbecile, sister. You forget that I am now null. Your powers avail you not.’ His face creased into a leer of black humour.

‘Cretin!’ she spat. ‘There is the matter of your own mind. It is certainly susceptible to magik.’ She smiled sweetly, confident in her new freedom. ‘Care to test me? Hmmm?’

Long seconds passed where the mandrake battled his natural feelings. He so wanted to release his power… but common sense won the day, and he fought his urges. Presently they were no more than a memory. With a normal smile of his lips, he addressed his sister.

‘See, Theolonia.’ He held out his arms and pirouetted. ‘Sanity prevails. Shall we go about our business? I believe your coach waits?’

Theolonia Crabbe started to gather her few possessions around her. ‘Sanity, dear brother? Surely a sane mandrake is a contradiction in terms?’

Horatio bit back a reply. Soon he would be through the mirror into a world that promised untold opportunities for his powers. Let her gloat, he thought. Let her have her small moment of freedom. In a few days the ones he had summoned would appear on her doorstep and the Law would take its course. Oh, yes. What sweet revenge that would be.

‘What is your wish now, dear sister?’

‘Before we leave I will reset the spell from here. The mirror in the lad’s house will still carry the original conduits of the spell, and by the time you get there, Horatio, everything will be ready.’

Horatio’s new face struggled with his emotions. ‘Is some sort of formal farewell required, sister? I rather hope sentiment can be dispensed with.’

Visions of kissing her brother goodbye flashed through Theolonia’s mind and she shuddered at the imagery. ‘So do I, brother. So do I.’

Alone. So very alone. And frightened. So very, very frightened. Danny Royce cowered in the furthest recess of what was left of his mind and wondered how he could ever escape. A mandrake had him…whatever a mandrake was. He didn’t know. He could only hope that Salamander Ord would find out soon.

Now that the mandrake had pulled back and was concentrating on other things, there was space for him to move. Gently, Danny eased his mind out of the little place and tried to decide what to do. He didn’t want to give himself away, didn’t want Horatio to come back… the pain had been unbearable. He knew he could die!

Garreth-memory tugged at him, and he saw a way of moving around in what used to be his own mind.

Carefully, he followed the currents of thought that flowed from the mandrake… twisted, surging, foaming thoughts. Thoughts to be avoided in case they attracted attention. As he twisted and dodged his way in the direction he thought of as “upwards”, the mandrake’s thoughts became squalid and ugly, twisting over and through themselves like snakes competing for attention.

This character, Danny told himself, needs help. Really serious help.

Noises began to drift in and out. Voices. All becoming clearer as he rose “higher”. Vision… ahh. He could see again! Dimly, as through a veil, but he could see. He had found a niche to hide in. No… Garreth’s knowledge had found it for him.

Must thank that guy one day, he thought.

WHAT? YOU?!!

Danny said nothing, holding a breath that he didn’t possess, willing himself to absolute stillness.

WHERE ARE YOU? SHOW YOURSELF!

‘Horatio? Are you all right? Why do you go all quiet like that? What’s going on?’ Theolonia Crabbe had a look of concern on her face as she peered into his eyes. Danny thought she was looking directly at him, but then he heard his voice answer.

‘I’m fine. Just getting used to things, I guess. Have you got the ticket?’

‘Here. One way to Lower Thatching. It’s the last train, due in at…’ she consulted the big clock that hung outside the stationmaster’s office ‘…six-forty. Ten minutes, brother dear. Now. Pay attention. I’ll take the train to Manchester. There’s one in twenty minutes. In the morning I shall take the airship back to York. You make your way to the lad’s house.’ There was a rustling sound out of his sight.

‘You’ll need to eat, brother. The body needs food even if you don’t. Do not neglect it!’

Danny crouched behind the eyes, quiet as a mouse. An idea was forming… something totally different… he couldn’t let himself be kidnapped this way. Something needed to be done… to let others know… even if it meant risking his own life. He just had to wait until the wizard wasn’t around’ because he felt she might have the power to do something about it… whereas this mandrake creature couldn’t get him in his hidden place. And the wizard had said he needed residual personality to survive.

So I’m safe. I just need to stay away from the pain. The mandrake didn’t have a clue. Just you wait, he smiled to himself.

‘One last thing, brother. Be very careful. Let no-one sees you, and above all, do not harm anyone. It could jeopardize your safety.’

‘No killing,’ he agreed. ‘That’ll keep the psychic emanations down, anyway. Less chance of discovery.’

Theolonia held up a thin, gloved finger. ‘There is one thing you can destroy, brother. And with my blessing.’

‘And what would that be?’

‘The cat, Horatio. I would be very pleased if you killed the cat.’

Afferton Smythe shuffled along a narrow lane that joined the street where Danny boarded.

It was a good spot to watch from because the lodging house was almost directly across the road from the lane and the shadows in the lane were particularly deep and sinister.

His old eyes looked up at the sky, where the last of the evening grey was turning black. Another half hour, he told himself. Just another half hour.

Afferton Smythe knew his body was worn out. It had been for years. But what Sal had done for him… he wiped a tear from his eye at the thought. To feel that youth and power again! The eagerness! To be lord of the night again! To feel the cold silence of fear spread around him like ripples in a pond. Ahhh! No price could be too high for something so precious regained. No price!

A coach rattled past him and Afferton’s heart froze. There was the foul corruption! Coming from the coach! There was no mistake. No… there was no mistake. He turned about and shuffled along as he followed it, his nose telling him what his eyes couldn’t see; it was heading for the station.

The old man arrived moments before the train was due; he was out of breath and puffing heavily when, through the small crowd, he caught sight of a familiar figure standing on the platform. Danny! With a grin on his old face Afferton Smythe stepped forward…

…something was wrong

…it was Danny’s shape

…but the emanations that came from the figure weren’t Danny’s!

…corruption! The foul stench of corruption came from Danny!

With a sinking heart, Afferton Smythe realized that the creature they sought now possessed Danny’s body. What should he do? If he went to call Salamander the mandrake would get away. But if he followed… he could call Salamander later. Yes. That’s what he would do.

Afferton Smythe settled down in the centre of the middle carriage of the little three-carriage train that was the last commuter train out of Chester. There were no separate compartments, because it was a commuter, just a centre aisle and rows of seats either side.

He could see Danny sitting in the front of the first carriage, staring out into the night. As soon as we’re alone, Afferton promised himself, I’ll make you pay for destroying that nice young lad… mandrake or not, I’ll tear your throat out.

Far from being destroyed, Danny Royce was actually planning a guerrilla war, one in which the weapon of choice was sanity, and the ammunition was literally music to the ears. He’d spotted Afferton as he peeked through the mandrake’s eyes… and knew he wasn’t alone. They knew… his friends knew what had happened and Afferton was following him.

I need to let them know I’m still here, he thought. Let’s see, he mused, I think we’ll open with Pink Floyd… or maybe… yeah… Lumbar Punch should do…

Horatio didn’t see the night roll by outside, his mind’s eye was within. With his thoughts. Now that he had a body the world looked a different place; everything was new and bright. If only he could have one sacred site to feast on; one pit of sins to fully charge his powers before he crossed over. Ahh, he sighed to himself, what will they make of me….

‘YOU TELL ME YOU DON’T CAAAAARE…

… THAT IT’S NOT FAIR…AIR…AIR…

… YOU BITCH!’

The alien lyrics burst forth from his mouth at the top of his voice and he jerked back in the seat. Panic and confusion seized him.

‘LEAVE ME THE WAY YOU FOUND ME…

… HAPPY AND ALOOOOONE…’

Every eye in the carriage was on him, and he quailed before them.

WHAT ARE YOU DOING??

Sticking it up you, dragon’s breath. It’s Lumbar Punch. Like it? No? Maybe some Pink Floyd, eh?

CEASE!! The mandrake scoured the pathways of the lad’s mind, seeking out the source of annoyance, but his tormentor had fled back to that place he couldn’t reach. The lad was too quick! The other passengers watched him with concern. Damn!

‘Sorry,’ he said to a little old lady across the aisle from him, his mind desperately conjuring up an explanation. ‘Er… foreign… er… folk music lessons.’ He gave her a wan smile. ‘Practice for… ummm… exams.’

‘They sound very difficult,’ she replied. ‘You must have to practice all the time’

He nodded. ‘Yeah. All the time…’

‘…YOU’RE ON YOUR OOOOWN…

…YOU BITCH!’

‘That’s a very strange language, you know,’ the little old lady said, ignoring the outburst. ‘My niece studies languages. Do you know…?’ Her story rambled on as Horatio delved into his mind once more, filling up the space with his presence and driving Danny back.

IF YOU PERSIST, Horatio thought in the empty spaces of his new mind, I WILL DESTROY THE GIRL.

There was no answer. With a sigh, Horatio turned back to the window, the old lady’s story droning on and on in his ears as his nightmare journey rolled along.

Alone at the rear of the coach, Afferton smiled to himself. Well done, Danny… you’re still there.

The little station at Lower Thatching was pooled with the orange light of gas-lamps as the passengers disembarked.

Horatio Crabbe walked in a daze to the lane that led to the lad’s house. He needed half of his consciousness just to keep the lad bottled up in the small corner he’d retreated to, and so that to the outside world he looked half asleep.

An old man followed him for a while, unnoticed amid the dozen or so people who had also got off the train. Quietly, the old man slipped from the pool of light and melted away into the night.

The Aldredge house was a dark mass against the night. The lights of the front room were lit and sounds of a PV came faintly out into the night. At the rear, a small light lit the empty kitchen.

ATTEND ME, Horatio bellowed into the cavity of his mind.

What do you want? What are you going to do?

WHY, I’M GOING TO TAKE YOU HOME. I’M GOING TO SWAP BACK WITH THE OTHER. BUT IF YOU MAKE ONE SOUND I WILL KILL ALL INSIDE. DO YOU UNDERSTAND?

Yes.

Very quietly Horatio opened the kitchen door. He could see through the kitchen door down the length f the hallway. There was the staircase to the lad’s room; and there opposite was the door to the front room. It was closed and thin lines of light spilled from its edges. Good, he sighed to himself.

Carefully, and not rushing at all, he made his way along the hall. There was no sense of movement from the room. His foot mounted the staircase; there was no creak of treads as he ascended. Holding a breath that was strange and new to him Horatio stepped off the stairs and grasped the doorknob to the lad’s room. It turned smoothly under his hand. Gently, he closed it behind him, turned his head…

…and there was the mirror! He saw his wild-eyed reflection in it and he nearly laughed at himself. So close! So…

…the mirror clouded

…runes appeared

…the mirror cleared

…and a new room met his eyes. Very early light squeezed around the curtains, but he could make out a shape in the bed. With a dry mouth Horatio approached the mirror and placed his hands against it.

Come to me, he willed, Come to me… come to me…

ENGLAND

In the garage, after work and school, Arthur was being given a lesson in magic.

A blackboard had been set up and it was covered with a rather elegant representation of a lotus blossom inside an octogram. In an old exercise book, Arthur was trying to copy the symbol with his eyes shut, and doing quite a good job.

‘Better,’ Garreth told him. ‘Now imagine it and trace it on the roof of the car.’ Arthur doodled the symbol with his finger, and then rubbed it out.

‘Great, Arthur.’ Garreth didn’t exactly look like a teacher, as he was dressed in his school blazer and tie, and his dark hair flopped the way a teacher’s didn’t, but he was a teacher none the less. A teacher of magic. Well… a teacher of some of the Base Laws that Arthur seemed receptive to, anyway.

‘The easier your mandala comes to mind, the clearer the image when you call upon it, the easier it will be for you to read the earth harmonies.’ He grinned. ‘We’ll make a sub-junior mage out of you yet.’

Arthur’s preconceptions of magic had been literally gleaned from books of fable and fantasy. In them, sorcerers and wizards merely had to wish a thing, or invoke something or other, for cataclysmic powers to be unleashed. Reality, his aching brain knew, was utterly different. For a start, it was bloody hard work! Just trying to understand the simplest of the Base Laws had taxed his mind like no other subject. If it wasn’t for the tiniest amount of Talent that Garreth had identified in his ability to read people, even that much would have been beyond him.

And there were no cataclysmic powers. Just a clearer image of emotions and an intuitive feel for the presence of the four building blocks of what Garreth called the Art Arcana; causality, proximity, probability and paradox. The mandala was his own personal signature, a mnemonic to align his mental receptors, and just finding that had taxed Garreth to the utmost!

At nights he had practised matching cards that were spread out face down, picking them up in pairs. If he really thought hard, with his hands hovering over them trying to feel the sympathetic molecules, then he usually got them all correct. But it was very, very hard work; his respect for Garreth grew by leaps and bounds.

How powerful were they in the other world, he wondered, when Garreth had failed at the subject? Amazing!

‘How do you think it would work,’ he asked Garreth, ‘if I put that design on… say… my business cards? Or if I…’ He stopped when he saw the look on Garreth’s face. ‘What’s wrong?’

‘Look, Arthur,’ Garreth said with some trepidation, ‘where I come from it’s really… really… important to understand the difference between earth magic and spells. If you know your mandala and mantra, and you can harmonise and empathise with both animate and inanimate,’ he spoke as if reciting a text from his own days at College, which was exactly what he was doing, ‘then there is an understanding of things without there being an interaction of things. Yes?

‘If you modify that by influencing the actions of another person through manipulation, by, say, giving them a card with your personal mandala on it, then that’s a spell.’

‘A spell? That’s a spell?’

‘It sure is,’ Garreth informed his stunned alter-father. ‘Because it modifies behaviour without agreement. And that’s illegal.’

Arthur had been impressed by Garreth’s description of his world and the total obedience and dedication of the magical profession to the Law. ‘So no spells. OK? How can I use it?’

Garreth grinned with relief; even though Arthur’s talent was minuscule, he could still hurt people if he didn’t do the right thing. ‘Empathy. In all things. People, situations, objects. You’ll find a harmony between things that either exist now or will exist if certain natural conditions are met.’

‘By pointing out to a customer that a certain silver Opel would be the perfect car?’

‘Absolutely. No coercion. The customer’s own symbiology would soon accept the correctness of the option, and the customer would make the decision for himself. Polymorphic empathy. Not magic.’ Garreth raked his fingers through his hair and gave Arthur a quizzical look. ‘I know that earth-magic works here, because it’s natural in this world too. I’m not certain to what extent constructed magic would work in a world of null. It could be dangerous to try.’

‘You said “symbiology”.’

‘You don’t have that word? Sympathetic, sub-molecular harmony, then.’

‘Okay, Garreth. We do it your way.’ He checked his watch. ‘Time to get going, I think.’

‘I should tell you something,’ Garreth knew Arthur needed the whole story before they left the garage. The consequences could be severe if he didn’t fully understand. ‘Something that’s impressed into every first year student.

‘All spells are balanced by applications of higher levels of the Base Laws. Positive against negative, negative against positive.’ He saw the confusion on Arthur’s face. ‘It’s a mathematical thing. And without knowledge of them, there are serious effects.’

‘What effects?’

‘Causality, probability and paradox can loop. They can also invert. Or both. It’s an accumulative effect.’

Arthur thought hard. ‘So. Uncontrolled use of magic will rebound on the magician. Is that what you’re trying to say?’

Garreth nodded. ‘Yeah. I do what I do at the level I’m qualified at and no more. It’s dangerous to do more; dangerous to me and to others. There are no senior mages here to put thing right if I stuff up. It takes six years just to get through the basics, Arthur, and that doesn’t include the higher houses of the five central laws… and nothing whatsoever of the Gnostic and Osirian laws.’

Arthur shook his head in wonder. ‘There goes my career in magic,’ he announced. ‘Cars it is then. Let’s go and have dinner, eh?’ He was surprisingly hungry.

ANGLAND

Come to me… that’s it…come to me…

The figure in the bed rolled over, half asleep. One arm poked out and slowly threw the covers back. Danny wanted to scream out… NO! DON’T DO IT! But the mandrake’s threat was real and he couldn’t risk other people’s safety. And with a mounting sense of horror he watched Garreth slowly stumble out of bed …

…Yes... to me… to me… Horatio willed the lad forward… so close… almost there. The lad was now passing the mirror…

…his eyes opened fully, and he turned his head

…mouth wide open in a silent scream of shock

…the mirror rippled and Horatio reached out

…and the spell was complete.

‘…AAAAARRGHHH!!! NO! NO!’ Garreth collapsed on the floor, his head spinning. Wild-eyed he looked about... a familiar sight greeted him. His room!

‘MY ROOM! I’M HOME!’ He half-sobbed the words. Footsteps banged their way up the stairs outside, and then the door was flung open. Silhouetted against the outer light were two familiar figures…

‘Mum… Dad!’ He threw himself into their welcoming arms as relief gave way to tears.

Afferton Smythe watched from the shadows of the garden.

In his arms he carried Mr. Toast; the old cat had walked out of the night and insisted his friend pick him up. He saw Danny enter the house and he feared the worst. Was the thing inside Danny going to kill Garreth’s parents? Afferton mentally prepared himself for Changing… it would only be a matter of seconds… his rejuvenated lycanthropic soul welled up…

Mr. Toast laid his ears back and leaped to the ground; he could see the shape within and wanted no part of it… no matter how friendly the old man was. A tree would be the best place to watch events from, he decided.

A faint light showed in an upper room and Afferton settled back down; Danny wasn’t there to harm Garreth’s parents after all. Then what was he doing? He saw a faint flash of light in the upper window…

…he heard the scream. By the time Afferton had entered the kitchen, Garreth’s parents had helped him downstairs; they turned to him in surprise.

‘I’m a friend of Danny’s,’ he told them. ‘Mr. Ord asked me to watch him.’ He shuffled closer and inspected the lad. ‘We have to get to Chester straight away. Mr. Pendragon has to know.’

Mary Aldredge pulled her son tight to her. ‘No. Garreth’s home now. Anything else can wait until tomorrow.’ She didn’t like the scruffy old man who had burst into their home. But something flashed in his eyes… something golden… and his voice strengthened.

‘No,’ she heard him say, ‘we will go now. The five of us will go right now.’

‘Five?’ Edgar asked, puzzled.

‘Yes,’ Afferton confirmed, looking around for something on the floor... and finding it. ‘I need another chat with your cat.’

OUTER THULE

Elder! Elder! The young scribe hurried through the polished tunnels in some agitation.

The old one was reclining on a long, low bench eating a watermelon. It wore a bib around its neck to protect its tabard and there was a wide copper bowl by its side that contained the seeds. There was a look of bliss in the old one’s eyes as it slowly enjoyed the rare luxury, and every few seconds its lips would purse and a seed would be delicately and expertly spat into the bowl.

Elder! It halted before the old one, who raised one quizzical eye.

Hmmm? Ptooo… ping! What disturbs you now? Ptooo… ping!

I’m afraid…

Yes? Ptooo… ping!

I’m afraid it’s happened again!

Ptooo… Would you pick that seed up for me, please?

ENGLAND

Horatio Crabbe listened to the sounds of the morning. In them he could hear echoes of that which he sought; misery, doubt, despair pain. His soul could feel them. Tiny they were, just snippets of negativity; but if the traces were there in abundance, then greater quantities would surely be available.

He knew he was going to like this world. There was so much free energy just floating around; so many bad things just waiting for some-one like him to give them a home.

The lad’s parents had been so easy to fool. A simple guise, a simple little common denominator guise; that’s all it took. They wanted to believe in their son, therefore he ensured they did. If everyone was as easy to control as them, he was going to do very well indeed.

But first, he needed to build his strength. He could feel the power beneath the aerial the lad had built and he could use that power. Not to feed his own demand like any common wizard… like his sister!... but to attract those tiny morsels of soul-nourishing sins. He didn’t have to hurry... he had all the time in the world.

WHAT DO YOU THINK NOW? he asked the hidden part of the lad’s mind. ARE YOU HAPPY TO BE HOME? NO? Silence greeted him. PLAY NO GAMES WITH ME. REMEMBER… LIVES ARE IN MY HANDS.

He had only had a body for one day, but already Horatio was very, very impressed with it.

ANGLAND

The news was devastating to Salamander Ord.

‘I’m sorry, Sal,’ Afferton’s image said from the paraphone. ‘I don’t know how the mandrake got to Danny.’ Afferton was holding Mr. Toast. ‘There was a very strong emanation coming from him, that’s for sure. Much stronger than the one on Garreth.’ He stroked the cat. ‘But here’s the funny thing… they were the same aura, the same smell. Only one was a lot stronger than the other.’ He managed to look a little sheepish. ‘There’s something else, Sal. Something Mr. Toast just remembered.’

‘What? What’s new?’

‘The cat thought “he” on one occasion, and “she” on another. Certainly the imagery was of “them”.’

Them? Someone helps a mandrake? Salamander’s eyes were loaded with anger. ‘Them? Someone is helping a mandrake? Are you sure the cat’s right, Afferton?’

‘Absolutely. Two minds, Sal. One him, one her.’

‘Spectral emanations are one mind; two minds mean someone has given over their mind.’

‘Or has been forced,’ Rufus offered, coming into view behind Afferton.

‘No!’ Vehemently. ‘A forced mind is a hidden mind, it wouldn’t be seen. No. No. This is willing. And more, my friend. If the mandrake was loose, he or she could travel the astral plains without assistance. Assistance means that the mandrake is not loose… is not free.’ His expression grew thoughtful and he rubbed his chin. ‘Not free. Two minds in one, maybe? One male. One female. Which, I wonder, is which?’

‘What can we do now, Salamander?’

‘Jemma’s and Garreth’s houses seem to be some sort of nexus for this Null business. Afferton, would you keep an eye on them for a few days, please?’

‘Salamander,’ Rufus said, ‘if Garreth’s back and whatever now inhabits Danny is gone, what can we do? The trail appears to be cold.’

Salamander knew his friend spoke the truth. But it stuck in his throat all the same. A mandrake appears from nowhere, with no warning at all. Then there is someone giving it assistance. The cat says they’re one and the same. An ancient book is used to open the path between realities and two lads are swapped over. The book has never been seen. Why? The mandrake takes over one of the lads and they swap back again. Why? Did both minds go? Who were they? And that number drifted into his thoughts again…1066. The date Danny said their worlds diverged.

On Salamander’s desk was a plain white envelop that had been delivered by hand that morning. It bore only his name and title but the left-hand upper corner was embossed with the three symbols of the Arts Arcana, the eye, the ankh and the circle. The Office of Magikal Malfeasance had sent him a note informing him of an enquiry made concerning his investigation and their response to it. He turned the envelop in his hand.

‘Cold, Rufus? That may be the most profound thing you have ever said.’ He shaped a thought that had been hovering in his mind. ‘Have Garreth ready to travel, will you? Cold weather dress.’

‘Certainly; but what’s up?’

‘The trail, Rufus. I think I may just have found a way to bring Daniel back.’

When he was alone, Salamander turned his eye to his ego-savant.

‘Not a word from you!’ An eye opened in the painting and turned a baleful gaze towards the wizard.

‘Wouldn’t dream of it.’

‘Good.’

‘You’re on your own now. Small loss, if you ask me.’

‘What?’

‘I know what you’re going to do; so go ahead and make your calls. You might as well go the whole hog.’

‘Ah ha! You approve, do you? What a sour taste that must leave in your mouth.’

‘When a man throws himself from a cliff top, Ord, who would be foolish enough to hold on to him? Eh?’ The painting yawned. ‘Go ahead. Call the OMM. I’ll bet you’re not going to tell them what you’re really going to do.’

‘That,’ agreed the wizard, ‘would be stupid.’

A day later, above the darkened streets and lanes of Lower Thatching something big and ponderous and black descended from the sky.

Garreth stood by the side of the mill pond and looked up into the night. This was the spot Mr. Pendragon had told him to wait, but try as he might he hadn’t been able to find out what was going on. By his feet sat a small suitcase that contained heavy, warm clothes. He heard the throb of propellers and something over his head blotted out the stars and sank to the ground across the pond from where he stood. A sliver of light opened in the night, throwing a ribbon of brightness on to the ground and he heard Salamander Ord’s voice.

‘Inside, Garreth,’ the wizard called by way of greeting, and Garreth gathered his belongings and jogged around the pond to him. He met the wizard as he climbed the few steps into the doorway, a squat shape dark against the light. Garreth recognised the gondola. The bulk above was a dirigible. A small one. And it was jet black.

There was one small cabin to the rear and Salamander stepped into it, beckoning him to follow. Garreth just had time for a quick glimpse of the man in uniform before Salamander closed the door. The man was a naval officer. Or looked like one.

The cabin was spartan. There were two pull-down seats that could double as cots, a fold-away sink just like the railway carriages had, a small tea set and stove and a shrouded lamp hanging from the ceiling. The only window was covered with a solid shutter. There were four small boxes and two suitcases already propped against the outer wall.

‘Sit down, lad,’ Salamander told him, dragging one of the boxes over and checking its contents.

‘Err,’ said Garreth, ‘what’s… well, where… erm …’

‘Are we going?’ Salamander looked up and smiled. ‘North, lad.’ His hands were busy in the box. ‘Suffice to say, young Garreth, that we shall be gone for three days…’ there was a lurch that pressed them into their seats as the airship sought its natural habitat in the dark skies above, ‘… and at the end, you will have had a most amazing experience… here’s your breakfast,’ he handed Garreth the package, ‘and there’s tea in the thermo.’ With that, Salamander Ord stretched out on his cot and plumped a cushion behind his head.

‘Is this to do with Danny?’ Garreth asked. The memories were so vivid now that he was back home, yet it was hard to believe what had happened. He did know that something had taken possession of Danny, and if the mad staring eyes he had seen in the mirror were any indication, then whatever it was, was completely insane. Mandrake, the wizard had told him, and his heart had sickened at the news; because of all the mages and wizards in his world, only he knew just how devastating would simple earth-magik be in the hands of such a one. And Master Ord had listened to him… and believed him.

‘Yes. It’s to do with Danny. We have to get him back and I can’t use the Book of Null again.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘There’s no way he will go near a mirror. Besides, with his powers he could nullify any attempt. And I want him back, Garreth. I want to free Danny of the mandrake.

‘Why don’t I remember this mandrake,’ he tapped his temple, ‘like I do Danny?’

‘Because the mandrake’s not real, Garreth. It’s the soul of a mandrake; there’s no physical substance to attach to. Don’t worry; the mandrake won’t remember you either.’ The last was said with a grin. ‘Now, this dirigible, lad, is a naval courier vessel.’ He scratched absently at his stubbly cheek. ‘Rather quicker than the commercial variety; and speed is of the essence.’ He leaned forward towards Garreth. ‘If I’m correct, there is a way to bring him back. It will require bravery on your part, and co-operation on theirs.’

‘Er... who are we talking about, Master Ord?’

‘Dragon-folk, lad. We’re talking about dragons.’ Everyone knew about dragons; that is, they knew they existed and that they inhabited the cold Northern wastes. They didn’t know why. The common folk knew that dragons provided rare earths and minerals; they didn’t know how. Only mages of high rank were allowed regular contact and they knew the answers; they knew the secret of dragon-folk. And Salamander Ord had to divulge that secret so that Garreth would be prepared for when they met.

‘Alright,’ Salamander said, sitting up straight. ‘Slide that box over… that’s right… now pass those saucers. Good. Now. Pay attention, Garreth.’ The wizard placed a single saucer in the centre of one of the boxes. ‘That’s us,’ he said. ‘Our world, or universe… semantics don’t matter at this stage.’ He accepted the saucers from the lad and placed another one next to the first so that the rims touched. ‘That is Danny’s world. Where they touch is the point in space-time where they can access each other. Understand?’

‘The Book of Null,’ Garreth breathed.

‘Correct. Now watch.’ He laid several saucers around the first until there was a ring of saucers all touching the central one. ‘Us here in the centre, Danny there touching; the door between. Move to the next saucer... clockwise or anti-clockwise, it doesn’t matter. Notice how the same conditions occur, we touch another world; but that second world also touches your world.’

‘I’ve got it.’ Understanding lit up Garreth’s face. ‘That third saucer is another reality that touches them like ours does, and you can access it like you can ours.’ He studied the table. ‘That means…’ his voice trailed off as the implications hit him.

‘Yes?’ prompted Salamander, his white eyebrows raised in quizzical expectation.

‘That means that our world can access the third one!’

‘Exactly! Well done.’ His finger pointed to the third saucer. ‘Dragons come from there. They are common in the history of both our world and, I believe, Danny’s; but I suspect that most didn’t survive in his world for long. They obviously live on there in myth and legend, but from what I’ve seen in his mind, his people have forgotten entirely what they look like.’

‘You mean huge flying reptiles with massive wings and teeth?’ Garreth had an image of Danny’s memory… ‘The fire-breathing bit sounds a bit corny to me…’

‘That part, believe it or not, is right. It’s a result of kinetic build-up because of their need to expand.’

‘What?’ blurted Garreth.

‘Dragons are a little bit different, lad. They don’t quite fit into our understanding of life; perhaps what I should give you, lad, is a… technical specification.

‘Imagine,’ he told his audience of one, ‘this…’

…a fiercely intelligent creature six feet tall, that looks like a sea-horse, but stands upright on rear legs very much like a small dinosaur. Imagine two arms that end in three long fingers and an opposable thumb. Instead of dorsal fins, dragons have a carapace that carries four membranous wings rather like a dragonfly.

To fly, dragons need to expand; they have to increase the surface area of their wings without increasing mass. So to accomplish that, they have exo-skeletons of micro-platelets that are made from bio-titanium foam. These form sliding scales and allow them to dramatically increase their size. Internal organs are carbon reinforced and are protected from temperature variations by a heat sink that envelops them when the body expands and diverts heat into the exo-skeleton.

Dragon eyes are diamond platelets in a silicon fluid. When normal they look like human eyes, dense and circular. But when expanded, they look like a giant compound eye of tiny silver segments; they have an iris that the dragon can change to view variable temporal and dimensional anomalies.

Teeth and claws are variations on the scales; they are manganese micro-platelets that are deep blue and hollow. Their wings are translucent membranes of latticed metallised bio-hydrogen and are iridescent.

‘Can you picture them in your mind?’

‘Wow!’ Garreth finally managed to say, his eyes vacant and staring off somewhere. Then they clicked back on again. ‘How big are they? And fire… you said they breathe fire.’

‘Normally, they’re about as big as you, lad; but when they fly they expand to sixty feet or more. And the fire is actually superheated air from the kinetic heat sink. That’s why they need cold climes. Over here, millennia ago, enough made it to the northern lands to establish a breeding colony and they’ve been there ever since.’

‘So, how did they get there? Here.’ Garreth pointed to the saucers. ‘I mean, how did they cross over without spells or magicians?’

‘I have to trust you, Garreth. I have to trust you because there’s no other option. But what I have just disclosed is…’ the wizard’s eyes bored into Garreth’s, ‘of the utmost secrecy. You will never mention this to another soul.’ Garreth knew with absolute certainty that Salamander Ord was right.

‘Dragons,’ Salamander continued, ‘affect magik; it doesn’t work properly around them. Therefore, they didn’t come to this world by magical means. I think they came here because they were… designed to!’

Twenty hours crawled by. Then came the single note of a chime that echoed through the ship, and Salamander sat upright. Garreth looked out of the window, as whiteness rushed up to the window. Then, soft as snow, they were down. Outside, Garreth stared around, but there were no features of the ground that could be distinguished; it was a tableau of frozen waves, white-ridges dancing in gelid harmony all the way to the horizon. In every direction.

The weather was picture-book perfect, for the Arctic. A cloudless sky of azure above, crystal whiteness crisp and brilliant below… and a seeping cold that pulled the marrow out of Garreth’s bones.

‘Over there!’ Salamander shouted, as he pointed to a low, snow-covered building that Garreth had failed to notice. There was a small dark square of an open door that bespoke of warmth, and he ran for it, floundering under the big, heavy coat. The icy air made his throat and lungs ache. He had never seen or felt snow such as this… it crunched with a hard snap when he walked on it.

The door led to a set of stairs that in turn led downwards… a long way downwards. Down past the snow and into the very rock itself. Into the warm. Into a large, rough-hewn cavern that was full of people industriously minding their own businesses and some rather strange aromas. Metallic noises and wisps of steam drifted about in the background.

Their bags and boxes were already stacked at their feet and a small buggy stood waiting their attention. It was, Garreth noted, a horse buggy, but in place of the horse a small, a three-wheeled steam engine had been installed. This place is definitely weird, he muttered to himself, one minute I’m sucked through a mirror, next I’m sucked back again… now I end up in… where?

‘Dragon country!’ he exclaimed. ‘This is dragon country, isn’t it?’ It had to be! It was the only thing that made sense.

Salamander Ord loaded the bags and boxes into the buggy, and climbed aboard. He shrugged out of his coat and threw it over the boxes. ‘Up you come, lad. We’ve a drive ahead of us here.’

There was a self-satisfied grin on the wizards face; I’m right, Garreth told himself, adding his own coat to the pile. There’s no other explanation… is there? Salamander put the buggy into gear and got under way.

There were storerooms along each wall and a smooth, narrow, delineated path down the centre of the cavern that was just wide enough for the buggy. People walked along it pushing hand carts and the like, and they stepped from the path as the buggy approached, stepping back on to it when it had passed.

Now the cavern roof lowered, and the walls narrowed. Soon there was only a tunnel leading into the rock, and little oil lamps held in niches showed just how far the tunnel went. It went a long, long way.

And it got warmer the further they went.

Garreth almost missed the opening.

In the gloom of the tunnel, a dark patch on one wall was all-but invisible. The tunnel carried on straight ahead, but there was a large hollow in the side, a space large enough to turn a buggy around in. And in there was a set of iron-bound doors, large and thick and heavy.

Salamander Ord steered the buggy up to the doors and brought it to a halt. The little steam engine continued to pop and wheeze for several moments after he had turned the fuel off, and the sound merely highlighted their isolation.

‘Now, pay attention, if you will,’ Salamander said to Garreth. ‘I have brought you here because of Danny’s null characteristics; you, lad, are evidence. Everything you say or do is to be your own choice.’ The wizard’s eyes looked long and hard into Garreth’s. ‘I cannot even make the simplest of personal comment least it affect you in some way. Later, when we’re done here…’ he placed his hand on Garreth’s shoulder, ‘I’ll explain everything. Now. Knock on the door, if you will.’

The knocker was a heavy lump of shapeless bronze that swung on a rope. Garreth lifted it and let it fall… and he heard the echo from beyond the door.

‘Louder, Garreth. Give it a mighty swing… they’re a little deaf.’

BOOOOMMMM!!! This time the echo rolled like a wave up and down the tunnel. There was the faintest of smiles on Salamander’s face, and Garreth wondered…

STOP DOING THAT!! ARE YOU DEAF?? The voice was shouted, but had no sound; it bypassed his ears and appeared in his mind… it made his brain itch. At that same moment the door was wrenched open and the strangest creature he had ever seen stood there with its hands on its hips glaring up at him!

Garreth’s mind and mouth couldn’t quite coincide; his mouth was moving, but his mind wasn’t putting words in it, because…

…because what he was looking at was the creature that Salamander had described! What popped into Garreth’s mind was a picture he’d seen long ago at school... a picture of a reconstructed dinosaur... a small carnivore with long, slim legs designed for running… and with three long, fine claws at the end.

But the most amazing thing, he recalled later, were the colours that dusted the skin. The head and spine were crested in dark, dark green, and the colour faded to pale aqua as it travelled down the flanks. The inner arms and exposed chest were white… a white that sparkled like reflective paint.

Ah! Deaf and mute! Ha! No wizard thee. Golem are we? Again the words just popped into his head, and he imagined they sounded waspish and clipped.

‘Forgive the lad,’ Salamander Ord said, stepping from around the buggy, ‘but you are the first dragon he’s actually met.’ The dragon stepped forward and extended its right hand, and Salamander gripped it in his own and shook it.

Master magician, expected and welcomed thou most assuredly are. Apologies for your sorely afflicted novitiate. The dragon peered closely at Garreth, its eyes squinting. The crafting of magik has improved a pace, this one thinks, if neither ears nor mouth are required.

‘Ah…’ Garreth said intelligently. ‘I... er… I’m not…’

Amazement is mine, the dragon cried; it works… perhaps with springs and keys to wind it… yes?

Gareth Aldredge was absolutely lost. He’d never in his wildest imagination ever expected to meet a dragon, let alone talk to one. A dragon, moreover, that was taking the mickey. He took a deep breath and extended his own hand…

‘Hi. I’m Garreth Aldredge. Pleased to meet you.’ The dragon’s hand was as long as his own, but narrower because of it only having three fingers; and it was soft. The pads of its fingers curled around his hand and he could feel the pressure from the long, tapered nails. Blue nails.

Lo. Named I am thus Lha’thu’cha. Bidden I am to bring you forth. Follow.

Salamander gave two small boxes to Garreth and carried one himself, then followed the small green dragon inside. There was a small, thin carapace on the dragon’s back that ran from the base of its neck to mid-point down its back, and a stubby tail protruded from beneath the tabard. It walked with a slightly swaying motion.

They were led along another, narrow tunnel. As with the outer tunnel this one was lit by what appeared to be small candles behind glass lenses, and the light was even and steady. The walls, Garreth noted with surprise, were not like the outside tunnel at all. Here the very rock had been flattened and highly polished and the walls, ceiling and floor were as straight as a die; coloured bands of ores and aggregates ran like veins through it. Whoever built this, he though, is pretty damn clever.

The tunnel opened up, and opened up again. Other corridors branched off it, and all were lit. There was brightness to the place that belied the fact they were far underground. Then, a final door before them. Two large handles graced the outside and their guide seized them and pulled back…

…a large, high-domed space greeted them. Polished rock were the walls and floor, while from high above a column of bright light poured down; it looked like sunlight. And a cool breeze followed it.

Salamander Ord had seen this room before; many years before. He had seen it once and never again, but it was exactly as he remembered it to be. The floor was dotted with long, low, wooden seats that were shaped to suit anatomies not human; there were rows and rows of box-like shelving around the walls that held scrolls and steles. And there were lots of doors that lead off to places he could only guess at. This was a Moot Hall, a gathering place of the dragon-folk. Their guide, Lha’thu’cha waved them to a seat, crossed the hall to a side door and left them alone.

But so far, they had only seen the one dragon.

Garreth’s eyes drank in the hall, anxious to remember every detail. And the weird thing was, he noted, how untidy the place was. Scrolls lay on side tables and seats. What looked suspiciously like drinking cups were in plentiful evidence on those same tables. Then his eyes boggled…

‘Is that an ashtray?!’ he exclaimed, pointing to a table. But the wizard refused to be drawn…

…the side door opened again, and this time there were two dragons. Garreth immediately recognised Lha’th… Luh’cha… Luther… yeah, Luther will do, he decided… and it was obvious that the second dragon was very old because it was bent forward from the waist, walked with a stick and Luther held its other arm. It wore a similar tabard to the younger dragon. As the pair neared, he could see the grey around the throat and muzzle of the old dragon, and he noticed that its skin was faded and dull compared to Luther’s vibrant display.

Slowly, as if arthritic, the old dragon eased itself down onto a seat, and Luther fussed around it with cushions. There was suddenly a strong itch in Garreth’s mind, much stronger than when Luther had talked to him, and he imagined that he could almost hear… sounds. Then Luther brought a seat over for them to sit on and he knew he’d heard dragons talking to each other. They hadn’t made a sound.

Reunions sad they are Salamander Erasmus, the old dragon said, serving only to mirror the years. The eyes were very bright and peered at Salamander as if reconciling his image with the memory. Your mirror, wizard emeritus, flattering is.

‘Twenty years is a long time in my world, Chu’thu’ukk, and I fear they wear on me badly. While you look exactly as when we last met.’

Garreth nearly laughed aloud… Chu’thu’ukk! Who makes up these names? Where do they…? he stopped as two pairs of almost-human eyes slowly swiveled around and fixed on him. Oh, no! They can read my mind! Bugger!!

Strangeness you bring, master magician. To me, youngster. A crooked finger beckoned and pointed to a spot directly in front of the old dragon, and Garreth was held in the gaze of alien eyes.

More than the eye is met with, no? No conjuration this? Then how? Two in one? The old dragon’s hand came up and stroked its chin while the eyes perused him. Something awry, my classic conjurer… something…

…there was a sound, faint at first but gaining in volume, as of a thousand knives being drawn over hard stone….

sssssthhssssthhsssthhhssssssssthhssss

…and the face before him changed!

…widened… lengthened

sssssthhssssthhsssthhhssssthssssthhssss

And grew! Garreth tried to step back but Salamander’s hand held him rooted to the spot…

…and all the time the dragon grew. The sounds of furniture crashing to the floor came to his ear, and a blanket of warmth enveloped him. And all the time the dragon grew…

…and grew

…and grew. The tabard split and fell to the floor. Wider, taller. The eyes became silver orbs…

sssssssssssssthhssssthssssssssssssthhssss

…as big as dinner plates. The tail lengthened into a long taper, the carapace bulged, and rear legs became enfolded in the long, sinuous body…

ssssthsssssssssthhssssthththssssssssssssthhssss

…and the front teeth became curved and long. Very long. A heat haze issued from between them.

The noise ceased and a giant, snake-like dragon filled the hall. It towered above him, arms folded across its chest. But it was the eyes that held Garreth in thrall. They were segmented like an insect’s eyes… and there was a thin black vertical slit down the centre. As the eyes held him, the slit changed shape, condensing to a point, then moving into an horizontal slit. The great head reared up, then pulled back; it leant from side to side looking at him from all angles, then dropped down to the level of his own eyes. He knew he was being examined, knew he was being pulled apart molecule by molecule by the strange, probing eyes…

A breaching this is… temporal indices convoluted… two shadows of reality there are. Hmmmm. The eyes refocused into black pools. Life matrix reversed… a creature not, yet is. Aaaahhh! Dimensional corruption this one brings…. sooooo…

sssssssssssthhssssssssthhsssssssssththththsssshtthsssss

…the dragon began to shrink

ssssssssssssssthhsthsssssssthhsssssssthssthssshtsshtssssssssssssssssssss

…and shrink. In seconds the great mass that had filled the hall stood before him once more as a small, frail creature. Luther handed over a new tabard and began to pick up the scattered furniture, and Salamander Ord stirred himself.

‘You had to see for yourself, Elder,’ he said.

Agreed. Sitting there shall be. Iteration of events anticipated by this one. Chu’thu’ukk’s head swivelled to Garreth. This self one is… what… young traveller? That one, a finger pointed to Lha’thu’cha, a Luther now is. Hmmm? Innocent portent of choices yet to be made, yes, issue of my sibling?

Luther managed to look both startled and embarrassed. Elder… this one…

Embarrassed is that one, now. Bemused by a name. The old dragon shook its head ruefully, and Garreth was amazed at just how much human emotion and feeling these creatures could convey.

To the tale, magician! To the tale! The old dragon sat… or rather, it reclined sideways onto the sculpted seat.

Salamander Ord sat down opposite Chu’thu’ukk and reached for one of the boxes he had brought. Out came a large thermo pot and four pottery mugs. As he unscrewed the top, the pungent aroma of kaffee filled the hall, and out of the corner of his eye he saw both dragons lick their lips in anticipation.

‘Garreth, Do the honours, please.’ And while the lad filled mugs and passed them around, Salamander opened a second box and pulled out the contents. If the kaffee had pleased his hosts, four boxes of cigars would…

Ooooohhhh! crooned Luther, unable to control itself, eyes fixed on the wizard’s gift.

Aaaaahhh, sighed the old one.

Rich, aromatic smoke climbed up the column of light and disappeared into the heights.

Both dragons relaxed back into their seats, a steaming mug in one hand, a big cigar in the other. Salamander joined them, while Garreth had to content himself with kaffee only. Long minutes had elapsed without a word as kaffee and tobacco were ingested with obvious relish. Garreth couldn’t help but notice that dragons teeth were small and neat and blue, and dragons lips were obviously soft and flexible because every now and then Chu’thu’ukk would blow a perfect smoke ring.

‘There is a tale to tell,’ Salamander began, and all eyes focused on him. ‘It concerns a revelation a dragon made to a mage a long, long time ago. And it leads directly to our young friend here.’

Dissemination of details desirable is, illuminati. The old dragon blew a ring that expanded out towards Garreth, framing its face in the process

Judgment, adjudication or mere opinion will be withheld until… a pair of long fingers with a cigar between them stabbed in Salamander’s direction… the reason for this tale be presented. Say on! With that, the Elder of the dragon-folk gave its attention to the wizard.

‘Very well,’ replied Salamander, ‘indulge me, thus…’

…had there been a clock in the hall, its ticking would have reverberated loudly, such was the silence when Salamander Ord finished his tale.

The light that speared down from the ceiling had darkened perceptibly, the cigars and kaffee were cold and Garreth was nearly asleep. Then an itching invaded his mind. More. A veritable buzzing filled his head as if a hive of bees had suddenly been awakened. He knew now that a lot of dragons somewhere were having some serious conversations. Master Ord, he noticed, didn’t seem afflicted by the noise at all.

Assumption, Chu’thu’ukk said. The power schematics of the Book of Null will presented be for our elucidation and examination. Yes? Further, mathematical constructions for the actuation of the crossing over be detailed. Hmmm?

‘Certainly. I will supply all relevant materials, histories, spells and the like for your examination.’ He patted the third… and last… box. ‘I have them here.’

Then speak of the reason this one enjoys your presence and company this day; why this self and this… this… Luther, no less, enjoy gifts of rarity and intensity. Speak.

This was the hard part, Salamander acknowledged to himself. Human knowledge of dragon affairs was severely limited, even at his level. I’ve had to make a few assumptions; take a few guesses… I’m so far out on my own here… taken a huge risk in just being here. The dragons watched him intently because they couldn’t hear his mind; and he knew that. So, it’s all or nothing…

‘We have a powerful necromancer in a mirror reality,’ Salamander began. ‘A necromancer that now knows how to travel between these two realities. The mandrake is a very accomplished practitioner of the craft and there is no limit to its ambitions in Danny’s world.’

They are null, no? Magik is as wisps of smoke, yes?

‘No. I’m afraid not.’ Salamander stood and paced to and fro. If he was worried, he hid it well. ‘Constructed magik will fail, but Earth-magik still exists at some empathic and contagious levels. I’m sure you’re aware of that.’ The question was casual and innocent, but he looked out of the corner of his eye and saw Chu’thu’ukk nod its head in agreement…before recovering.

Ahh ha! ‘Now. We are uncertain how many travellers there have been, or how many there are likely to be. We cannot forestall any attempts those that assist the mandrake may make to take others across. Others, I might add, who would join the necromancer. With a large enough retinue, such a powerful creature would be strong enough to seek other mirror worlds… other realities.’

Of which realities do you imply, master mage? The dragon’s voice carried within its structure just a hint of uncertainty.

‘Why, yours, of course.’ Salamander smiled at the reaction his words had caused. Chu’thu’ukk’s eyes squinted at him and Luther looked suddenly blank.

This??? Chu’thu’ukk spread its arms wide to encompass all around. But the wizard’s eyes carried their own message of certainty.

‘No. Not this one. Your original one. The Third Earth.’

Salamander knew he’d hit pay dirt. He saw it in the way Chu’thu’ukk looked at Luther; saw it in the way the little dragon seemed to fold up on itself.

Who knows of this? All?

‘Myself. One or two others. His majesty. No more.’

The illuminati, then? Safety is assured? Yes? Garreth wanted to ask what an illuminati was, along with a million other questions, but it would have to wait… something important in man-dragon relationships was going on. He hadn’t a clue what it was, but something was definitely going on.

‘Yes. We want to stop this happening. We want to close up the opportunities for inter-reality crossings. I have to bring Danny back.’ The wizard stopped pacing and let out a deep sigh. ‘But I can’t’

The answer is formed in my mind, yet the question demands to be asked. Why??

‘Because if I cross over I will create another null here; and when we switch back, my alter-twin will possess strong Earth-magik abilities. I will have created another possible threat.’

The solution recreates the problem. Ah well. Your alternative, good wizard, if you please.

This was it! ‘A long time ago, your people travelled from the Third Earth to this one. Later, I’m sure that you visited Danny’s world, the Second Earth. The mirror world to this one. My thought processes tell me that you didn’t do this alone. My thought processes tell me that you brought others with you.’

Ahhhh. And you wish…?

‘If I have to go after Danny I need to avoid the Book of Null or any other transfer spell. I need you to take me there.’ Now it comes down to the pride and memory of an old dragon, Salamander thought. Garreth, meanwhile, thought his breathing had stopped.

Chu’thu’ukk closed its eyes, and the voice that appeared in the minds of Salamander and Garreth sounded hoary with age.

Dim corridors, magician. Thought and memory trapped in dusty vaults of antiquity. So far away. Time a long river has been… my journey… ahhh… nearly completed. But still, ancient doors to dim, closed corners of my mind now stand ajar. Forgotten runes etched on corroding synapses carry a message still. The old dragon opened its eyes and sat up.

Your fears are realised. No answer now can be given… the words are not mine alone to say. Yet. Yet there is a memory of other times and other… no no… not for now the ramblings of age. For now the reclamation of memory and mathematics. And history.

For you, the understanding of perspective… thusly. This space-time matrix we occupy is dubbed by those who sought it… the First Option. We Folk merely… facilitated the process of access. The reality this Danny inhabits is… was… known as the Second Option.

Perspective, Salamander Erasmus Ord, depends on where you stand. Hah?

Salamander Ord and Garreth were left to their own devices while the folk discussed the wizard’s plan. Hot food and drinks were sent for and had gone most of the way to restoring Garreth’s spirit, but Master Ord had eaten little, and Garreth was concerned. Since they had been left alone by the dragons, the little round wizard had been very quiet.

But, the inside of Salamander’s head was anything but quiet. Everything had to be stored away, filed, sorted; there could be no loose ends in his mind. It all had to fit together… but… one little thought refused to be tied down. One slip of the dragon’s tongue… to be filed for later… “… dubbed by those who sought it”, the old one had said. Hmmmm

Garreth had a million questions to ask….

‘Master Ord,’ he began, ‘I’ve got the feeling that… em… it’s not common for people to visit here. You know? I mean, there’s nothing taught about this place at school.’

‘No. They’re protected and isolated by their own request. Man struggles to deal with other species that could pose a threat to him; this way, we’re both protected.’ It seemed incongruous to Garreth that a creature like Chu’thu’ukk could require protection.

‘How old is Chu’thu’ukk?’

‘I have no idea, lad. But it was named in The Book of Lands, and that’s from the fifteenth century.’

It. That was one of the things that had been bothering him. ‘Master Ord? Why did you keep referring to Luther and Charley as “it”?’

Salamander dropped his head in his hands and groaned. ‘Charley? Charley? Good grief lad, have you any idea what…’ the wizard seemed to suddenly focus on him, ‘… no… of course not. How stupid of me. Dragons, Garreth, have three sexes.’

‘Three? Gosh, we struggle with two.’

Salamander grinned. ‘So do they, lad, so do they. That’s why the third sex is androgynous. Their sex is defined in their middle names, where the “thu” denotes androgyne, “akk” denotes male and “gha” is female, So for instance …’

‘…for instance,’ Garreth interjected, ‘if Charley was Chu’akk’ukk, it would he a male.’

‘Exactly. Both…’ he grimaced, ‘…Charley and Luther are androgynes; they haven’t chosen a sex yet. Although I think Charley never will.’

‘Wow! Having a choice. Neat! That would be…’ his mind caught up with what his mouth was saying, ‘… yuck!! Terrible!!’ He needed to change the subject. ‘They seemed pleased with the kaffee and cigars, didn’t they?’

‘Oh, yes. Dragons love their comforts. Those boxes I left will be gone in a week.’

Comforts. That was the other thing sticking in the back of his mind. Dragons appeared to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle, but most humans were ignorant of them. Yet there was a large human society underground where they had landed. He voiced his thoughts to the wizard.

‘Do you think a creature of flesh and blood could have expanded like that?’ Salamander asked. ‘No. I told you before that they are, to the best of our knowledge, bio-engineered constructs. They need proteins to keep the body-bits going, and they require certain heavy metals and trace minerals to support their bio-structures. Those teeth and nails are manganese. There are mines far away and deep underground where dragons feed.

‘You noticed the walls and floors? Perfectly machined, weren’t they? Well, they did that. They carve into the rock with their very teeth and claws, and then polish them. Did you feel the heat when… Charley… expanded? That, my lad, is a by-product of their digestive process. They use enzyme reaction.’ There was huge a grin on Salamander’s face now. ‘The other by-product is the one that buys them their comforts.’

The hook was baited, but he went for it anyway. ‘What is the other by-product, then?’

‘Dragon faeces are rich in refined heavy metals and rare earths.’

‘Whaaat? You’re kidding!! That’s horrible! So that place where we landed is a shi…’

‘Reclamation plant. Yes.’

They were summoned back to the Moot hall by a very young dragon that only came up to Salamander’s chest. Everyone apparently wanted to see the wizard.

That fact was obvious when they arrived, because the hall was full of dragon-folk. There were more grey muzzles than not and Salamander assumed this was the circle of elders; the decision-makers. Chu’thu’ukk reclined on his couch and all were arrayed around him in a mark of respect. Luther stood by his side, but this time he wore no tabard.

Your request, Salamander Erasmus, fills us with dread, the old dragon said. Many have forgotten the lore of old... the beginnings of things. There was a shuffling among the ranks behind him. Many have forgotten our purpose. A long finger was pointed at Salamander.

You suspected. Ha? In the memory of the other … yes?... clues there were. Adding to your guile, magician. To confront us so. Our very existence re-examined. The eyes that looked at the wizard were hard and sharp.

This life you seek to save… this wrong you wish to right… harbingers of another future they may be. Is the price worth the risk? Is it, illuminati?

The point of no return had been reached. ‘The future, Chu’thu’ukk, is yet to be written. Though I suspect the crafting of such is not beyond your experience.’ He bowed to the old dragon. ‘The innocent must live. The necromancer must not.’

Garreth felt the buzzing again; this time it reached a crescendo that was almost painful to bear. Then all went quiet. And all eyes turned on him… and Luther.

We aid and assist, magician. In doing such a thing changes there will be. Doorways to ancient things have been opened. Young man, he turned to stare at Garreth, attend Lha’thu’cha… this Luther now.

Sssssthhssssthhsssthhhssssssssthhssss Just like the old dragon, Luther began to grow.

Sssssthhsstthhsssthhhssssssssth unlike the old one Luther was smaller but its skin dazzled with colour. It looked vibrant and strong.

Garreth felt his stomach knot; he suspected whatever was going on was going to involve him.

‘This is the bravery part I mentioned earlier,’ Salamander told him, as he clapped him on the shoulder. ‘Meet me back in Chester. Good luck.’

Time, my little golem, to mount! Luther extended one hand and then bent his neck and Garreth could see, just before the carapace, a depression in the flesh; a depression that looked alarmingly like a…

…Garreth Aldredge suddenly knew exactly what dragons were once for; they had carried people. Without hesitation he stepped into Luther’s hand and was hoisted upwards. A swing of the leg… and he was there… in the saddle. Luther’s two hands reached upwards and seized his legs, holding him into the seat, like a child on his parent’s shoulders.

The carapace parted…

…four diaphanous wings spread out above his head

…and began to beat! The floor fell away as they rose towards the ceiling of the Moot Hall

…then all around began to blur

…shapes altered and ran

…light squeezed somewhere else

…and with a sickening twist the world he knew fell away as a black hole.

Then he was elsewhere.

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