It wasn’t flying that told Howard Penderghast he was dreaming. That was nothing new. It was that he was ten years old again.
The skin of his childish hands was pale white, and the locks of hair lurking at the edges of his vision were blond—almost silver in the moonlight. That would have struck him as strange, but right then, the details of his waking life were as relevant as the womb.
The night sky was a mirror for the black sea below. The only way you could tell up from down were the stars flashing and glinting like chips of ice set into the boundless dark. He speared into a broken rosary of moon-pearled clouds, exploding out the other side in a burst of laughter.
This wasn’t the flight he knew. Howard had mastered five different flavours of flight by the age of thirteen. But those were all negotiations with reality. Bargains with the four winds to hold him aloft, complicated refractions of gravity, or tricking the world into thinking wings had sprouted from his shoulders. This was effortless. Innate. Birds laboured harder to stay in the sky.
This was no spell. He simply went where he wanted.
The slow night-thoughts of great whales echoed up from the ocean depths. When Howard (was that his name? It didn’t sound right) looked down, he could see the dim neutrino glimmer of the Earth’s core beneath the waves, nearly lost against the glaring concentric glow of the sun.
For the star-god called Joseph Allworth, the old wives’ tale was true: the sun did rest under the Earth at night.
Wispy memory haunted him. He’d spent days working miracles under the cold, heavy sea; not with sorcery, but with his bare hands. But he was heading home now.
He’d left in a ugly mood, riding anger that now seemed both alien and foolish. He hoped his mother and father weren’t worrying about him. They shouldn’t. Nothing on this little planet could hurt him.
(A distant, bitter heat).
The thin, shadowed coast of British Columbia rose over the horizon like a swelling wave, dotted with town-lights like campfires of old. Within a few seconds, he was floating above the fishing town of Neptune’s Chest.
He could see the Allworth house standing bright and lonely at the ragged edge of town. Good, his parents were still awake.
As he flew towards the house, Howard felt himself slide out of synch with his dream-self. Dread strangled his veins like vines.
Not now! Stay away!
The foreign mind layered over Howard’s own paid him no heed. He landed softly on the house’s doorstep, knocking at the door.
No answer. He frowned. Two panicked constellations moving about behind the oak-wood and frosted glass.
Leave them alone!
Why was he knocking on his own front door? He opened it and stepped inside, heading automatically towards the kitchen—
“Um, Mom, Dad, I’m home.”
His parents were in the kitchen, standing over a young man sprawled beneath an old family picture hanging on the wall. His eyes bulged in his skull. His lungs lay still in his chest.
His father stared at him, tears running down his narrow face. “I—I didn’t mean—he was going to hurt you, son…”
He looked into the old man’s mind. He saw Christopher Barbieri’s face go purple and his eyes lose sight.
Joseph stared. “…He was harmless.”
“Son, I just—”
Joe Allworth turned and ran back towards the door, pushing it down and taking off into the night again.
As he rose into the sky, he heard his father calling:
The boy didn’t look back, didn’t—
The night fled. The sun rushed up from beneath the earth, blooming around him. Burning him.
He clenched his eyes shut. The light did not dim. He tried to scream, but the world screamed louder.
The light went out, banished by black fire.
Howard Penderghast woke with a scream, trembling under his bedsheets with half-remembered pain.
Howard sat up and breathed rhythmically, blinking away the last shreds of sleep until he was sure he was awake. He was in his childhood bedroom at Penderghast House, grudgingly refurbished by his mother in concession to thirty-four birthdays. Morning twilight melted against his window curtains, carving a slice of dusty green carpet out of the gloom. The black fire had not followed him.
Pendergast swung his legs over the bed. He shuddered when his bare feet touched the carpet. It was like the floor was wrapping fingers around his ankles.
It would pass. It always did.
He stepped out onto his room’s balcony, hoping the winter wind would carry away the last cobwebs of dream. The small but rambling Penderghast estate was hidden under a shell of snow, glimmering like powdered diamonds in the brightening morning sun. He could already smell wood smoke pouring from the kitchen chimneys. His father would be taking his breakfast now. The Boston Globe would be screaming about rising tensions between the two Berlins, while The International Magi1 would be covering the panicked flight of witch-clans to Meinong’s Jungle2 and the Super-Sargasso Sea3.
Howard hadn’t seen snow with his own eyes in two years. South Vietnam didn’t have a true winter season. Australia claimed it did, but what did they know? Now it felt as foreign to him as fields of steel flowers. Even the elms and sycamores he’d climbed as a boy looked wrong—so scattered and barren-branched.
Maybe it was guilt. The men he’d served with couldn’t run home to their fathers when their consciences tugged at them.
Howard stood out there for some time, gazing out over the smothered front lawns like a dead marscape. Even without a shirt on, the cold didn’t trouble him. You got used to it when you regularly toured Hell. And he still preferred it to the black fire.
The dreams bred and multiplied with each passing week. Sometimes Howard found himself falling from the stars encased in warm, wet darkness; sometimes he was chasing a young sea-god through the barrels of waves. It was a new experience for the warlock, being pulled helplessly through scenarios. Like most witches, Howard was a lucid dreamer. What was sorcery, but grabbing the reigns of the waking dream?
They weren’t always terrible. Sometimes they were exultant. He’d swim through the storms of Jupiter or lie with the queen of the stars. But they always ended with the black fire.
A dagger-sharp bittern took off from a tree-branch, sending a snowdrift thumping to the ground and making time start moving again.
Penderghast sighed icily. If he was going to get a good’s night sleep—if anyone was—he had to find the Flying Man.
They’d said he was dead, but Penderghast could work with that.
It had been fully two months since Blair Wilder had first awoken to find that strange girl jumping on his bed. Had anyone asked him, he would have told them she’d been there forever. Such is time for a child. The important part was that she was there. Linda. Just “Linda”. Every night. Only occasionally jumping on his bed.
Blair thought she was rather silly.
“I wanna bikkie.”
“Get down from the roof4 first. You’re getting mud on it.”
The naked girl with the dark sea-anemone hair scowled down at Blair with her jasper eyes, skin softly glowing with uncanny lemon light.
Her voice echoed.
Blair quirked his shoulders. “Okay. My bikkie, then.”
“You said we were sharing!”
Blair made a show of tearing the packet of Monte Carlos open and stuffing one in his mouth. “I can’t share if you’re on the roof,” he said with his mouth full, crumbs spilling down his pyjama tops.
Blair had always been mature for his five and a half years of age. Maybe that was the power Linda kept insisting that he had.
“So what is it?” he would ask.
“Laser breath,” she’d reply. Or “Vampire eyes,” or “Magic thumbs.” Or even, in her most honest moments, “I dunno. I just can’t read your mind. It’s weird.”
“Most people can’t read my mind,” he would whine. “That’s not special.”
“But I can read everyone’s mind,” she’d insist.
That seemed like a rubbish power to Blair. Might as well not have a brain.
He gulped down the biscuit. “S’too bad. They’re crunchy.”
Linda stomped her foot against the ceiling, sending a shockwave of spider-cracks through the rough plaster.
She looked bashfully at the sole of her foot. “Sorry.”
Blair giggled. “Just fix my roof and you can get a bikkie.”
Linda folded her arms and huffed in surrender. Patches of air puckered and oozed like diseased skin. Flickering, ephemeral tendrils tore their way through into reality with a sound like slimy wind. They licked at the cracks in the ceiling, leaving them smooth as they slithered back out of the world.
“Wow…” Blair intoned like a Gregorian chant. “How do you do that?”
The girl dropped down onto Blair’s bed, landing on her feet and cramming a Monte Carlo into her face. “I eat the cracks,” she answered, spraying her friend with wet biscuit debris.
Like most answers Linda gave Blair, it didn’t explain much. That was okay. Linda wasn’t for explaining. She was for… something else that Blair couldn’t name.
They sat there companionably for some time, Linda bouncing lightly on Blair’s mattress while she rambled about the adventures that constituted her day:
“…I’ve almost got enough pillows to finish my fort on that mountain. You know, the really big one silly people keep trying to climb?”
“…And then the shark swallowed me!”
“…The Moon-People were all grumpy!”
“And then what happened?”
Blair loved Linda’s stories. They made him jealous beyond belief, but it was satisfying sort of jealousy.
Linda glanced around the boy’s bedroom. She still found it strange having a whole four walls and ceiling for sleeping in. Usually she found a nice patch of tall grass or a nice iceberg when sleep struck her.
“Let’s go out and play!”
Blair tilted his head. “…But it’s nighttime. I’m supposed to be in bed.”
Linda hummed. A thin tendri-hairl waved thoughtfully between her shoulder-blades. For some reason, Blair was very keen on doing what the big people who’d made him said. It was funny. Annoying, but funny.
“Well,” she said, “we could go where it isn’t nighttime.”
Blair gave his friend a sideways glance. “…It’s nighttime, Linda. It’s everywhere.”
Linda shook her head. Sometimes she didn’t know what to make of this boy. It was like he’d never even left this hemisphere. “No it’s not! It’s daytime in…” She tried to figure out a place her friend would know. Talking to people without being able to see their thoughts was hard.
“…Neverland?” Blair supplied.
Blair tried to comprehend the idea. Did night just… stop somewhere? Was there a place where the sky was half stars and half sunshine? If there was, Linda would probably know it. She’d been everywhere. She’d brought him a diamond the size of a tangerine5 and toys from China6. She’d even seen the Beatles on tour. Got their photo took with them and everything7.
On the other hand, she also didn’t understand why cars existed.
Linda pursed her lips primly, nodding slowly. “Okay,” she said, getting to her feet. She walked extravagantly towards the black open window, stopping at the edge of the bed. “But you have to come with me to know for sure.”
Blair fretted his duvet. If his mum and dad saw he was out of bed, he’d be in biggest trouble. But then, his mother once walked through the lounge room while Linda was watching TV, naked as usual and holding a bowl of biscuits and a bottle of Coke in a tentacle each, and all she’d said was that she hadn’t seen the cat that day. “Noticing” didn’t seem to be a thing that happened around Linda. Plus, Blair won out either way if he went with Linda. If he was right, he knew something Linda didn’t.
If he was wrong, he’d get to see something amazing.
The boy scrambled out from under his sheets. “Okay,” he said, standing up as tall as his three and a half feet would allow. “Let’s go.”
Linda turned around with a big grin, revealing her slightly needle-like teeth. Her hands fluttered against each other. “Yay!”
“How are you gonna take me with you? You gonna give me a piggy-back or… wrap me up in your octopus arms?”
Blair wasn’t sure which he’d prefer. Both ideas sounded weird, but both also had an odd appeal…
“Nah.” Linda extended a clawed hand. “Just hold my hand!”
Blair took it. “What now?”
Linda kept grinning. Something warm and charged flowed from her hand into Blair.
Then it went up.
The pair floated two inches above Blair’s bed.
“Ahh!” Blair flexed and thrashed in amazement. He was flying. Like Linda could.
Her hand tightened around his. “Hold on!”
They shot out of the window up into the sky.
Blair screamed in pure, joyous terror. He didn’t feel the lash of the wind or the gnaw of the cold. He didn’t even realize those were concerns.
Linda spun the pair of them. Her, the stars, and the moon-glinted waves below swirled together around Blair.
The journey took about an hour, but adrenaline burned it down to a few minutes in Blair’s mind. The black water caught fire like oil as the sun crept up over the horizon.
“Okay,” Blair shouted, “you were right!”
The ocean under them gave way to coastline. They passed over cities and forests, rivers and mountains.
“So this is America?” Blair asked.
“I thought it’d… smell different.”
Blair answered with another question. “Where are we going?”
Linda pointed towards the ground. “My swimming pool!”
A bright aquamarine eye looked up at the children from rich scrubland. A creek trailed from it like the tears of a great, green giant.
“Pretty,” said Blair.
Linda hugged the boy close. Tendrils burst from her side and wrapped snugly around him.
They descended slowly into the eye. It was a flooded cave mouth. Trees clung game to its upper-lip, the creek rushing over the edge to form a fifty foot curtain of white foam. The water was opaline. Coss coated the roof like the entrance to a vibrant, spring underworld.
The children stood at the shore of the pool, a wall of trees and bushes against their back.
Blair was staring. “It’s beautiful…”
Linda’s lightly tanned skin turned dark and chitinous. Her hair become a writhing nest of thin, boneless fingers, tasting and stroking the air around her head.
Blair smiled. It’d taken days for Linda to look like that in front of him the first time. She said she didn’t want to scare him.
He still wasn’t.
His friend ran splashing into the water, calling over her shoulder, “You gonna swim, Blair?”
Blair pulled off his pyjamas. Those were for nighttime.
The pair spent hours swimming8. They took turns playing shark, trying to pull each other under the water. Despite the obvious advantage of tentacles and… everything else, sometimes Linda even let Blair win. They built sandcastles and tried to stay standing under the waterfall. In other words, Linda took a shower, and Blair got knocked on his back.
He was never going to sleep again. Not if there was stuff like this out there. Not with Linda.
Eventually, though, he spotted something on the sand.
“Linda, was that door there when we got there?”
Linda glanced towards the sand. There was a blackwood door with a silver handle and a Celtic Green Man knocker, standing alone.
The door flung open of its own accord. The children glimpsed a brick path trailing into wide, arcadian vistas. A man was walking with brisk stiffness towards them…
Howard Penderghast slipped hastily through the door. He’d almost shut it behind him when a slender, green-gloved arm got between the door and its frame.
A voice like gold on silver trilled, “Oh, Howard, you must stay longer when you visit…”
Penderghast imitated a flattered chuckle. “Yes, yes, Lady Nettles. Next time, I promise.”
Luckily for the warlock, Lady Nettles withdrew her arm. He slammed the door shut with his back.
Penderghast let out a sigh. Show him for taking a shortcut through the Land of Youth and Summer.
Howard hadn’t expected finding the Flying Man would be easy. He’d tried before, when he was still with the army. The bastard circled the globe and criss-crossed continents on a daily basis. He left etheric traces like cobwebs across the planet.
Oh, so we’re out of the army now. Finally admitting it, eh Ward?
Howard hated it when his inner monologue talked like his father.
Then he’d tried again, filled with new purpose.
According to his best scrying crystals, the Flying Man was there in his study. He was also outside on the grounds. And the capital of Brazil. In fact, it appeared the Flying Man was simultaneously occupying every point of space between Earth and the Moon. Whatever that nuke did to the Flying Man, it had spread his essence across the entire planet.
Howard had almost given up when his sister—the wild talent of the family, whatever their parents thought—managed to pin-point a bright point of new energy streaming into the universe, like an astronomer spotting a star hidden behind a supernova.
Like all good little brothers, he was now cribbing her notes.
Penderghast looked out over the water. The naked children wading in it looked back. One of them appeared to be a space monster.
The warlock sighed. Either that nuke had done a number on Joe Allworth, or Aurelia’s trick hadn’t worked.
Howard cleared his throat. Mustn’t be rude. “Hello, children. Sorry to intrude. I seem to have gotten myself lost.” He eyed the girl with the tendril hair. Had to be something going on there. “My name is Howard Penderghast. Maybe you two could help me find someone?”
Linda said nothing, the alien cast of her features receding as they usually did around strange humans. She eyed the new man like a hawk. She smelled hocus-pocus on him. The name was familiar, too.
Blair waved broadly. “G’day, mister Pende-gas!”
That accent. “Hello young man.” First things first. “What’s your name?”
“Blair Wilder,” the boy recited obediently.
“May I ask where you’re from?”
Blair picked at the tangle of names school had imprinted in him. “Perth!” Oh, country. “Australia!”
Oh, God, they’re spreading.
Penderghast turned his attention to the girl. By now she had skin and actual hair. Just looking at her made his wisdom teeth ache. “And your name, little miss?”
“Just Linda,” said Blair. He smiled proudly. “She doesn’t need another name.”
Linda’s face hardened defiantly. “Yeah!”
“Perfectly understandable. And where are you from?”
Linda spread her legs and gestured expansively at her surroundings. “Here.”
The girl grinned. “Aren’t you?”
“…No—I mean, I’m from New England.” There was a thin line between innocence and being a smartass. This girl was clearly far over the border. “Are you saying this grotto is where you live? Because it is very nice.”
“I’m from Earth,” Linda clarified. “Same as everyone.”
“Anywhere on Earth in particular?”
Penderghast thought he saw the girl’s lip wobble slightly. “Just Earth.”
Blair Wilder appeared to notice too. “She spends most nights at my house!” he added.
Linda smiled again. “Yep.
Howard reached into his overcoat. “One moment, please.”
The warlock pulled out a monocle attached to a silver chain. He fitted it over his left eye and screwed his right one9 shut.
“Are you rich, mister?” asked Blair.
“Yes,” Howard answered flatly, staring at Linda.
First came “Linda”. He turned the monocle her way, and—
That was… odd. Not unprecedented, but odd. Not the sort of odd Penderghast had expected. She had so many forms overlapping on herself. The girl. The aura. The mass of cephalic tendrils stretching out beyond the confines of their cave. Clearly an alien. From where, he didn’t know.
Then there was the fact that her aura seemed to be grinning at him.
Auras couldn’t normally do that.
At least it answered the question of why the stones had led him here. That girl had a fragment or two in common with his quarry. Maybe their species—or pantheons—had diverged a few thousand generations back. At the very least, she might know how to find a distant cousin.
He turned his attention to the boy.
Nothing. Absolutely nothing. Just a brown haired boy standing in a pool. No thoughts, no feelings, no interaction at all with any other aspect of the cosmos. He might as well have been looking at a colourful vacuum.
Either this boy was hiding his abilities on an unprecedented scale, or Howard Penderghast had just encountered the only living thing in the universe that didn’t have a soul.
The warlock waded into the water, approaching Blair cautiously. He lightly prodded the boy in the breast.
“Um, sir. Is something wrong?”
Penderghast felt skin against his finger.
Probably not an illusion then.
He glanced over at Linda. “Is there any reason I can’t see your friend here?”
“But I’m right here.”
Linda grinned. “Freaky, isn’t it?”
Penderghast looked down at Blair in awe. A living mind, perfectly camouflaged against the universe like a cosmic chameleon. Howard didn’t know if he wanted to take the boy as an apprentice or make sure he never so much as looked at a grimoire in his life.
“I may need to speak to your parents some time, Mr. Wilder. In the meantime, try and avoid West Africa, Papua New Guinea, and Kansas. They might try making ointments out of you.”
Penderghast shook his head. Occult finds of the decade could wait.
He walked over to Linda.
“So, this might sound like a bit of a silly question, but do you know anything about the Flying Man?”
Linda spun on one foot and rocked on her heels. “Um, I know a bunch of flying men.”
Howard nearly rolled his eyes. He wasn’t terribly practised when it came to young children. And most of the practise he had wasn’t with aliens. More like guerilla fighters and superhuman terrorists. “I mean a very particular Flying Man. He wears a white costume, and until a while ago flew all around the world helping people.”
And making a bloody mess out of everything.
“Oh!” chirped Linda. “You mean the dying man!”
Penderghast went a little pale. “Dying?”
Why was he surprised? The poor bastard was nuked.
Linda rubbed her chin. “Well, he was dying for a while. But then he got stuck. I don’t think all of him can fit in dead. He wants to, tho.”
Penderghast didn’t know whether he was relieved or horrified.
An idea made him change his mind very quickly. So far as he could tell, Joe Allworth was essentially splayed all across the earth like a spilled wineskin.
Penderghast thought about a bathtub with the stopper pulled out. About all the particles of grime and dirt that got pulled down the drain along with the water.
“Do you know where the dying man is, Linda?”
Linda shrugged. “Nope. I bet Pal does, tho.”
Linda giggled. “No. Pal. Pal-ae-mon.”
Like any good witch or student of the classics (and he was both), Howard Penderghast recognized the name.
He grit his teeth.
God damn it. More kids?
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1. A periodical catering to the global magical community, mainly focusing more on culture and the politics of the day than actual sorcery. As well as sometimes regarded as a gossip-rag, many modern magicians have come to view the magazine as unfortunately backwards looking. ↩
2. A densely forested region of the collective unconscious home to objects and concepts that do not or by definition cannot exist in regular reality, such as the married bachelor or the definitive Western Canon. ↩
3. A similar space that serves as the final destination of all lost things. Intersects somewhat with the realm of Hades. ↩
4. He meant ceiling. Please forgive Blair, he was a child. ↩
5. Mutually dubbed “the sparkle rock.” ↩
6. This being before most toys in the western world were made in China. ↩
7. They decided it was safer to do what the tentacled floating naked child said. ↩
8. The Hamilton Pool Dipping Springs would be barred from public access in 1990, when it was realized that a statistically startling number of swimmers had developed superpowers in the decades since 1967. ↩
9. His “lying eye.” ↩