Chapter One-Hundred and Four: A War of Jokes and Spells

As Christmas Eve inched closer and closer to Christmas Day, the sorcerous algorithm that was the Lieroinen Family Circus cycled through snowfall. Errors were creeping in. Snow settled on the flames of the fire-eater’s torch as though it were a wand of amber. Members of the Potemkin crowd let the white powder pile atop their heads and shoulders. Every third or fourth snowflake was composed of pink or blue cotton-candy. Worst of all, the calliope was actually tuned properly. It wasn’t surprising, really. Elsa had meant for this web of spells to stand for less than a week, for the benefit of seven children at most. 

One of these assumptions was incorrect. 

Outside the Hall of the Possible, a pair of small, orphaned footprints pressed down into the snowy carpet. Falling snowflakes vanished in the space above. Then they started marching forward, five more sets of footprints of wildly varying size following hot on their track; a conga-line of ghosts. The train meandered about the circus, weaving in and out of the big top and the smattering of out-buildings, only occasionally bumping into static circus-goers. Anyone watching from above would’ve assumed Bill Keane was responsible. 

After ten minutes of wandering, the footprints strayed into Elsa Lieroinen’s Extra-Normal Ethnological Exhibition. 

The curtain of invisibility fell from Billy St. George and the five-person human train hanging onto his shoulders. 

“Aww, jeez,” he said, surveying his glass-jarred friends. “What’s she done to them?”

Hettie Haldor ran over to her son’s case, hammering on the glass with her marble fists. It did not shatter. “Stevie? Honey, it’s Mum.”

Steven didn’t answer, not even looking up from his comic.

A trace of anger seeped into Hettie’s fear. “Steve? Answer me!”

Mrs Barnes was standing with her son in front of Mabel’s enclosure. “Mabel, can you hear us?” She snapped her fingers twice. “It’s Angela.”       

The muzzled girl thrashed against her restraints, seemingly blind to the two people on the other side of the glass. 

Angela looked down at her son. “Arnold, get rid of the glass.”

Arnold nodded. “Yes Mum.” He laid a hand on the glass and sparked alight with lime lightning, teleportation scrambled air lifting his costume’s cloak, his power pulsing into the glass. 

Nothing happened. 

After nearly ten seconds, Arnold pulled his hand away and stamped his foot. He felt like Zeus trying to smite a rubber sheet.

“It’s like there’s nothing there!”

The Crimson Comet pounded a closed fist against David’s aquarium with as much strength as he dared muster. Having no better luck than Hettie, he shot a look back at Mistress Quickly. “The hell is this stuff made off?”

The super-scientist squinted at the glass, her combat-mask’s goggles dissecting the air for clues. “Spectrographics aren’t—”

“It’s an illusion.” 

Everyone looked at Liam Pittenweem. He was a somewhat goatish eleven year old old boy with uncombable orange hair and two increasingly curled horns growing out of his forehead. He was also Catalpa’s one warlock, if only a novice working from the memory of a confiscated scrapbook. “Can even see where it’s peeling.” Appraisingly, he added, “Don’t think what’s-her-name expected another magic person to look at it.”

Ralph thumped David’s tank again. “Feels pretty real to me.”

Liam shook his head. “Magic, mate. It’s more real than most real things. So real it outranks the really real stuff.”

“Can you get rid of it?” asked Hettie, still not looking away from her son.

Liam shrugged. “I can try. Don’t know what it’s hiding, though.”

Angela wondered if she should technically condone literal witchcraft1. Then she looked again at Mabel, still screaming in silence.

“Do it, lad.”

Liam cleared his throat and raised his arms over his head. In faltering Latin, he chanted, “Ex oculis abi imago2!”

Liam closed his hands. The air wrinkled under his fingers. He pulled downwards. The rest of the extraction team felt a layer of the world peel away around them like they were in a reverse sticker-book. 

A sound of tearing paper. The superhuman zoo was ripped away. The missing children were standing around preening themselves. Brit and Gregory were dressed in acrobat leotards, the first blue and white, the second orange and brown. Mabel was in her costume, albeit with added top-hat. David was in his, too, which was both odd and utterly appropriate. 

Steven Haldor, meanwhile, was in full auguste clown gear, manning an old fashioned water-pump in the middle of the tent. 

“Stevie!””

Hettie pulled her son into her arms. Given the state of her physiology, this was less than advisable. 

Steven wheezed, “Too… tight… Mum…” 

Hettie yelped and let go of her son, thanking her lucky stars she’d worn the floofy jumper that night. Looking down, she noticed said jumper was stained with red rouge and white face paint.  “Why on Earth are you dressed like that?”

Steven tilted his head. “It’s for the show.”

Mabel grinned crookedly at the sight of Arnold and his mother, waving at them with her whole body. “Hi guys! You here to watch us in the big top?”

Angela frowned. “It’s been two days, young lady! We were worried sick!”

The children exchanged glances. Then they laughed. 

“No it hasn’t!” Brit insisted. 

David added, “Maybe Mrs Barnes is going all scatter-brained. She is pretty old.”

Brit giggled. “Human, human, human, human…”

Gregory was sitting on the grassy floor, staring at his hands. “Man, what if, like, people only get wrinkly because they have too many baths?”  He looked questioningly at Billy. “Hey, Tigger, do you get pruney in the bath?”

Billy allowed himself a frown, balling his clawed fists at his sides. “My name’s not Tigger…” 

Angela inhaled, shoulders arching in full-on lecture mode, only for Arnold to put a hand on her arm. “I think this is a magic thing, Mum.”

“Oh, yeah,” said Liam, peering at the spell-grammar scrawled all over the other children. “They’re bewitched. Used to do this when kids at school pulled on my horns.” He walked towards David and sniffed the water-sprite’s breath.

David grinned, slurring, “Is this that flirting thing again?”

Liam looked back at Mrs Barnes. “I think they got them normal-drunk a bit, too?” 

Billy bristled quietly. Didn’t the witch-lady know kids weren’t supposed to have that stuff?

Angela nodded stiffly. “Of course, of course.” Maternal indignation also made a strong liquor.

Hettie raised a hand to her mouth. “Is it permanent?”

“Nah,” Liam reassured her. “Just need to get them outta here.”  

Ralph clapped his hands. It sounded like two oak trees colliding. “Right, kids, we’re leaving.”

Nooo!” whined Mabel. She pointed at the water-pail hanging from the water-pump’s spout. “Mr. Myles says we’re going on as soon as the bucket’s full!”

Ralph pulled the bucket off the pump. It bled water from a dozen pin-prick punctures. “You mean this?” he asked flatly.  

“Yeah!” exclaimed Brit. She glared at Steven. “He just needs to pump faster!”  

“Why am I doing it?” Steven jabbed a finger at David. “Why not him?”

David shuddered. “I can’t stick water in a bucket. It’d be mad at me!”

Angela watched the children argue. She muttered under her breath, “Now would be a good time to send them home, Arnold.”

“Yep.” Arnold raised his fingertip and summoned Libertalia to his mind’s eye. 

His fingernail glowed green, only to spark and sputter. Arnold tried again. Still, the lightning did not come. He screwed his eyes shut and pictured any and all safe places he knew. The children’s hall, Freedom’s point, David’s beach…

Nothing.

He let his arm go limp. Arnold’s vocabulary spasmed inside him, searching for an oath he could say in front of his mother. “…Cripes. I can’t make it work.” He put his hands to his head. “It’s like I don’t know where here is.”

Angela sighed and put a hand on her son’s shoulder. “Long as you tried your best, Arnold.”

Looked like they were taking the long way home. 

“…Okay,” said Brit, “what if we put the bucket in Steve—”

What?”   

Angela raised her voice half an octave. It might as well have been her son’s thunder. “Everyone be quiet.” 

The stolen children went as silent and still as their condition allowed—swaying on their feet like saplings facing a storm. Even Arnold reflexively straightened his back.

“It’s Christmas Eve. We are going home now and having dinner. If you don’t do as you’re told this very second, we’re skipping straight to Boxing Day. Are we clear?”

The kids all nodded. Mighty a witch as Elsa Lieroinen was, no spell could match Angela Barnes.

“Right. Everyone get in line.”

The rescue party reformed the train, a touch more ungainly with five extra passengers. Mabel had her hands on the Crimson Comet’s back. She giggled.

“Something funny, Mabes?” asked the superhero.

“I didn’t know you had two shadows.”

Ralph looked down. Like a fork in a tree trunk, a second silhouette sprouted from his feet.

“Wh—”

Half a sound. A whisper’s little brother.

“Um,” said Billy, staring at a blank stretch of canvas in front of him. “Where’d the door go?”

The imposter-shadow pulled itself off the ground, Ralph Rivers’ titanic frame shrinking and narrowing. A top hat sprouted from his head. 

David wagged a finger at the apparition. “Hey, Mr. Myles. I wanted to ask, do I really need my cost—”

The shadow screamed.   

Elsa Lieroinen sat across from the two-and-a-half Kinseys in her covered wagon, voice triplicating and transfiguring as it reached their ears, whispering their dreams:

“…I can give you freedom.” 

“…I can give your substance.” 

“…I can give you power.” 

Allison could feel what the witch was offering her. A tumour excised. Poison sucked from her bones. Her and Miri, together and alone. Not having to worry about him slipping in while they slept. Not having to feel all his second-hand lusts and bitterness like hot breath. Who cared about Alberto? All he ever did was hurt people. David. Adam Sinclair. Her. Over and over…

Miri spoke within Allison:

It’d be good if it was just us, right? Alberto’s mean. And if we could touch things at the same time.

Allison tried to remember why they weren’t saying yes. They could get their friends back. They could get so much more. Elsa wasn’t going to be less evil somewhere else if they didn’t… 

Drina was still floating above the sun, holding her crying daughter against her adamantine skin. She was strong. She was needed

…Why did she need power to comfort her child? And why would she ever want Allison to be in pain

Drina looked away from the vision, over at Allison. There was another girl too, she knew, under her daughter’s skin. Drina didn’t know what they were to each other yet, but they were something. And even if they weren’t, Miri was a child. Drina was a grown-up. She shouldn’t have to give up anything for her.


“…Allison. Miri,” Drina said, “I don’t know what this woman is offering you two, but we don’t need her.” She put a hand on her shoulder. “You built a city. Helped hundreds of people.” She managed a smile. “How’s she going to top that?”

Allison strained her back. Inside, she felt Miri puff out her chest. “Yeah. Yeah. You’re right, Mum.” She smiled pridefully at the witch. “No deal.”

Elsa rolled her eyes and mimed sticking a finger down her throat. 

Myles’ face twitched. He whispered something in his mistress’s ear.

“Oh. So much for do ut des. Go on ahead, will you Myles?”

“Of course, Mistress.” 

Myles flashed the Kinseys a grin (or maybe just bared his fangs) before crumpling and discolouring into a tawny owl, screeching and sending Mrs Kinsey flailing as he flew past her head. 

Allison watched it flee into the night, then glared back at Elsa. “What’s he up to?”

The witch smiled and arched her eyebrows. “Ladies, I think negotiations are over.”

At the edge of Allison’s clairvoyance, ten blossoms of shock bloomed like atomic sunflowers. 

“Shit.”

Elsa flourished her hands. “Per aera atrae calentesque favillae volate3 !” 

The candles guttered. Then they geysered. Jets of fire bent and twisted, becoming burning serpents that slithered onto Elsa’s body like torcs and bracelets smithed from forge-fire instead of ore. Sparks from her silk suit tinted the flame maroon as the same light poured from her eyes and mouth. 

Allison threw herself over her mother, wrapping her arms around the woman as best she could and flying out of the buggy at a hundred knots. Part of Drina Kinsey felt belittled being carried through the air by her ten year old. Mostly, she just screamed. Behind them, Elsa Lieroinen exploded out of the wagon, a meteor trying to rejoin the sky. 

Allison set her mother down next to a high-striker topped with a Flying Man diamond, its barker programmatically enticing non-existent passersby:

Can you match the world’s strongest man? Who are the supermen among the boys?

“Go hide in one of the stalls,” Allison said. 

Drina shook her head. “I’m not hiding—

Allison took back off, leaving her mother alone on the ground.

Drina seethed with worry. “Allie—” 

Her eye caught the high-striker. Its mallet wasn’t attached to anything.

Step right up! Test your strength!” 

Elsa Lieroinen hovered above the Ethnological Exhibition, still clad in flames. She raised her ring-finger:

Ad ferrum venistis ab sericis, saecula4!” 

The canvas tent below her hardened and darkened into metal. Almost the same time, the shape of a burly man bulged out of one of the walls, glowing red like a torch-light through paper.

Elsa smiled. Bloody strong man— 

Something struck Elsa in the side, sending her spinning sideways. As she reoriented herself, she spotted two figures riding a golden disk through the air, surrounded by an unnaturally silent cloud of metal birds. One was a woman in what Elsa could only think of as a blue burqa and mirrored sunglasses. At night.

Mirror-Queen. Figures I landed on the steep-end of the bell-curve. 

Her companion was a Chinese looking man in an elaborate gold breastplate, greaves and helmet. The effect was spoiled somewhat by the cargo pants and work boots. 

Elsa grinned and shouted across the night air. “Chen Liu! I didn’t think we’d meet again!”

AU called back, “Never laid eyes on you, crazy bitch!”

Ah. Wrong timeline.

AU thrust his palms forward, sending golden crows flying at Elsa. The witch smiled and pulled a translucent blue stone from her sleeve, raising it to meet the approaching murder. It flashed white, transforming the animate sculptures into squawking, deeply confused flesh and blood birds. Elsa waved at her foes. 

“Empiricist’s stone5, honey! Never leave the Riverlands without one!” Elsa let out some unnaturally realistic bird calls. The ex-gold crows fell into formation and flew back at AU and the Mirror-Mistress6 as a black blade of Hitchcockian menace.  

Chen cocked his head at Therese Fletcher. “Could use that compact right now, love.”

Therese nodded. She hated pulling this trick. At least it wasn’t people this time. She opened her make-up compact and raised it to the sky, gathering the light of the circus below and the stars above and refracting it just right, like she was rattling dice inside her head… 

Thin wires of light cut wide swathes through the night. Elsa’s crows burst into flames as they grazed them, Therese wincing as the birds shrieked. Their burning feathers rained down over the circus.

Elsa ducked and weaved about the lasers. She hated super-fights. So physical. She wondered why Allison wasn’t presently trying to kill her. That girl was made of aggression…  

A dull thunderclap drew the witch’s attention downwards. Chisel7 and the Crimson Comet had appeared outside the metal marquee, the former trying to yank dear Myles’ shadow off her back like it’d failed the audition to be her cape. Allison Kinsey was melting away part of the front wall with heat from her hands.

Ah. Halfway clever little shit. Better bring in ground support. 

Elsa stuck her fingers in her mouth and whistled. Down in the fairgrounds, a compact, polka-dotted Morris Minor with grinning, lipsticked lips over the grill and a giant red nose for a hood ornament crashed through the shooting gallery. It came to a stop by the exhibition marquee, engine idling.

Everyone on the ground (who wasn’t wrestling with a vampire’s shadow) watched the car warily, Allison included:

Tiny car, circus…        

Allison groaned. Freaking hell, Elsa.

The car’s passenger door flung open. A clown tumbled head over heels onto the snow. Then another. And another. And another…

They just kept coming Within ten seconds there was a veritable wall of painted grins and baggy polyester shifts rolling towards the Catalpans. Bike-horns chorused like vulgar war-drums. 

Myles the owl landed on top of the calliope, reverting with a laugh to his human form. He drew a line with his cane between the Catalpans and the clowns. “Slapstick heaven, boys!” the vampire crowed. “Grab a stick and start slappin’!”

Allison wanted to stake him just for that. 

The clowns let out a peal of joyless laughter and charged. 

Allison leapt over and slapped Chisel’s back with a burning hand. Myles’ shadow burned fast as ash paper, its owner screaming with a feral tenor. The concrete woman flipped him the bird as the clowns fell upon them. She punched one in the gut, making him cough up a mouthful of red handkerchiefs in her face. Another got a fist slammed on the top of his skull, his head disappearing like a periscope into his tall, stiff collar. Hettie smacked one more in the side of the head, feeling his cheekbone shatter satisfying under his painted face. The clown staggered about, literal stars and windings circling above him.

It’s a bit, Hettie realized with contempt. They’ve got me doing a bit. 

Allison stuck close to the marquee, guarding the rent she’d made until the molten metal cooled, the power the Flying Man’s song left her at full heat. Any clown that strayed too close caught fire, predictably spreading their flames as they ran screaming through the crowd. Some of their comrades gamely threw buckets over their burning friends, but unfortunately for them, those buckets were mostly filled with confetti. 

Other clowns were launched up into the air as the ground erupted beneath them, or were carried away by the wind. Allison liked Gregory’s song. It was like someone had recruited Mercury, Venus, and Earth themselves into a string quartet. She couldn’t help but compare it to David’s song. If David’s powers were one big, immaculately prepared meal, Gregory was an ice-cream bar with unlimited samples.

Inside the tent, David was straining against Angela’s arms. “But I want to play too!” he protested.

“They’re not playing out there, David.” 

David grinned wickedly. “Costume off.”

A flash. Angela scoffed, unmoved. “Not that precious, son.”

David humphed and misted out of Angela’s grip.

“Maude.”

Mistress Quickly pointed her Certainty Enforcer at the fog floating towards the hole in the wall. David dropped to the floor. The boy rubbed his shoulder. “None of you are any fun…”

“Agreed,” said Brit, hogtied with rubber-steel flexi-cuffs.   

Outside Myles was still standing on the calliope, rubbing his back like he’d fallen asleep on a hot stove. A cloud of butterflies coalesced into Elsa Lieroinen beside him. 

“Got bored fighting Free Trial Magneto and the school-teacher?” the vampire asked, only to wince. “Fuck, this hurts.”

Elsa chuckled. “Don’t be a baby, Myles. It’ll grow back.”

“I feel naked.” 

“Aww, poor thing. Something I can do to cheer you up?”

Myles surveyed the melee going on around them. He spotted the Crimson Comet—metal wings spread and glowing—brawling with unrefined superhuman verve. It was like if crap television fight choreography was a martial art. It reminded him of something… 

“You know that TV show about the vigilante and his eromenos?”

Elsa smiled. “I think so, Dr. Wertham.”

Myles pointed his cane at the Comet. “That thing that happened when they punched people, you don’t think…”

Elsa’s eyes lit up. She flexed her fingers. “I can certainly try.”

The witch raised her wand. “Tunc colaphos incuties cum scripti lusorique strepitus oboriantur!”

The poetry could’ve been better, Elsa had to admit. 

Ralph Rivers held a struggling clown by the neck in each hand. “Let’s put our heads together, shall we?”

The Comet brought his arms together, the clowns heads connected—

A white starburst against flat green nothingness consumed Ralph’s world. A four-letter word in bold red letters dominated his vision:

WHAM!!

Ralph dropped the clowns in shock. Another tried to tackle him. He absently smacked it down:

POW!!

The Crimson Comet flinched, staring at his own fist. Experimentally, he grabbed another clown and jabbed it in the eye:

POKE!!

“What the fuck?”

Gold birds dive bombed the clowns, flattening their beaks against the sides of their heads like prohibitively expensive cannonballs.

Above the fray, Therese turned to the birds’ master. “Set me down, Chen.”

Chen nodded, lowering their golden disc enough for Therese to jump down. The Mirror-Mistress landed in the snow with a grace that would have surprised anyone who’d known Therese. She pulled out her old knife and got to work. She felt her reflection glinting off the sides of Chen’s birds. A platoon of golden ghosts appeared at Therese’s side, all with her face, fighting not quite in synch. A foretelling, perhaps; of death or glorification, who could say? Or just a Therese diptych.   

They cracked bones. They gouged eyes. Laughter was cut short by slit throats. Whenever someone laid a hand on Therese, she retreated into Chen’s gold, riding the light bouncing off them back out and pushing her blade into their back.  

It had been a long year for Therese Fletcher. 

AU meanwhile was stabbing at clowns with sharpened gold vambraces. They came free bloody, but he was fairly sure they weren’t real people. Real people didn’t laugh when you stabbed them—  

A clown grabbed Chen’s ankle, pulling him off his disc and climbing on top of his chest. 

“You ready to laugh, sonny?”

The clown didn’t wait for AU to answer, letting out a great, gurgly laugh. Flecks of makeup and spittle fell into Chen’s open mouth. In that moment, Chen discovered a simple truth: clowns were terrifying.

The clown in question’s laughter was cut off by a thrack. His eyes rolled up into his head as he slumped to the side. 

Mrs Kinsey stood over Chen, breathing hard, a mallet raised above her head. She helped AU to his feet, glancing at the clown she felled.  “Why do kids like these goddamn things so much?” 

AU smiled. “Do they?”

Therese had caught sight of the clown-mobile. Even as they all fought, clowns were still being vomited out of the car. 

Someone has to close the door, she thought, slashing a clown across the eyes. Probably smash it, actually

But how? Therese’s powers could do a lot of things. They could make a lot more of her, for one thing. But they couldn’t make her be more than what she was—  

She remembered the Hall of the Possible. The mirrors. All those reflections. All those costumes…

The Mirror Mistress vanished. After an eyeblink waiting for a bird to angle itself just right, she appeared in front of the marquee’s new entrance.

“I need David!” she exclaimed as she ran in.

“See?” said David, still being held by Therese. “Even this weird lady wants me to play!”

He doesn’t recognize me, Therese realized. The relief almost made her giddy.

Angela stood up, bringing David with her. “Why?”

“Long story.”

“…Do you swear to keep him safe?” 

“On my hat.” 

Angela let go of David. The boy jumped for joy.

“Can Brit come?”

Therese looked at the bound alien child, then at Mistress Quickly.

Maude sighed. “Might as well.” She pressed a button on her belt. The flexi-cuffs binding Brit released themselves. The girl happily scrambled to David’s side. 

“Arnold,” said Therese. “Think you could send us to the mirror-house?”

Arnold bit his lip. He pointed at a small rock lying in the grass and fired off a bolt. It reappeared with a bang lodged in the wall.

“…We can walk,” said Therese. She crouched in front of Brit and David, putting a hand on their shoulders. She forced a smile, not that they could see it. “Think you two could stick close to me, alright?”

“Like follow-the-leader?” Brit offered brightly.

Therese clapped. “Yes! Exactly! Sure! And do you think you two could run, too?”  

David laughed in a way that reminded Therese of Saturday nights with the girls. Didn’t sound quite right coming from a ten year old boy. “I’m the best at running!” 

“I am!” insisted Brit.

“I—”

Therese grabbed David’s arm and yanked him forward. “Off we go!”

Thankfully, Brit followed them out into the circus grounds. Therese let go of David’s arm, running dead ahead without looking back at her changes. She didn’t have to. She could watch them from every remotely reflective surface they passed. Her golden doubles ran alongside the children, ready to strike any who— 

Clowns fell to their knees in pained laughter, blood pouring down their faces. Snow spired into the air as sharpened tendrils, skewering them through the hearts or forcing its way down their throats. David was laughing. Brit was laughing too, but Therese didn’t think she was paying attention. Or at least she hoped she wasn’t.

What happened to these kids? Therese asked herself.

She shook her head. She knew that already.

It didn’t take long for the three of them to stagger into the Hall of the Possible. David span in the centre of the room, admiring the many different boys who took his place in the mirrors. “Hello, Davids!”

Brit joined him. “Hi, Brits!” 

Her statement might’ve had more truth than David’s. All Brit’s reflections were clearly her, if altered in oh so many ways. 

David looked at the Mirror Mistress. “So, what now?”

Therese raised her hand. “Try to stand still, okay kids?”

I bet this doesn’t work.

Therese closed her eyes. Over a dozen other Therese’s joined her. Some wore blood-red body-gloves and had yellow flames for hair. Some had metal skin and eyes full of cold light. One was nude, but seemingly made of glass. Another wore the Flying Man’s own costume; three sizes too big for her, but wore it with more confidence than life itself. 

It perhaps said something about our Therese that she didn’t invite any of them out.   

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1. Angela Barnes wasn’t an ignorant woman by any means, but she could have done with being informed that the relevant Bible verse in question originally referred to poisoners.

2. Roughy, “Disappear from my sight, false vision.”

3. “Fly through the air, oh dark and burning flames.”

4. “Oh ages of man, from silk you turned to iron!”

5. Harvested from the plane of Gorgian Ideals.

6. Elsa was off by a week or so.

7. Hettie Haldor’s common supernym in relevant timelines.

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