In the North-east of the country of Angland is the city of York.
Outside its ancient wall and not far from the old, rambling town protected by it, stands a row of stately houses. Each one is separate from its neighbour, each one is constructed from grey stone, and all are of two stories. Leadlight windows endow them and manicured gardens decorate them. Stone arches mark their entries and gravel driveways lead from the road to their porticos and doors. Many of the houses have servant’s quarters and all of them have a coach-house.
Theolonia Crabbe owned one of those great houses of York. Owned it and resided in it all alone.
She was a tall woman of gaunt eminence. Her clothes were invariably the corporate fashions of white blouse, grey mid-calf skirt and grey jacket, her hair was grey and pulled back in a tight bun and her house was grey. In high circles, behind her back, she was known as the Grey Lady Crabbe. But she was also a woman of prestige and power, and for sixty-three years that power and prestige were her constant companions and the tools of her trade. And Theolonia Crabbe had the highest trade of all.
Theolonia Crabbe was a wizard.
Night-time rain hammered against the lead-light windows and filled the house with a soft drumming sound.
Inside, gaslights hissed in their brackets and their light struggled to hold back the darkness. Wherever the light did touch, it showed the cold austerity of soul-less wealth. The panelled walls and polished floors, the tiles of exquisite design and paintings of sombre mien, the carpets and silverware, all of them lacked the lustre that love and happiness bring to cherished things. As an anechoic room absorbs sound, so too this house sucked up human warmth… leaving behind a travesty of a home.
Theolonia had a job to do. She didn’t particularly want to do it… in fact, she loathed what was going to happen, yet she knew it must be done.
Along the landing, midway between the bedroom doors, was a narrow door with a round brass handle and solid hinges. It was a different door to the others in the house. This door led to the attic. Against the wall next to the door was a small half-round plant stand that sported a large candle-holder and candle, and a box of lucifers. With a sureness her calming spell had induced, Theolonia removed one of the lucifers, struck it against the scratchplate on the base of the candle-holder, and lit the candlewick. A light brighter than the gas lamps threw back the jumping shadows and anyone with half an ounce of magikal ability would have recognised the candle for what it was, a warded flame, extinguishable only by the one who lit it.
The doorknob turned smoothly at her hand and the door opened outwards on well-oiled hinges. Polished wooden stairs climbed steeply upwards into the night. Her heels boomed solidly as she followed the candle’s light.
Banisters guided her upwards and then she stood at one end of a narrow walkway between the rafters and trusses of the high-pitched roof. The beat of rain on the slate was louder here and the gurgle of water in the gutters was melody to the rain. On either side of the walkway the paraphernalia of generations was piled up like so many unwanted memories and the dust of ages lay thick and silent around.
The end of the walkway was occupied. Barely visible in the shadows, a tall oval mirror stood there in its frame, shrouded and silent like a headless man. Before it a small stool stood as if kneeling in homage. Silently Theolonia made her way the length of the attic and, brushing her long skirt to one side, sat down.
Her free hand reached out for the shroud…
…long ago, when she was a child, Theolonia had been told half of a truth; she had a twin! A brother. And he had died at birth. That was the half truth.
Long years later, when she was firmly ensconced in her Magehood and Wizardship, the other half of the truth came out of its hidden place and her dreams began. In them a soft voice called in loving terms, claiming kinship, asking for peace; a small voice, as that of a child, asking for a home, shelter… protection. A voice asking to come in… just for once… only for a moment…
In her dream state she had acceded, a phantom request in un-warded sleep agreed to by an unconscious mind. Yes. Come In.
Then the horror; then the truth… the full truth. It was him! The dead one! Her other self!
…his mind fleeing, all those long years ago, within minutes of his birth
…leaping to the darkest corners of her mind as the chirurgeon recognised him for the evil creature that he was and untied the umbilical cord to bleed him to death.
…hidden, his essence of a mind burrowing its way into her infant sub-conscious, alone and secret.
…waiting… a hidden voyeur, following her progress to the peak of her powers. Seeking a way to reclaim that so cruelly taken from him… LIFE! Yearning across the years for the feel of flesh and blood…. his own flesh and blood! HIS OWN BODY!
Once he had been allowed in, he could not be removed. She was his sister, they were blood… were-blood! Her powers could not dislodge him, he was too powerful. And in that power, Theolonia recognized her brother for what he truly was… a mandrake.
Mandrake! Natural wizards they were, of fierce and powerful magikal ability that gain their power by feeding on the sins and pain of the corrupt. Of all the creatures that make up the pantheon of those gifted with the Talent, from the greatest wizard down to the lowly apprentice mage, the mandrake commands the most awe and fear. They are rare, and in the underworld of corrupt magik, the arrival of such a one is heralded by portents and omens. Acolytes dare to dream of the day such a great one will lead them to destroy the pillars of civilized magik and return to them the power and conquest of ancient days.
The pages of history are littered with the ruins of the mad ambitions of mandrakes.
Her brother could not take over her mind, she was too powerful; and she could not remove him, he was too deeply embedded in her mind. Theolonia could not seek help from her peers because a mandrake must be put to death… and that meant her own life would be forfeit.
Madness beckoned, so a safety valve was needed. Theolonia would block all access to her thoughts, but she would provide a doorway between their minds; one where she and Horatio could speak to each other. A doorway, via the mirror, where her brother could look out on the world.
Her sibling needed knowledge… needed answers. Theolonia would help him. She would let him take over her body… not often… just once in a while… so he could delve into her realm… and find what he needed to gain a body. Those times she stayed hidden within her own mind, alone and reclusive.
They became part of her life and her colleagues grew used to Theolonia’s eccentric moments and odd little ways. A society more adept at the psychiatric doctrines may have recognised severe personality disorder and not a little paranoia, but in twenty-first century Angland, those practices were in their infancy.
Theolonia Crabbe desperately needed to be rid of her brother; at any price. Months of research and searching proved fruitless as to a solution. Then, one day, almost by accident, she found a book that showed her exactly what was needed.
Her brother needed a receptacle for his mind… for what passed as his soul. He needed a body… a living body. But it had to be a very special body. A body, the book suggested, that was impervious to magik. A body not of this world.
Thanks to the book, Theolonia had discovered how to get one… and where to get it from. And now she had a plan… a very, very devious plan.
Her bony, sinewy fingers tugged at the shroud and it soughed to the floor like shedding skin.
Within the glass, framed in wood, sat the image of Theolonia. It stared back at her, and she saw how strong her face was for all its pinched looks. Fierce eyes slightly sunken and hooded by grey brows… gaunt cheeks high and proud… wide, thin lips below an aquiline nose… a jutting chin.
A face of power.
As she gazed at her image, the mirror clouded at the edges and the depth of field vanished; now her image seemed to be alone in a tunnel that had no end. Her face in the mirror began to change. The nose lengthened and the curve became more of a hook; the eyebrows grew thicker and drew together; her skin wrinkled slightly and drooped and her eyes retreated further into their sockets. Yet they blazed brightly with a cold fire. A trim, short-haired beard of grey grew down the jaw; the cheeks and neck were free of hair and there was no moustache. Yellow irregular teeth were framed within dry lips. The two images, one within the mirror, the other without, gazed at each other.
‘Horatio,’ Theolonia said, by way of greeting.
‘Sister of mine.’ The voice from the mirror was cold and faint, as if it had travelled a long way. ‘What news of our quest?’
‘Progress as always, brother.’
‘Sixty-three years my soul has waited, Theolonia. Since that first burst of post-natal cognition, to my flight from the doctor’s bloody murder of me, I have graced this earth in bodily form for the grand total of one hour and twenty-two minutes.’ Horatio’s voice dropped to a graven hiss, like steel being slowly drawn over stone. ‘For the remainder of that time, sister dear, I have sheltered in your mind with only the briefest of sojourns in your body. I need to be among the living, sister. The world is waiting for my appearance! The faithful yearn for my arrival. Bring me a living body and bring it soon!’
Theolonia closed her eyes and sighed. The world was definitely not waiting for her brother’s arrival. In fact, the world would quite happily string him up from the nearest tree if it could get its hands on him. Law and order ruled now and the faithful her brother relied on were an underclass of society that hid from that Law. Her brother, she had realized long ago, was blind to reality; deceived by his own desires and powers. And unwilling to listen. That’s what made him so dangerous to her.
Putting aside her thoughts, she recalled the maths and logic of the spell she wanted. The image of it appeared in her mind and with a sub-vocal cantrip she set it in motion. In the clear space between her and the mirror a form took shape. A scroll. The outer edges were mere golden lines and the words inside the space were silver runes… the old tongue… the tongue of wood and mountain…of stone monoliths and dragonships. There was no substance to the scroll, no solid surface for the words to appear on. They hung in the very air.
‘The Book of Null,’ she said. ‘The ancient key to a forbidden gate. The door to a different universe. The way, dear brother, to your salvation.’
‘A charlatan’s ramblings, you mean. Unproven and unexplainable. Mirror universes and anti-realities. Hah! I know of it.’
‘No, Horatio, you don’t. Listen!’ Her voice was angry. ‘I have spent years looking for a way to rid you from my mind. Years! I have scoured every avenue known to Magedom to find that way. Now, finally, here in this ancient book, is the answer.
‘On the very edge of what we know… on the other side of magik… is where I have discovered our salvation from one another. The body you need cannot be a mage nor anyone possessing the Talent. You would be spotted straight away and there would be no place to hide. When you were born they did not expect you to be able to make the transition into my mind; they thought you dead. Next time, brother,’ she smiled sweetly at his image, ‘they’ll make sure that you are.
‘A normal wouldn’t do either. Someone without the Talent could be scryed upon and located with ease. The minute you began your… activities…you would stand out like a beacon. The only option, the only one that would be completely unsuspected and, frankly, disbelieved, is to use a null. Someone that is impervious to the Talent; someone that defies the very laws of magik.’
There was a slight hesitation in Horatio’s voice. ‘It’s only a theory. What if it fails?’
‘No. It’s more than that.’ Her eyes travelled the length of the scroll. ‘Here.’ She pointed to silver runes. ‘And here. Accounts of the strange ones. Rare notation of their very existence. Confirmation of the truth of the book.’ Theolonia leaned forward on the stool and peered at her brother. ‘There is a world that lies as if on top of this one. As close as the far side of this mirror.’ Her fingernail tapped the glass. ‘It mirrors this world save for one tiny, tiny, thing.’
‘What? WHAT IS IT?’
‘Magik doesn’t work there. It is an entire world of null.’
In the mirror a pale tongue licked dry lips. ‘How do we reach it?’
‘The Book tells us. The spell is unique and self-serving. And self-promoting. I have spent months checking the maths. I have reassessed the curved-space geometry and I have tested the temporal formulae. It works.’ Her fingernail again rapped sharply against the glass. ‘I have found a way to send a seeker spell across. It involves swapping two compatible people simultaneously; one from here, one from there. Both can be sent involuntarily. The one from beyond will be your new body, brother dear, and his null ability will protect you.
‘Unfortunately, Horatio, that protection will be fleeting. The few practitioners of the Dark Arts that constitute your underworld are not as powerful as they once were.’ She smiled the sweet smile again. ‘The sheer weight of the Law will bring you down.’
A deep moan issued from her brother’s lips and echoed around the attic. ‘You toy with me sister! You play me for a fool!’ Spittle flew from his lips. ‘What good this... this… null... if it will not serve me?’
‘Consider this, brother.’ Now came the wonderful part of her plan. ‘The book tells us that those from the other world are impervious to magik, yet it also tells us that each remains the same. The one from here will be exactly what he was.’
The mandrake’s eyes cleared as he thought through the implications of Theolonia’s words. ‘So… if a mage crossed over… he would still be a mage.’
‘Yes. And you would have a whole world at your feet, Horatio. A whole world!’
‘Ah, sister. How devious your mind. I will inhabit this new body you bring me, and then you will swap us back again. Brilliant.’
‘A whole world. Remember that. And it will be all yours.’
‘What of my followers?’
‘A distraction. A smoke screen to cover your leaving.’ She saw doubt in his eyes. ‘Surely a few miserable lives are worth your conquest of a new world?’
‘Yes. Yes. You are, as usual, sister, correct. How do we…?’
‘Go about it? Simple. A seeker spell with find them. I will split the spell and send one part into this strange world and one part here. When they each find a match, the spell will be reconciled, and here, through this very mirror, our victim will arrive.’ She snapped her fingers and the scroll disappeared. ‘And you, Horatio, will then have your new body.’
‘All in good time,’ she told the apparition. Theolonia Crabbe picked up the shroud from the floor and walked towards the mirror with it stretched out before her. She tossed the shroud over the mirror and the image of her brother, both in the mirror and in her mind, disappeared.
Entering her ground-floor study, Theolonia went straight to the great desk that was a family heirloom; a thrice-great grandfather had commissioned its manufacture and carving on the profits of some business coup in the east. Scenes of oriental mystery were worked into the wood and mother-of-pearl and onyx were the eyes and talons of the dragons of far Cathay that coiled around the legs.
In a drawer in the desk, warded to high heaven against any hand but hers, was the key to her escape. It was the doorway to her future. Theolonia sat down, and pulled open the drawer. Reaching inside she pulled out two thin, small square packages wrapped in soft white linen and placed them on the desk. One package was twice as thick as the other. The smaller was the true book, and it had been hidden away in the family vaults for generations; hidden under her very nose. Her hands trembled slightly as slowly she turned back the folds of linen of the thicker package one at a time, revealing two identical hard, dark books, each bound with ten silver rings. They were both simulacrums… copies of the true Book of Null.
Theolonia lifted up one of the copies and her fingers idly stroked the cover of the book; there was a faraway look in her eyes. The Book of Null; doorway to her own future. And safety. She was under no illusion whatsoever that she would not be under threat once her brother had his own body.
A small mirror stood on the desk and propped before it was a sheet of clear glass exactly the same size. Theolonia opened the second book before them and the runes she had shown Horatio moments before were displayed in reverse; but on each page, between the texts, a line of golden runes blazed back at her from the mirror. This was the spell that would bring what she sought.
Very carefully, Theolonia traced the runes on the glass with her fingernail as she softly chanted the words, and as she spoke, the runes of the spell appeared on the surface. Hardly daring to breathe, Theolonia repeated the process with the mirror, but this time the book slowly began to disappear. Rune by rune it faded away and its ghostly outline re-appeared on the glass, the runes within faintly visible.
Now both surfaces held the spell. A drawer produced a small silver tuning fork, one she had crafted to resonate to the very spell itself, and with great deliberation Theolonia tapped first the mirror, then the sheet of glass. They echoed the ringing of the fork. Now the spell was armed.
‘Seek the one,’ she whispered, ‘and seek the match…
‘…leave this world, and find my catch!’ Carefully Theolonia rose and crossed the floor of her study, careful to keep her eye on the spell. By the fireplace stood a large brass temple bell and her hand found the wooden striker tethered to it. With one sharp swing she struck the bell and as its deep, resonant peal echoed throughout her house, Theolonia whispered the final word of the spell…
At that word, in the mirror, the ghostly book and the spell in contained faded into the glass, until only a grey outline remained. In the sheet of glass, the words of the spell fell through, disappearing into the room; rising into the dark, fading as they went.
When the last of the spell had faded, when Theolonia was finally certain that her search in the strange world beyond the mirror was truly underway, she collapsed into her chair, weak and drained of all energy. Slowly she rewrapped the second copy and put it back alongside the original. Theolonia wasn’t sure why she had made two copies, but something deep down inside had told her… it wouldn’t hurt… who knows, you might need it again.
As Theolonia’s spell penetrated the mirror, it altered, for a brief moment, the very fabric of space and time that separated the two worlds. A small alteration that caused a small ripple in the harmony of the earth. And far away…
…below the ice of the Arctic wastes, deep inside the sculptured rock halls of their realm, a young scribe of the dragon-folk peered into a monitor and knew immediately that some-one, somewhere was tampering with reality.
The creature stood six feet tall on raptor-like legs, legs that were long and slim and designed for running. The head was almost like that of a sea-horse, with a long, fine jaw that ended in a prehensile muzzle, and there were two saucer-shaped eyes that were eerily human-looking. It had two small holes for ears and its rather large head was elongated and smooth. A long graceful neck curved down to a chest that bulged beneath very narrow shoulders and two arms hung from those shoulders. Its skin was formed from fine, tiny scales that glistened in iridescent hues of green. A tabard of yellow material, with pockets at the front, hung around the neck and reached below the knees
The scribe’s providence was the care and keeping of the monitor that measured the heartbeat of the world. That monitor was an enormous circular basalt mirror polished to absolute flatness and blackness, as only the dragon-folk can achieve, and it floated in a bath of mercury. Around the circumference a bronze ring marked out the compass points of the world, and around that a vernier fine-tuned the compass. The surface was resonating as drops of water resonate in a pool and to experienced eyes it told a story.
The creature cast a worried eye at the black mirror, and then went to find someone that would know what to do.