On Christmas Eve, Drina and Allison Kinsey marched through strange country, the night sky nearly white with crowded stars. The enemy camp lay ahead, a gaudy tropical reef in an indigo sea. The hooting, train-whistle music that echoed from it was audible even in Catalpa itself. The lights of the ferris-wheel watched the pair like eyes in a dark theatre.
It was wrong. Allison had been playing here for nearly a year. They should’ve been walking through bush so thick, even the noon sun could only rain down shadows. These people were stealing her memories along with her friends.
“You shouldn’t have come,” Allison mumbled. “It’s dangerous.”
“If it’s too dangerous for me, it’s too dangerous for you. Take your pick.”
Allison sighed and looked down at her feet. It was a hopeless cause. She’d spent the better part of two hours trying to convince her mother to stay behind. The woman hadn’t been moved, and Allison hadn’t exactly been able to find allies among the other grown-ups.
“I’m not exactly opposed to you having adult supervision while negotiating with kidnappers, Allie,” Mistress Quickly had said.
The Kinseys walked surrounded by a cometary halo of mosquitos. The ones who tasted Allison’s blood died almost immediately—Żywie’s revenge. Poor Drina had to settle for swatting and waving them away with as much dignity as possible. She was wearing a chequered, collarless dress and a cardigan held partially open by a single turquoise button, both supplied by Close-Cut. She’d even brought her purse. Allison was in her rainbow costume, the colours slightly muted from stress. If the mother looked like she was heading out to watch the circus, the daughter looked like she was going to audition for it. Either way, they were definitely going to speak with the manager.
A red haired girl loping towards being a teenager was leaning against the ticket booth when the pair reached the outskirts of the circus.
Drina raised her closed hand to her mouth and cleared her throat.
The girl sighed.
“Mother, the Kinsey girl is here. She brought someone.”
Allison’s keen eyes saw a small pellet appear in the air in front of them and fall to the ground. It exploded in a plume of festively red smoke, clearing to reveal Elsa Lieroinen and her loyal assistant. Myles was in his usual ringmaster getup, but Elsa had dressed for the occasion in a long silk coat and harem trousers silk nightmare—sea-greens interrupted by orange and white psychedelia and peacocks1.
They were both chuckling.
“Ares!” Myles exclaimed, bemused. “Never seen such a dusky woman produce something so pale. What did you do, Mrs Kinsey? Bed a snowman?”
Drina clenched a fist at her side.
Allison folded her arms, trying her best to look stone-faced. “Says the vampire.”
Myles threw his hands up. “Who says I’m a vampire?”
He didn’t sound offended by the accusation.
Allison pointed at Ávrá Lieroinen. “Her. Brain’s like a neon sign saying ‘VAMPIRE.2’ Pretty sure the stuff you make her do is mostly because you’re you, though.”
Ávrá’s eyes went wide. Her body developed a subtle tremor. She was also treated to a rare and terrible sight: her mother smiling at her.
“Heart of my heart,” Elsa said, voice an octave and a half too high. “What did I tell you about practising your wards.”
The girl went up in blue and violet flames. They consumed her to the bones, clothes and all. The patch of grass she was standing on wasn’t even scorched.
Drina was aghast. “What did you do to that girl?”
“Made sure my daughter’s sloppy mental hygiene would no longer offend your daughter’s delicate sensibilities,” answered Elsa.
Allison couldn’t tell if the girl had been teleported away or… burned. Her song had stopped, either way. Had she just made that happen? Just to try and embarrass a vampire?
I got a girl killed—I got a girl killed—I—
She needed to say something, quick, before she exploded.
“Here to tell my fortune again, Elsa?”
Drina looked down at her daughter. “Wait, you’ve met this woman too?”
Allison froze. She had honestly forgotten about the witch and her weird friend until she laid eyes on them again. She’d even forgotten the fact of forgetting. She’d also forgotten her mother was standing next to her. “Ah, yeah,” she admitted stiffly. “…Apparently ”
Drina frowned at her child. “Apparently?”
“You shouldn’t be here,” said Elsa cooly. “I thought underlining PRIVATE would’ve gotten the point across.”
“She’s ten years old,” said Drina firmly. “She was never coming alone.”
“Fair enough, I suppose,” replied Elsa. “Could always have you keep Ávrá company…”
“Please don’t,” Allison said, voice small, all thought of sounding tough forgotten. “She’s harmless.”
Allison grabbed her mother’s hand and squeezed.
“Hmm.” Elsa flicked her wrist, a literal little black book appearing in her hand. She flicked through its pages before stabbing her finger at whatever she was looking for. The witch recited, “Drina Kinsey, née Móré…”
The name felt familiar to Allison, but most names and words were like that. She didn’t think she’d ever heard her mother’s maiden name before.
“Hungarian Romani, migrated to Australia with her mother post World War 2.” Elsa flashed the other woman a smile. “Arrived alone.”
Allison looked up at her mother, silent questions in her red eyes. Drina said nothing, head turned down.
“Primary schooling spotty and haphazard at best. Flunked out of middle-school of all things! Last gainful employment was waiting tables, quit for housewifery after marrying Jack Kinsey age nineteen. Present in forty-eight percent of early Catalpa instances.” Elsa smacked her lips. “Not even a threat to wood-lice.” She looked up from the book. “Sure, you can stay. Oh, Miri, I assume you’re joining us for the evening?”
Miri’s image stepped out from behind her sister, as though she’d been hiding there all along. She didn’t say anything, only looking at the witch with watery eyes.
“Good, good.” Elsa raised a hand in a warding gesture.
Allison felt what she could only describe as a slimy wind rush through her.
Alberto staggered backwards from the girl.
“You can wait outside,” said Elsa. “No arguments.”
Alberto huffed and tugged the corners of his translucent vest. “Fine. I don’t stay where I’m not fucking welcome…”
“That’s a minority view,” muttered Allison.
“Fuck off, baby vampire,” Alberto said over his shoulder.
Elsa turned around and started walking into the fairgrounds. “The rest of you, to quote a psilocybin loving friend of mine: come and see.”
Allison, Miri and their mother followed the witch resignedly. Drina asked herself: “Forty-eight?”
Entering the circus proper was like stepping into an overly air-conditioned room without the walls. Drina suddenly wanted a proper coat. There was even snow. Sort of. Drina had lived through ten European winters; most without a regular roof over her head. This wasn’t how snow felt underfoot. This was… marshmallow and bubble-bath froth. This was what snow felt like in the dreams of Australian children.
“She’s not very good at snow,” Drina said under her breath.
“Yeah,” said Allison. “Isn’t even proper cold.”
Drina let out an edgy laugh. “How would you know, sun-baby?”
“It was snowing in Canberra. ”
Allison remembered the message she’d given to the reporter. It felt like years ago. “Did you see me in the papers?”
“Of course, honey. Wish I’d been there.”
“Also, there was snow on Ross Island. It’s in Antarctica.”
God, Drina thought. She’d missed so much…
Even without the benefit of exotic senses, the whole circus was patently false. Endless palette-swapped copies of the same couple—so still, they could’ve been posing for a fotoromanzo—watched blatantly looped fire-eaters and jugglers. Living GIFs, generations early. To Allison’s surprise, the spectators did have songs. Two of them, in fact, funnelled through the crowd like electricity along a wire. These people weren’t people, they were speakers.
Remarkable trapeze artists, though. Allison hoped she’d get to show David and Mabel.
Trying to read Elsa and Myles as they walked was no good. They might as well have had TV static for grey matter. And Elsa’s song still had that curious, clipped quality. Like bits had been left out or scrambled3. For Allison’s benefit, no doubt.
The two of them led the Kinseys down sideshow alley4, past laughing clowns forever shaking their heads at some unseen absurdity, motorized moles free to taste the evening air without fear of mallet-heads, and rubber ducks with metal loops on their backs swimming around a blue water barrel. Allison half-expected Elsa to make them play a ring-toss for the hostage’s freedom. Instead, she led them to a large marquee, the little sister of the big top at the centre of the circus.
“Here it is, the new jewel of the Lieroinen Family Circus.”
The placard above the entrance read:
ELSA LIEROINEN’S EXTRA-NORMAL ETHNOLOGICAL EXHIBITION
It seemed like a lot of words for a circus like this, Allison thought. But then that sourceless well of knowledge inside her told her what they meant. She sucked in a breath.
Elsa slipped halfway into the tent, beckoning the others to follow.
The marquee interior was lit by powerful floodlights shining through the thin ceiling fabric. It contained five glass cases on raised stands: terrariums, or maybe dioramas.
Each contained a hostage.
Elsa stood proudly before her specimens arms spread. “Behold, my human wonders!”
Drina put her hands over her mouth. Allison looked pleadingly at Elsa. “We can just talk. You don’t have to do… this.”
Elsa smiled. “Please, child. I worked hard on this.”
The witch strode over to David Barthe’s case. It was an aquarium, filled with coral and small tropical fish. Their scales could’ve been coloured in with highlighters. There was hardly enough room for the young boy floating curled in on himself in the centre.
Else cleared her throat and produced a hazel wand from her cavernous sleeves, using it as a pointer:
“Here we see a fine young specimen of chaos godling, derived from, in this case, water. Particularly saltwater, though I wouldn’t count on that to save your life if he got bored of you in a lake. Frequent contact, intimate and otherwise, with mankind has taught this strain to mimic human flesh and cognition with impressive fidelity.”
She swirled the air with her wand. The fish in the tank went wild, attacking David with needle-sharp teeth. Blood plumed like smoke from his wounds. The boy didn’t fight back.
“Christ!” cried Drina.
Allison shouted, “Stop it!”
The fish kept tearing at David. Chunks of flesh, skin and hair floated to the top of the tank. Still, he did not react.
Allison’s eyes flared. Intense heat rippled through the stolid, humid air of the marquee.
Elsa tilted her wand up. The fish ceased their assault, swimming back to their corners of the aquarium. At the same time, the colour drained from David until he seemed to be made of glass. Water filled his wounds and froze over, perfectly replacing the lost flesh.
“As you can see, despite being two generations removed from the original chaotic manifestation, and being three quarters human in terms of ancestry, our specimen’s godhood remains potent and intact. Compare and contrast with the rather more brittle Olympian variety.” Elsa looked at Allison. “See, Allie, if you’d just kept that Linus boy alive, this could’ve been even more educational.”
“Bitch,” spat Drina. Allison could hardly believe her ears, accurate as the assessment was.
Elsa spun on one foot before moving to Mabel’s display case. Its walls were padded. Mabel was locked in a straitjacket and literally muzzled, thrashing against the chains that anchored her to the corners of the tank. Perversely enough, the jacket was patterned with comic-panels.
“Here we see Mabel ‘Mad Dog’ Henderson.”
Drina shook her head at the sight. “Why on Earth have you got her bound up like that?”
Elsa cocked her head at the woman. “Didn’t you know? The moment this girl became a superhuman, she fried the brains of over a hundred people. Including her own father.” Elsa put her hands to her cheeks in mock shock. “I mean, been there, sister5. Hasn’t repeated that little trick since, but I say she’s got promise.”
Brit’s display-case looked like the inside of a sea-anemone, the painted back-wall showing a dark-sky dominated by a red sun and a gigantic, volcanic moon. She was dressed in what looked like live moths fluttering against her skin, eating at a table that appeared to have been grown or carved out of the floor. She was surrounded by crude animatronics with sculpted navy-blue quoffers, incongruously dressed in the same alien finery.
“This here is a real rare find. The last known—I mean, I could check, but who has the time—example of the superhuman Menrva civilization, destroyed by the moon from which they derived their wealth. New Child author and beard enthusiast Herbert Lawrence had plans to preserve the subspecies, but that might’ve been a fringe benefit to his program.”
Miri and Allison watched Brit spoon what looked like plucked dandelion fluff. Her movements were as stiff and mechanical as the animatronics.
Elsa clapped her hands together. “Speaking of which!”
Steven Haldor looked quite at ease in what Allison imagined was a decent recreation of his old bedroom. Posters for the Beatles and the Kinks dueled for supremacy above his headboard. The boy himself was engrossed in an issue of G-Men6, as though he weren’t being watched a housewife, a super-girl, a ghost, a vampire, and a smirking witch:
“Here we see a typical juvenile example of Homo sapiens, soon to be swept into history by the many breeds of super-being arising on this planet.” Elsa pointed her fingers at herself. “Hereditary witch speaking here, but I don’t think it’ll be a great loss.”
Elsa turned to face the last display case. Gregory floated cross-legged in the centre of the otherwise empty enclosure, naked and burning, livid bruises on his bare chest. His eyes were vacant; white, in fact. A hurricane of rock and ice swirled around him. Allison could see his Socii playing across his skin, bright gems of lapis, orange agate, jade, and topaz connected by veins of light. They reminded her greater store of knowledge of Indian chakras
“Gregory Collins is an example of one of Steven’s successors, transformed in the womb into a superhuman by the birth trauma of two gods yet to come. Judging by the charming violence of his gifts, I’d say the agent responsible was Andromeda.” The witch squinted at Allison. “I’d peg you more as a Meredith.”
Allison wrinkled her nose. “A ‘Meredith’?”
Miri raised a hand.
“You got a question, ghostling?”
“Yes,” replied Miri. “How long have you had our friends?”
Elsa saw no particular reason not to answer. “Two days or so. This isn’t Narnia.”
“And they’ve been in those cases the whole time?”
Elsa saw a lot of reasons to answer that one. She grinned wickedly. “The whole time.”
“…How do they go to the bathroom?”
The grown-ups in the marquee found themselves sharing silent glances, soundtracked by the muted howl of the wind within Gregory’s cage.
Myles and Elsa laughed. The witch pinched Allison’s cheek in proxy. “Oh, Miri, I could just keep you.”
On a gamble, Allison tried to reach the least savoury part of Alberto’s power into Elsa, but her skin could’ve been laminated with steel for all that amounted to. The girl bet she’d just wanted to show off.
“So,” said Elsa. “Tea and biscuits?”
Drina sighed. “Fine.”
By this point, Allison was both surprised and a touch disappointed by the fact Elsa’s buggy wasn’t bigger on the inside. She’d expected the witch to hide a grand manor under its canvas roof, or a cathedral of blood and bone; not a kerosine stove, a dozen tea-light candles, and a few throw-pillows. If she was going to be evil, she could at least be impressive.
Myles poured Allison and Drina each a cup of salted caramel tea and offered them to the Kinseys on rugged cast-iron plates with fresh kourabiethes7. He smiled his not-very-friendly-vampire-smile at the pair, the glow of the candles colouring his pale face sour yellow:
“Enjoy, honoured guests.”
Drina took her plate like it was made of poisoned thorns. She looked at her daughter questioningly.
Allison sipped her cup. “We’re guests. Vampires can’t break xenia. You’re good.”
Drina hissed through her teeth. She knew her irritation was unfair. Allison couldn’t help making her feel ignorant. “Xenia?”
“Hospitality,” Myles translated. “Roughly8.”
Drina looked down into her tea, steeled her shoulders, and took a long hard gulp, almost burning her tongue and throat.
It didn’t taste drugged. But then, what would be the point if it did?
The vampire settled down beside his mistress on the other side of the stove. Allison noticed Myles cast no shadow in the flicker of the candlelight. She wondered if that was usual for his kind. For a few moments, the only sounds in the buggy were the bronchial crackle and pop of the candles and Elsa loudly chewing a kourambiethe.
Allison broke the detente, “What do you want, Elsa?”
“Oh,” Elsa said through a mouthful of shortbread. “Not much, just that empty-headed little girl you’ve got jarred up at Freedom’s Point.”
It took the Kinseys a moment to realise what the witch was asking for.
“…You want Miri’s body?”
Mistress Quickly had suggested a few potential motives for the kidnapping. Catalpa’s aid in some ghastly campaign somewhere in the multiverse. Information or resources. Kicks. This hadn’t come up.
Elsa swallowed. “Well, given that little Miri is still rattling around your skull, can we really say it’s her body yet?”
Miri wasn’t bothering to visualize herself for Elsa and Myles, but she was screaming inside Allison:
“It is my body! She can’t have it! Why does she want my body?”
Allison winced at her sister’s onslaught, asking aloud for her, “Why?”
“Allie, when your little friend’s mother sells someone sliced polony, she doesn’t get to ask whether they’re gonna eat it or wear it, do they?”
“She’s going to eat it! She’s going to eat me!”
“Look, am I really asking for that much? You haven’t even figured out how to transfer Miri over yet. You’ll still have your alien blood and all that Simmons’ woman’s notes. I doubt it’ll be harder growing a girl the second time. A lot easier than replacing your friends, I’d wager, even if ‘Mistress Quickly’ fancies herself a multiversial tourist.”
Allison kept the thought far away from her sister, but the witch had a point. They could make Miri another body. They couldn’t make another Mabel or David. But she also remembered what Maude had told her:
“Whatever she asks for, don’t give her it. I’ve seen that woman commit genocide with goddamn toothpicks9. If she asks you to help her with something, say no. If she asks for an old toy, say no. If she asks for a hair on your head, say no.”
“I don’t want this to be one-sided,” said Elsa. “I mean, aside from being willing to give up some great new acquisitions, I’m willing to offer all three of you additional compensation.” She looked at Drina. “And you weren’t even invited to this pow-wow.”
“Like what?” Allison asked, arms folded.
The buggy split into three streams like a forking river. In a bit of New Testament flourish, Elsa Lieroinen addressed the three Kinseys individually and simultaneously:
“You know, Allie, I don’t think Miri is the biggest problem in your life. I get it, kind of rubbish having to share your stomach, skin, and womb with your little sister. But Miri seems like a good kid. She isn’t a drunk old Italian rapist…”
Before Allison could recoil from the witch, Elsa reached over the stove and laid a finger on the girl’s forehead. Her touch was like wet ice.
“Even when you tried to strangle my brain, I could feel him chained to your soul, Allie. I could free you. I could rip Alberto out of you by the roots.”
“…What would happen to Alberto?” asked Allison despite herself. Hopefully, she added, “Would he be dead?”
Elsa smiled again. “Nah. I’ve always got a use for a psychic ghost.”
“So, you’d have him. Like you have my friends.”
“…So are you.”
Elsa quirked her shoulder. “Still be a net-increase in evil people having a bad time. Literally everyone wins except Alberto.”
Part of Allison liked imagining Alberto at Elsa’s mercy. Hammering tiny ghostly fists against walls of glass on some apothecary shelf. For a while. Then it just kept going and going. If she knew he’d be snuffed out like one of these candles…
“I could fix Billy,” Elsa said to Miri. “Make him look like a normal boy.”
“He doesn’t care,” replied Miri curtly. “And he’s cuddly the way he is.”
“Scratch the easy option then…” sighed Elsa.
With blue pointer quickness, the witch grabbed Miri by the wrist.
Miri stared at her hand. She could feel the pressure of Elsa’s fingers on her skin. “How—”
“You wouldn’t even need a body,” Elsa enthused. “I could give you touch. Mass. Let you do everything your sister can do, whenever you want.” Elsa looked up thoughtfully for a moment. “Not sure what would happen if you tried conceiving, but you’ve got plenty of options. And you wouldn’t have to leave Allison.”
Miri bit her lip. She tasted blood.
“You know, Mrs Kinsey, you have loco parentis over the girls. You could override them both. Honestly, I should’ve invited you in the first place. Forgive me, you’re not the most memorable woman in the world.”
“I have my daughter,” Drina said firmly. “I don’t need anything else.”
Elsa chuckled in her throat. “How about bare equality, ma’am?”
She blew a handful of dust in Mrs Kinsey’s face.
Drina was flying, caught between a roiling sea of thrashing steel and black battlements of storm clouds. She was a figure of solid light, so smooth and perfect not even gravity could find purchase on her. She was wrapped in bright blue and red fabric, scarlet and yellow cape fluttering around her neck. Her skin thrilled at the bite of the wind and the sea-spray.
“Have you ever imagined being like your daughter, Drina? Strong? Glorious?”
The clouds vented down golden spite at Drina. She laughed at the lightning as it ran down her veins. The world could only give her pleasure. Her thoughts were crystal machinery.
Drina lifted a train like a metal wyrm over her head above a roaring crowd. Men in uniforms shouted up at her. Their guns chorused tiny, flashing oaths, their metal sputum hammering harmlessly against her.
“Being able to fight instead of running?”
The soldiers below withered under Drina’s gaze, their skin turning to dust. She found her own long-ago face down among the masses, cheering with her sister and parents. Unafraid. Together.
Jack was on his knees below Drina, gazing up at her. There was love in his eyes, but something else, too. Something new.
“To be something your man could be in awe of?”
Drina swooped down and pulled her husband to his feet, pulling him into a kiss the way he had done with her a thousand times. He felt like glass and cobwebs in her arms. He could do nothing except love her. And if he didn’t, thousands of others would.
Drina and Allison danced together above the sun itself, swooping under and over coronal loops like arches built of burning auroras. The solar winds caressed them as gently as a warm summer breeze.
Drina’s impossible eyes saw something graze her daughter. A micrometeorite smaller than a grain of rice and a hundred times faster than sound itself.
Allison looked down at herself. She had a thin red scratch across her paper-pale skin. Nothing to creatures such as them. Still, tears formed in her eyes, boiling away in the superheated vacuum.
Drina gathered her daughter into her arms, letting her weep out still-new pain.
“For you daughter to need you again?”
Above the plains of fire, Drina wept, too.
1. This was the result of mistiming on Elsa’s part. If this had only been perhaps four or five years later by local time, Drina and Allison likely would’ve recognized it as a disco-suit. ↩
2. Also, Mistress Quickly had mentioned it in strategy meetings. According to her, she’d managed to lodge an oak stake an inch from his heart. ↩
3. If Allison had been born into a more permissive (but not too permissive) time, she might have compared it to the censorship techniques employed by pop radio, or those curious radio-stations that exist to cut guest rappers out of songs. Though with arguably less sinister motivations on Elsa’s part. ↩
4. The American term would be “midway.” ↩
5. Though not as famous—or infamous—across the multiverse as his daughter, Antti Lieroinen is a figure of some note. A Finnish “cunning man” and professional wizard renowned for his ability to find lost objects, he was sentenced to die for witchcraft and adultery in the city now called Turku, though his ghost insists his true crime was offending his daughter. ↩
6. Issue #16, in which a sinister cabal of demis attempt to infect a maternity ward with their affliction. ↩
7. Traditional Greek sugar-coated shortbread, usually served at Christmas or other festive occasions. ↩
8. Xenia—a Greek noun that is usually translated along the lines of “guest-friendship.” Hospitality and mutual generosity between host and guest lay at the core of Ancient Greek culture and religion, presided over by the now exiled chief god Zeus. ↩
9. An effective strategy when they’ve replaced water-droplets in a rainstorm. ↩