William St. George brandished a wooden sword at his foe. “En garde, foul monster!”
To anyone watching, the cardboard and sticky-tape dragon gave no answer to the challenge.
To Billy’s ears, it roared.
The tiger-boy rolled to his side, just barely dodging a gout of imaginary flame, while also just barely keeping his paper knight’s helmet from sliding down his face.
Billy laid a frant flurry of blows on the beast, twirling around it like a homicidal ballerina.
After a few circuits, Billy staggered backwards, panting with exertion. He raised a shaky sword arm.
“Do you yield, creature?”
As always, the dragon was silent and still.
Billy sighed, stood very straight, and spat, “So be it.”
The boy inhaled so deeply his torso practically perpendicular to his waist, let the breath gather power in his diaphragm, and threw himself forward with a great shout:
The pile of painted cardboard boxes exploded. The trees behind it recoiled from the shockwave, their leaves whipped away in the momentary gale.
Billy pumped his fist in the air and cried, “Showed him!”
Billy regarded the scattered dragon parts and smacked his hands together. “Right, Mr. Dragon, time to put you back together.”
Billy proceeded to reassemble his honoured foe. The summer heat was sweltering. More so if you had fur. Christmas was only a week away, and Billy was looking forward to it. He and his nanny were going to get out the film projector and watch Miracle on 34th Street1.
His parents had already written to say they wouldn’t be flying out to visit. And Billy understood. They were busy people. Albany was pretty remote. Sure, he’d had a few crying jags, but he hadn’t let Betsy hear them.
Christmas would be good. They’d watch their movie, eat homemade popcorn (though Billy had never tasted any other kind) and he’d get to open presents. Even if they’d mostly been picked out by people who only knew him by description.
Billy was about to affix the dragon’s head back on when he heard a song echoing through the bush. It wasn’t Betsy’s voice; it wasn’t even in English. A second later, a meaty spice-rich aroma hit his nose.
Billy licked his lips. Betsy was very clear about not approaching strangers without permission.
But the smell was tasty.
Billy pushed his way through the brush until he came to the edge of a clearing. A woman with long red hair in an arsenic green gown was stirring a copper cauldron big enough to fit a well-grown child over a roaring fire2. Beside her was an old fashioned buggy with a white hart painted on the side. It was reined to two large reindeer, tended to by a coachmen in an equally black cloak and tophat. It made Billy sweat just looking at him. It was like the Gypsies3 from one of his books had ridden out into the real world.
The woman finished whatever she was singing and called over to the coachman in foreign-accented English, “Are the deer happy, Myles?”
“Perfectly content, ma’am,” the coachmen replied in an equally foreign, though distinct lilt. He had a grey beard that looked like a bundle of scouring pads fused together. “How’s lunch coming along?”
The woman scooped a ladle of broth and sipped it. “Few minutes, I’d say.” Without looking away from the cauldron, she said, “You, in the bushes, why don’t you come out so you can have a bowl?”
Billy squeaked. “Um… hi?”
“Hi right back at you. Any reason you’re crouching like a goblin back there? It’s not a good look.”
“…Promise you won’t laugh? Or shout and stuff?”
The woman raised her free arm. “Our hands to God.”
Trepidatiously, Billy stepped out into the open. His tail swayed nervously behind him.
“My name’s Billy.”
The woman grinned. “Pleased to meet ya, Billy. Elsa Lieroinen.” She nodded her head at the coachmen. “That’s Myles.”
Myles waved absently, still fussing over the horses.
Billy blinked and looked down at himself. “You’re not scared of me?”
Elsa laughed. “Why would I be scared? You’re the cuddliest looking thing I’ve ever seen.”
Under his fur, Billy blushed.
Elsa tasted her concoction again. “Right. Join us for lunch, young man?”
The soup was good. Elsa said it was something called bierggojubttsa.
“The meat’s reindeer.”
Billy laughed. “People don’t eat reindeer.”
“They do where I come from.”
Billy looked at the reindeer. “You eat the things that pull your wagon?”
Elsa grinned darkly. “One way to make sure they pull their weight. And ours.”
“…Are you two Gypsies?” Billy asked. “I didn’t know Australia had those.”
“Nope,” said Elsa. “I’m Sami4.”
“Like Finnish. But more so.”
Billy looked at the coachman. “What about you, Mr. Myles? Are you Sami?”
The man shook his head. “Spartan, lad.”
“What’s a Spartan?”
Myles’ answer was simple:
Elsa chuckled. “That was the problem, though, wasn’t it? Too many warriors, not enough”—she started counting off fingers—“bakers… bankers… greengrocers… everything else really.”
Myles smiled wistfully. “Oh, we had people for that.”
“Thing is,” said Elsa, “I’m not just Sami. I’m a witch.”
Billy giggled. “Sure. And I’m the king of the world.”
Elsa gave a tight lipped smile, spread her arms, and spat some gutterel, Slavic sounding syllables:
Fireworks burst from her upturned palms, audibly wizzing and whistling in the air.
Billy’s jaw dropped.
“Oh my gosh—oh my gosh!” Billy hopped around the cauldron with excitement. “How do you do that? Can you teach me?”
Myles watched on, bemused. Elsa smiled gently. “Sorry, hon, no can do.”
Billy’s excitement barely dimmed. Knowing magic was real was almost as good as being able to do it.
Inwardly, Elsa Lieroinen was pleased at the boy’s reaction. You never could tell pre-Rowling. Of course, Frank Baum walked so she could run…
“Tell me, Billy, can you do anything interesting?”
Billy stopped in his tracks. “Like what?”
Elsa shrugged. “Oh, anything.”
Billy took a deep breath. “Okay. Watch this.”
He cupped his hands. A ball of floating mercury bloomed into his existence. Billy screwed his features in concentration, and the silver sphere vanished, leaving him holding a tiny, golden flower. He offered it to the witch a proud smile.
Elsa took the creation into her hands with an impressed whistle.
Hopefully, Billy asked. “Is that magic?”
Elsa hummed and tapped her chin in thought. “…I don’t think so. This is what we call a superpower.”
“Oh. I guess it is.”
It had occurred to Billy a few times that the things he did could be called superpowers. It was a strange idea, that he was anything like the Crimson Comet or the Flying Man. He definitely didn’t look like them…
Myles asked, “Got any other tricks, lad?”
Billy grinned. Then he vanished.
Seconds passed. Elsa briefly glanced at her watch.
Billy reappeared, still grinning. “Invisible!”
The reindeer did not react very well to the demonstration of Billy’s third power. Nor did the birds it sent squawking into the sky.
“Oh, settle down,” Elsa told her spooked draft animals. “Or I’ll put you in the pot with your brothers!”
The deer went very quiet.
“So,” Elsa said to Billy. “Tell us about yourself.”
Elsa and Myles were good listeners. They let Billy talk for nearly an hour about his narrow little life. Making excuses for his parents in the way other children reserved for themselves. Praising his nanny to the high-heavens.
“…I also like stamps!”
Elsa nodded. “You sound like a multifarious young man, Mr. St. George. Always good to see.” She glanced at the deer and buggy. “Me and Myles here have to get going soon.”
Billy frowned. “You do? I thought you could come and meet my nanny. We have coffee! And biscuits.”
Elsa shook her head. “Afraid not. We have a schedule to keep.”
“Oh.” Billy’s chin drooped. “Thanks for the soup and all.”
Elsa raised a finger. “You’re very welcome. In fact, you were such good company, I want to do you a favour.”
“What kinda favour?”
“A magic favour. A wish. I just need a little something from you…”
Billy glanced at the witch sideways. “What sorta thing?”
“Nothing much. Just a single hair from your head. For the magic, you see.”
“Just a hair?”
“Just a hair.” Elsa folded her hands on her lap. “Tell me, Billy, what do you want the most.”
There was deep quiet in the clearing.
“…I want friends. Is that something you can do?”
A smile. “Easy.”
Without hesitation, Billy plucked one of his hairs and handed it to Elsa. “Please.”
Elsa examined the fine blond hair between her fingers. Billy half-expected her to dump it in the cauldron. Instead, a small bottle appeared in her other hand that she slipped the hair into. Billy didn’t notice the label with his name already written on it.
“It will be done. Now, run along home.”
Billy took off running, laughing like mad. Wait till Betty heard about this.
As soon as Billy’s footsteps faded from earshot, Myles ripped the fake grey beard off, revealing his ruddy cheeks and true neat black facial hair. “I still don’t know why you made me wear this bloody thing. It’s not like the boy was going to recognize me.”
“Purely for my amusement, dear,” said Elsa. She stood up, letting her hazel wand slip from her sleeve. She tapped the cauldron’s rim, causing it to be utterly consumed in blue flame. “You shouldn’t moan anyway. I owe you five horns5. Really thought he’d wish to look proper human.”
Myles shrugged. “From what you’ve told me, didn’t think he’d know anything else.”
“Well, it saves me some effort. Prepare the buggy. I don’t want that nanny or someone stumbling on us. Better we stay imaginary friends.”
The buggy sped through the bush, the reindeer galloping like the Devil was on their heels. Trees leapt out of its way, fearful of offending the mighty witch it carried. The terrain smoothed itself under hoof and wheel in timid acquiescence.
In the driver’s seat, Myles spotted water ahead. “Mistress, we’re coming up on the river!”
Within the buggy, Elsa curled the knuckle of her ring finger. It bore a link from chains she had forged a long time ago. She whispered, “Take us home, Lady.”
Myles drove the buggy into the river with unerring verve, mushing the reindeer on until they disappeared beneath the water.
Somewhere else, sideways of everything—they came charging bone dry out of another river. The sky had been perfect, blue back in Australia. Here it was slate, thick battlements of cloud gently weeping snowflakes. The river ran iron black through fields of white and grey. A titanic maelstrom of blues and greens spied the land through a gap in the clouds. The eye of Donbettyr.6
They had come to shore near a watermill built of weathered stone and timber, forever gnawing on the icy waters that flowed by. By Riverlands law, all such structures had to be blessed by a priest; an offering made to the Lady. She was a generous goddess, but that generosity had to be acknowledged. Not this one, though. Elsa Lieroinen bowed to no goddess. They bowed to her.
The witch stepped out from the buggy, now clad in a thick fur cloak and hood. At the same time, a little red haired girl came running out from the mill.
Myles tilted his hat at the child. “Good to see you, Ávrá.”
Ávrá stopped at the greeting, swallowing involuntarily. “Thank you, Myles.” She turned her head down, as though expecting a blow. “Greetings, Mother.”
Elsa’s only answer was a question, “Are the fires burning inside?”
Ávrá nodded. It’d been summer when she’d last seen her mother.
It was a good summer.
“Take the reindeer to the stables and water them well. It was bloody hot out there. Also make sure your thighs are clean, girl.” Elsa smiled indulgently at Myles. “I think our valet has earned a bonus.”
Myles grinned at the girl. Ávrá didn’t look at him.
As Ávrá led the reindeer away, Myles and Elsa headed into the warmth of the mill, and the latter’s occult workshop, a hexagonal stone room with a deep well sunk into the centre.
Elsa placed Billy’s bottled hair on a shelf with more than two dozen more vials, each containing their own hairs and labelled with different names:
And many more.
“Mistress, may I ask you something?” asked Myles, boredly bopping the snout of the stuffed alligator that hung from the ceiling.
“Of course, Myles,” replied Elsa, still admiring her collection.
“Why are you limiting yourself to these children? The Allworth Alternative has more strong supers than I can count. Why from this one little school?”
Elsa and Myles had stumbled upon the Allworth Alternative while half-heartedly hunting for her wayward daughter Eirá. Apparently the little slattern fancied herself a supervillain now. Elsa had quickly written off the girl, but the strand of reality had turned out to be a fertile source of resources. Elsa had even stashed some of her most prized possessions there.
For the last few weeks, she and Myles had been traipsing up and down the sheath of timelines, trading wishes for hairs with the victims of some bizarre super-cult. They’d changed and boosted powers, reunited families, and killed the same old man three or four times. When they weren’t giving him bombs for whatever silly reason. One young lady had wished for the power to turn her womb on and off. From what Elsa had told him, Myles couldn’t fault her pick.
Still, it seemed like a lot of work.
Elsa smiled. “Oh, lots of reasons. For starters, their commonality will make our little Reprisal more coherent. Two, they’re mostly all in the same bloody place. Three, old Laurie’s done the collating for us. Better than procrastinating forever.” Elsa started pantomiming eenie-meenie-minie-mo. “No no, I should add this super, no wait—you get my picture.”
Myles nodded. “Impeccable reasoning, Mistress. Though, I didn’t get the impression William was a student at any school.”
Elsa cracked her knuckles. “Well then, we’re going to kill two birds with one stone.” She pulled an Australian sixpence out of her sleeve7. “Or one coin.”
She dropped the coin into the well. “Myles, fetch me my stirring rod.”
Myles handed his mistress a long copper staff. She plunged it into the well and stirred the waters, chanting Russian in a low, deep voice.
Somewhere, somewhen, a psychiatrist proposed a venture with an old friend. Somewhere else, a rich man’s assistant stumbled upon an old book, while searching for some way to dispose of a strange, inconvenient child…
Myles stood beside Elsa, looking down into the shifting waters of the well. “This’ll really get the boy what he wants?”
“Of course,” said Elsa. “It’s only fair.”
That was the downside of magic. It made you fair.
Allison slammed into the laboratory wall, shattering into an explosion of ice shards. They swirled in the air, reforming into the girl’s shape and then her flesh. The girl landed on her feet and growled.
Before her, the witch stood in the middle of the lab—resplendent in arsenic green finery— beneath a tunnel of trap doors that hadn’t been there only a minute before. Smoke and the wail of alarms drifted down from the ruined floors above. She clapped politely.
“Very nice,” she said, only to quirk her shoulders, “for a super.”
Allison roared with Billy’s voice. The shock front blew away the witch like she was made of coloured smoke.
Allison breathed heavily.
She couldn’t be gone. She wouldn’t just—
A crack answered her dread. Tree roots exploded up through the metal floor like it was the softest soil, wrapping vice-tight around Allison. As she squirmed and thrashed, the witch reappeared an inch from her face.
Her eyes were black as space. She snarled, “I was giving you a compliment—”
A black-clad Mistress Quickly dropped through the trap doors and fired off a shot at the witch’s back. The sorceress exploded into a cloud of dusky moths.
Allison managed to touch her toes to the floor. She burst into angry, hot light, burning away the tree roots.
Elsa Lieroinen became herself once more. “Alright, that’s a new trick.”
Mistress Quickly lunged forward, striking the witch with electrically charged fists. Allison joined the assault, blood thrumming with the Crimson’s song. Every blow revealed a lattice of light clinging to the witch’s from.
Allison thought loudly at Maude:
Who the heck is this lady?
Maude thought back:
Elsa Lieroinen. Evil bitch-queen of the Riverlands—
Elsa grabbed them both by the wrists. Her grip was ice.
“Please, ladies. I abdicated.”
She threw them both backwards.
Elsa grinned and wagged a finger at Maude. “I remember you! You stole that idol out from under my nose! Still, always nice to meet people in the right order for a change.”
Maude looked up at the witch, her scowl hidden by her mask. “You killed that whole world…”
Elsa raised her hands. “And?”
Twin eagles of darkness soared from her palms.
Allison spotted something in the corner of her eye. She pulled Maude to her side.
The shadow-raptors smashed against a gigantic yellow hazard sign, proudly emblazoned with a black exclamation mark.
Elsa charged at Maude and Allison. The former rolled away and turned on her camouflage net.
Allison flew up to the ceiling, searching the soundscape for a song, trying to ignore the ones that had gone missing.
Elsa looked up and laughed. “I’m a witch. You don’t think I can fly?”
Allison dropped down, right into the floor. Behind Elsa, a girl formed of dull grey steel pulled itself out into the air and punched the witch in the square in the back.
Elsa fell onto her hands and knees. She hissed, “little shit…”
Allison screamed silently and went for another blow. Her fist came down on prismatic, shimmering armour.
Elsa rose to her feet. “So it’s a punchup you want?” A transparent sword appeared in her hand. “Fine.”
It was blade versus small metal fists. The girl couldn’t hope to breach Elsa’s astral armour, but she was quick. Her metal body moved like a flesh and blood child. A child with a surprising grasp of martial arts. Every few seconds, Elsa had to dodge lances of poisoned light erupting from around the lab. That trumped up little mad scientist no doubt.
What to do, what to do? The girl hadn’t exactly picked cold iron for her new body, but whatever the floor was made of wasn’t the most magically reactive substance in the world.
Elsa glanced up at the lab’s ceiling. At the pipes.
Oh yes. She’s a child.
Elsa stopped fighting back, letting Allison hammer against her wards. She murmured some Russian syllables…
The ceiling rattled. In a corner of the lab, the pipes wrenched themselves free and stabbed down below.
There was a ragged gasp. The air bled.
Allison let her fists drop, staring at the bloodied pipes. Her metal skin fell away, leaving only herself. “Maude?”
Mistress Quickly reappeared. Around the pipes.
Allison ran to her side, “Maude!”
The scientist was shuddering. Her song was dropping beats and stuttering.
Allison whispered, “No, no, no…”
Elsa watched, bemused.
Elsa glanced around the lab, quickly spotting her prize, a tank hidden behind a curtain of metal.
The witch strode over to the tank. It was attached to a console of some sort, but that was no trouble. Elsa had a long standing agreement with the machine elves. She twitched her fingers, and the curtain drew into the wall.
The little girl floating in the glass womb was empty of all soul and thought, but Elsa could feel the power coming off her. The capacity to hold power.
Merry fucking Christmas.
Maude was drowning in her own blood. She didn’t speak. She didn’t need to.
Don’t let her get what she wants…
Allison blinked back tears and nodded.
Elsa was about to reach through the glass when a child-sized comet slammed into her side.
Allison staggered to a stop in front of the tank. In front of her sister’s body.
Molten magma bubbled in Allison’s hands. It spiraled forth white hot and lashed at the tank. It exploded in a blast of broken glass and superheated steam—
“Alright, Dáidu, I’ve seen enough.”
In Elsa’s mill, a ten-sided die came to rest on a stone table. All its faces were freshly marred.
Dáidu—white-haired state oracle and Elsa’s fifth son—looked up at his mother. “I take it that didn’t turn out well either?”
“No,” Elsa said mildly, rapping her fingers against the table and staring off into space. Absently, she said, “Sorry about wasting your fate die.”
Dáidu threw his hands up. “It’s in the name.”
Elsa turned and smiled at her son. “I should kill you where you sit for that pun.”
Myles walked into the workshop, gargling mouthwash.
“How was the vintage today?” asked Elsa.
“Lovely. Don’t make Ávrá do any heavy lifting tomorrow.” Myles looked at the spent fate die. “Got a plan yet?”
Elsa breathed through her teeth. “No. Not yet.”
Elsa and her son had so far looked at ten possible futures. In six, the body was damaged or destroyed irreparably. In one, she herself had been slain, which was unacceptable. In two more, Myles had been nailed to a wall through the heart, which was almost as unacceptable. In one, the Miri girl claimed the body herself, which was just a waste of everyone’s bloody time8.
“I’m thinking the direct attack isn’t a great tact.”
Myles hummed. “…You say this city is full of children?”
“Quite full, yes.”
“Remember that stunt your boy pulled in Hamlin?”
Elsa grinned. Trust Myles to get right to the quick of it.
And they did have a circus tent…
1. In which an eccentric old man claiming to be Santa Claus is narrowly saved from prosecution for identity theft by the genuine article. ↩
2. This had been tested. ↩
3. Please forgive William, it was 1964. ↩
4. An indigenous Finno-Ugric people spanning across Northern Europe. Historically sometimes known as “Laplanders” though this is now largely considered offensive. ↩
5. Coinage of the Riverlands, a confederate monarchy on the moon Nerthus. Named for the conque that appears on the coin’s face: a symbol of office bestowed on each new monarch by the kingdom’s patron goddess, the River Lady. ↩
6. The gas giant of which Nerthus is the largest satellite. Donbettyr casts a large shadow over its moon’s many mythologies. In the Riverlands, it is known as the master of all waters, and is commonly considered the father of the River Lady. As to the truth of the matter, her priests are too polite to pry. ↩
7. Minted in early 1964. ↩
8. Except, arguably, Miri’s. ↩