Billy’s first fortnight at the New Human Institute was everything he had ever longed for and more. Even amidst the frankly dismal winter he had arrived in, colours seemed brighter and more vivid than he’d ever known. He was a Pevensie, or a Darling, or some other tourist of secondary worlds. Slivers of blue pouring through cracks in the leaden sky and the rainy-green grass that stabbed up through the mist that blanketed the grounds ever morning hit his senses harder than a thousand years of autumn. He found music in the most innocuous of sounds, from the interminable hiss of rain against the corrugated dormitory roof, to the silences broken by the fall of small, hurried footsteps a story above him in the farmhouse. Everything at the Institute had an extra lacquer of significance. Bare, runtish trees barely taller than Billy himself were the gnarled, grasping hands of buried witches, blindly trying to pull unwary children down into their earthen tombs to devour. The cold, silent depths of the River Avon concealed drowned empires, treasure galleons sunk by the weight of their gold and silver cargo, and little villages grown of coral, where merfolk went about their dark, wet business.
It helped that the river did on occasion play home to a fair maiden; or at least, a woman. One morning, when Billy had awoken a full two hours earlier than most of his new schoolmates out of sheer excitement, and had decided to go exploring along the riverbank, he stumbled upon a periwinkle shift dress folded neatly on top of the frigid mud. Picking it up, he was about to go in search of its owner, when a vast, warbly voice radiated out over the water:
“Oh, Billy, don’t go anywhere with that, I’m getting out in a sec.” Somehow, even when it was just the vibration of the river’s surface, the voice still managed to sound French.
Billy started, the fur standing up on the back of his neck. “M-Miss Mels?”
The river fretted and roiled as Melusine’s elegant frozen form walked out onto the shore like some tundral nymph, water dripping down her and glinting in the cold morning light. A hapless minnow was suspended within her abdomen. “Please, William, you can drop the ‘Miss’.” She would have been smiling, if she were flesh, but as she was—her features fixed in a look of thoughtful early morning ennui, her voice verillion—it was more than a little disquieting. It didn’t help that the sorry business with Edward Taylor had already entered the whispered mythology of the school1.
“Sorry, Mi- Mels,” Billy said, holding out the dress, eyes averted slightly.
“It’s alright.” For a moment, she was as still and silent as a real ice sculpture. Billy wasn’t completely certain her consciousness hadn’t headed down river. “Actually,” she said, making Billy jump, “would you be up for a little experiment?”
It wasn’t a surprising question. Aside from physical education2, Melusine was also chiefly responsible for power development class.
Power development class was one of the cornerstones of the New Human Institute’s mission. Put simply, it consisted of individual sessions where students explored the mechanics, limitations, and potential applications of their particular abilities—as well as how they interacted with other powers. Melusine, as it turned out, had a gift for coming up with edifying test uses for superhuman powers, something Lawrence credited to the versatility of her own extranormal talents. It was a well liked class amongst the students, largely owing to Melusine’s aptitude at dressing her tests up as games.
Not every student had these sessions with equal frequency. While Ex Nihilo—whose matter generation abilities were similar enough to Billy’s own that he worried the older girl saw him as a potential usurper—still attended at least twice a week, Stratogale hadn’t been the main subject of the class in over five years. As it turned out, the things you could do with the strength of fifty stout men were much the same as what you could do with just the one—only more so3.
“Sure,” answered Billy. “What were you thinking?”
He was Melusine’s new favourite when it came to power development, which fortunately he was rather fond of, no matter how Lawrence spoiled it by trying to puzzle out a unifying theme for his abilities. Melusine had suggested they were all rooted in some kind of energy manipulation. Sound, light, atomic bonds, etcetera. Lawrence had brushed off the idea, retorting that “some kind of energy manipulation” described every deliberate action ever taken in the history of the universe.
“Why don’t you try turning my body into something else? Like a statue.”
Billy looked at her dubiously. The idea of using his power on something that was, at least at the moment, a person was uncomfortable. It reminded him of the less than willing lady astronaut Mabel had conjured for him to test his power on, though at that least then he had felt nothing but air and dust in his mercury grip. “I’m sorry, ma’am, but wouldn’t that make you… um, dead?”
“There’d have to be no water at all for at least a mile.” She turned to face the river, jerking back a little, as though mildly surprised. “Oh, look, there’s some,” she said, deadpan.
Melusine turned back to look at the boy. “That includes the water you’re made of, just so you know. Do you know how to make lapis lazuli?”
Billy nodded. Some of the most common birthday and Christmas presents Betty had gotten him were semi-precious tumbled stones: new patterns for his alchemical gift. Lawrence hadn’t let up either, ordering in everything short of enriched uranium for the boy.
Melusine examined her reflection in the back of her hand. “Alright then, just let me fix my hair.” She had frozen herself while her hair was fanned out above her in the water, creating an unfortunate resemblance to the Bride of Frankenstein. “Turn around if it bothers you.”
Billy took the offer, allowing Melusine to revert back to human form (expelling the poor, dead fish first) and work her slick, water-darkened hair into a do more worthy of preservation. When she was done, she posed in what she hoped was an artistic but tasteful manner, and became ice once more. “I’m ready.”
Over the course of about four minutes, Billy worked up a cloud of mercury a little larger than his model and medium, before allowing it to waft over and envelop her like a Man O’ War pulling in prey.
“Christ, it’s pitch black in here.” Seeing Billy’s distress at that from all possible angles, her ethereal proxy voice quickly added “No, don’t worry, it’s only dark in here. If it makes you feel better, try changing one layer at a time. I’ll warn you if anything seems amiss.”
And so William got to it. As he exerted his will over the molecular pattern of Melusine’s body, he mumbled tuneless little songs under his breath, unconsciously kneading the air like he was working a potter’s wheel—massaging atoms, scraping off electrons and gently inserting neutrons as needed. Not that he conceptualised it that way. As far as Billy knew, he was just remembering something really hard.
Melusine chatted all through the process, just in case the boy thought he was killing her for art. “It’s like bits of me keep falling away or going numb. Imagine if your hand fell asleep so deeply, you couldn’t even feel the tickle.”
It took half an hour for the mercury to permeate and transform the ice. When it evaporated, he was left standing in front of an intricate forgery, almost disquieting in its detail. It was like her irises had burst, the colour of her eyes spreading to the rest of her body, coloring it a radiant Afgan blue. Tiny specks of gold and pearly crisscrossing lines scattered across its skin gave it the likeness of a three dimensional woman shaped rent into some impressionist’s vision of an evening starfield, strewn with galaxies and clouds of interstellar dust; the sort of thing that might have resulted if Van Gogh had gotten into body paint. A discriminating eye might have deemed it a bit much, a little too overt a display of grandeur. But to Billy’s sensibilities, it was angelic.
Billy was allowing himself a small smile at his handiwork when he heard Melusine say with her human voice “Oh, oh, Billy, that’s fabulous.” As quietly as the river behind them lapped over the rocks, Melusine had reformed and pulled her dress on, and was now admiring her mineralogical twin.
“You really think so?” Billy asked brightly.
The woman adopted an expression of benign arrogance. “It’s a statue of me entirely made of the most beautiful stone in nature. Of course it’s gorgeous.” She stepped forward to examine the statue more closely. Much to her amusement, there was a small, sulfurous green nebula in the corner of its chin, roughly corresponding to a tiny birthmark on her own person. As with any authentic Persian rug, Melusine had been made with one imperfection to avoid offending God.
Once the glow of accomplishment faded, Billy got down to some self-critique. “The stone isn’t very pure. Too much pyrite and calcite.”
Melusine chuckled. Even fully human, she sounded burbly. “You do have a head for rocks, don’t you, Billy? And I like how it’s turned out. Reminds me of the ocean.”
Billy tilted his head, his tail swaying like a charmed snake. “Really? I thought it looked more like the sky.”
“It can be that, too.” She knelt so her and William’s heads were level, pointing to a mottled baby blue patch on her former body’s right cheek. “But I think those paler bits are like when the water is shallower than the sea around it, so the blue isn’t as deep.”
“And the gold?”
“Sandbanks, or rocks just below the surface.”
The child was enjoying this. He felt like he was being taught to read omens. “What about the white lines? Those have to be clouds.”
“Ohhh, no, no, no, they’re the easiest parts of all. You ever been to the beach on a windy day? Seen those choppy little waves that break before they even reach the shore? That’s what those are.” She seemed to consider the matter further. “Or maybe it’s a lake that’s frozen over, and those are cracks in the ice.”
Whatever it was, she liked it. As polished as the stone was, the little imperfections and corruptions made the sculpture look a touch saltburned and wave-beaten. It could have been the sea itself, taken mortal form, if not for the fact that she knew what he looked like.
Melusine frowned. “If I could make one small alteration…” A stream of ice crystals flowed out of the river, settling on the statue and weaving together into something not dissimilar to a Greek chiton. “Forgive me if it seems prudish, but there are plenty of boys here who’d like to see me in the buff, and if they get to, I’d prefer to be able to look them in the eye. Come, on, let’s go find this girl a toga or something4.”
Billy followed his teacher up the gentle slope leading up to the main cluster of buildings, the fur of his legs and the tops of his feet picking up the grass’s morning dew. “So, what did that teach us about my power?”
Melusine shrugged. “Absolutely nothing. Fun, though. So, how’s life at our little school treating you?”
The boy’s face lit up. Of all the strange magics William St. George had read about, the one he had coveted most was companionship5. He’d gotten a taste of it in the journey to the Institute, Myriad and Maelstrom having positively lavished him with their attention for reasons he still didn’t quite understand, not seeing himself as a particularly interesting sort of boy compared to either of them. That had been nothing, however, compared to the social cornucopia that was the crowds of other people: living, breathing, talking people, who swarmed throughout every corner of the school itself. He was still amazed by how many timbres and pitches voices came in. Mealtimes had quickly become his favourite parts of the day. Not so much because of the food—though the fare at the New Human Institute was almost too delicious to deserve the debasement of human teeth—but for the absolute concentration of company. The laughter and overlap of so many different conversations rising and falling around him was like floating in a warm, aural bath.
On the first tuesday of the past week, two days after his arrival at the Institute, Billy had experienced something entirely new: for the first time in his life, he had been invited to play with another child. Specifically, Britomart had knighted him “it” with a smack on the shoulder. This was, he discovered, not the same as those solitary idles he had to content himself with—or at least feign contentment in some attempt to reduce his nanny’s perpetual guilt—back in Albany. No, this was something different. Something far, far better.
After a lifetime of loneliness so complete, he didn’t even truly realise there was any other way of being that wasn’t fictional, William had friends. He had fallen through the looking glass, stepped through the wardrobe, and climbed the world-tree till he found the branches the sun rested in. The rules had changed for him, or at least he had found children who had to live by the same ones.
Billy had eyes. He knew none of the other students were precisely the same kind of different as himself. And as inexperienced as he was with other children, he’d expected his looks to garner a bit of teasing. Betty had warned him of it over and over in the days leading up to his departure. “Children can be right little bastards,” she had told him, spending her annual curse on emphasis. “When they don’t understand something, they joke about it.”
And there had been jokes. Some days he heard “Whiskers” or “Kitty-Boy” more than his own name. But that was alright; it wasn’t as if he was the only student walking around with a nickname. It meant he was fitting in. Every night, there would inevitably be a crack about Billy eating at the table, or that they had run out of wet food for him, and William would always laugh—whether or not it was actually funny was beside the point. At least there was someone to be snide at him.
Sometimes his schoolmates’ jokes strayed more into the practical. Once, a coalition consisting of Windshear, Talos, and Veltha had set a bushel of Żywie’s radishes loose in the shower block while Billy was trying to wash the mud out his fur, which chased him all the way down to the barn on evil, lashing roots. If the Watercolours had found the sight of the boy running naked from the shower block in any way odd, none of them had deigned to comment on it. Maelstrom had pulled the liquid from his fur, while Myriad assisted Elsewhere in depositing the wayward vegetables back in the garden to await their fate.
“They really shouldn’t pick on you like this,” Maelstrom had said as he wrapped a Mabel sourced towel around the other boy6.
Billy had written it off as an overreaction. He wasn’t being picked on. All the bullies he had ever read of had been single mindedly devoted to the misery of their victims. As much as some, or even most, of the other children having a go at him on occasion, they also ran and laughed with him.
Maybe things would have been clearer if he had come by train. That always seemed to be where these things got sorted out.
“I’ve never been more happy,” he had told Maelstrom then. “I’ve never been more happy,” he repeated now to his mother, meaning it.
Melusine smiled. “I suppose I couldn’t hope for a better answer.”
From her office window, Żywie watched the two of them, glad for something other than reading journals to occupy her attention. Much as she enjoyed exploring language and literature with her students, sometimes the healer cum English teacher struggled to get through their weekly reflections on The Hobbit7 as much as they did writing them. And she did wish that Myriad would learn to restrain herself to the fifty word maximum, instead of the two and a half pages she had been averaging as of late8. She technically wasn’t even supposed to bother with the reading project anyway, but she’d seemed so put out when Lawrence barred her from participating. If Lawrence ever objected, Żywie would tell him Myriad sitting in a desk helped maintain the classroom’s feng shui9.
“Something caught your eye?” Lawrence said from the cracked door. Still in his green silk dressing gown, he looked ready to ambush any child looking for answers about other worlds or familial insanity with Lewis’s trilemma.
Żywie, in contrast, was already well and truly up and dressed. In fact, nobody had ever witnessed her in any state between sleep and spruceness. “Just watching William and Melusine.” With the smooth, practised calm she usually reserved for tending to injured children, she inconspicuously stowed Myriad’s latest treatise on authorial integrity in the dark, voluminous drawers of her flame mahogany writing desk. “It’s good to see her take an interest in one of the children besides Maelstrom. I think she relates to Billy.” She pronounced the boy’s name with a longer “e” than strictly warranted. “You’re certainly up early this morning. Sleep troubled?”
Lawrence idly wondered if being a fantastically beautiful blonde with ultramarines for eyes was to be compared with being mistakable for an attraction at London Zoo. “Yes, actually. There is a matter that’s been rather niggling at me these past few days. It concerns our newest student, as it happens. May I take a seat?”
“Yes, I thought that might be the case. And of course.”
They both sat down, Żywie regarding her mentor with cool, Germanic patience—the kind of look that keenly reminded the recipient of how many priceless seconds went to ignoble deaths in every needless lull in the discussion.
Try as he might, Lawrence sometimes found it very hard to treat Żywie as the grown, learned woman he knew she was. He had known and looked after her since she was a young girl, and he had over thirty years on her besides. Here, though, in her private office, with him about to ask for her wisdom on the field she practically embodied, it was quite the opposite. Her gaze was pushing him further and further back in time, all the way to when he was a boy at Eton, about to be interrogated by the headteacher concerning his mysterious appearance at the Waterman’s Arms. “So, I assume the Physician passed his findings on to you after examining William?”
As was his way, the Physician paid the Institute a visit soon on the heels of Billy’s arrival. In a break from tradition, he had chosen to hold the examination outside, to more safely test the child’s vocal capabilities. Apart from the barrage of unanswerable biographical and genealogical questions he asked of every student, the Physician had challenged William to sing a ballad10 from his own world (His ruse already rumbled, the Physician was more upfront with William about such things) at the top of his magnified voice. It made him sound and feel as if he had strep throat, and his recitation was apparently flat and mangled, but there was some fun in it. Then the Physician had had him engulf a seemingly empty glass tube, stoppered at each end with silver, which he claimed contained a few atoms of “the mirror of hydrogen”, suspended in a cradle of electromagnetic force: engulfing it in his mercury was like trying to grab hold of a seizure. He even turned invisible at the alien’s bidding, who had peered at him through an ornate, brass eyepiece with many lenses, held in place by insectile limbs that helpfully adjusted themselves at a thought—each attuned to a different spectra of light. Silhouetted in ultraviolet and infrared, the boy looked like his own portrait by Andy Warhol.
“Congratulations,” John Smith (for politeness’ sake Billy hadn’t questioned the outrageously fake name) said, “you’ve got yourself a link up in that brain of yours.”
Billy had almost managed to enjoy himself.
Żywie folded her arms. “Yes. You know he always does.” She scowled. “I think he believes we’re friends.”
“And what did he say about the boy’s health?” asked Lawrence.
“He came to the same conclusion I did, more or less. As odd as Billy looks, there’s nothing either of us could find wrong with him, at least after my usual preliminary improvements. He’s as healthy and hale as any of our other students.”
“Good, good… look, I’ll cut to the chase here. Do you think you think you could make William look… less like an animal?
The medical woman did not look surprised by the question. She put her hand on the desk, as though probing for a drink that did not present itself for duty. “I think so, given a few hours and a broom. Drastic as they seem, the aberrant elements of his physiology are actually quite minor, and none of them seem tied in with his powers, so we probably wouldn’t run into the same issue as Reverb.”
Lawrence grinned, a man delivered. “Wonderful!” he almost bellowed. Żywie briefly worried that the vibration of his voice might knock over the vase on her windowsill. “I’m sure he’ll be thrilled. Perhaps you could start after breakfast, once has a good meal in him? Or should he fast—”
“I do not think I will be doing that,” Żywie said, her eyes closed.
“I don’t expect I’ll be performing the procedure,” she reiterated. “Medically speaking, I don’t see the necessity.”
Lawrence shook his head slowly, flummoxed. “He looks like a bloomin’ tiger!” His affected Oxfordian tone had fallen a few rungs down the class ladder.
“Yes, he does. He also shows no sign of physical impairment or mental retardation. I live in a school with over a dozen young girls, Lawrence. How often do you think I’m asked to make their noses ‘less Jewish’, or to slim down their figures? If I granted every request for cosmetic alteration, this whole school would be a collage of Woman’s Mirror covers. Me and Mother Nature may have our disagreements, but I don’t pick fights with her out of vanity.”
“…You cure acne.”
“Acne is a skin condition.”
“And fur isn’t?”
She shrugged. “I think it helps with temperature regulation. I’ve certainly never seen Billy wear his coat. I can’t imagine what the air on his skin would feel like after a lifetime of insulation. And I’m fairly sure the tail aids his sense of balance.”
“Are you telling me that if a child came to us with a harelip, you wouldn’t do anything to correct it?”
Żywie sighed. “A harelip is a congenital malformation, Lawrence. Billy’s appearance seems far too… deliberate to be that. Callous as it sounds, I get a strong sense of aesthetics looking at him.” She smiled, without much joy. “He might be more proof of your invisible agent theory.”
Lawrence felt ill thinking about it, like a vicar confronted with the suggestion that God only made men as a host for smallpox. “Żywie, please, think about the disadvantage you’ll be putting the poor boy at! The way people will look at him!”
“It seems to me that dark skin is also a disadvantage in this country, but I can’t recall you ever asking me to turn Haunt and Maelstrom white.”
“Don’t be obtuse with me, girl!” Lawrence snapped. “You can’t tell me you’re disingenuous enough to think that being black and… that are in any way comparable!”
All of a sudden, Żywie slumped back in her chair, only half-looking at the headmaster. “Maybe they aren’t.” Her voice sounded tired, almost despairing. It briefly occured to Lawrence that she might have already had this argument all on her own. “But regardless, it sets a precedent I wish to avoid. And since when have we expected children here to change to placate the outside world? As it stands, I don’t see anything stopping Billy from enjoying as full and good a life as any of the other children. He can still run, can still play with his friends and seems fully on track to living a full and contented adult life. It’d be different if this was causing him pain, or was going to reduce his lifespan, or prevent him from having children—”
“Children?” Lawrence shouted. “What girl do you think will be willing to carry such a deformity?”
The office was silent, the sound of the old man’s outburst sinking into the oriental carpeting like dust. Żywie glared at him, deep shock and hurt in her eyes. In the distance, Tiresias faintly groaned at them to keep the racket down.
Lawrence knew he had made a grave tactical error. This was Achilles and Telephus all over again, and he was fumbling with Odysseus’ torch. “Have you consulted Tiresias? Gotten the psychological take?” Lawrence wasn’t proud of the occasional monitoring of his students’ thoughts, but the possibility of mental illness going undetected in even the least potent of the children was too terrible to contemplate.
Żywie nodded. It seemed she had chosen to strike Lawrence’s lapse in tact from the mnemonic record. He wasn’t sure if this was mercy or punishment. “Yes, actually.”
Lawrence was surprised. Neither the healer nor the telepath regarded each other very highly, something their teacher tried to convince himself was rooted in the six year age gap between them.
“He said that while Billy is understandably self conscious about his looks, he hasn’t let it turn into self loathing. On top of everything else, I worry thrusting such a drastic change of appearance on him might provoke a dysphoric reaction in him, especially since we would essentially be amputating a limb. I’m sure Elsewhere could tell you some family stories about phantom pains.” She stood from her chair, circling the desk till she was at Lawrence’s side, placing a hand on his shoulder. “He still likes what he sees in the mirror, Laurie. Can’t we let him hold onto that?” Moment of sentiment over with, Żywie composed herself again. “I’ll see you at breakfast?” She asked the question like they had just got done discussing lesson plans.
“Yes, of course,” Lawrence replied, rising to leave. “Thank you, Żywie.”
As he wandered—almost dazed—back out into the hallway, he wondered if Myriad could do what her teacher wouldn’t.
“She’s got the ball!”
A horde of children pursued Myriad through the tall grass like hunters in the Savanna, crying out in rage and ecstasy after their quarry, fighting the wind as they went. She, on the other hand, faced no such impediment. It swept her up every time she leapt, the way a child at sea lets the waves push her back to shore. Alongside her bobbed a football. Touching the ball with your hands was of course strictly verboten, but what could be done about the wind being amenable to your every whim?
“Calcio fiorentino11,” Tiresias had explained, long ago, “was a special kind of football—and anyone caught calling it ‘soccer’ will be drawn and quartered—they played in my country some time between when Jesus Christ roamed the Earth and the dinosaurs died out. Imagine regular football, except with twice as many guys on each team, and brawling is the whole point of the game, instead of being saved for afterwards like in jolly old England. I mean, it was a bloodbath, and everyone played it! Aristos, popes, everyone. No, really! A whole bunch of popes played it! Can you imagine Pope John tearing off some poor bastard’s nipple to win a footy match? They stopped playing it in the 17th century or thereabouts, probably because they were running out of Italians to play it, but good old Mussolini brought it back. Had to make up some new rules, though; mostly because anyone who knew how to write wasn’t hard enough to play calcio fiorentino.” He had taken a long sip of his wine. “What I think the game really lacked till now was superpowered brats like you all12.”
Much to Tiresias’ remarkably unselfconscious delight, the game had caught on amongst the students. They, too, had been forced to alter the rules themselves. The restriction of female players was obviously right out. Even with that no longer a factor, there were hardly enough students for one calcio fiorentino team, let alone two. To address this, a system had been developed where students were ranked by how many players their powers made them worth. The epidemic of wounded egos that resulted practically ensured there was always a warm-up riot before the game could even begin. Furthermore, instead of the victors receiving a flawless, Chianina calf, the students had managed to harang the staff into agreeing to double dessert for the winning team.
Her feet briefly on the ground, Myriad ran through one of the pools of shadow that dotted the pitch, before allowing the unnatural wind to release the ball and kicking it savagely towards her opponents’ goal. She overshot it, instead sending the ball into the vast, curved wall of water. It was raining hard that afternoon, and rather than let it ruin their game the way baseline children would have, Maelstrom had ordered the shower to stop a fair distance above their heads. In obeisance, the water had formed a great dome, rain smearing against it like it was a car windshield. The whole field was now bathed in dappled light, as though they were playing beneath a sky of stained glass, accentuated by uneven breaks in the clouds above.
It was not—Myriad insisted—the same as playing underwater, no matter what everyone else said. And she would know, having actually played some ball games with Maelstrom on the bottom of the river.
The ball floated in the firmament for a moment, a puffer fish caught in an ice drift, before shooting out of it like a pistol-shot—even leaving behind a vaporous trail as it sailed through the air. It hurtled all the way to the other end of the dome, which sent it flying right back, the entire field transformed into a gigantic pinball machine.
The ball shot towards the goal with such force that children standing too close staggered in its wake, but it was intercepted by Brit at the last second. She took the ball in the stomach, a blow that likely would have torn any natural in half, but which bounced harmlessly off of her. Brit did not hesitate to give all the stolen force right back, and took a step back, raising a leg behind her to strike it with all her might. The children between her and the goal scrambled for cover, before the girl struck the ball with the sound of mountains embracing and sent it towards the opposing team’s goal, guarded by an unfortunate Billy who, for his part, did not flinch. Most of the other students had vaguely expected him to possess superior physical capabilities, but as it turned out, goalie was the only position where he wasn’t a liability. They really shouldn’t have been surprised: it wasn’t as if the boy had ever spent much time running around with other children. As such he wasn’t particularly athletic, no matter whatever his feline appearance might have suggested13.
The boy opened his mouth, and let out something that could charitably be called a sound. The shockwave struck the ball and for a moment it seemed to simply hang in midair, the warring forces of the two strikes battling for supremacy, before it dropped to the ground, where Windshear scooped it up in a tiny dervish of wind.
Elsewhere soon saw to that, teleporting not the ball (that had been declared cheating), but the girl, sending Windshear far off to the other side of the dome, before taking the ball via the significantly more mundane medium of his feet, giggling all the way. Maelstrom, here manifested as an eight foot Goliath of solid ice, moved to intercept the boy, until suddenly, a drought stricken village in North Africa was blessed with enough water to last them until the rains. Some may have considered Elsewhere the least of the players on the field, but his inability to accelerate the ball paled in comparison to his capacity to remove his opponents from play.
His triumphant break for the end-line was soon cut short, the ball kicked out from in front of him. The interceptor was much taller than Elsewhere, a grown man, in fact. His physique and features were cartoonishly masculine, but his blond hair was styled in an incongruously feminine Prince Valiant cut. Clad in a red footballer’s kit interrupted by a stripe of yellow down the side, the out of place Roy Race14 grimaced with exaggerated determination, giving his all in a world of muddled and unfamiliar colours for the honour of the Melchester Rovers—wherever they were.
His stint on the Far Out Thunder Kings was short lived, however, as the ground itself swallowed both the strip character and the ball, as though he had stumbled over the lair of some subterranean shark. The last thing anyone heard from him was a strangled cry about “the team” being relegated to Second Division.
Myriad knew who the culprit was immediately. She could hear the steady bass drumbeat of her song even through ten feet of sod. Not that she needed to once Veltha burst from the earth, with so much dirt in her hair you couldn’t begin to even guess what colour it might have been. Then again, the child always had a layer of grime that clung to her even fresh from a bath. A little girl of ten, Veltha rounded out the Institute’s elemental quartet15—specifically filling the role of the gnome. She could manipulate soil and rock with a degree precision that would put any earthmoving machine to shame, and move through it like water, navigating through the lightless underworld by some kind of sonar.
Taking advantage of the slight slope, Veltha created a shallow trench in front of her as she ran, unerringly corralling the ball towards Billy and the goal with the speed of a very low flying meteorite. Myriad tried to divert the ball herself, but the soil refused to yield to her demands. Similarly, she found the air around her sluggish to respond, as though the atmosphere had become as thick as honey. When she tried to send some of the water crashing down on top of the earth shaker, it too failed to answer her. Generally, when she emulated a power that involved exerting control over some aspect of nature, it tended to give priority to the actual owner of said power and said aspect. Only fair, she supposed, but not now.
Billy stood at the ready, his legs spread out and his arms at his side. In Maelstrom’s arena, goals were simply partings in the water, like drawn curtains. It was an elegant solution, much preferable to having to lug out and assemble the Institute’s ancient football nets. Even ball retrieval wasn’t a problem; with how hard it was raining just outside the canopy, the difference between David and the much vaunted, hypothetical, telekinetic generalist was mostly academic.
Billy was ready for this. Sure, he had let more shots past than he had caught. And yes, his first attempt at deflection the ball with his shout had managed to score an own goal via ricochet, but this time would be different. He was going to do the Far Out Thunder Kings proud, even if he had to reach into a whole other dimension to catch the damn ball.
Knowing it was only a matter of time till the ball was taken from her or someone made an attempt on her person, Veltha took the shot.
The ball crossed the distance between the girl and Billy at what seemed to him a leisurely pace. The moment stretched so thin, it was in danger of splitting in half, forever dividing the universe into two continuities. He wasn’t watching a football hurtling towards him at speed, but rather Pluto’s bicentennial journey around the sun. For a moment, he thought he must have manifested a new power, but never mind that. Without thinking, he leapt to the side, only barely managing to snatch the the ball out of the air, clutching it to his chest like a newborn.
I did it, Billy thought as he skidded across the grass. I actually did it. It was far from a deciding goal, but it was good enough for him… at least until he heard the high whine of trapped air escaping from around his curved, black claws. “Oh.”
“Nice going!” Talos yelled in his synthesised, staccato voice, his glass eyes glowing dangerously yellow.
Still drunk from his successful catch and a little dazed from the impact, Billy missed the sarcasm. “I know, right?”
Talos let out a great trumpet blast. Behind him, Veltha said, “That was our only ball!”
Cardea emerged from one of her blurrings of space, the advance scout of the other children converging on the scene. “Guess this means the game’s over.” She grinned smugly. “Far Out Thunder Kings win six to four points.”
“That’s a load of bull!” shouted Elsewhere. “You don’t get to win a match because someone on your team blew up the ball!”
“Why not?” Myriad retorted. “Our game, our rules.”
“It’s a stupid rule!”
“Guys,” said Maelstrom, stepping out from the water as though he had been waiting outside the dome, ready to play referee, “the match doesn’t have to be over. We could just get Ex Nihilo to make us something round to kick. Or Phantasmagoria could get us one of Roy’s balls. Metonymy could probably whip up something, too.”
“I could make you a ball,” Billy chimed in as he dusted himself off. There was a pleading tone to his voice.
Everyone looked at their newest classmate.
“Can you?” asked Windshear, curious.
Billy shrugged, smiling nervously under the other children’s gaze. “Well, I think I can. It’s just some air covered in—”
“Leather, mostly,” Myriad supplied helpfully.
“Let him try,” insisted Elsewhere. “Not like he’s gonna run out of silver cloud.”
The remark earned earned him some nasty looks from the more senior students. It was in very poor taste at the Institute to even joke about powers being being finite.
Heedless, Billy set to work, first casting his mercury over the rapidly deflating football to refresh his sense memory. After less than a minute of work, he had a perfectly round mass of air clothed in a thin layer of leather. Once it was done, he tried catching the ball with his foot, badly thumbling the move.
Plucking the ball out from in front of Billy, Talos weighed it in his bronze hands, studying it with a cold, appraising eye. Unlike most footballs made by human hands, this one lacked any panels, but it responded just fine to a good, sharp kick. The fact it didn’t explode from the piston-like force of Talos’ metal foot spoke well for its craftsmanship. “Yeah, we can use this.”
Billy smiled his friendly vampire grin. “Great! Should I keep being the goalie?”
Talos looked at the other child with equal parts confusion and disdain. “What? You think you’re still in the game? You’re out, kitty-boy.”
Billy’s tail drooped, his lip wobbling. “But-but I fixed the ball.”
“And I don’t want to have to stop the game every five seconds for you to keep fixing it. Buzz off.”
The proclamation instantly kindled dissent among the children.
“You can’t do that!” cried Cardea. “He’s not on your team!”
“There aren’t penalties in calico fiorentino!” asserted Britomart, mangling the Italian words with panache.
“Oh, quit whinging,” said Windshear. “You should be happy he’s being kicked out, he was a rubbish goalie anyway.”
David walked up to Talos, his expression very serious. There was something of his mother in his countenance. “It was an accident, he fixed it, now drop it.”
Unlike the Barthes, Talos could visibly emote in his transformed state. It was, the most insecure part of himself sometimes reminded him, the one advantage his power had over Maelstrom’s. He sneered, revealing black iron teeth. “You don’t have to be all teacher’s pet, Mealy. We all know Lawrence only let the monster in because his dad paid him.”
Everyone went silent. Even the roar of the rain stopped.
Billy looked from student to student, desperately searching for some sign of disbelief. Then he began sobbing.
A dam inside Maelstrom burst, ice water flowing freely through his veins. It was a sensation he’d always feared and secretly longed for taking hold of him. In that moment, for maybe the first time in his young life, he truly felt like his mother’s son.
“You’re a bloody stupid liar, Talos.” It wasn’t an insult so much as a bare declaration of fact. “Now tell Billy you’re sorry so we can get on with the game.”
All the way back on the farmhouse’s veranda, Mabel applauded.
Talos momentarily looked at the water sprite like he was a gorgon’s son instead of a nereid’s. Then he remembered who he was talking to. This was Mealy: a boy so lukewarm, you couldn’t even use him to make tea. Still, no harm in letting him think he was scary for a moment. “Fine,” he said. “Let’s get it over with.”
Maelstrom allowed Talos past him, Billy offering his hand to shake. “Mates?”
The bronze boy was about to take the proffered hand and make some grunt of agreement, when he realised that people might think Mealy actually intimidated him. Instead, he grabbed Billy’s tail and yanked it in an unnatural direction, harder than he really intended.
There was a crack. Billy screamed.
A few things happened in very quick succession. First, Myriad’s eyes went blue. Veltha retreated beneath the Earth. In the same moment, Abalone enclosed himself and those students lucky enough to be standing within a few feet of him under one of his forcefields. Heralded by a small thunderclap, Jumpcut and Cardea both joined Mabel under the veranda. Brit and Elsewhere each lit up their auras. Talos, surprised by his own act of violence, reverted to his organic form.
And then all the water hanging above them fell: forty days and forty nights worth of rainfall in one concentrated burst. Everyone who hadn’t fled or taken steps to protect themselves was knocked off their feet. All except Billy. Aside from being already sprawled on the grass, his patch of ground remained miraculously dry: Noah, spared by an altogether more practical deity.
When the waters receded, the children were at war. Roughly divided into Pro and Anti Williamites, they fought each other, slipping and struggling to even see their foes amidst the rain and the mud. Maelstrom—now ice—was on top of Talos, landing blow after blow on his face hard enough to draw either blood or mineral lubricant, all in utter silence. This outbreak of posthuman-on-posthuman aggression might have earned them all another round of flogging, if it weren’t almost identical to how every other game of calcio fiorentino turned out.
Shellshocked, Elsewhere picked his way through the battlefield, trying to avoid being drawn into any of the smaller fights. Occasionally, one of his classmates would lunge at him, only to find themselves landing face first in the swollen River Avon. He figured someone should deliver Billy to Żywie: she didn’t ask questions when it came to calcio fiorentino. He might have left that up to Myriad, but she had been skittish with the healer lately, and was also presently occupied swatting at Automata’s air forces with flaming fists that burned bright in the cold, wet air.
The rain didn’t bother him. The raindrops disappeared before they even hit his skin16, as though he were radiating heat intense enough to evaporate them. Billy, too, was preserved from the rain, which swerved away from him in the air, as though he were lying under an invisible umbrella.
Elsewhere knelt next to Billy, who was face down in the grass. His mangled tail twitched spasmodically. “You okay, buddy?” he asked, feeling like an idiot as soon as the words left his mouth.
Billy hardly stirred. “…I have friends.”
“I have friends,” Billy repeated, a little louder.
He really did. He had friends who cared enough to beat up their other friends for him. He didn’t think anyone in the world besides his nanny could care that much about him.
“I have friends.”
“So, do you know what my name’s going to be?” Billy asked as Mrs Gillespie led him by the hand to the front door of the house. She had done an excellent job freshening the boy up for his Naming, and had assured him repeatedly that the pair of good trousers and short pants she’d sacrificed for it were no great loss.
“I’ve no idea, love. Dr. Lawrence likes to keep this sort of thing under his hat till the big announcement.” She chuckled. “I will tell you this, he’s been pulling his hair out trying to think of something that encompasses all your powers.” She stopped walking, raising a finger in the air. “Swiss-Army-Boy.” She closed her hand, smiling slyly. “No, nobody’s that cruel.”
“In all seriousness, I imagine it’ll be something along the lines of ‘Alchemist’—not sure how I feel about giving a child a professional title for a name, but there you go. Personally, I’m rather fond of Jericho, for your shout, you see, but Dr. Lawrence has never gone in for scriptural references17. I think ‘Soundbite’ is what most of the money’s on in Windshear’s little betting pool.”
“Oh, you know about that?”
Mrs Gillespie gave the child a bemused look. “Oh, William, you children don’t get away with nearly as much as you think.”
When they reached the threshold, Mary asked if Billy wanted escorting down to the staging ground.
The boy nodded, and Mrs Gillespie, noting the fear in his eyes, took his hand, setting forth in a stride that he was half helped, half forced to match. The sun had set hours ago on that dreary, mayfly day, and while the Institute’s remoteness usually blessed it with an enviable view of the night sky, that night no starlight pierced the rolling plains of clouds. The darkness’ only blemish was the faint haze of the moon; a lighthouse for airships.
The path to the bonfire was lit by some of Snapdragon’s constructs, immolated will o’ wisps and stoic, dignified djinn. Under his fur, Billy paled on catching sight of the multitude of other children watching him on either side of the bonfire, the flame casting their faces in disturbing, almost inhuman patches of shadow. His breathing began to increase in speed, his hands starting to shake, when four bright pools of cobalt caught his eye in the crowd. Maelstrom and Myriad stood, hand in hand, flanked on either side by Mabel and Elsewhere, all four of them smiling gently at him. His first real friends. He felt the cold in his chest begin to melt away, a tentative smile playing on his lips. He took his first truly voluntary step forwards, drawing a glance from Mrs Gillespie, then a chuckle, as she let him continue on alone. The entire Institute population was present, including Basilisk, who had managed to regain a fragile equilibrium while Lawrence and his chosen companions were away. And they were all smiling across at him, even, surprisingly, Talos.
Lawrence stood right next to the fire, a small space separating him from the rest of the crowd. Billy duly took his place beside the man, trying to simultaneously look past the crowd without appearing to be avoiding their gaze.
By his standards, Lawrence’s Naming speech was as brief and perfunctory as a pauper’s bank statement. “While I hadn’t expected to return from Canberra with a new student, I have no regrets about this particular surprise. In a way, children like young William are the whole reason our community exists. I can only imagine the kind of treatment his appearance would have garnered him in a school full of baseline children. Needless to say, I’ve been very impressed by how readily you children have all accepted him, and in William’s indomitable pride in his nature.” He looked right at Żywie. “And in recognition of this pride, I would like to introduce you all to… Growltiger!”
There was the expected applause. Except from Lawrence’s eldest students, who shared looks ranging from mild surprise to outright dismay.
Billy grinned. “Pleased to meet you!” It was a good name, he thought. At least he would have one thing less to agonize over when they played superhero.
Lawrence smiled, still not taking his eyes off Żywie. “Before we let this party take its natural course, I believe our Watercolours have a welcoming present for you.”
The Watercolours approached Billy with the conscious haste of children being called to stage. He looked at the blue-eyed ones. After saving him from a life of complete isolation, and in Maelstrom’s case, earnestly trying to drown his enemies, he wasn’t sure what more they could possibly give him.
Myriad started. “So, remember that one lunchtime when Elsewhere was complaining about the weather, ‘cause he’s a wimp?”
Elsewhere looked at her indignantly. “I was complaining because I don’t have magic not-getting-cold-powers!” He frowned playfully at William. “Or fur.”
Mabel picked up from the other girl. It seemed rehearsed. “And you said you liked it because it reminded you of Narnia?”
It appeared to be Billy’s cue. “Yeah? But it wasn’t—”
He hadn’t even finished his sentence before the first flakes began to fall. Before they even reached the ground, a host of nymphs, fauns, dwarves, and more mundane yet still deeply out of place English fauna appeared all over the grounds, a great lion18 lying at the centre of it all. It was really the kind of spectacle the Watercolours had been trying to move away from with their Tempest production, but it had seemed a worthy occasion for a little backsliding.
Billy still wasn’t sure what had come first, the tears of joy or the excited squealing. It was a close run thing.
The entire student body and even the human teachers dispersed into the miniature Narnia. Mabel conjured a fine rendition of Jadis, Empress of Charn for some harmless menace. About five loose quartets of Pevensie children formed out of the chaos, one of whom appointed William as their Peter. It was the first game of pretend where he hadn’t been cast as the monster.
He’d done it. He had found his secret country, claimed his throne, and would steer clear of any white stags that happened to pass through.
Back in what still passed for reality, the original four new humans were pulling their old teacher aside.
“That was low and childish of you, Lawrence,” Żywie hissed.
Lawrence raised his eyebrows in mock confusion. “I have no clue what you’re talking about, my girl. I simply—”
Tact can sometimes be a disease, one which Melusine had been thoroughly immunized against. “Cut the crap, Bertie, we all know about your little cosmetic surgery discussion with Żywie.”
“Mostly because the echo still hasn’t died down,” added Tiresias. He began walking slowly backwards, waving his hands. “What girl will want him? What girl will want him…”
They ignored him.
“So that’s how we play things now?” Żywie said, glaring. “When we can’t satisfy our vanity, we use the children to snipe at each other? Even if it means making their very names insults?”
“I’m with Zy on this one, Laurie,” said Basilisk. “I don’t quite know if you meant it the way she thinks you did, but the name feels a little… on the nose.”
Lawrence raised an eyebrow. “And ‘Elsewhere’ wasn’t? I was just following our Żywie’s advice. Why shouldn’t we celebrate Growltiger’s appearance? He seems to like the name.”
Basilisk glanced at his friend. “He has a point, Zy. Maybe we should ask Billy—don’t give me that look, Lawrence, it hasn’t even been ten minutes—what he thinks?”
Melusine rolled her eyes. “As though he’s going to risk upsetting us? The poor thing probably has nightmares about waking up back in his own room. He’d have taken being called ‘Old Deuteronomy’ with a smile.” She looked sharply at Lawrence. “And that still would have been a better name!”
The headmaster put a hand on Żywie’s shoulder. “I still don’t see why you’re so upset. This is what you wanted, isn’t it? Growltiger now knows exactly how we feel about his appearance. And I’m sure if he has any objections to the name, he’ll make them known to us, just as I’m sure you would do everything in your power to address them.” He pronounced the word “power” very deliberately, removing his hand. “Now, if you’ll excuse me, I am going to watch the children play, and have a drink. I suggest you all do the same.”
He walked off towards Narnia, leaving his students to awkwardly disperse, except Tiresias—who departed with the air of a man leaving the theatre after a show, ready to get just drunk enough to forget Jadis wasn’t a real woman in either sense of the word19—and Żywie, who just stood there, fuming.
As Melusine passed Lawrence on her way to congratulate her son on the authenticity of his snow, she whispered a single word in his ear:
1. Which included such tales as “The Brass-Balled Hippie”, “The Tragical Life of Fozzwozzle, Birthday Clown”, and “The Absent Goldsmith”. ↩
2. Because as the woman herself put it, “You have to work to look this good.” Which, coming from her, was a lie.↩
3. The ability to command the loyalty of birds, on the other hand, was surprisingly useful, as anyone at the Institute unfortunate enough to have gossip they’d rather keep to themselves soon found out.↩
4. The statue was later purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia, where it was exhibited under the title “Amphitrite of Avon”.↩
5. That and throwing thunderbolts. ↩
6. She heavily implied it had been pulled from an inappropriate magazine, but it had in fact originated from a mail order linen catalogue.↩
7. Lawrence sometimes claimed to have crossed paths with J.R.R Tolkien when he was finishing his Masters after World War One. Żywie was never sure what to make of the claim. While she could see no discrepancy in the timing, it seemed something any Oxfordian would claim if they could, like lesser immortals and the Crucifixion; or in later segments of time, Woodstock.↩
8. “And I think it was very naughty of Mr. Tolkien to go back and change The Hobbit just because he was putting a new book out.”↩
9. AU’s knowledge of the land of his grandparents was all in all pretty thin, but it did stretch far enough for some decent jokes. ↩
10. It was a love ballad, specifically, though the romance might be lost on viparious audiences. ↩
11. Literally, “Florentine football”. ↩
12. Despite what Tiresias may have thought, there were in fact several credible accounts of superpowered children in fifteenth century Italy. But that is another story. ↩
13. Plato would have been heartbroken.↩
14. With the amount of pre-season games the Melchester Rovers played deep in South American jungle at gunpoint, it was not surprising that Roy Racer took being drafted without warning to play on a team of supernatural primary schoolers half a world and who knows how many universes away with aplomb. ↩
15. Windshear, Maelstrom (or his mother), Veltha, and Snapdragon. Elsewhere had tried claiming membership in the cohort as “lightning”, but nobody brought it.↩
16. It was a very lucky village.↩
17. By the Mary Gillespie schema, the Book of Joshua is best paired with a good vermouth cocktail. ↩
18. Contrary to expectations, the lion was not sourced from any illustrations of the works of Clive Staples Lewis, but rather a thankfully bowdlerized depiction of colosseum bloodsports Mabel was fond of. The “real” Aslan never played well at parties. ↩
19. His was a high and lonely destiny. ↩