Once outside, Myriad traded Haunt’s song for Britomart’s. Cardea’s portals would have been faster—instantaneous, even—but it wasn’t conducive to scouting, as she kept telling herself.
She started to run, leaving a faint comet-trail of chilled, glinting air and frozen grass.
AU’s song was distant, echoing from somewhere across the river like a parade a few streets away. A smart move, Myriad thought. If you were going to attack the Institute, you definitely wanted to keep as far away from Melusine as possible.
She raced past the teachers’ cottages and the obstacle course, preparing to make a running leap over the water, when she caught sight of something shiny by the nursery.
She came to a stop near instantly, her movements completely silent.
Something was peering through one of the windows of the tiny demountable: an eight-foot tall shōgun, resplendent in was she hoped was purely ceremonial gold armour.
Myriad hated herself for whining about the babies being brought to the play. Her eyes went cerulian, as she called up Maelstrom’s song. The shōgun was solid, without a drop of water to its name. “AU!” the girl called. “Can you hear me?”
The shōgun turned slowly to look at her, its sculpted face fixed in a predatory grin like the Devil’s funeral mask. There was a sword at his side, the blade nothing more than plain steel. Myriad wondered how AU expected to do anything with it. Then again, the thing did have hands. It started to walk towards Myriad, and she flared with Elsewhere’s borrowed light.
This seemed to stop the golem in its tracks. Neat, “Times New Roman” etchings formed on its chestplate:
MY NAME IS CHEN, ALLISON
“Oh. Sorry.” Myriad’s aura extinguished, only to reignite as she remembered who she was apologising to. “Don’t call me that.”
The etchings smoothed out, before being replaced by a new message:
IT’S YOUR NAME
Myriad glared up into the shōgun’s dark, empty eye sockets. “Not for you.”
The etchings faded again. The automaton just stood there, with only the dusk noises and the gentle, far off flow of the river disturbing the silence. Now that it was up close, Myriad could see that the shōgun’s armour was not a uniform gold. The great horned helmet looked more like Corinthian bronze, while the facemask might have been something like electrum. Some of the plates were tinged russet or lime.
Curious, Myriad took on his song. Almost immediately, she gasped. She could feel it, all of it. Chen must have been here for weeks, months, even. Since the carnival, she realized. Far beneath her, stretching out for dozens, if not hundreds of feet in every direction, was a vast pool of warmth. She recognized it instinctively as gold, a veritable dragon’s hoard, like fresh candle wax beneath her fingers, filling a rough, ovoid disc under the entire Institute. She tried prodding a section of the substance, and she felt it move under her will. Had she been able to see through solid matter at the time, she would have seen a clear indentation in the mass, some twenty-five feet deep in the ground below. Somehow she could see herself standing in the tall spring grass, and pitch darkness, and tree branches silhouetted against the sky—
Myriad shook her head, trying to shove the reflected images to the back of her mind.
The shōgun was lukewarm compared the reservoir: less yielding, almost chalky to the touch. The sword was—as she’d first guessed—cold and inert, with only a thin vein of white heat running through its base, imperfect substance.
He’s using alloys, Myriad realized. Toughening up the gold with other metals. How long did it take him to not to rip it all apart?
“You do know that samurai aren’t Chinese, right?” she said, if only to distract herself from how thoroughly AU had claimed the territory.
Somewhere not too far away, the shōgun’s master shrugged:
I’M AUSTRALIAN, ALLISON
Again, the words dissolved and reformed:
I TOLD YOU TO RUN
Myriad remembered Canberra, her entire life before the Institute or even McClare: small and limited, breathing empty, songless air. “This is my home,” she said. “I can’t leave.” She prayed he didn’t ask if she told anyone about him.
IT WAS MY HOME TOO, ONCE
Needlessly, the shōgun looked back at the nursery.
THERE ARE BABIES HERE?
“Yes. Why do you care?”
WHERE DO YOU THINK THEY CAME FROM?
“MYRIAD!” bellowed Lawrence. “GET AWAY FROM HIM!”
The old headmaster was barreling down the slope, Mrs Barnes, Melusine, and Tiresias (still in Lawrence’s hastily bespeckled and dyed dressing gown) hurrying alongside him.
“What are you doing out here?” cried Angela. “What would your mother think if anything happened to you?” She glared right at the shōgun. “And you!” she hissed. “You lied to us!”
The living statue actually shrunk back slightly:
NOTHING PERSONAL, MRS BARNES. GLAD YOU GOT TO SEE YOUR SON
“It’s not him,” Allison said. “AU’s doing”—concepts like astral projection, scrying, and the laws of similarity and contagion presented themselves from her dusty collection of second hand knowledge—“Mels stuff.”
“She’s right,” Melusine confirmed. “That thing’s a golem.” Evenly, she added “Hello, Chen.”
The shōgun leaned to its left, to better see Tiresias trying to find shelter from its gaze behind Lawrence’s back.
DON’T THINK I’VE FORGOTTEN ABOUT YOU, YOU PUTRID LITTLE MONGREL. AND WHAT THE HELL IS THAT THING ON YOUR CHIN?
The psychic pulled off his cotton ball wizard beard, whimpering.
Lawrence sniffed. The discovery that AU was not in fact standing less than a foot away from his newest favourite had—without much good cause—restored a measure of his self-possession. “I can’t say I’m impressed with your ethnography, AU,” he said with the air of a lecturer about to demolish a bad thesis defense.
“I already told him about that,” Myriad said, her voice shaking with nervousness.
“Good girl. Can’t say I’m surprised, either by this pageantry or your very presence here. You’ve been lurking on the edge of Tiresias’ foresight for nearly a year now.”
“Shut up, Bertie!”
“Oh, Tiresias, you were pals for years, he must have guessed as much.”
Myriad’s guilt managed to both lessen and intensify at once.
“I’m just wondering what took you so long to make your move. Couldn’t work up the nerve? I wouldn’t be shocked.”
FUCK YOU, LAWRENCE
If Allison had been within range, Mrs Barnes would have covered her eyes. “There is a little girl standing right next to you!”
The profanity cleared itself:
THE LADY IS RIGHT. I’M NOT HERE TO DO ANYTHING TO ALLISON, OR ANY OF THE OTHER KIDS. I’M HERE FOR YOU AND THE PISSANT
Tiresias shot Lawrence a desperate look. He didn’t notice.
“Chen, you haven’t done anything yet that can’t be sorted out,” Mrs Barnes said. “Come out from wherever you’re hiding, and you and Doctor Lawrence can talk about what on God’s green Earth happened between you two.”
Before Lawrence could object to this strange women making plans on his behalf, a new message appeared on the shōgun’s chest:
I AM SORRY, MRS BARNES. FOR EVERYTHING.
AU’s proxy made a grand, sweeping gesture towards the barn. Angela, Lawrence, Melusine and Myriad all looked in that direction, expectant fear written on their faces.
Tiresias took off in a run.
Golden poles erupted from the ground around around the remaining three adults, a roof forming membrane-like over their heads, before they were knocked off their feet by a thick, square slab of metallic yellow forcing its way out of the earth beneath them.
The shōgun threw its arms around Myriad. There was a flash of green, and a second later the Gatehouse had a new statue, but not before the newly formed cage launched itself into the air, its captives slamming into the bars and each other as it lurched and shook.
Melusine poured through through the bars, evaporating before she splashed down onto the grass. She saw Myriad trying to line her index finger up with the cage, her fingernail glowing green.
“Don’t!” Melusine’s voice vibrated as she wafted over to the girl’s side, condensing into ice. “If you hit the cage, the fall might break their necks.”
Myriad shouted “What do we do then?”
Sprinting madly back towards the pair, Tiresias answered with a scream. “RUUUUUUN!”
Behind the psychic, the earth was churning, grass roots twisting and tearing apart as beasts of shifting gold dug their way out into the open air. Everywhere they looked, there were more of them—dirt and dust tarnished gargoyles, enormous glittering crabs, and what looked like the fossils of gods—half tearing, half melting their way through the Institute’s grounds. Briefly reclaiming AU’s song, Myriad gaped at what her new senses were telling her. The gold beneath the Institute was draining, the huge bubble slowly but surely being drawn to the surface.
Tiresias crouched behind Myriad, clutching her shoulders. “Shit. Shit. Shit. Shit…”
AU’s shining horde began advancing upon them, soundless but for the soft squelching of ground underfoot.
Melusine was grateful she presently lacked both internal organs and fear hormones. “I think you might want to play Cardea’s song, Miri.”
The girl nodded sharply.
She reached out her arms, probing for catches in the air. Finding purchase, she pulled open a hole in the world.
The three of them stepped through the rent into the barn. Immediately, they were crowded by a press of relieved students and staff.
Before she could process the dissonance of Elsewhere using her old name, Myriad found herself caught in a hug between him and Maelstrom.
“We thought AU had kidnapped you!” the water-sprite wailed, holding his friend tight. She wondered if the concept of her sneaking off had even crossed his mind. “Then we saw those monsters come out of the ground, and I thought… and I thought—” He broke down into tears.
Assured of Myriad’s safety, Arnold retreated from the hug, counting the adults who had followed after Myriad. “Where’s Mum?”
“I’m sorry, kid,” Tiresias said between heavy breaths as he collapsed onto a hay bale. “AU snatched her and Bertie.”
“He-he what?” asked Arnold, realizing the esper wasn’t telling some cruel, ill-timed joke.
Myriad answered for him, her voice quavering. “He put them in this floating cage thing and took them across the river. I can still hear their songs—barely.” She wrapped her arms around herself, a chill rising inside her. “I was going to try and zap them out, but they could have fallen…”
Before she could get another word out, Arnold started shouting. “You didn’t even try? You just stood there and let a bloody supervillain take my mummy?” His stormcloud eyes were flushed with tears, lightning playing under his skin and clothes.
As is often the case with young children, Arnold’s tears were contagious. “I’m sorry,” Myriad mewled. “I didn’t know what to do.”
“Didn’t know what to do?” Arnold repeated back scornfully. “You’re Myriad! You’re supposed to be smart!”
Myriad sniffled, beginning to cry in earnest. She had no response to that. There was a little voice in the back of her mind, some little bit of stolen insight, telling her that Arnold wasn’t really angry at her, but she wasn’t listening to it, because here he was, shouting at her. Around them, the others began to follow suit, as children are wont do do when emotion peaks, some of the smaller ones began to cry, then the older.
“W-what are we supposed to do now?” asked Stratogale, a mixture of confusion and shock written across her face. As one, the children looked to Żywie, but she was silent, seeming no less lost as them.
“I’ll kill him!” Fred was rabid, white with rage and prescient grief. “Spit on that cunt’s heart!”
“You’ll have to get in line,” Drew growled quietly. Stood next to his father, his anger seemed restrained. At least, once his wife had physically prevented him from storming out the barn doors, ready to fight his way single handedly through the things marching outside. “Lying, bastard chink.”
The children’s panic rose like flood water around their necks. The already grim reality of their situation was filtered and distorted through dozens of frightened mouths. AU had killed Lawrence and Elsewhere’s mother in front of Myriad’s eyes. She, Melusine and Tiresias had traded the two of them to AU in exchange for a paltry few more hours of life. The goldsmith would settle for nothing less than the death of every child, man, and woman at the Institute.
In the middle of it all, the emeritus sorcerer Prospero—now clean shaven but still clad in the finery of his former office—sat atop his throne of stale hay, numb from fear.
Numb was the word. Somehow, even with his once-friend waiting at the edge of the world to do… something to him, all Tiresias could think about was the noise. He felt as if the wailing and shouting had replaced the air itself, until he could take it no longer:
The barn went silent but for Fred and Drew’s stream of threats to AU’s life and person. Even those died in their throats when they became aware of the quiet that had settled over the building.
“Thank you.” The psychic strode over to Arnold, cupping the boy’s chin in long, slender fingers. “Look, boy, I’m sorry about your mother, but AU said he was here for me and Bertie.” Darkly, he added, “Whatever he’s going to do, your mama’s not going to get the worst of it.”
Back to being flesh, Melusine said, “Easy for you to say.” The contempt in her voice was unmistakable. “Anyone with eyes could see you had warning. Not that you deigned to share…”
“I had two seconds. The right now is way harder to get a fix on than the future. Too many decisions being made at once.”
“Stop this, now,” Mary Gillespie said, her voice low and even, as she tried to comfort Snapdragon and Windshear in her arms. “We have to worry about the children, not place the blame. Just a tip, though; usually the kidnapper is to blame.” She looked up towards the hayloft. “Mr. Cormey, can you tell us anything about what’s happening out there?”
The civics teacher had his face pressed against the second story window. “There’s a gang of skeletons waving their swords up at me. They don’t seem to be coming any closer, though.”
Myriad wiped her tears off the back of her arm.“He’s trying to keep us cooped up scared in here. Like chickens,” she said, her voice hard and steady. “He’s an idiot.”
“Seems like a smart strategy where I’m standing,” muttered Tiresias.
“Maybe if we were human,” Myriad retorted, looking around at her fellow students. The secret doom that had been hanging above them all had come crashing down, but like the thrashing that winter past, it had burned up all her fear and dread in one terrible burst. All that was left was anger. “If we were the old kind of human, AU would be a scary supervillain who could squash as all like bugs. But if we were new humans, he’d just be some loser trying to scare us with soft, stupid toys. Which are we?”
There were a few quiet, half-hearted answers: the kind Lawrence’s rhetorical questions received on cold mornings when most of the children were only physically out of bed.
“She asked you a question!” Mabel shouted from the loft.
Another round of murmured, grudging responses.
Mabel screamed. “Old or new?”
“New!” more of the students called back, with a touch more enthusiasm.
“Do you know why there are superheroes?” Myriad asked the crowd. Without waiting for an answer, she went on. “Because the only thing that can handle one of us is one of us!”
There were cheers of agreement.
“Do you know why AU waited so long to come here? Why he’s been going after miners and bankers for years?” She put her hands on her hips. “He’s afraid of picking on someone his own size.”
One of the children did not laugh.
“Miri,” said Haunt, his tone almost apologetic, “we’re not all like you and Brit and Maelstrom.”
David was surprised and vaguely flattered to hear himself used as an example of whatever Haunt was talking about.
Myriad tilted her head. “What do mean? We’re all new humans.”
“Yeah, but you’re… newer? Most of us, we’re like twigs compared to you.”
In brazen defiance of the hay that surrounded him, Tiresias lit a cigarette. “My old papa used to have a saying.” He was smiling as he exhaled. “A bundle of sticks does not break.”
“He’s right,” Myriad agreed. “It doesn’t matter if we’re not all indestructible, if we cover—”
The students all looked toward the dissenting voice. It was Basilisk, standing resolute in front of the barn doors, as if any force on Earth could have kept those children inside longer than they wanted to be.
The children protested, of course, but mostly went quiet when Myriad spoke, letting her carry their collective voice as she did their powers. “What do you mean, ‘no’?”
“I mean that we’re not going to let you kids get killed fighting our battles for us.”
Myriad wasn’t sure Basil was even looking at her. His gaze seemed fixed on a space just behind the girl. She turned her head slightly, spotting David trying to shelter in the shadow of the loft. She looked back at his father. “We’re not going to get killed,” she said.
The teacher rubbed his temples. “Miri, very few people think they’re gonna get killed in advance.”
“But we can do this,” Mabel whined. “Stop treating us like normal little kids!”
“It’s my job, Mabel.”
The use of her real name took some of the wind out of Mabel’s sail, but Myriad kept going: “Lawrence is always saying we’re meant to be better than the old kind of person. No other animal needs grownups to protect them for years and years.”
Elsewhere glowed like a bed of burning lime. “I’m going to put AU in the sun,” he declared flatly.
“No you’re not,” his father cut in, with all the considerable authority he could pour into his voice. “The man’s right, Arnold. A battlezone is no place for kids. I never wanted that for you.” He looked at Myriad. “Allie, how did you find AU?”
“I followed his song.”
That told Fred nothing, but it sufficed. “Could you do it again?”
“That magic or whatever it is you used to get back here, could you use it to open a—I think the word is portal? Yeah, that. Could you open one up behind AU? Or under him, even?”
“Right. Then it’s obvious what we’re gonna do. Allison will open a portal to Chen, and I’ll break his neck.”
The last five words were said with no special emphasis. It wasn’t so much a threat as a simple declaration of intent. He could have said he and the supervillain were going to play cards in the exact same tone.
Myriad suddenly found it hard to look directly at the veteran, while both his sons couldn’t help but stare. No more threats from them, Fred noticed. Not now they realized how easy it could be.
Basilisk rounded on him. “Using the children as murder weapons is not an improvement!”
“I’m not suggesting that!” Fred growled. “I’m suggesting we use me as a murder weapon. I’m not a child. I know exactly what that means. I’m just asking Allie to give me a lift.”
“You mean making her an accomplice!”
“Well what do you think we should do? Sit here and let your mate gild my wife to death!”
Myriad took a deep breath. “We’re not baselines, Mr. Barnes. We won’t have to kill him,” she said, with the total conviction only known by fanatics and the young.
Fred wondered for a moment if superheroes—real and fictional—refrained from using lethal force against their enemies less out of any moral principle, and more for bragging rights.
Basilisk leaned against the doors, running his hands down his face. “This isn’t how things are supposed to go. We’re supposed to be the ones protecting you children.”
Melusine cleaved herself from the crowd. “You think I won’t be out there with them?” For the first time in longer than Basilisk dared to remember, she smiled kindly at him. “If Chen harms one hair on our boy, I’ll burst his eyes in their sockets.”
Before Basil could figure out how to respond to that, Żywie stepped forward as well:
“I’m going out there too.”
“I’m not,” said Tiresias.
“We guessed as much.”
Basilisk shook his head. “Gold doesn’t have biology, Eliza.”
There were some whispers among the children about the teacher’s choice of name.
“I know,” she said. “I’m not a fighter, Hugo. I’m a healer.”
Hoarse, joyless laughter. “What? You think Chen is just going to let you wander around fixing scrapes and bruises?”
“Rules of engagement—you don’t fire on medics.”
“And what if he does?”
“And what if one of the children is hurt, and I’m not there for them?”
Basilisk didn’t have a rebuttal. He did have a question, though. It was a question he’d asked himself every day for nearly twenty years. “And what do I do? What’s my job while my son fights?”
“You look after the girls,” Fred said. “I know we’ve lost the war on this, but I’ll be damned before we let them go out there.”
“You’re going to let the boys fight but not us?” Myriad fumed, along with a great number of the other female students.
Fred sighed. “Not you. Them.” He pointed at the cluster of teenagers, specifically at Stratogale, flanked by Reverb and Ex-Nihilo, all three of them looking none-too-pleased at being the centre of attention. “Not in their condition.”
Myriad tilted her head. “What, because they’re fat?”
An air of discomfort descended over everyone, besides Myriad, Elsewhere, and Growltiger, who were merely confused.
“No,” said Fred. “I mean—not like that…”
Stratogale spared him. “He’s right, Miri. It’s better us three stay in here. We’d just slow the rest of you down.”
Speak for yourself, the air said, in the mostly unadorned voice of a teenage girl. I’m not missing out!
“Reverb,” Ex-Nihilo said. “Everything you could do out there, you can do in here. You can be… I don’t know, sonic artillery?”
Reverb crossed her arms. Fine, the world huffed.
Under her breath, Myriad muttered “If you’re gonna be cowards, I guess…”
Mary Gillespie watched the preparations for battle, observing Myriad move from student to student, confidently dispensing orders and advice:
“—Just put some holes in the field so the others can get shots out. Wait, you didn’t know you could do that? How long have you had powers?” She turned away from the faintly embarrassed Abalone. “Jumpcut, go to the garden and open the vegetable pen. I don’t care that the watermelons bite, just get Phantasma to make you a bodyguard. Automata! Try stealing some of the monsters out there. AU will probably take them back in a few seconds, but it’ll throw him off. Ex-Nihilo, Growltiger, start making her some soldiers. Same for you, Phantasma-”
There was none of the hushed terror Mary remembered from her students in the Blitz—the sound of held breaths and children being betrayed by their own tears. Here and now, they ran back and forth amongst themselves, discussing strategy and power synergies at an almost giddy pitch, while Myriad stomped around playing the young general. If she didn’t know better, the old woman would have assumed they were getting set to play that bastardization of football Tiresias had got them hooked on. She could feel a little of the same impish, almost wicked excitement that had charged the air like static the day those poor boys paid the Institute a visit.
Part of the old woman—the selfish part of herself, she suspected, that cared more about the teaching than the taught—wanted someone to cry, or try to back out of the fight. Anything that might indicate they truly understood what they were getting into. But then, if they did, would they be able to follow through with it?
Eventually, there were no more preparations to be made. A few last minute protests from Basil and Mr. Barnes had gone unheeded, as both men had expected.
A half hour later, they heard what sounded like the pumpkins trying to eat the aureate beasts outside—or whatever could possibly be mistaken for that.
Jumpcut appeared in front of Myriad, panting. She didn’t flinch at the thunderclap.
“Had to… let them chase me…” He inhaled sharply. “The spacewoman got eaten.” He sounded more broken up about that than he probably should have been.
“Great,” said Mabel. “She’s not going to let me hear the end of that.”
Myriad nodded curtly. “Go rest with the big girls, Jump, you’ve done your job.” She turned to address the mass of students. “Places, everyone! Mabel! Start us off with something shooty!”
“Waaaay ahead of you.”
It began with a garrison of bumpy, garishly chrome red and blue pepper potts. They hovered awkwardly above the manticores and gargoyles prancing menacingly in front of the barn, tipping back and forth as if they had never dreamt of finding themselves anywhere above ground level, and were certain they would soon crash their way back.
In a reflex inherited from their master, the creatures below looked up at the things.
Before any of their targets could react, the pepper potts swooped down on them like very clumsy birds of prey, raining down bright, whining death from their egg whisks as they filled the air with their staccato exultations.
The barn doors exploded open, a platoon of terracotta soldiers surging out into the low evening sunlight—their bodies roughly carved from silver and jade. They were reinforced by glossy, photorealistic gladiators, armed with blades forged from something undoubtedly harder than gold.
And finally, there came the children, crying war. The impervious led the charge: bronze, ice, inertia, and song. They waded into the fray, Talos tearing apart ghouls and goblins like they were made of modeling clay.
Billy was running full tilt through a pack of boar-headed samurai, a mirrored shield raised in front of him. Whenever the chimeras slammed against it, they exploded into fine white powder.
Hey, kid, behind you!
Billy swung around to find a dully glinting, segmented serpent looming over him. The boy leapt at it, managing to knock the thing to the ground and pin it under his reflective disk. A second later, he fell onto the grass as the snake melted into a puddle of pure fresh water.
Keep your ears open, Tigger!
The voice in Billy’s head sounded like his own thoughts, if a touch more… Italianate. He went invisible, something Myriad had promised would work on the golems. “Tiresias? Is that you?”
Got it in one. Decided to help coordinate this mess. It’s like commuting, but not. Plus, the cripple might stop giving me those dirty looks. Haunt and Veltha, bless their little hearts, are digging up some of the big gold modules. Would be helpful if they could actually get rid of them. Now mush.
Billy saluted the air, grinning. “Yes, sir!” He started running in what he knew was Veltha and Haunt’s general direction, as instinctively as a bird knows which way south lies. Remaining unobservable, he smiled to himself. As bad and serious as all of this was, Billy couldn’t help but enjoy himself. For the first time, he truly felt like Growltiger.
Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted Abalone’s aqueous dome, ringed with meurtrières for some of the Institute’s more fragile students to attack out of. A saffron Cerberus was bearing down on them. Billy roared at it, striking it like a bullet through glass.
Maybe a bit like, Jericho, too.
Down by the river, a diminutive ice sculpture of a boy stood against the bulk of the oncoming horde. His features were as delicate as any one might find, and yet there was something fearsome there. The golden horrors rushed him en masse, but he did not flinch, his face set and unmoving as he raised a neptunian trident of flowing water above his head. Before he got the chance to use his weapon, however, the ground around him erupted, not with gold, but geysers bearing a fury beyond anything seen before on Earth—at least by people who had never met Françoise Barthe. It was like watching a dam break vertically, a trench carving itself seven spears deep into bedrock around the ice-child. What monsters weren’t swallowed whole were shredded by riptides and hails of ice. The boy glared at the typhoon swirling around him. Why could she never let him take care of himself?
He stood in thought for a moment, before taking up his power once more. His eyes glowed a pure Cherenkov blue as he began drawing down cloudwater into his trident. It swelled to twice his size, before tripling and quadrupling in volume. He didn’t stop until it was the size of a trolley car, before snap freezing it into a solid spike of frosted ice, held above his head with both hands. It was almost comical, a translucent little boy carrying this mass a few hundred times his size as if he were Atlas’ son. Then he threw it, and it wasn’t so cute anymore. It shot through his mother’s barrier and plowed through a contingent of imps and gargoyles with the speed and force of a derailed train, before exploding with a violence to shake the very pillars of God’s throne. For a single moment, all was still, before the shards began to fall as snow.
An approving round of thunder rolled over the Institute. If the statue could have smiled, he would have.
The children held no delusion that defeating AU’s army would defeat him. Breaking the villain’s toys did nothing to loosen his grip on their substance. Even as they rended and shattered the things, their fragments nipped and bit at their heels, or melded back together into new, terrible forms. The only ones that did not return in such a fashion were those sent far afield by Elsewhere’s light, or transmuted back to plainer substances by Growltiger. The only way they were going to push back this gold tide was to cut it off at its source.
The strains of Juditha triumphans rang out across the land. That was Linus’ major contribution to the battle effort: every note and lyric of the strident, ghostly oratorio was warping probability in favour of the defenders and stoking some fires in their guts.
Not that Myriad needed it. A storm was raging within and without her, light flowing through her veins like rivers of burning magnesium while tendrils of lightning lashed and spat at anything Chen was stupid enough to let get close to her. Every flick of her wrist made someone, somewhere quite rich.
She wondered why Chen was still bothering sending his creatures at her and Elsewhere. Surely they would have been better deployed against kids who couldn’t just will them away with a glance. David may have been powerful to these things, but her and Elsewhere were indomitable. She quietly wondered if his father was watching.
The things AU was throwing at Myriad were artless by the standards he’d shown—barely more than cubes or pyramids floating aggressively in her direction. She hoped this meant he was getting desperate.
She was dispatching a particularly angry trapezoid when she glimpsed letters on one of its faces:
It was in Paraguay before she could read the whole message, but then a rectangle wandered into view:
FOR YOUR OWN—
That one got sent to Harvey.
She worked up enough of a storm to translocate everything within fifty square feet of her. He was still trying to talk to her, after everything he’d done? Like he wasn’t trying to trick everyone into thinking he’d kill them all if they stepped out of line?
Like he might not still do it?
Taking advantage of the breathing room she had won herself, Myriad took on AU’s song. She searched through a world of burnished, yellow reflections, smiling to herself when she most of them were being beaten out of shape by her friends. Once or twice, she thought she saw Veltha swimming through the dark undersoil.
Soon enough, she found AU. Judging from the angle, she was looking out from a piece of gold stuck to his arm. He was wearing what looked like a Grecian helmet, only made of pure gold, thus offering his skull slightly more protection than his own skin. Much like with the shōgun, he had armoured his whole body with an assortment of gold alloys.
He hates being called AU, but he dresses like that? Idiot.
AU pacing back and forth in front of his old teacher, who Myriad could see had been buried up to his neck in the dirt. A thin strip of gold had been plastered over Lawrence mouth, like a chocolate wrapper had been blown into his face by the wind. He was sweating, too, though it was hard to tell if it was due to fear, or the globe of molten metal that hung burning in the air above the old Oxfordian, as though his former student had plucked the evening sun out of the sky.
In the grand and storied tradition of his kind, AU was ranting. “You know, I’d compare you to old Mr. Hitler, Bertie, but at least he had some follow through.”
That raised some stifled, trapped screams from Lawrence, obviously enraged.
“My husband fought the Nazis, Mr. Liu,” Angela said, evenly. “I wouldn’t be using them as a cheap insult in front of either us, if I were you.”
Through the backplate of AU’s armour, Myriad could see that Mrs Barnes was being kept in relatively honourable captivity, having been set down at the edge of the bush clearing with no cage or shackles to speak of.
What she did have, though, were two golden spikes spinning wickedly fast in front of both her eyes like the world’s most expensive, but also most useless drill bits. But only mostly useless…
Myriad let out a frightened yelp, which was more than Angela Barnes did. The only sign from the woman that she was in any predicament was how she blinked just a little too often.
Chen stopped pacing dead in front of Lawrence, the tips of his leather work boots perilously close to the old man’s nose. He turned his head to look at his hostage. “I’m sorry, Mrs Barnes.”
Angela sighed despairingly. “You keep saying that, but you still do these things.”
“Your husband’s a soldier, ma’am. I’d have thought you’d know a man sometimes has to do things he regrets. He bent down to look Lawrence in the eye, grinning savagely. “And some things he doesn’t. All those mad ideas of yours, those grand designs, the plans you could barely admit to yourself, and all you’ve ever really wanted to do is play schoolmaster on your bloody farm till the day they stick you under it!” His eyes flicked down to where the ground met Lawrence’s neck. He laughed bitterly. “Well, we’re nearly there!”
Myriad let go of AU’s song, but not before flinging away a cluster of shining spiders that were trying to creep up on her. She hoped that gave him a fright.
Shiiiiiiiiiiit, said her hijacked inner monologue.
Tiresias’ self-assumed role as mission control had mostly devolved into spectatorship by then. Occasionally, the children could faintly taste stale popcorn on their lips.
“Tiresias,” Myriad said aloud. “Tell everyone to stop mucking around and get down to the river. I’m getting sick of this.”
Will do, General Munchkin. Remember, I’ll be with you all the way. Unless Chen squashes you all like bugs, then I’ll be far away in the barn.
It was by definition impossible for Myriad to ignore the psychic, but she did her best.
She started back down the Institute’s gentle slope. All around her, ghouls and beasts cautiously closed in on her, only to wink out of sight before they could raise whatever limbs their maker had granted them against her, like she was a human bug-zapper.
It really was the most efficient way of dealing with them, Myriad knew. But right then, that wasn’t enough. She needed to break things, to see them shatter and burn and crumble by her own hands.
She started to dance, swaying to music only she could hear, the beat of it thrumming deep in her mind, each song stretched thin by fear and adrenaline, fraying at her, like a symphony orchestra gone out of sync with itself. She opened her mouth, wanting to express the pain of it somehow. She screamed, but it wasn’t enough, the sound scarcely even relieving the pounding at the inside of her skull.
For the first time in her short life, Myriad wanted to know what silence sounded like.
Even Tiresias had gone silent in her thoughts. Where was he? Was he still watching? Had he shut himself off from the clawing behind her eyes? She felt tears beginning to trail slowly down her cheeks, and she dug deep, looking for some way to put the cacophony outside of herself again. The answer came to her from a strange source. In Canberra, when she had been set the task of taking on the repertoire of everyone of note within a hundred leagues, one of the men who had judged himself worthy of preservation had been an opera singer, as close to a soprano as an intact man could be. She started to sing a song she hadn’t known she knew, one that gave voice to the rage and fear and chaos. It helped, a little, but it wasn’t enough. She needed to make it louder, harsher. She searched the songs saturating the air for something that would suffice, and came across Billy. He was scared, he was joyous, and he was powerful. It would do, she decided.
She wove his power into her song, and watched through the blur of her own tears as her every note began to tear the enemies at her front asunder, carving chaos into earth and metal and tree. Soon enough, she began to hear other young voices join her. It was discordant, barely vocal. None of her companions knew the words, let alone the tune. Instead, they brought their own turmoil to the song, their own fear and joy. Linus, son of Apollo Musagetes, walked in their midst, tying their music together, keeping them whole just long enough for it to matter. Many of them cried, but none faltered. It was their song, in the end, on which the battle turned. It united them, in a way, as they danced destruction across the landscape, until they finally came to the river.
She felt Elsewhere’s hand curl around hers, and she gripped back, hard. “Can you still hear Mummy’s song, Allie?” he whispered.
She made herself let go. “Don’t call me that.”
“But it’s your name.”
“I need to be Myriad right now… your mom’s fine.”
Actually, she needed to be Maelstrom. She found his strain of the Institute’s song and plucked at it. The river froze over, trapping gold leviathans and kraken like the remnants of some extinct mineral ecosystem.
And so the children walked across the petrified wavelets, led by the sum of their parts.
He had seemed like such a nice boy, Angela thought.
Now, with AU’s damnable needles hovering in front of her eyes, she was thinking about reconsidering her initial assessment of the man. The spikes followed even the slightest movement of her head like two eager wasps. She had lost count of how many times she had run through the Lord’s Prayer in her head.
“Stop that,” AU snapped at her, interrupting a fresh round of threats and accusations at Lawrence. “You’ll stab yourself on the things.”
Mrs Barnes was relieved, honestly. For the past fifteen minutes she’d had to sit in the dirt listening to Chen rant and rave about the countless injustices and indignities of the NHI and Herbert Lawrence in particular, and she was frankly getting sick of it. The villain’s tirades had an unsteady quality to them, something Angela partly blamed on the tinnies he had in the van. He seemed to constantly forget whether he was addressing both her and Lawrence, or pretending he was alone with one of them.
Still, if the nearing sound of children laughing and screaming was any indication, it would be over soon enough. “Wouldn’t want that,” she said mildly, glaring at the spikes as if she had a choice.
“No, I wouldn’t—” He trailed off, his eyes widening. That had been happening quite a bit. He turned back to the buried headmaster. “One of the worms just got tackled by Roy of the fucking Rovers!” He kicked some dirt in the man’s face. “That one wasn’t on my list. See, I thought at first Tiresias was just trying to screw with my head, or maybe the Coven were full of shit, but you’ve been poaching, haven’t you?” He nodded at his own deduction, smiling without humour. “Wouldn’t be surprised if the Fox has been straight up selling you kids, too. That explains Allison, too, doesn’t it? I thought from the nickname—yes, Bertie, nickname—that she’d clone herself or something, but no”—shrill laughter—“A power-mimic!” He wiped non-existent tears from his eyes. “Christ, that must’ve been like Christmas, Easter, and one of them Jew holidays all come at once for you!”
Mrs Barnes wasn’t sure whether suggesting Passover would please the man, or provoke him.
He looked back at her, his expression devoid of any mock joviality or cruel jest. “Do you want to know something, Mrs Barnes? Lawrence here will tell you how much he hates the times we live in, how he wishes the Flying Man hadn’t thrown our kind in front of a judgemental human race. But that’s a crock of shit. You know what he really hated? The days when us demis were obscure curiosities that nobody but him wanted to look too hard at.” He rested his boot on the man’s crown. “He was thrilled when the only alternative our parents had to giving us to him became the white vans. Because the only thing he cares about is the park bench he thinks the coming race is going to dedicate to him.” He lowered his head, a tremble working its way into his voice. “Not me, or Allison, or your boy.”
Angela studied the supervillain carefully. She noticed that Chen no longer seemed to be applying any force to Lawrence’s head. The children were getting closer, she knew. By now, she could almost make out individual voices, even over the sounds of battle. She fancied she could hear her son.
“…Why haven’t you killed him yet?”
Lawrence stared at the woman, while AU took his boot off of him, a curiously similar shock to both of their expressions. “What?” the goldsmith asked.
“You’ve gone to all this trouble, and you have him right there, why isn’t he dead yet?”
“I’m surprised you buried him like that, actually. You can’t get at the fingers or the”—she cleared her throat—“family jewels. If torture is all you want out of him, most things you can do to the head will kill a man quick smart. And you haven’t even broken his nose.”
Chen shook his head in bewilderment. “Who thinks like that?”
“Wicked, vengeful supervillains,” Angela answered. “Also, anyone who has ever had children, taught children, or been a child.” She crossed her arms, grateful for that freedom of movement, at least. “I assume at least one of those things applies to you? Also, have you killed any of the children?” She asked that last question like she was inquiring about the weather.
“No! I don’t kill kids!”
“You don’t kill police, either, so I’ve heard. Or miners. I imagine that must take some effort, given your vocation, and what you think you’re going to do to your teacher.”
Lawrence dearly wished this madwoman would stop giving Chen ideas.
“That was different,” stammered AU. “They hadn’t done nothing to me.”
“And what did Dr. Lawrence do to you? You’ve gone on and on about how vain he is and how he never really loved any of you, but what did he do to deserve all this?”
Lawrence noticed that Mrs Barnes didn’t seem to be looking at Chen, but right at him, as though looking for some invisible mark on his countenance.
AU stood tall. “Do you know who I was, Mrs Barnes, before I was AU?” He gestured at his bespoke armour, before pointing down at Lawrence. “Did the papers with my mugshot tell you what he took from me?”
“Can’t say I remember. I try not to fixate on crime.”
“I had a job I liked,” he growled. “I had my mum and dad in a house in Toorak, my brothers and sisters at university.” Tears began to pool in the corner of his eyes. “Even a girl whose father cared more that I had money than what colour I was.” He started to shout. “But Bertie here had clout with the DDHA, and just couldn’t stand that his first student wasn’t playing along with his little master race fantasy! That I wouldn’t fuck my little sister so he could have another doll to play with.”
If the accusation shocked Angela Barnes, she hid it well. She was still staring at Lawrence. “I can see why that might upset you.”
AU was screaming now. “So he sent her to come bring me back. Told the DDHA I was planning on robbing the fucking National Bank.” He grabbed a handful of soil, glorifying it into gold dust. “Nothing gets past the freak-finders!” He dumped the gold on top of Lawrence’s head as though it were still dirt. “I guess he got what he wanted. All that work, and I still ended up a freak with a stupid bloody name.”
Angela took it all in. “Chen,” she said, gently. “I’m about to get up.”
“Then I’m going to walk over to you, and we’re going to sort this all out.”
“The spikes will—”
“Will do me no harm, because I don’t think you’re a killer. I don’t think you really want to be, either.”
AU tried to pour some rage into his voice. “You stay down, or I’ll skewer your brain!” It sounded more plaintive than threatening.
Lawrence watched the woman get to her feet, with a calmness of movement even he would have thought impossible.
She started walking towards him.
“I’m warning you!” he shouted, even as the needles retreated from Mrs Barnes with every step.
She brushed the spikes from in front of her face, knocking them out of the air. “I’m sorry, Chen.”
If any human woman is worthy of mothering a posthuman, Lawrence thought, it’s this one.
“Stop it—I’ll—” His warnings were cut off by Mrs Barnes’ embrace. Then, all he could do was weep.
“There, there,” she said. Comforting haunted men was not something she was a novice at. “It’s over and done with.”
“It wasn’t supposed to be like this.”
“I… we were going to be better than this.”
The golden gag fell from Lawrence’s mouth. “Good show, old girl,” he said. “Good—” the blessedly cooled and solidified lump of gold bounced off the top of his head.
The trees behind the three of them suddenly and explosively exited the solar system.
“KILL HIM—KILL HIM—KILL HIM!” Arnold screamed, his voice crackling with power, leaves and dust motes all around him being scattered across the universe.
His mother threw a hand up, pulling away from Chen so he could see her face. “No, Arnold,” she said in a quiet voice that was somehow louder than the thunder. “It’s okay now. Chen isn’t going to hurt anyone.”
Chen turned to look at the storm-child, throwing his arms up. “Unconditional surrender.”
The glow did not fade, but the anger did. “Oh.”
Figured his mother would sort it all out. She always did.
Allison emerged from behind him. The school-theatre princess garb was gone, replaced by a shift woven from delicate ice crystals, like she had been dressed in diamonds. Her eyes glowed like blue coals, and her chestnut hair was laden with frost, but her skin showed no sign of cold. A Saturnian ring orbited the girl. An ammo belt, Angela assumed. “What’s happening? All the monsters stopped moving.
Arnold, she thought, look like an angel. Not the dove winged cherubs or smiling, all-loving mother substitutes that dwelled in the theology of greeting cards, but the angels Ezekiel had born witness to: all burning and fury. He turned to his friend. “Mummy says AU is surrendering… so does he.”
Chen nodded, tiredly.
It was strange, Angela thought, seeing her son and a girl she had known for the better part of her life altered so. She could almost feel Paul’s breath in her ear as he whispered “We will not all sleep, but we will be changed.”
They will be changed, she silently corrected him. Whatever becomes of us, they have been changed.
“…That’s good, I guess,” said Allison. “Should I make a portal?”
“No,” said Angela, correctly guessing at the mechanics of the child’s powers and the nature of her “dress”. “I think Chen could use the walk.”
He made no complaint.
An odd mood of funerary festiveness hung over the procession back to the barn. Many of the children had started singing again, over a dozen tired, satisfied songs lazily coexisting in the cool night air.
Beneath the orange waning moon and the brazen country stars, the grounds of the New Human Institute had been made new. Great, golden beasts littered the landscape, finally allowed to sleep by their father. Tiny lakes and moats dotted the fields. The children stepped over the broken remnants of Automata’s army, ready and waiting for a renewed enemy assault, no matter how many pieces they were in. Mabel’s air-force had been allowed to drift over Northam, their harsh metallic shrieks and calls for genocide wafting down from the skies into the dreams of all the baseline boys and girls, while the Melchester Rovers would persist long enough to challenge the local pick-up footy club to a match the following afternoon.
Chen felt a little like those vanquished barbarian kings they used to drag before Roman emperors. He knew his old friends probably weren’t going to have him strangled. The situation was much worse. They were probably going to be kind to him.
He watched Eliza gently shepherding Lawrence while his concussion sorted itself out. Dirt was still pouring from his sleeves and trouser-legs as he staggered forward, the green of his suit hidden completely by a layer of damp soil. It was as though the very concept of Englishness had been reclaimed by nature. The pair of them were being shadowed by Françoise’s son, along with pudgy girl Chen didn’t recognize from the Coven’s dossier. He still wondered where Lawrence got these unaccountables…
“To think,” Fran said, acting as Chen’s minder, “he could have been your son.”
Chen made a noise that might have been a chuckle. “Honestly, Mels, I think the boy’s better off with Basil for a dad, assuming he didn’t inherit that skin condition of his. Maybe if my temper passed him over…”
Fran seemed to take pause with that, only to find herself nodding. “You have a point,” she said. “I can’t see old Hugo pulling a stunt like this.” She smiled at the other superhuman. “It is good to see you again, Chen, it really is. I don’t know if that says more about you or me.”
His stomach knotted with guilt. “You too.”
As they walked, many of the children approached Chen and his guard, full of questions and gloating and grandiose displays of their powers, like they were trying to intimidate and earn his favour at the same time. It almost charmed him.
He wished Linus would speak to him. He couldn’t believe how tall that boy had gotten. He also wondered why the girls weren’t out here with the other students. He couldn’t imagine Mavis wanting to miss out on something like this.
Mrs Barnes was a little ways ahead of them, Arnold and Allison’s hands in hers. The girl was clearly familiar with the woman, or at least unhesitant in seeking comfort from her. Her aunt, maybe? His luck, Chen, thought, that’d he’d kidnapped someone close to that powerhouse of a little girl.
Allison slipped away from the other two, running over to Chen’s side. Looking up at him, she asked “What do you think’s going to happen now?”
Chen shrugged. “I suppose Bertie and the others will see their way to handing me over to the freak-finders.”
“You don’t know that,” said Fran.
“I don’t, but that’s how it’s going to happen. Shouldn’t be too hard for the DDHA to manage me.” He tried to smile. “I bet some of the guards will be glad to leave their wedding rings at home.”
“We could keep you,” Allison suggested cheerfully. “Fighting your things was kind of fun. Like practise. I almost figured… something out. About how the songs fit together, I think.”
He decided not to ask. “And what if someone from the department swings by?”
The girl considered the problem. “We could hide you in the barn.”
Chen looked down into those jeweled, counterfeit eyes. How easy it was to forget how young they were. “Yeah. Maybe.”
Would that be so bad? What kind of future could he hope for otherwise? Prison, most likely, or a life spent cowering in the margins of society, waiting for the pin to drop. If he was being realistic, that was probably how things would have turned out even if he hadn’t done the things he’d done, or couldn’t do the things he could do. At the very least, looking after these children was the closest thing he’d get to kids of his own, now that Renee was gone.
The triumph eventually reached the barn, Alberto and some man—a natural going from how he stood—that Chen didn’t recognize opened the doors for them. The falling night had driven the Institute’s non-combatants to light candles and lanterns from the barn’s storm-kit, their illumination bolstered by phosphorescent stones littered around the floor. Lana’s work, Chen assumed.
In an act of exquisite cruelty, Mary actually hugged him. In his kindness, Hugo did not.
Angela’s eldest son and daughter-in-law embraced her in turn, sobbing as she waved the whole ordeal off like she had slipped at the shops, before falling into her husband’s arms and kissing him in a way that made it horribly clear to Arnold that his mother had not produced him through parthenogenesis.
Hugo was saying kind, regretful things, but Chen couldn’t hear him.
Even after ten years, and the waves of candlelight and shadow washing over them, he recognized the girls. Mavis, Lana, and Sadie.
Swollen. Gravid. Pregnant.
AU felt nothing, except the vambraces of his armour heatlessly remolding to deadly points.
He lunged at Lawrence.
“Pimp!” he screamed at Lawrence, knocking him onto the floor and pinning him. “Kiddy-fiddler! Nazi piece of shit!”
He tried plunging his left arm-spike into the headmaster’s throat, and was stopped an inch short. Even with age, the old man was still strong, but the gold was spreading over his gloved hand like mold. Somewhere far away, a baby started crying.
Out the corner of his eye, AU saw Alberto rushing over to their side, only to earn himself a deep, ragged gash across his chest.
“Kill you next—”
Chen was burned to nothing by cold, green flames, and the darkness became complete. He hit his head on something hard. Crumpling onto the coldly smooth, tacky floor, he tried to figure out where Lawrence and the light had gone.
Is this Hell, he asked himself as he groped around the darkness. No, Hell doesn’t have soft towels.
Returning painfully to his feet, he found a lightswitch, the sudden blaring glow burning his eyes like the sun itself.
He was in a closet, with most of the floor space taken up by a wicker bassinet. He stood stock-still, listening for any of the sounds of a lived-in house. He was met by empty silence. Inching the closet door open with the kind of caution that usually produced more noise than just slamming it open, he crept out into a darkened hallway. Finding a room he guessed hopefully didn’t face any road this house might be located on, he switched the lights on.
They revealed a slightly dingy child’s bedroom, whose small bed he collapsed gratefully onto. On a chest of drawers, he spotted a small framed photograph: Angela Barnes, sitting smiling on a picnic blanket, a tiny boy who could have been no one else’s son in her lap.
See you soon, Arn.
He couldn’t linger in this house long, not if he didn’t want people noticing the shiny Chinaman squatting in the neighbour’s home. Or worse, to still be here when the Barnes returned. He found the kitchen, made himself a sandwich, and removed his armour. It represented a considerable sacrifice of resources, but it had to be done. Packing it away into the pantry, he pinned a note to the door.
—For all your troubles, Mr. and Mrs B.