Howard Penderghast strode confidently towards the centre of the hall, his conjured butterflies dying and melting into raindrops all around him. Instead of his iconic colonel’s uniform and green beret, he was dressed in white slacks and a tan cotton jacket over a cream polo-shirt, topped by a rather touristy akubra hat, complete with dangling corks in front of his face. Besides his staff, the only things that distinguished the warlock from any other foreign sightseer were the pouches on his belt and the patches sewn onto his left sleeve. Military insignia? Mystic symbols? Nobody in the hall could tell.
“Took your sweet time,” Valour muttered loudly.
“You’re lucky I’m still in the country, Tim,” retorted Penderghast. “Be glad the State Library here has a decent occult collection.”
Alberto couldn’t read the man. Where Valour shrouded his mind beneath a black cloud of horrors, and Eliza’s just plain wasn’t there, Penderghast’s surface thoughts were jumbled nonsense. A slideshow of shit about rodeo-clown jousting tournaments and republican anthills. And just like with the Singular Elsa, Allison’s power could find no note of sorcery in the warlock’s song.
Alberto wanted him gone.
“You can stop right there!” he said as Penderghast drew within twenty yards of the Watercolours and their hostages. “Or else someone is getting a face full of molten rock. Might not even be you.”
Penderghast obeyed. “Fair enough.”
“What’s he doing here?” Mabel whispered to Arnold. “Isn’t he supposed to be in Viet—”
Arnold’s arm jerked forward, along with a stream of lightning. It hit Penderghast square in the chest, but the man refused to vanish, merely flickering for a moment as he sighed and shook his head.
“…Shit,” Arnold said aloud.
The warlock tapped at the patch closest to his shoulder-blade. “Broken-arrow, son,” he said in his patrician drawl. “My sister whipped it up to stop bullets, but I wagered it wouldn’t mesh well with teleportation. Interrupted journeys, hmm?”
Lawrence was right, Alberto thought to himself. Magic is bullshit.
Penderghast allowed himself half a chuckle. “She’ll be very chuffed, I’m sure. Now that we know I’m not going anywhere, can we please have a civil conversation?”
“Depends,” said Alberto, regarding the empty door-frames behind the wizard warily. “Are the coppers about to come storming in behind you?”
The corner of Penderghast’s lip curled into a frown. “I’m surprised they followed me this far.”
“Shame,” said David coolly, arms folded. “Woulda been fun.”
Penderghast waved his hand behind his back, uttering some heavy Slavic syllables. Thick metal doors seemingly made entirely of locks sprung up in the ice’s place.
“There,” he said. “Gesture of faith. Now, would you please stop trying to fight me? I’m on your side, hard as that might be to believe.”
“Yeah, right,” said Alberto. “Did they say that in Salem, too?”
Penderghast gave a small, satisfied smile. “I wouldn’t know. When your land actually is a demon haunted heath, no one wants it very much.” His expression became sober again as he shot Valour a contemptuous look. “Still, I want to resolve this peacefully.”
Timothy downed the dregs of his last glass of gin. “So did I, Howie, so did I.”
“Basic hostage negotiation, Tim,” said Howard. “Get the children out first.” He gestured towards the Watercolours. “Far as I’m concerned, that means all of you.”
“‘Get the children out’?” shouted one of the hostages. “They’re the ones holding us fuckin’ hostage!”
“Sir, I understand the stress you’re all under, but they’re nine.”
“They’re bloody demi terrorists—”
A glob of water hit the man in the face, freezing solid over his mouth.
Penderghast looked at David. “That was excessive, young man.”
The boy just shrugged.
Nobody had to tell him who did that, Alberto realized. He’s done his research.
“So tell me,” said Penderghast. “Why all this?” He glanced briefly at the body on the floor, but let it lie for for the time being. “You can’t think people will be on your side.”
“People can be very amenable when they’re scared shitless of you,” replied Alberto.
Mabel grabbed Arnold’s hand. “You don’t know what they did to us.”
Arnold didn’t say anything. His face was charnel-white.
“I don’t, do I?” Penderghast spotted Karl Jessop, still watching everything through his camera like some postmodern cyclops. The warlock pointed his staff at the recording device. “Then, let there be light.”
A ripple passed through the hall like air through water. When the sorcerous wave washed over Jessop’s camera, brightly lit white smoke poured from its lense.
“Oi!” exclaimed the cameraman, sounding more miffed than surprised. “This better not gum up the works…”
The smoke formed into a nimbus above the heads of the Watercolours and the hostages. A monochrome image appeared on its underbelly. Then another, then more and more on top of each other until they achieved the illusion of motion. There was sound, too, slightly tinny and out of synch, but perfectly audible.
A couple minutes of Karl checking his equipment, soundtracked by murmuring hostages and Allison’s arch, mocking instructions. Then Tim Valour walked into frame, and repeated his disgrace.
His post confession self fixed his eyes down towards the floor. He at least had enough composure left not to cover his ears.
Some of the hostages tried to yell over the playback, to deny their boss’s confession or offer an excuse.
The man himself snapped, “Will all of you shut up?”
For Penderghast’s part, he just watched. The only hint of emotion the children got off him was when his grip tightened around his staff.
Valour gave way to the Physician, stumbling through his confession like someone was jabbing him with a stick.
Midway through John Smith’s parade of metamorphoses, Alberto took on Arnold’s song and zapped the camera away. The smokey screen dissipated instantly.
“I think you get the picture,” Alberto said.
“My bloody camera!” shouted Karl, groping at the empty air. “Rozza’s going to have my nuts on a platter for losin’ it!”
“…Who would let people call them—” Penderghast shook his head, before procuring a small red marble from one of the pouches on his belt. “Timothy Valour,” the warlock intoned imperiously, “is what you spoke in that recording your honest truth?”
“It is,” Tim answered quietly.
The marble turned white in Penderghast’s hand.
“You can’t possibly believe that!” cried one of the hostages, a younger woman with nails that could pluck an eye out from the other end of the hall. “He confessed at”—she searched for the term—“power-point!”
The colonel held up the marble. “The eye of Aletheia1 begs to differ, ma’am.”
Disbelieving groans spread through the hostages. Howard ignored them. “Would one of you children be kind enough to show me the Smith creature?”
David dragged the Physician before the warlock—in ice-form, lest the alien try something clever with the glass he was stuffed with.
John Smith grinned vacantly at Penderghast, gears turning behind his plastic smile. Unlike some dead Oxfordians he could name, the Physician wasn’t fool enough to doubt the truth of magic. It existed on every planet with even the faintest glimmer of sophonce. He was no expert—superpowers had always been his wheelhouse—but he did know how much magic loved technicalities. If this petty wizard wasn’t very precise with his questioning…
“Have you, your compatriots, or any possible and/or impossible permutation or combination of those two concepts been conspiring against Australia or the United States?”
It was worth a try…
The eye remained blood red.
…No it wasn’t.
“Thank you, David,” said Penderghast.
The warlock made a fig sign, like he wanted to convince the Physician he had the alien’s nose. Dr. Smith went flying backwards, landing with a skid at the far end of the hall2.
“…That was unnecessary.”
“You’ve given me a lot to think about, children,” said Penderghast. “It seems there’s something rotten in both our Denmarks.”
David didn’t like the way the American talked. It reminded him of Lawrence. All the clever little allusions and the condescending politeness. The way grownups talked when they had a cane behind their back.
“Glad to see you’re not a complete drone,” remarked Alberto. He looked over his shoulder at Mr. Thumps, still hugging a quietly weeping Billy. “No offense, Thumps.”
“None taken, Miss Kinsey.”
“There’s a difference between patriotism and blind obedience. I’d like to think one precludes the other, in fact.” Penderghast sighed. “I’m sorry, but I have to ask,” he pointed at the corpse on the floor, “who did this?”
Arnold bit his lip. None of the other Watercolours answered. The hostages clamoured to do it for them, but Penderghast silenced them with a slam of his staff.
“I’m asking the children,” the wizard said, his soft voice as final and authoritative as any spell.
David’s fists were shaking at his side. Why did grownups always play this game? Making them fess up like they didn’t already know?
And if they did tell, what would happen to Arnold?
“…Why do you need to know that?” asked Mabel.
“So that I can see that the most appropriate action is taken.”
Everyone stared at David.
Penderghast raised an eyebrow. “Pardon, young man?”
God. It was like Laurie came back American. They’d been free of the last one all of twelve seconds. “‘Appropriate action’ my arse! You just want someone in chains!” David looked around at his friends. “America got bombed, too. I bet Merlin over there’s angry he didn’t get to drag-”
“David.” The warlock held up the eye of Aletheia. “I don’t and I’m not, son. I just want to help you.”
The stone turned white.
David wasn’t moved. “Like that thing isn’t rigged!” he shouted.
“David,” Arnold said timidly, “you don’t have to—”
“Yes I do! They’re not splitting us up again!”
“…I understand your concerns,” Penderghast’s face hardened. “But please don’t make me do this forcefully.” He began to twist and contort his fingers like he was building a cat’s cradle. “Non in Tartareo latitantem poscimus antro, adsuetamque dia tenebris, modo luce fugata descendentem animam. Primo pallentis hiatu haeret adhuc Orci.3”
All warmth in the hall fled, replaced by the scent of charcoal dust and pomegranates.
David scowled. “What are you up to?”
The only answers David got were screams: Herbert Lawrence was getting to his feet.
Billy peeked out from Mr. Thumps’ suit-jacket. For just a moment, he could hope again. He’s not dead! Nobody has to get in trouble now!
But the old man’s gait was all wrong. He staggered towards Penderghast in lurching stumbles, like he had a fishing hook lodged in his chest and the warlock was pulling him in. The back of his head was a mess of bone and blood. Blood David couldn’t feel moving. Lawrence was still dead, just walking.
Lawrence stopped in front of Penderghast. His eyes were still closed, but his mouth twisted into a strained mockery of a smile. In a rasping, faltering sing-song, he said, “Thank you, sorcerer. I had forgotten the gentle touch of the living sun, even across a frame as worn and broken as this.”
“Spirit,” Penderghast said sharply, “whose body is this?”
He already knew the answer, but there was a protocol to talking with geists. Howard suspected it would be far less irksome than summoning Herbert himself, anyway.
The corpse hissed, “Herbert Lawrence.”
That done, Penderghast asked, “And who sent his soul down to your master’s kingdom?”
Lawrence’s body pointed right at Arnold. “Him. The spirit-touched boy. He’s the killer.”
Arnold squeezed Mabel’s hand tight. David screamed.
The water-sprite became fluid. His water spheres plunged down from the ceiling and slammed into him, the boy’s shape lost as it bulged and reformed into a hulking, amorphous giant. David’s new form froze solid as he charged at the warlock, utterly silent but for the thunder of his footsteps.
As the hostages shouted and fled for cover all around him, Alberto pinched the bridge of his nose and shook his head. “For shit’s sake, David. We were this fucking close.”
Penderghast didn’t miss a beat, quickly tracing the shape of a man in front of him with his staff. Translucent, boxy gold armour formed around his body, just in time for the ice-giant to swat Lawrence’s corpse aside and ram right into him.
Penderghast peeled his face from the ice’s surface, pinned there by David’s momentum.
“For God’s sake, boy!” he shouted. “You’re not helping your case here!”
David didn’t answer. Not surprising, really. He didn’t have a mouth.
Have to get the hostages—
The pair crashed through the front of the hall, the wall exploding into a cloud of dust and masonry. David’s titan tripped over Penderghast’s indestructible doors, sending the wizard hurling onto the lawn as its feet snapped off.
Howard landed on the grass with a thud, his air-armour shattering around him. The ice-giant was sitting atop the doors, clumsily reattaching its own feet like pieces of a doll, when a barrage of bullets started chipping away at its mass. A childish voice of singing crystal snickered.
“Don’t shoot, you fools!” Penderghast screamed at the cops girting the building. “You can’t hurt ice!”
David paused in reassembling himself. Why was he bothering with feet? On the spur of the moment, he reshaped one of his broken feet.
Time to stop thinking like a human.
The policemen had around half a second to turn and run before a thirty foot javelin of solid ice pierced through the side of one of their cars. Penderghast looked at the boy. His torso was floating in mid air, his arms and lower body splitting into chunks and fragments that orbited his form like miniature comets. He already had the other foot raised, shaping it into a sword.
“Damn it, kid,” Penderghast groaned, as he pulled a dagger from his belt. “Fencing isn’t my forte.”
What? David thought. He thinks that’s gonna stop me?
He sent the sword hurtling at Penderghast. The warlock swept his own blade (sharpened on the wings of dragonflies) through the air and sliced a tear in the space in front of him. The ice-sword sailed through it, into the velvet canvas of the space outside space.
David’s soul groaned.
He noticed the Exhibition Building’s fountain4: three disks supported on the backs of four concrete merpeople, upon which danced the traditional nude allegorical children, while their peers played at the edge of the water below5
Inwardly, David grinned.
The fountain’s streams redirected, lashing like anemone tendrils at Penderghast, their tips freezing solid and sharpening moments before they would have struck his skin, if the warlock weren’t so effectively dodging them.
Penderghast leapt backwards as one of the watery tentacles stabbed down into the grass where his right shoulder had been. The boy was fighting smarter by the second. He had to end this quick.
Narrowly avoiding a skewer through the leg, Penderghast pointed his staff at the fountain:
“O artes, a lapidea vincula vos vindico!6
The sculpted boys sprang to life, leaping off their plinths as the merpeople suddenly strained and shook from their burden. They ran out onto the grass, giggling as they jumped between Penderghast and David’s icy whips, which shattered against their concrete bodies.
Penderghast used the respite to shout out another spell. Mourning cloak wings sprouted from his back as he took to the air.
David wanted those dancing boys smashed. It was like Penderghast was using his own image against him. A geyser burst from under the fountain, shattering and sending it high into the air. The cops all scattered, looking for cover before the chunks came back to Earth.
The column of water bent in the air, lunging towards the airborne warlock, but Penderghast kept swooping and diving out of its path. He was pulling handfuls of white powder out of his belt, throwing it in clouds behind his back. Instead of dispersing, the grains formed into white doves and flew off in seemingly random directions, slowly eroding with every beat of their wings till they were reduced to nothing.
The hell is he doing? David asked himself.
Penderghast hovered above what remained of David’s ice-titan, arms outstretched:
“Yemọja! Our Lady of Navigators! Womb from which all seas, springs, and rivers spill!7
David’s ice fell to the ground, inert. The wyrm he’d made of the fountain’s pipes collapsed into a wave on top of the cop cars.
“I beg you, bind your son! Remind him of his flesh!”
The titan’s body melted rapidly, revealing David curled within like a thawing Neanderthal boy.
He felt so weak. Like he couldn’t lift so much as a drop of water. But there was a peace to it. Like his mother was stroking him after a bad dream. He closed his eyes…
Above the child, Penderghast’s eye twitched. This boy was a god, whatever Herbert Lawrence had thought. The warlock didn’t know how long he could hold him like this.
Something long and sharp whizzed a hair’s breadth past his ear.
Mabel Henderson stood frowning in front of the Royal Exhibition Building, her manerfish toting an empty harpoon gun beside her, backed up by the shark-bear and the chainsaw-panda.
They weren’t alone either. A crowd of cracked, peeling gods and goddesses lined the stairs behind them. The frescos from inside the hall.
“Leave my friend alone.”
“I’m sorry,” Penderghast told the girl, his eyes still on David, “but I can’t let this continue.”
Mabel nodded, before turning to her army of summons. “Get him.”
The gods charged. The sylphs of the seasons shot up at Penderghast, scarring the ground below with bands of fire, ice, and blossoming flowers. Dark-robed Winter flew ahead of her sisters, running her pale fingers across Penderghast’s wings as she passed. They instantly froze solid, sending Howard plummeting.
The warlock clapped his hand over one of the patches on his sleeve: the alchemical symbol for earth and air as one. The air below Penderghast became thick as syrup, slowing his fall. He managed to land on his feet, but only had a second to get back his bearings before some giant in a white robe swung a great oak club at him.
“Damn it, missed!” shouted the god as he violently parted the air where Penderghast’s head had been.
Poor Hercules, Howard mused as he strafed around the hero. Bastards didn’t even give him the lion-pelt.
None of the Institute files had mentioned the girl—clearly one of Lawrence’s under-the-table acquisitions— but it didn’t take a genius to figure out what her power was.
There was only one logical course of action. Penderghast ran towards the torn open Exhibition Hall. He reached into one of his belt-bouches and threw a handful of gunpowder over his shoulder:
“Maitre Carrefour, conceal me!8”
The black powder billowed into a thick cloud of darkness. Gods shouted in anger and confusion as Penderghast ran unseen through their number.
He was almost inside when a blinding light burned away the magical shadows. Penderghast squinted up towards the sky. The sylph of morning shone above, her veil glowing a radiant-sky blue.
Leopard-skin clad Mars pointed his sword at the wizard. “After him!”
Penderghast ran through the ruins of the hall, weaving around panicked hostages as he headed towards the patch of light beneath the dome. Arnold Barnes struck him uselessly with his lightning, more out of reflex than anything else.
As soon as he was in range, Penderghast pointed his staff at the pendentives and lunettes, tracing a fiery glyph in the air. One by one, the frescos burst into flames, their bright colours darkening and burning away. Howard could hear screams from behind him.
Something cold and sharp jabbed the back of the warlock’s neck.
“Turn around, mortal.”
Penderghast obeyed, finding a tall, red-robed woman in a crested helmet holding him at sword-point.
“It’s good to see you, your highness.”
Howard knew immediately that it wasn’t the real Athena, or Minerva, whatever name this rendition went by. For one thing, her skin was too pale. For another, King Athena wouldn’t have bothered with the warning.
Before he could think of anything else, he felt a small hand tap his.
Penderghast’s staff slipped from his hand.
Allison Kinsey stepped out from behind him. “It’s okay guys,” she called behind her. “He’s safe now.”
Mabel and Arnold approached cautiously like mice in the presence of a dying cat. David Venter formed out of mist, shaking slightly. Billy had managed to tear himself away from Mr. Thumps.
The little girl with the burning eyes smiled wickedly. “Looks like we’ve got ourselves a pet wizard.”
Penderghast couldn’t bring himself to utter a spell, or even move. He couldn’t even struggle. Nothing in Allison’s file had mentioned anything about that.
Then he remembered what Baron La Croix had told him at the Institute, considered the strange little girl’s bearing and speech…
Howard Penderghast was a witch by blood and by training. That didn’t protect his mind completely, but it did let him shout, “Alberto Moretti!”
Allison Kinsey flinched.
“…What?” asked Mabel.
Howard tried to point, but his arm was pinned to his side. But for now at least, he could still talk. “Your friend is possessed!”
The Watercolours all looked at Allison.
“…Tell me you’re not buying this,” she said indignantly.
“You know,” remarked David. “You have been acting kinda… weird lately. Really weird.”
“You called Lawrence ‘Dad’,” said Arnold. “Seemed a bit… yeah.”
Alberto sighed. He really thought he could’ve kept it up longer than this. “In my defence… she started it.”
1. A Greek goddess or spirit of truthfulness and sincerity. In truth, the eye belonged to a much older goddess, and it wasn’t even an eye. “Ovary” would be more accurate, if still largely a comforting lie. ↩
2. For various thaumaturgical reasons, magicians are generally excluded from the search for the hypothetical general telekinetic. ↩
3. Roughly translated: “I ask not for one already hiding in the depths of Hell, long banished to the darkness of death, but one just now escaped to life, still lingering at the ghastly gate of Orcus.” ↩
4. Known as the The Hochgurtel fountain. ↩
5. While the rumours regarding direct Olympian inspirations have never been confirmed regarding the Exhibition Hall’s interior frescos, it is known that the godling Palaemon posed for the sculptor Josef Hochgurtel. Specifically, he became the basis for the little boy at the base being spat at by a turtle. ↩
6. “Oh art, I free you from your cage of stone!” ↩
7. A major water goddess of the Yoruba people, often syncretised with the Black Madonna by the African diaspora. Aside from water, Yemọja also presides over domains pertaining to women, including parenting and child safety. ↩
8. Kalfu, or Carrefour, is a loa of the crossroads, ruling over sorcery and the night. Some have accused him of being a demon, but he denies this most strenuously. ↩