Horatio Crabbe was determined not to get too complacent.
Everything he had done so far had been almost too easy. The guises worked, people believed him to be who they thought he was. Information was ridiculously easy to acquire; all he had to do was turn on one of these computing machines and everything he wanted to know was there.
Feeding his craving for power wasn’t quite so easy… yet. Slowly he had been amassing little pieces of sin he found by riding around the streets and just letting his mind scoop them up. They weren’t enough, he knew; but there was no hurry. In a few weeks he would have enough power to attend larger venues; churches, football matches, court-rooms and the like to skim greater amounts of sin and evil. The list was endless. After that would come the final test; he would delve the spiritual world and find the deep pools of discarded sin. And if they were not there… he would create them! He, Horatio Crabbe, denied and murdered at birth, would build the world he wanted.
Inside his safe retreat, Danny Royce feared the worst. The book couldn’t be used again. There was no help coming. No, no, he told himself. That’s not fair. Surely Mr. Ord would find a way?
Above the night sky an unusual shape was taking form in the air.
One moment there was nothing there, the next moment a current of air seemed to part for a split second…
…a pulsating ball of blackness fell from the slit
…steadied and took form
…and Garreth Aldredge said, ‘Bloody hell!’ One second Salamander was waving… next there were lights beneath him. A long, long way beneath him. He was very glad of Luther’s hands holding on tightly.
Recognition is upon you? Luther had his head down looking at the ground.
To Garreth the lights below could be anywhere, and it was cold up here! ‘It doesn’t look… I mean it could be anywhere, Luther.’
Coordinations in this world are different? If the answer is no, this Manchester awaits below.
‘Ah! See that big area that’s all lit up? That’s Old Trafford. Good. Now follow that road… that one there…’
Emily Coburn stood in the shadows across the road from Danny’s house and tried to get up nerve to knock on the door. Just lately something was wrong, she could sense it. Garreth was always unavailable and Danny’s parents were acting really strange. They were over-friendly and when she mentioned Garreth’s name their faces went sort of vague. And Garreth hadn’t been at school for three days and his teacher had said that he was off sick. She didn’t know what to do.
Above her head something moved. Something big and black and silent. She felt the wind of its passage and her head tilted up… and a scream formed in her throat! A gigantic snake was settling into Danny’s back garden, its silhouette obscuring the roof as it passed over. The scream rose higher, fighting her petrified throat….it bubbled on her lips…
…and a voice hissed at her…
‘Emily! Over here!’ She peered into the dark. The snake seemed to have had a rider on its back; a rider who was coming through the shadows towards her.
‘It’s me! Garreth!’ Then he was there, holding on to her arm and she knew it was Garreth.
‘What’s going on? I thought you were sick. Your folks won’t let me in to see you.’
‘Listem, Emily. That’s not me in there. It’s Danny.’
‘Danny? Now she was confused. How can both of them be here? How can… her eyes drifted to the strange shape in the garden… ‘Where have you come from, Garreth?’ she whispered.
Garreth let out a long sigh. Where indeed? ‘Listen. Salamander Ord, remember… the wizard in the mirror? He… look… he got a… look, this might sound weird, but he sent me back here with a dragon.’ He put his hand over her mouth as the scream began to turn into a manic laugh. ‘Sssshhh! Don’t laugh! Please! It’s true, Emily. The thing that started this whole business is now in possession of Danny. It’s evil, Emily. It’s really bad news.’
She gulped air. ‘Then what are you doing here?’
‘They want him back, but they can’t use the book again. Luther,’ he nodded towards the dark of the garden, ‘will take him back.’
‘I’ll have to stay here. Again.’
‘Right. What can I do to help?’
‘Well… we have to get Danny outside.’ He tugged her arm. ‘Come and meet Luther, first.’
Arthur Royce called up the stairs, ‘Emily’s here. She insists on seeing you.’
Horatio groaned and turned away from the computer screen. What a tedious pest that girl was becoming. Perhaps it would be best if he placed a guise on her… yes… that would stop her coming around. Moodily he stomped down the stairs.
‘Where is she…?’ He saw the back door was open and the figure of the girl was outside by the garage wall. He stepped outside and went to her. ‘Well? What do you want?’ Her eyes were frightened, and that pleased Horatio. But behind his back the door slammed shut and a voice he knew said…
‘It’s what I want, dopey.’
Horatio spun around. Impossible… how can this be…? I don’t understand! His mind reeled as Garreth advanced towards him. No! No! You must die! ‘DIE!’ he screamed…
…and twin streamers of actinic power shot from his hands ready to burn the heart out of …
…but they didn’t. The twin streams spiraled and twisted and disappeared under the garage door
…where four car tyres exploded and the garage door began opening and closing all by itself.
‘WHAT?’ he screamed. Then tried again. This time a golden ball formed between his hands and enveloped Garreth, ready to freeze him into immobility…
…but instead the ball melted away and three trees in the garden fell over.
It would be easier if you came quietly, a voice above his head said. A voice inside his head said. In terror, Horatio Crabbe looked up into the face of a dragon. A dragon that was perched on the garage roof and leaning over him with a mouthful of enormous gleaming blue teeth… smiling at him.
‘Nooo,’ he crooned, backing away.
Danny Royce had been waiting for just such an opportunity. While the mandrake was distracted he took back some of the body controls.
‘YES YES YES. EMILY IT’S DANNY!’ He pulled his legs from under him and his body crashed to the ground. ‘I’M STILL HERE! GARRETH. TAKE HIM…’
Horatio wrestled control back. ‘No you don’t,’ he panted, staggering to his feet.
Oh, yes I do, Luther said, picking him up bodily and holding him tight against its chest. The form of Danny struggled weakly against the powerful arms. Now we return; retribution awaits. The great wings began to beat… Mage Garreth, Luther said as it slowly lifted from the roof, this name you grace this one with… it has sex?
A hundred snappy retorts filled Garreth’s mind, and he had to suppress a manic laugh. Tension… too close to the edge… ‘You mean “… what sex is it?” Male, Luther,’ Garreth replied. ‘It’s male.’
Then salutations, young traveler; my future decided is.
Just then the back door crashed open and Arthur Royce staggered out. Whatever guise had been placed on him had disappeared leaving him and Mary looking at each other in stunned fashion while outside shouting and screaming filled the garden.
‘What the hell is…oh, my,’ he saw the dragon above the garage and stood there open mouthed. Gloria came out and did exactly the same. As the strange creature disappeared into the night sky, he turned to Emily.
‘Emily? Where’s Danny?’ He turned to the other figure there. ‘Garreth? Is that you? How did you get here?’
Garreth put his arm around Emily’s shoulders. ‘It’s a long story, Arthur. I’d better tell you and Gloria all about it.’
Danny Royce had no idea what the creature was that had snatched him, but he knew it was a friend. He did know that the thing that had his body was terrified of it and that had to be a good thing; and that meant the fat wizard.
Then something happened…
…an intense feeling of déjà vu
…that weird feeling of dropping you get when you take a downward step that isn’t there
…a flash of vertigo
…then pale light flooded the sky and his body snatcher began screaming.
Through borrowed eyes Danny peered at the ground below and recognized it immediately… Angland! He was saved!
Horatio Crabbe fought back the fear and tried to think. How had this happened? How had a dragon crossed over? They couldn’t use magik because dragons bent it... so how had a dragon found me? And why? No-one knows about me, he babbled to himself. No-one. Except… my sister! Yes! Yes! She must have confessed; that’s it. Nonono… she betrayed me. That’s what she did. Betrayed! Me!
I don’t think soooo. Danny couldn’t resist goading the creature.
WHAT? SHOW YOURSELF! WHAT DO YOU MEAN?
I’m not going to tell you, dopey.
I’LL DESTROY YOU... I’LL DESTROY EVERYTHING…
The thing was frothing at the mouth. Threats lose impact with repetition, sicko. You can’t destroy me.
No you can’t... And I know who’s coming to get you.
Silence echoed through his mind, mocking him.
WHO? Horatio screamed. Then a tendril of thought came out of the darkness…
Shan’t tell, it said.
With a massive effort of will Horatio clamped down on the thing in his head. He had to do something about his predicament; vengeance and retribution would have to wait. The wind in his face brought him round and he looked about. There was a river and a town far below that looked vaguely familiar. Dark storm clouds were gathering about and it looked to be late afternoon. The storm clouds were particularly dark underneath…
…dragons altered magik, he knew that. But what about lightning? He had nothing to lose, and all it would take was a simple pathway of sympathetic molecules. He would send a narrow spike into the cloud, and the cloud would discharge back along the spike. Horatio concentrated on the nearest cloud; he had to think narrow. A very simple, low-powered energy discharge was all… that was… needed…
…finer than a needle Horatio’s energy spike speared the cloud
…he tried to ready…
Suddenly the ground was a spinning blur and wind roared in his ears and everything was getting a lot BIGGER! He had to push…PUSH… PUSH!!! With everything he had Horatio tried to push the world away
…the world slowed
…the spinning stopped
…and Horatio hit the ground in slow-motion, a soft THUD knocking the wind from him. Around him twigs and branches drifted down, testimony to the emergency braking effects of trees. But above, in the sky…
…Luther saw the flash, it felt the concussion. Power coruscated through its body and synapses and nerves shut down; motor functions ceased. The great silver orbs of its eyes dimmed as it spiraled downwards, and the four latticed wings began to helicopter, spinning the body beneath them. Like a giant sycamore seed, the unconscious dragon floated to earth.
In the bookcases of Salamander Ord, besides the wards of aversion that protect the library, there is another piece of constructed magik very much of the same ilk as his ego-savant. This was the Librarian and it was a modified seeker spell. True to imagery, the Librarian was a marble bust of a rather severe-looking lady of indeterminate years with a pair of pince-nez glasses perched on the end of her nose and her hair pulled back into a tight bun. Martynsyde the manservant stood by ready to assist.
The image of the wizard was by his desk, courtesy of the paraphone, and it was addressing the Librarian. ‘Is there any news of your search?’ Salamander asked.
The Librarian opened a waxy mouth and in a clipped voice that evoked memories of dusty classrooms and screechy blackboards told him, ‘Your search parameters were “1066… Harold… friends… families… associates… court… lineages… successions… necromancers.” There are seven Saxon families associated with Harold’s court during his reign; and there are three Norse. Two Saxon families, Tynewald and Swithun and one Norse, Stormsson, married into the royal family. Second-cousins and the like. Stormsson and Tynewald served as chancellors and as the king’s men-at-arms.
‘Both families continued to hold high office through seven successions. In 1376 one Selwyn Tynewald was burned as a necromancer.’
‘Quite. The Stormsson family makes a return in 1643 as advisor to Athelstane III…’
‘Advisor on what?’
‘Magik. A later Stormsson sat on the Board of Codification in 1666 under Athelstane IV. They disappear for a while at this point, and then reappear in 1798 when one Ossian Tynewald is killed in a duel with Fengir Stormsson…
‘…over allegations of impropriety in the Treasury coffers. The Stromsson name is officially struck from the Roll of Names and ceases to exist.’
‘Damn! I thought we were on to something there.’ Salamander rubbed his chin. The tale was interesting, but shed no light on things.
‘However,’ the Librarian continued, ‘there is an item of news in “The Chirurgeon General Annual Report” for 1938 that lists the oddities and abominations of maldirection of The Talent. It tells of the birth and subsequent death by bleeding of a male child with the mandrake aura.’
‘What family name?’
‘Kendall. The name has been traced back to a Poll of Deed in 1802 when the family changed their name from…’
‘Stormsson! I’ll bet it’s Stormsson!’
‘Quite right,’ the Librarian replied, in a tone that just hinted of primness. ‘The annual census for that year also tells of the birth of a daughter to that family.’
‘What?’ That didn’t make sense. ‘What date?’ The trouble with Librarians was that you had to ask just the right question.
‘The same as the chirurgeon’s report on the mandrake. There is a three hour gap between the two births.’
The hairs on the back of Salamander’s neck were rising. Death by bleeding was slow, long minutes would pass; and necromancers were notorious for praying on weak souls… could it be possible…?
‘What was the daughter’s name?’
Salamander’s skin was literally one mass of goose-bumps. ‘What happened to her?’
‘Theolonia Kendall married one Jeremiah Crabbe in nineteen sixty-seven when she was twenty-nine years old and had just finished mage’s college.’
The news was a blow. Theolonia Crabbe! Who, he asked himself, would have suspected? The Grey Lady! Who would have believed? But it was there in black and white… if you knew where to look. If you knew how to look. A twin! The mandrake had a twin!
The Grey Lady Crabbe! Salamander squeezed his hands into fists at the thought of how close she had come to success. It all fell into place; it explained so much… how a mandrake could remain hidden for so long, how it could conduct activities without detection. It had a sister to protect it! It had a high-power wizard to watch over it! Quickly, Salamander shut the Librarian down. The thrill of the hunt invigorated him and his blood was up.
‘To battle!’ he cried, locking eyes with the ego-savant on the wall. The picture moved to life and cocked a jaundiced eye his way, and his own voice spoke to him from it.
‘At your age too, eh? No fool like an old fool, I say. Don’t expect any sympathy if you have a heart attack.’
Life for the Mayhorn family had suddenly taken on a different perspective the last week or so. Mirror realities, inter-dimensional travellers, anti-magicians and geriatric werewolves had all entered their world and turned it upside down. So why not a dragon falling on the roof?
The creature had obviously landed softly because there was minimal damage to the thatching and the structure looked quite sound. Redgrave Mayhorn assessed its length at forty feet, but it was hard to see properly because it was coiled around the roof. Its head hung over the eaves and its eyes were closed. Four limp wings draped the body.
Redgrave was looking for a way to get the thing down, while Clarity and Jemma stood back, just in case it fell down.
Jemma thought the creature looked absolutely beautiful; and absolutely too much of a coincidence to just happen to fall on her roof. ‘I’ll bet,’ she told her father, ‘this has something to do with Salamander and Garreth.’
One silver eye opened on the beast. Salamander? Ord is? The Mayhorn family collectively gave a start.
‘Yes!’ Jemma cried. ‘I knew it! Did he send you here?’
Luther gave a slow look around about. Alas… no. Instructions were henceward, to the temporary domicile of the wizard. Commissioned this one was to bring the creature of evil that inhabits the bodies of others.
‘Danny! What happened?’
Failure there is to report to the wizard Ord. Disappointment must be conveyed.
Redgrave said, ‘If you can get down, we can contact Master Ord.’ The creature slowly uncoiled and raised its wings. A few beats and the dragon was on the ground. By the lack of the damage to the roof, Redgrave decided that dragons weighed next to nothing at all. Then came the second surprise of the day…
Stand to one side, if you please. Luther opened its mouth…
…and roared! A massive column of blue-tinged heated air rose into the sky, distorting the images that were seen through it. Then…
…ssssstthhhttthhssssthhttthhhhssssssss… the creature began to shrink
…sssssstthhhhhhhsssssssssstthhhssss….. smaller, altering. Then Luther stood before them.
‘Oh, my,’ breathed Clarity.
Named this one was in yestertimes Lha’thu’cha. Named this day by the mage Garreth, this one is thus… Luther. Salutations.
‘Pleased to meet you, Luther,’ Jemma said, accepting the outstretched hand. ‘I think we’d better get hold of Master Ord right away.’
The dark clouds above succumbed to gravity and it began to rain.
Horatio Crabbe looked about him in disbelief. He was back where he started from! It wasn’t fair! He recognised the mill and the big vane above it; the little group of shops…
‘Nooooooo… it’s not fair,’ he whispered.
SSSSNNORRRKKK SSSNNNKKK SSSSNNNKKKK SSSNNNKKK
He staggered back in disbelief at the noise. A Sniggering Tree! It was the tree that had broken his fall! ‘No. No. This is my sister’s fault…’
‘…she caused this…’ Horatio was close to incoherency,
SNIGG SSNIGG SSNNIGG
‘…I’ll kill her… I’ll be free…’
Stumbling into the gloom Horatio Crabbe headed into the village. There was only one place he knew, but it was a start. No-one would expect him there!
Behind his back the Sniggering Tree said, very quietly…
Rain began to fall on him.
Horatio Crabbe needed energy. Not food; energy. Misery and despair, pain and anger; he was running low on reserves. And it was all the fault of this thing in his head. Singing, jabbering… goading him! So much energy needed just to keep it bottled up, so wearying… so trying.
The lights were on and the curtains drawn when he got to the gate, and he could see down the side of the house where faint moonlight showed the stable. The glass lens of a buggy’s lamp gleamed within. Ah! Transport!
With a smirk of satisfaction Horatio opened the gate and walked down the side of the house; he wanted the back door. The girl and her parents would provide the energy he needed; he would suck it from their very souls…
Horatio halted. A large marmalade cat was sitting twenty feet away on the driveway looking at him. This, he knew, was the cat Theolonia wanted dead.
As if to show its contempt, the cat yawned…
He knows me! Fear coursed through the mandrake, a rare insight into that which he caused in others… and fed off. Think! Think! He looked around, trying to ascertain the forces lined up against him…
If you could think you wouldn’t be such an asshole!
Horror filled his borrowed eyes…
You need some Hard Mistress to help you concentrate…
‘KNOCK DOWN KICK OUT
…SMASH UP TRASH OUT
The words blared out of the mandrake’s mouth into the quiet of the night as his body jerked in a grotesque parody of a dance. The girl! He must get the girl. Staggering, Horatio lurched towards the back door; the cat’s eyes never left him.
Scared of cats, are we?
‘… YOUR CLAWS ARE IIIIIN ME….
… BUT I DON’T BLEEEEED.’ Breadline, that is.
SHUTUP SHUTUP SHUTUP!!!
Horatio reached for the door handle…
In the deep dark of the garden, a creature of power and night was following the instructions of its friend the wizard… it smelled the corruption… it knew the enemy…and its golden eyes focused on the evil within the body of Danny Royce.
‘I told you I heard something,’ Jemma shouted to her parents as she bounded out of her easy chair. ‘There’s someone outside!’
Redgrave Mayhorn ran to the front window and pulled back the curtains. There was no-one there. Followed by Clarity and Jemma, he raced through to the kitchen, and there, on the lawn outside the window, was Danny!
Jemma’s heart skipped a beat. Luther had told her exactly what had hold of Danny… this was the mandrake!
You should listen to something my Dad’s really fond of…
‘WALKING ON… THE ASHES OF…
… MY BROKEN HEART
…YOU LEAVE NO FOOTPRINTS…’
My Dad loves Urban Menagerie. Not my taste, though.
With a massive effort of will, Horatio Crabbe closed down the singing and the voice in his head. He had no idea what the words meant, and the music was awful!
He had to get away! He needed space. He stepped towards the door…
…and two hundred pounds of rippling black muscle slammed into him. Horatio Crabbe saw the fangs slide by mere inches from his face … and he screamed! In panic he sought to direct a bolt of energy the creature’s way… and fourteen pounds of overfed marmalade cat leaped on the back of his neck, claws slashing.
Hysterically, Horatio pushed upwards to repel the were-wolf as the cat hissed and spat and clawed. Frantically he tried to recall a ward of aversion, rolling in the driveway with his hands over his head. Finally… finally… he got the ward up… now the beast couldn’t use its fangs on him… and he stood, reaching behind his shoulder to grab the cat.
Mr. Toast was giving a very convincing impression of a furry whirlwind as he squirmed and clawed his way all over the mandrake. Then he unhooked his claws, and with one final swipe that drew blood from an ear he leapt down and disappeared into the night.
Horatio got his legs under him and started running. The buggy might offer a way out, if only he could…
…the were-wolf crashed into him again and he sprawled face forward in the gravel. Pieces of stone pierced the skin of his palms and stung. Horatio realised then that while the beast couldn’t bite him, or actually touch him, the transmitted force of its weight, while being deflected, could seriously damage him if he was hit enough times.
Lying there, he looked up into the golden eyes that stared at him. The voice in his head was trying to get out, but his power was fully concentrated now… the were-wolf growled low in its throat…
…he screamed out for all the misery of the night to come to him. All the little things of pain and suffering… the tiny things…the hurting things… thousands of them… spilling from the dark… joining together… becoming bigger… stronger.
With a crash as loud as cannon the energy expended itself on Afferton Smythe, lifting him up off the ground and throwing him against the wall of the coach-house. When the were-wolf’s body slid down to the ground, it left behind a trail of blood.
Horatio Crabbe smiled, then raced past the stable and leaped the back fence into the fields beyond… leaped into freedom.
Jemma raced from her house, closely followed by her parents.
Mr. Toast was already there, staring at the inert form of the were-wolf. Clarity Mayhorn gave a gasp of fear at the sight of the black creature, but Jemma went straight to it and knelt beside it.
…pain was an ache that was his whole body.
…hatred was fire that scoured his blood.
…gone in the shock of near-death were the constraints he had lived by for most of his life; now the real were-beast emerged.
But not all was lost. He opened his eyes. There was a girl… the small presence of one he had shared with was there… two others coming… he sensed their auras… he was not to touch these three.
But the creature that had caused his pain was another matter. Intense hatred caused his mouth to salivate and his teeth shone wickedly in the moonlight. With a growl of agony at the torn muscles and broken ribs, he staggered to his feet. Blood dripped from his mouth and one side of his chest didn’t seem to work properly… but he didn’t care. He knew where his quarry was, which direction the mandrake had taken.
Afferton Smythe turned his blood-flecked golden eyes to the fields beyond the back garden, and limped towards them. He was following the scent of the mandrake and it led him across a field and round the side of a low hill. In the dark his eyes saw the figure he sought stumbling along. Now! his blood sang. Now! With a final surge of his waning strength he closed the gap, teeth baring for the final…
…something was wrong, the figure wasn’t real!
With a snarl the were-wolf spun around…
‘Bye-bye doggy,’ Horatio said from the shadows. A shaft of black light shot from his outstretched fingers, crackled across the grass and speared into Afferton’s chest. When it hit it blossomed in a silver flash of light. For the second time that night Afferton Smythe was hurled bodily into the air before crashing to the ground. The golem-image that the mandrake had created slowly faded away to nothing.
Panting and shaking with exertion, Horatio stumbled over the unfamiliar ground and looked down at his nemesis. The beast appeared dead. Manic laughter broke from his throat.
NOW DO YOU SEE MY POWER? HA? WHAT, NO GLIB WORDS? NO STUPID SONGS?
I’ll get the Animal Protection League on to you.
…there was something behind the fallen were-wolf, something that made Horatio forget everything. A stone. Seen by the light of the silver flash. Tall and roughly hewed by ancient hands; a stone that marked a circle. As his mind took in the implications of his find, he could see other stones standing dimly in the dark.
Yes! A henge! Laughing openly, Horatio stepped inside the ring… the answer to his prayers under his very feet! He fell to his knees, hands grasping the soil, and with absolute certainty of where he was going, let his soul drift down into the hallowed ground.
Here was the event horizon between life and death, a realm of tones and colours that mirrored the Pool of Dreams. And it was one of those pools that the mandrake sought… the pool of misery and pain… the pool of his salvation and power… but…
…there was wrongness
…the colours were missing
…a grey mist covered the floor and above
…above… the mist was closing in above.
A TRAP! THEY WARD THE GATES!
With a scream of rage Horatio threw his soul back… up… out! AWAY! Cool soil under his trembling hands told him he had made it… just in time. He lay on the grass gasping for breath.
I’ve seen more power in a light bulb, stupid. How about some Red Hot Chili Peppers to liven things up? What do you say?
Horatio summoned his flagging strength and clamped down on his tormentor, driving him back. He was too tired to argue. Too tired. But he had to be away from this place; he needed to find transport. He needed his sister. He desperately needed his sister!
Behind his retreating back, a battered and dying werewolf gathered the last of its strength and crawled between the henge-stones.
Very late in the night, Salamander Ord tramped through the field, a carbide lamp in his hand. Magikal illumination was no good this night, because following behind him was the once androgynous dragon Lha’thu’cha, now male dragon Luther.
The wizard carried in his hand his bag of equipment in case it was needed. With absolute precision he located the henge… and stared down at the body of his friend. With a tear in his eye, Salamander Ord, greatest of wizards, struggled to keep a sob from escaping his throat. He squatted next to Afferton and his hand reached out to stroke the glistening fur.
‘He’s not dead, Salamander,’ a voice from the circle said. There was an image inside the ring of stones, a glowing image of a young woman, dressed in sheer white, her long blonde hair floating behind her in a breeze that wasn’t there. Salamander signaled Luther to stand beyond the circle.
‘Bring him to the centre of the ring,’ the White Lady of Earth told him. ‘Place him upon the ground.’
Silently, Salamander picked up the were-wolf, his own earth-magik countering his friend’s weight. Carefully, he placed the body on the ground… where it immediately began to frost over.
‘Ah, Gwyneth. What are you up to?’ he asked the Lady, as he pulled a handkerchief from his pocket and honked noisily.
‘Your friend put his life before others, Salamander. That is unheard of in a werewolf. He needs repair. That we shall do. Then he will be returned to you.’
‘What are you trading off for this?’ He knew the way things worked in the world beyond the living; he didn’t want this at a cost to some innocent party.
The Lady smiled. ‘Nothing. The decision was ratified at a rather higher level than you or I aspire to, Salamander.’
Ah! Now it was getting into a realm he wasn’t experienced with; that’s why, he knew, the Art Arcana had different branches. It stopped a lot of demarcation problems.
‘When will he be back, Gwyneth?’
The Lady went still for a second, as if listening to a secret voice. ‘In the morning. Early. But know this, Salamander Ord… your friend’s human body is no longer able to be used. I’m afraid it is beyond repair.’ She gestured to the form lying at her feet. ‘He will have to keep this one.’ She cast a stern eye at the wizard. ‘The one you tampered with, Salamander.’
Salamander had the good grace to blush… and change the subject. ‘Were-wolves are sunlight intolerant… it kills them. Unless there’s something I don’t know?’
‘Mmmm. Difficult. But maybe there is something you do know, Salamander.’ The Lady’s perfect face looked quizzically at him. ‘Something from Danny’s world maybe?’
Salamander Ord closed his eyes and brought forth the recollection of Danny’s memory from its repository within his own mind. As images of the lad’s strange world flickered in his mind’s eye like riffled pages of a book, he searched for some connection… some small clue… sun… sun… what could there be, he silently asked the images, to bring meaning to the Lady’s request for… ahhh! AHAH! Is it that simple?
‘Yes, Gwyneth,’ said Salamander Ord, with a huge smile on his face. ‘There is something that I know…’
Rain bled like tears of heaven across the chill, dark roofs of York, and perfectly matched the mood that Theolonia Crabbe was not enjoying.
Now that she was ensconced within her own walls, and free of that confounded brother, Theolonia could finally sit down and think things through. The cook and the cleaning maid had gone home hours ago, and the house echoed to Theolonia’s footsteps. The high-pitched howl of wind through the eaves and the intermittent hammer of a gust of hard rain were her only companions. Yet, she loved them. She loved everything now, because the parasite that had haunted her for so long was finally gone. Another world could deal with him.
What she knew she must do now was cover every trace of her brother and every trace of the Book of Null. It would be so simple, because no-one had suspected. Then… oh, yes… then she would be able to throw off these grey trappings and begin to live!
The jangling of a bell broke into Theolonia’s introspection. The bell jangled again. The front door bell. Her eyes lit on the travelling clock that sat on one end of the desk… nine-twenty of the evening.
Lightning flashed far away, lighting the pebble-glass of the front door and throwing the figure of the one that stood before it in stark relief for the briefest of moments. Opening the door, Theolonia saw the bedraggled figure of a rather large, red-faced woman of middle years, covered in an oiled cape that shed water like a fountain, and a battered old, wide-brimmed hat of the same material. In one hand she carried a small suitcase, and in the other a covered wicker basket.
There was a cat in the basket. A black cat.
‘Our Masterful Lord has ordered us forth, wizard. Your brother commands you to not stand against us.’
Theolonia’s her senses picked up the witch-aura. Coldness grasped her heart. Behind the woman, indistinct in the rain, were other shapes. Sorcerers! Witches! Anger and power flared within her and every instinct she had was to attack them. But somewhere in the back of her mind a little voice said… “A distraction. A smoke screen to cover your leaving….Surely a few miserable lives are worth your conquest of a new world?”
He sent them here! Betrayal! He’s betrayed me! Calling on all her energies and powers, Theolonia calmed herself. Her brother had deceived her. He had sent his followers to her, knowing they would be spotted. Knowing, too, that the Law would not be sympathetic to her plight. She needed time and she needed space.
‘Go around the back to the coach-house,’ she told the woman, coldly. ‘The servant’s quarters are there.’ Quickly, Theolonia slammed the door shut. She needed to think. Not that much thinking was required, she soon realised; her predicament was self-evident. Cogent thought couldn’t change the danger of her position one little bit.
She was in trouble.
Oh, she pondered, not right this minute. Maybe not for a day or two. But as soon as these creatures were recognized for what they were, the whole weight of the Law would come crashing down on her. She was under no illusion as to her role, willing or not, in the whole affair. Wizards were above that sort of thing… or ought to be.
The scrolls of her education and the testimonials to her expertise that hung in solemn acknowledgment seemed to mock her from their high places. Every lamp in the house that could be lit was lit in an attempt to drive the shadows away; shadows that reminded her of the shadow that had occupied her mind for so long.
For all her prowess in her craft and all the vaunted powers that prowess brought, Theolonia was trapped. By her ambition… greed of power…by were-guilt and were-blood. By her inaction and acceptance of her brother’s dark path. By sibling corruption. All these delineated her guilt of encouraging the wrong path. Her life would be forfeit…. oh, yes… she knew only too well the penalty she faced. Yet his power had held her in thrall, controlled her… frightened her. If the truth were known, she silently asked, would it be believed?
No. For certainty. What proof of her unwilling compliance was there?
There was a clock in the vestibule by the main front door, a huge mechanical device of brass and wood that hammered out the fading hours of her freedom with majestic thoroughness.
Options. I need options. There has to be a way…
Entering her ground-floor study, Theolonia went straight to her great desk. In a drawer was the key to her escape. Theolonia sat down, and pulled open the drawer. Reaching inside she pulled out a familiar small squarish package wrapped in soft white linen. She must start the Book of Null again on its second journey. Now! Before it’s too late! Quickly, before she changed her mind, Theolonia raced up the stairs. Her fingers shook as she struck a lucifer for the candle and pulled open the attic door. As before, the mirror that had been such a bane of her life stood silent and unbowed in the gloom; her candle made a travelling pool of flickering amber as she approached it. Mirror! Symbol of her captivity for so many years. Symbol now of her freedom! Thank the gods she had made two copies!
Placing the candle on the floor, she removed the book from the pocket of her voluminous grey dress. The Book of Null looked small and insignificant in the light; only the silver binder rings glowing with a pearly translucence indicated that this was no ordinary book.
With a deep breath, Theolonia held the book in her hands facing the mirror, and carefully opened the cover. Even reversed, she could read the runes, and as she pronounced each word, parts of the lines of the spell appeared and began to glow with a golden light.
As each page was read, lines of the spell appeared across the pages, and as she turned to the next page, the golden lines stayed fixed in the mirror.
Theolonia closed the book, and forty lines of glowing text scrolled down the glass, obscuring her own image and reflecting a steady light around the attic. Slowly, the book in her hands faded away and reappeared in the mirror. Then it too disappeared, leaving just the runes it contained. But this spell was different from the one Danny had been trapped with… this one was under her direct control.
‘Begone! Seek the one who looks like me! Bring the image here to me!’ With those words, the golden lines faded. They were still there, inside the mirror, but now they were merely a soft grey. Barely visible.
Excellent! Theolonia picked up her candle and retraced her steps; she smiled at the prospects of being free in a world where her powers were unknown and totally unimagined… and where the chances of meeting her brother were infinitely small.
There was a thought that didn’t surface… what if we’re alike, Horatio and I? What if we’re true twins? What if we each have part of the other?
Sunshine finally made it through the layer of heavy clouds and brought warmth and light and joy. At least, to Penelope Grey’s eyes it did. The garden was in such a mess and so much needed to be done. It was time, she resolved, to get something done while the sun shone.
First, I need some work clothes, she told herself.
Looking down at the rubber boots that shod her feet, the old track pants she wore and the canvas-backed gloves on her hands, she decided that she was indeed dressed for work. The small blue wheelbarrow with an assortment of hand tools sitting in the tray also seemed well equipped for a days’ industrious endeavour.
So! To work!
Penelope Grey picked up the wheelbarrow’s handles and trundled off down the inlaid brick path that led away from the house and meandered through the rather large gardens that surrounded it.
Sea breezes wafted through the plants, and when she lifted her eyes she could see the glittering highlights of the ocean between the hills that led away from the house and down to the shore. High in the sky a vapour trail followed its unseen creator towards the horizon. The water was an intense blue, the same colour as a small pansy that grew by the side of the path, and Penelope reached down to pick it.
How utterly wonderful, she thought. I must show this to someone. Quickly she retraced her footsteps and entered the house. A young woman, wearing a smart skirt and jacket, and carrying a clipboard under her left arm smiled as Penelope entered.
‘Hello, Mrs. Grey,’ she greeted Penelope. ‘What’s that you have there?’
‘In your hand, Penelope. The lovely blue flower.’
‘Oh. I don’t know… er… miss…’ she peered at the name printed on the badge that adorned the young woman’s left lapel, ‘… Jocelyn. The ocean, I seem to remember.’ Yes, that was it. The ocean.
‘Have we been gardening this morning, Penelope?’
‘Have we? Oh. I’m sure I haven’t. I think I’ve been to the ocean.’ She held the flower up as proof of her deductive powers.
Jocelyn patted Penelope’s arm. ‘Of course you have, dear. And you’re back just in time for morning tea.’
‘Oh, how lovely.’ The idea of tea was a familiar thing, one she recognised. She knew she liked tea. And something that went with it… something… no… it just wouldn’t come to her. Perhaps, she thought, I need some tea.
‘Do you think… er… young lady, that I might have some tea?’
‘Yes, of course. Just go through to the conservatory.’
‘Conservator?’. That didn’t ring a bell with Penelope. ‘Where’s that?’
Jocelyn smiled with the patience of one used to caring for people like Penelope Grey. Linking her arm with that of the older woman, she turned her around and walked with her out of the house. ‘It’s just around the side, dear,’ she said. ‘Why don’t I take you there?’
Everyday Jocelyn felt a sadness at her patient’s indisposition, and every day it got worse. What a shame, she thought. And she’s only sixty-three.
As she pulled out a chair to sit Penelope at the little round table where she took tea with one of her friends, the older woman suddenly gripped her arm and held on tightly.
‘You must do something about the mirror, dear. It’s dreadfully dark, you know, and I can’t understand why it’s watching me.’
‘What mirror, Penelope? And what don’t you understand?’ The idea was to humour her through this phase and when it was forgotten in, say, two or three minutes, not to bring it up again.
Penelope placed the tea service down in a careful and deliberate manner. ‘Don’t humour me, young lady,’ she snapped in a rare moment of lucidity and recognition. ‘The mirror in my room, of course. I know it’s watching me.’
The henge stood silent and alone, as it had done for millennia.
The morning mist had burned away and the warmth of the sun was reflecting from the ancient granite stones when Salamander Ord, Jemma Mayhorn and Mr. Toast stepped into the circle.
Luther was with them, dressed in an overcoat and hat that entirely failed to hide his shape. His large eyes were somber as he witnessed this rare occurrence in human affairs; an occurrence he would carry back to the northern lands and his people. His! Now so named, Luther relished his new status and awareness; he halted outside the henge lest his proximity disturb the magician’s doings.
Jemma carried the fat old cat in her arms and she felt him stiffen when he saw the were-wolf. The body of Afferton Smythe was still lying where the wizard had placed it, and frost still covered it.
‘Stay here, Jemma,’ he directed the young lady. ‘You too, Mr. Toast. I won’t be long.’ With that, the wizard sat down on the ground, his back against one of the stones. Emptying his mind of all things except the mandala-key, he concentrated mightily on The White Lady’s image. The key had been granted to all wizards by the high ecclesiastic mages as a sign of their trust in the Law that united all the Arts way back in 1666, and the temporal mages had responded by elevating the highest of them to the Triumvar. It was good politics.
Slowly, his mind-image sank into the nether-world. Mr. Toast was now very much awake, and his eyes searched the floor of the stone circle… as if he could see beneath the soil… as if he could see where the wizard went.
Grey was above and below him, the landscape of the interface was bland and bleak. The Lady of Earth stood before him, as real as he stood before her. Gwyneth Tyler was old family, and an old friend. Gone were the symbolic images and effects that confused souls craved on their journey to the other place; in their place was an image of a middle-aged woman of strong, dark Celtic features, with flashing eyes. She was wearing a woolen skirt, knitted Highland jumper and good leather walking shoes.
‘Well, Salamander,’ she said, ‘it took some doing, but we did it. Fought us all the way he did; wouldn’t leave his human-form behind. So we compromised.’
Salamander smiled at the imagery. ‘What sort of compromise, Gwyneth?’
‘We had to leave the Afferton-mind intact.’
‘Oh, no! Locked in that shape for the rest of his life? The poor man! How’s he taking it?’
‘Better than you would imagine, Sal. Wouldn’t you swap a dying body for a young healthy one?’
‘Not if it was a dog! I like my human comforts, thank you.’
‘Ahh! But Afferton was never human, was he? Not fully human, anyway. His greatest feelings are in his were-shape.’ She patted his arm. ‘He’ll adapt. So will you.’
‘Me? To what?’ The suspicion of a horrible thought was coming together in his mind…
‘Looking after him, of course! Who’s going to do the doggy-looking-after things? Food, grooming, medication. Keeping him out of trouble.’
A groan issued from the throat of the wizard, and he held a hand against his forehead. ‘How am I going to explain this to the Triumvar? Eh? Or the Guild?’
‘You’ll have to explain the dragon eventually, why not this? You’ll think of something, Salamander. You always do. That’s why you’re the greatest wizard in the country.’
‘Go easy on the buttering-up, will you, Gwyneth? The greatest sit on the Triumvar.’
‘Poppycock! The best politically-minded ones sit there.’ She poked a finger at his ample stomach. ‘The best at their craft stand here! Your modesty has always held you back, Sal.’
The subject was uncomfortable to him… but he was happy doing what he did without the constraints of pomp and ceremony; without having to explain everything he did or decided.
‘Where’s Afferton, then? Let’s get this show on the road.’
‘Have you brought what I requested?’
Salamander pulled a small, long box from his pocket, and opened it. ‘Will these do?’
Jemma had followed Salamander’s example and was sitting against a stone, dozing.
The stone was cool on her back, and her shoes were wet with dew, but the cat was nice and warm in her arms; it was so restful. She closed her eyes against the sun and thought…
…about Garreth. It always came back to Garreth. What’s he doing right now? I know he’s safe… Danny’s family must be very nice… and Emily… he must see a lot of her… does he… does he…?
Salamander Ord jerked into wakefulness, and Jemma leaped up, giving her hand to help the wizard to his feet.
‘Did all go well, Master Ord?’ she asked, as Salamander went to kneel down by the were-wolf’s body. Already the frost on it was melting, and the fur gleamed deep and black. Nervously, Jemma looked up at the sun. The minute it opens its eyes, she thought, it’s dead. Salamander took something from a small box he retrieved from an inner pocket and slipped it over the beast’s head just as the body twitched into life.
With a bound, Afferton sprung to his feet, head turning backwards and forwards, getting his bearing. Then, with a deep growl that sounded surprisingly satisfied to Jemma’s ear, he looked up at the sun.
Why isn’t he dead? Jemma asked herself in amazement. Ahh! Maybe it has something to do with the wrap-around sunglasses he’s wearing.
There was a word that Afferton had heard young Danny use. At the time it was meaningless and vague. But now… now it made sense; it fitted. Cool. The look on Rufus’ face was enough, but to have everyone stare at him in amazement, and… he almost hated to admit to it… affection, was… cool.
I’ve got to thank Danny for that, he promised himself as he lifted his great head to look at his old friend. Thanks, Sal, he said with his mind, certain his friend could hear him. Thanks for everything.
Salamander Ord swallowed the lump in his throat and nodded to his friend. ‘You’re more than welcome, Afferton,’ he replied, ‘more than welcome.’
The cure from the sun involved a pair of custom-made sunglasses that wrapped around his eyes and totally blocked the light. These were no simple spectacles with darkened lenses, as was common; this design was taken from Danny’s memory and the wizard had adapted lenses that blocked every ultra-violet ray and reduced the light particles to the level of the full moon. At night, the glasses were perfectly clear. To keep them on, he had also created a micro-static field that bonded with a DNA-based empathy formula; the glasses could only come off if Afferton took them off. Or if he let someone else take them off. There was also a flexible loop between the arms as back-up security, just in case Danny’s null factor broke the static field.
All in all, Afferton mused, the trade-off was acceptable. He had his youth back, could lie in the sun all day long and people would leave him alone. He wouldn’t have to pay any taxes, no-one was going to bother him unless they were very, very brave, and… he wouldn’t have to bathe so regularly. And he kept his own mind. No more vague primal patterns, no more trying not to look guilty the next day, no more blood urges. He scratched himself with a hind leg; well, maybe I’ll keep the blood urges…
There was something wonderful in exercising arcane power, Horatio Crabbe decided. He loved the control it gave him in the manipulation of others; it allowed him to feed off the negative energy each and every person carried; and it was so, so, easy. A questing tendril of his thought into the normal’s mind to find the right centre, a small formula of power directly into the brain… and he had a slave. And the wonderful thing was… he didn’t have to kill anyone! His victims would take him where he wanted, and he would leave them with a gap in their memory and weak from the energy he had stolen. It was the perfect crime because it was undetectable.
The first victim had been a man in the village who was just arriving home in his steam-buggy. Greedily absorbing the man’s fear, Horatio had forced him to drive to Chester, twenty minutes away. The roads were typical Anglic… narrow, twisting and dark. Once, they had to stop for coke and water at a service depot, and the mandrake had to exercise all his power just to keep the voice in his head under control while his victim completed the necessary transactions.
After that it was plain sailing. Leaving the man dazed and confused by the river district, Horatio soon found a hauler at an all-night café frequented by the transport guilds. By six of the clock in the morning, he was alighting from the steam-truck in the back streets of Manchester’s canal district. Here the fog was still thick and cold, and the very cobbles damp and slippery. Here he would find another to force to his will.
If only he could rest, though. All the energy he was leaching from his victims wasn’t enough to keep his powers up and the thing in his head quiet. He was so tired… so very, very tired. The minute he relaxed just the slightest… teeniest… bit…
‘YOUR WORDS ARE LIKE A BLANKET…’ the song burst from his mouth…
‘… THAT SMOTHERS ALL MY PAIN...
… AND TEARS A COLD REMINDER…
… THERE’S NOTHING LEFT TO GAIN’
Guess who that was.
Horatio grabbed hold of a lamp-post that loomed up out of the fog and slumped against it, as the horrible music echoed down the street.
NO MORE. I WEARY OF YOUR PRESENCE. I DETEST YOUR MUSIC. CEASE, OR I WILL HUNT YOU DOWN!
Find me. Go on. Find me. There’s a lot of room in here, you old fart. And remember, potato-head, I’m null too. That had been the secret that countered his fears. Null. The mandrake couldn’t get him. So long as he was careful, so long as he waited for moments of weakness to sabotage the creature, he was safe. So long as he didn’t get overconfident. So long as he had faith in Salamander Ord.
I WILL HAVE MY SISTER EXORCISE YOU FROM THIS BODY. YOU WILL BE FINALLY AND UTTERLY DESTROYED.
Yeah. Big deal, wart-face. Big deal.
‘Are you all right, sir?’ The voice came from a young woman hurrying through the murk, a shawl thrown over her head and an old great-coat enrobing her thin body.
‘Ah, yes.’ Horatio was panting from mental exertion. ‘Er. Thank you. Thank you.’
Tell her you’re a mandrake, baldy.
‘I’m a mandr… afraid I’m lost.’ He straightened up and got control back again. ‘Could you tell me where I might be able to find a haulier’s depot? I need to hitch a ride.’ He tried to smile, but it came out crooked.
‘Where to, sir? Most of the freight from here is by canal boat, but one or two of the mills have their own haulier fleets.’
‘County York,’ Horatio said.
The young woman thought for a moment, and Danny wanted to shout out that she was in danger, but the mandrake’s control was too tight… for the moment.
‘Grimmold and Wainwright always have steam-trucks going north,’ she said. ‘You’ll find them down the end of this street. Cotton mills they are. Can’t miss them.’
Her figure disappeared into the fog.
Why didn’t you suck her brains out like the others?
There was a long silence before the mandrake answered, and when it did, its voice was weak with fatigue.
I DON’T SUCK… SHE HAD NO PAIN. NO GUILT. NO ANGER. BESIDES…
You need some music to cheer you up, you do. Let’s see…
‘…HI HO… HI HO…
…IT’S OFF TO YORK WE GO…’
Unable to summon the energy to suppress the parasite in his head that was driving him mad, Horatio stumbled down the street, singing words he couldn’t understand to music he didn’t like.
I made that up, scum-bag. Like it?
All Horatio wanted was to get to York. Where he would be safe. Where he would find relief from the thing in his head. Where it would be QUIET!
The fog closed in.
Edgar and Mary Royal sat stunned at the story Salamander Ord told.
So it was true! Everything that Redgrave had told them was true! Garreth really was gone! The couple sat in their lounge-room, surrounded by the familiar things they had acquired over the years. They looked around them with blank eyes, as if trying to latch onto something permanent, some anchor that would hold them fast against the weird changes just announced.
Redgrave and Clarity Mayhorn sat alongside, as if to lend support and comfort, and Rufus Pendragon sat next to Salamander Ord as he related the tale. Jemma sat nearby in an easy chair, Garreth’s fat old cat Mr. Toast asleep in her lap.
But the really weird things, the things that was so outrageous that they made sense of the whole story, were the sight of a green and white dragon sitting at the table drinking a cup of kaffee; and a very large, very black and very obvious were-wolf lying on the carpet fast asleep. Snoring. And wearing sunglasses. Big, black, wrap-around sunglasses.
If, so Edgar’s rather hasty reasoning went, there actually are dragons and were-wolves, and they actually do drink kaffee and wear sunglasses; and if wizards are nice round gentlemen who wear braces with their trousers and coloured shirts with rolled-back sleeves, and if they have charming manners and strange tales to tell, then surely the existence of mandrakes and a doorway into a mirror universe is not so strange after all. In fact, he wasn’t surprised there wasn’t a doorway behind every mirror now that Master Ord had explained things.
‘What we need,’ Edgar Royal stated, finally finding the anchor he had been seeking, ‘is a large glass of sherry.’ The fact it was only midday didn’t seem to bother anyone present.
Cigars also may be presented… yes? Luther blinked his eyes in anticipation.
Salamander Ord felt sympathy for the lad’s parents. For all Garreth’s failure at magik and the perceived social disgrace that that failure attracted, they were still his parents and they loved him. Most wizards were childless, due in part to the long years of training, and the fact that the Talent was not a genetic thing… you couldn’t inherit it… and Salamander was no exception. But compassion was not limited to parental devotion and compassion was one of the things that made Salamander Ord a powerful exponent of his craft.
‘From my understanding of the Null world,’ he told everyone as Edgar poured the sherry, ‘Garreth is in very good hands. The Royce family understands everything. We should be able to retrieve him without a problem. Danny, on the other hand, is in deep trouble.
‘I know who’s behind this... and I now know why. I also know where the mandrake is going… the one place it can get help. Initially, I thought it had completely taken Danny over, body and soul. But then I remembered that Danny is a null.’ He took a sip of his sherry… it was rather good. ‘When I first met the lad, he allowed me to see into his mind so that I could better understand his world. That encounter also revealed to me the area of the human brain that is impervious to magik… that doesn’t even recognise the stuff. It’s a very small part of the cerebellum that is totally undeveloped and under-utilised.
‘From what Afferton tells me of Danny’s behaviour, he still exists within his own mind, and the mandrake doesn’t have full control of it.’
‘Will he be safe, Master Ord?’ Jemma asked, the question already in her eyes. There was an uncomfortable shuffling in his seat from Rufus.
‘He’s retreated to the null-centre of his brain. The mandrake can’t get to him there, I’m certain of that.’
Rufus took up the theory. ‘Somehow, Danny is fighting back; letting us know he’s still there. Every time the mandrake slackens his vigilance, Danny’s there… singing, talking, annoying. Driving him to distraction.
‘We know where our quarry is, and we know the saga of all the poor people he’s abused to get there. There has been no permanent damage, so Master Ord assures me… they can be rehabilitated. The mandrake’s just arrived back in York, and Proctors watch his every move. His only chance is to get his protector to use the Book of Null again on a different victim.’
Redgrave Mayhorn rubbed his chin in thought. ‘If,’ he began, ‘you know where he is, why don’t you get the local wizards to apprehend him? Surely they have enough power?’
Salamander nodded his head absent-mindedly. ‘Yes, they do. Ordinarily. But we’re dealing with a null here, and anything could happen. Anything! There are no rules about this… it’s all a new experience. And as I’m the only one that’s seen inside the mind of a null, I am the only one best able to protect Danny.’
Quiet moments ticked away as each one there absorbed the news. Only the sound of Afferton waking and scratching himself broke the silence.
‘Erm…’ Mary Royal said, ‘…tell me. How are you going to get to York this evening? I mean…’ She looked at Salamander with apology in her eyes, as if she should know wizards can travel great distances in the blink of an eye, but had forgotten the fact.
Salamander smiled. ‘There’s no mortal way of doing that, I’m afraid. But, there are other means. Luckily we have friends in high, and low, places. I only need one thing from you, Mr. and Mrs. Aldredge, then our intrepid band of hunters can depart.’
‘Er, yes. Certainly.’ Edgar looked at his wife in puzzlement. ‘What is it you require?’
‘Your cat. I’d very much like to take Mr. Toast along.’
It had taken Horatio nearly three days to reach York.
Three days of hiding… and fighting the voice in his head. Three days of forcing others to his will, his meager payment the few small dribbles of negative energy he was able to leach from their souls… small reward for such effort.
Real food was easy to come by, as his victims were unaware of their generosity in providing food and shelter for the hapless wayfarer they had stopped to help. And if their wayfarer was a little… odd… and chose to burst into strange song one minute then lapse into sweating silence the next, who were they to comment?
The spires of the Minster glowed in the afternoon sun and acted as a beacon to Horatio. He followed the road through the gateway in the ancient city walls and crossed the old town, threading his way through the narrow streets. Several people gave a wide berth to the wild-eyed young man in the disheveled clothes who walked with a lurch as if his legs wanted to go one way and he wanted to go another. But Horatio didn’t care. Sanctuary was only a few streets away, and his sister would finally rid him of this parasite!
That’s charming! From where I stand, ding-bat, you’re the parasite. Think what your poor sister had to put up with all those years. You. Stuck in her head like a grub in an apple.
MOCK ALL YOU WANT. THE MINUTE I REACH HOME…
‘…SHOW ME THE WAY TO GO HOME…’
YOU WILL BE DROOLING LIKE A FOOL WHEN YOUR MIND IS CAUTERISED.
‘…I’M TIRED AND I WANT TO GO TO BED…’
To the curious glances of fellow pedestrians, Horatio Crabbe stumbled along his way, silently vowing retribution on all who had denied him his very existence; on all who had mocked him.
Danny Royce squatted in the dark corner of what used to be his own mind and tried to stop thinking of what might happen to him. A few weeks ago he had been bemoaning his fate in the concrete jungle of Greater Manchester, wishing for a different life… a different world. Now he had one, but not the one he’d had in mind!
He could see Emily’s face, and he suddenly missed her. Thoughts of his Mum and Dad brought a cloying knot of sentiment to his throat. Really, when all was said and done, he just wanted to go home.
I don’t know how long I can hold on… I really hope Salamander comes soon.
Theolonia looked out of the leadlight windows on the second floor of her house, the ones that overlooked the little hedged tea nook in the side garden. Below, sitting in quiet conversation, with a platter of scones and cream and jam and a service of tea to keep them company, were five of the most likely people Theolonia would never invite to her home.
Her cold eyes examined the three men and two women who sat in her garden in complete contempt for her position. As witches and sorcerers they would normally cower before a high wizard, but her brother’s power had overturned age-old fears and brought them out of their dark corners to aid the mandrake. They believed he would restore their ancient ways in the correct manner… with blood and pain and anger and suffering.
Let the old ways prevail, Horatio had told them. Fools, to believe in such a one! He dupes you as he betrays me. You will pay with your miserable lives.
Margaret Limewycke sipped daintily from a porcelain cup that was almost lost in her large hand. Even the scones she was stuffing into her mouth were but tiny morsels in the folds of her sausage-like fingers. What, she wondered, was wrong with great steaming mugs and huge wedges of pie? Still, they kept the pangs of hunger at bay.
George Appleby had the look of a tailor who had sat squinting under weak lights for too long…thin, narrow-faced, with mole-like eyes that peered out at the world. George Appleby was all those things, and more. Yet his looks were deliberate, they were designed to hide the mind behind them.
Gertrude Halfhand was dainty and prim, the exact opposite of Margaret. Strict school-marm dress and demeanour was her subterfuge, aided by a waspish tongue.
Sylas Quarryman had the dignified look of a professional man. Tall, severe, aloof. Immaculate in a business suit of worsted cloth, the badge of his office pinned to his left lapel… a silver owl. Sylas Quarryman had the perfect disguise for his alter-calling… Sylas was a magician-at-law.
The last member of the unholy quintet was a brute of a man. Dark and brooding, tall and wide, with a permanent scowl on his pock-marked face. He looked like a thug, and he was one. The world had not been kind to Calwyn Andersson; only the late recognition of his dark powers offered a way of saving him from his life of crime and gave him a way to get back at the world that had spurned him from the day he was born.
This was the test case. This was the first time in generations that a full mandrake had survived to offer leadership. And, there was a high wizard in its thrall to provide protection. The ways of old needed to be brought up to date and this was the best chance in generations for progress to be made; but no-one was under any illusion that this was not a dangerous undertaking.
Yet the rewards were very, very high.
‘I’m going,’ Jemma told her parents with some force. ‘I don’t see why you think it’s risky… Garreth did it and he’s fine!’ In anticipation of winning her argument to go with the wizard and Uncle Rufus, Jemma had donned her riding boots and pants, a heavy pullover and a hooded cape.
The problem was, Redgrave knew, that Luther couldn’t travel to York the way Salamander was going to go; so he was going to have to fly there. The difficult thing was that Jemma wanted to fly with him; and the frightening thing about that was that Luther was in his flying shape and looked anything but fine! When they had found him on their roof he hadn’t looked so… menacing. The dragon’s silver orbs were fixed on him and the vertical pupil was a long, thin black slit.
Changes there have been, Master Mayhorn. Maleness demands evidence of such disposition. Yet… care is paramount. Safety assured is. Novelty… ah… can that be denied?
‘Well,’ said Clarity, ‘if it’s good enough for Garreth, it’s good enough for my daughter.’ With a laugh, Jemma stood in the offered hand and vaulted onto Luther’s neck. The saddle fitted perfectly. As his hands grabbed her feet and the great wings began to beat and lift, Jemma shouted down to her uncle and the wizard…
‘Race you there!’
The last of the sun turned huge and red, bathing the fields and the stones of the henge in a warm hue, as a wizard, an attorney-at-magik, a silent were-wolf in sunglasses, and a rather plump marmalade cat made their collective way onto the sacred site. There were also several bags of equipment and a picnic hamper, courtesy of Mary Aldredge, in case they got hungry.
The circle stood empty and quiet, with only the waning sun and evening breeze for company; though the small band that stood in its centre would not be there long enough to enjoy that company. The White Lady of Earth had offered this rare concession to Salamander as a means of bringing the foul creature to justice, a concession so rare that knowledge of its existence was strictly limited to highest ecclesiastical and temporal mages.
They were going to physically travel through the interface between life and non-life; through the event horizon of the soul. Every sacred site, every henge and barrow and holy place was connected to every other. Not in the physical sense, but in the spiritual. Underneath every site was an ephemeral replica of the one above, ghostly and serene in the landscape of the soul. And every one there was connected to every other, because distance was meaningless and different laws and forces applied.
The form of Gwyneth Tyler appeared as her elemental self… young, with long blonde hair streaming behind her and white diaphanous gown billowing around. As her arms widened to embrace them, the stones seemed to pulse with the blood of the sun.
‘Welcome,’ she greeted them, as the real world fell away and the grey nothingness of the interface grew around them, ‘to my office.’ She smiled. ‘Well, one of them, anyway. Please come together, and hold hands.’ She looked down at Afferton. ‘The tail will do.’ Her arms encompassed the group and quiet words of power issued from her mouth… the henge stones seemed to pull the very light from the sun… they glowed in bloody hue… a single rune appeared on each stone… leeching out… as if from within the very stone itself… and she spoke each rune in turn.
The very air changed. All colour bled away and a greyness enveloped them. The very earth changed… became insubstantial… slid aside… slowly. And the group descended gently into the bowels of the earth.
Rufus looked around and saw a ghostly replication of the henge above. All about was grey and vague. His eyes caught those of Salamander Ord and the wizard saw the question writ large in the amazement on his friend’s face.
‘We convince the molecules around us to accept a slightly different mathematical value.’ He smiled as he indicated the grey envelope. ‘Within this, they think they’re something else.’
Afferton trotted off to the other side of the circle where the stones could only just be made out in the strange non-light; a non-light that was everywhere, yet gave no depth of field or sense of direction from which it came. But Afferton seemed to know where he was going. He disappeared between two ghostly stones.
The White Lady led the way across the circle. Now and then a bright point of multi-coloured light would flash within one of the spaces between the stones, and as Rufus peered between them, he was aware of another circle of stones outside the one they were crossing. In fact, when he looked into the next gap, a different circle met his eyes.
The White Lady stopped where Afferton had passed through and turned to face the group. ‘This portal leads to another circle entirely,’ she explained, ‘one that is a long way from Lower Thatching. That one in turn will lead us to a sacred grove, then a long barrow, then another circle.
‘Eventually, we will reach York.’ She crossed the threshold and turned left. The next gap was only a few yards away.
Mr. Toast sat very still in Salamander’s arms. As one who had regularly contributed to the transmission of souls, however small, from the corporeal to the ethereal world, he recognised the brief sparks of light for what they were and decided dignified silence his best course of action.
Lest he be recognised.
Afferton, on the other hand, loved the place!
The band of unlikely warriors trod the sacred grounds of a nonexistent realm. Through mists of swirling grey they followed the figure of the White Lady of Earth; past vague stands of elm and oak, through portals of stone, under lintels of rough hewn granite… ever onwards to the sacred places of York.
Lights flickered into existence and just as quickly disappeared, always at the edge of vision, always flashing between the grey ceiling and the grey floor like so many microscopic meteorites. Sometimes the suggestion of sound intruded into the utter silence of the place, always indistinct, but always not quite unheard.
At a place of fallen stones, the path split in two, and the small party came upon Afferton who was looking long and hard at what was down one of the paths. It was a light, but a very special and sinister light. No artist could have conceived of the colours, they came from fractured visions and tormented imaginings; and the light flickered and pulsed, as if restless and unhappy. It was the light of pestilence and misery, and with it came a sound… the sound of souls in fear. Wails and lamentations on the limit of hearing; at the edge of understanding. The sound was all around, rising and falling with the light.
‘The Pit of Sins,’ said the White Lady, coming up behind Afferton and looking into the inner distance. ‘The repository of all sins stripped from the souls of the dead before they move on.’
‘That,’ Salamander informed them as he brought up the rear, ‘is where our quarry feeds. That,’ he stabbed his finger towards the light, ‘is the very life blood of the mandrake… the source of all his power.’
The party moved on, but Afferton stayed for long seconds… staring into the light… remembering… then he too turned away.
The sound changed. Now there was a harmony in the voices… hints of music… harmonics of joy and wonder that were felt rather than heard. And again the scene changed; ghostly columns rose into the ethereal sky and ruined capstones littered the ground. A stone arch, almost translucent with an inner light beckoned the travellers. The White Lady halted and waited for everyone to assemble. Even Afferton hadn’t entered alone.
‘This is the ancient grove dedicated to the god Jupiter. It lies near the old Roman garrison beneath the Minster.’ She pointed through the arch. ‘Twenty paces brings you to a stone stair. That will take you up into the vaults of the Minster. You will be escorted from there.
‘Good luck to you, Salamander Ord.’ The image of the White lady slowly faded into the grey of the surroundings.
The portly wizard squared his shoulders and marched through without a backward glance.
The big black cat patrolled the borders of the grey stone house it had come to loathe.
Here in the night, with the wind and the damp and the smells of the town around her was a much preferred place to be. Ordinarily she would like nothing more than the ample lap of her alter-self, to doze the evening away nestled amid Margaret’s copious petty skirts.
But others occupied her mistress’ affairs at the moment, slimy, nasty people with slimy, nasty minds. Brutish and stupid people, greedy beyond their own abilities. And there was another… not present… one who kept herself apart. That one had power! Power that grated against the soul of her mistress.
No… it was better outside, where the…
Her one yellow eye sought the movement within the shadows; her senses targeted the sounds under those of the night…
…there! It’s a cat!
As quiet as falling snow, the familiar stalked the lumbering cat as it in turn stalked some prey or other, oblivious to the danger approaching. With fine senses judging the faint breeze, the hunter circled behind her quarry, nearing… understanding.
With contempt the familiar dismissed the fat old cat as unworthy. There’s no sport here, its thought processes seemed to say, there’s no…
…the old marmalade cat looked around at her
…looked at something over her shoulder…
…the sleek glossy familiar turned her head away from the old marmalade cat in search of that which it saw… and found it.
Silver fangs that glistened wickedly came rapidly together and shut with a hard, surgical… SNAP!
The last thought the cat had was not of its mistress, but one of incredulous disbelief…