The Houses of Parliament got Westminster. The Crown got Buckingham Palace. The Ministry of Paranormality got the Phare.
Bròn Binn1 was a green eye set in grey Atlantic waves. It was a bare, exposed place. Two people standing at either end of it could almost look each other in the eye. Its ancient veil of trees had been stripped for firewood and grazing land. Now, the only things that grew tall on the island were built by men. For centuries, Bròn Binn’s chief export was light. Coal, then whale oil, then finally arc-lamps cut paths for ships through night and fog. It was a strange post. Though no man, woman, or child had ever passed away on the island, more ghosts nested at Bròn Binn than seabirds. Keepers and their families would spot strangers walking along the island’s cliffs. Food and drink went missing. Chores and maintenance would seemingly perform themselves. Draught horses and sheep would sicken and die, their carcasses decaying with peculiar rapidity. Childless keepers would hear young laughter on the wind.
The stories had come to a bloody end in 1902, when a keeper butchered his wife and children. He was waiting at the dock to make a full confession when the supply boat pulled in, claiming his family had been stolen and replaced by Sithchean. Fairies. Changelings. Whatever the keeper claimed, the bodies had certainly looked human: inside and out. The investigation that followed (conducted, rumour had it, by Jack Lyons himself) blamed the keeper’s madness on the liquid mercury the lighthouse’s lens assembly floated in. Escaping the gallows, the keeper was consigned to an asylum, but died not three weeks later. The mortician—when plied with a few pints—would claim he’d started rotting before he died.
The lighthouse remained after that, if increasingly automated. Horror and tragedy didn’t banish the night or close the roads of the sea. However, Bròn Binn also became home to the Phare. A beacon and watchpost for those Britons caught between the human and the fae. The uncanny turned to the service of Queen and Country.
Sir Edward Blyth stood at the southern end of the island, coat pulled tight around himself. The wind was a pack of biting, howling wolves trampling across Bròn Binn. He was flanked on each side by four armed SAS, winged Excaliburs wreathed in flames on their tan berets. By definition, these men were the cream of the crop. However, to be posted to Bròn Binn—especially with what was happening in Berlin—they were also very slightly curdled. The bottom ten percent of the 99th percentile. Sir Edward wasn’t too bothered by that. The best soldiers in the world would be unlikely to be much help against their guests.
Sending Jack Lyons was a desperation move on Sir Edward’s part. One that’d cost him a lot of political capital and the government an expensive prototype. He’d half hoped it’d fail. If it didn’t, he’d likely still be paying interest on it till the day he retired.
Then, the night before, an envelope had appeared in a flash of green light on Edward’s desk. He’d had one of the soldiers open it:
“Tomorrow, at the southern cliff face. Please prepare snacks.”
Sir Edward looked out to sea, then at his watch. It was noon. That time of year, it might as well have been dusk. There was no sign of that flying saucer the Catalpans flew around in. He hoped the bloody convicts hadn’t gotten their time-zones mixed up. He was startled by the unit’s CO barking: “At the ready, men!”
A moonstone marble had appeared in the air in front of Sir Edward. The aging civil servant staggered backwards as it began to grow. The roiling grey sea and clouds off Bròn Binn were eclipsed by a clear, blue sky. A strange, silver tower topped with what looked like a spaceship from Venus loomed over fields of rusted buildings. The future, surrounded by a slum. The smell of fresh rain on dust flowed from the portal. Before Sir Edward could compose himself again, trumpets blared as ten knights in full plate appeared, marching out the portal in two lines and turning on their heels to face each other. A red carpet unfurled like a great tongue onto the scraggy grass, down which a medieval herald in a deep purple tunic walked to meet Sir Edward. The SAS troops aimed their rifles at the anachronistic figure, but his only reaction was to raise and unfurl a scroll. The herald cleared his throat.
“By the authority of the Free City of Catalpa,” he said in a parodic English accent. “I present to you, good folk of the Phare, the Catalpan Embassy!”
The trumpets sounded again, this time joined by drums.
“Presenting, Allison and Myriad Kinsey, chief songstress and guardian spirit of Catalpa, and their mother, the good lady Drina Kinsey.”
A corpse-pale little girl with fiery red eyes, wrapped in tye-dye rainbows with a nine-pointed star emblazoned on her chest stepped into view. Another girl that could’ve been her living sister in what looked like a pearlescent swimsuit flickered into being on her left. A few of the SAS flinched. There was something about living on a haunted island that made a man a mite twitchy about seeing ghosts. They were joined by an olive skinned woman in a grey winter coat. She took the red-eyed girl’s right hand, and the three of them stepped through the portal, the young girls striding while the woman tried to keep up, waving and smiling timidly at the soldiers. If Sir Edward wasn’t mistaken, the sister with the colour in her skin was actually walking a quarter of an inch above the carpet.
“Sir Edward, right?” asked the rainbow girl when they reached the man.
He nodded. “Yes… Allison Kinsey?”
She folded her arms confidently. “Yep. Call me Symphony, if you like.”
Sir Edward thought he’d stick to “Miss Kinsey” for now.
The other girl smiled broadly. “I’m Miri!” she chirped, before looking at her sister. “Does my name have to have ‘Kinsey’ in it? I’ve never even met your—”
Allison raised a hand. “We’ll talk about it later. Promise.”
The presumed Mrs Kinsey shook Sir Edward’s hand. “Thank you for having us,” she said, like this was a social visit. “I hope we can help you.”
“As do we, Mrs Kinsey.” Sir Edward wondered what this woman could do. She had to have done something special, to produce such odd children. From the look she gave him at the word ‘Mrs’, he decided to switch to ‘Ms’.
The herald spoke again, “The court courier, Arnold Barnes, and his father, the honourable Corporal First-Class Fredrick Barnes!”
A stern, legless man in the dress uniform of Australian Army was pushed down the carpet by a boy in a black cloak riddled with fork lightning. The man tossed off a salute to the SAS troops, who responded in kind, if only through force of habit.
“Mabel Henderson, Mistress of Ceremonies, creatrix of men, giver of life, queen of—”
“Give it a rest, Mabs,” Allison Kinsey called.
“Spoilsport,” said a slightly large girl with bushy auburn hair as she made her way down the carpet, blowing kisses like a movie star at a premiere. She was wearing a suit that could’ve been sewn out of discarded copies of the Beano.
“The Crimson Comet and Close-Cut, sheriff and court tailor of Catalpa!”
Two colourful old men walked through the portal side by side. Sir Edward of course recognized the Crimson Comet—stormer of France and Berlin—even if his metal wings were new. He even recognized Close-Cut from his brief but eventful time on the UK supervillain scene. By name, of course. Close-Cut never wore the same costume twice. Today, he was wearing slacks and a suit-jacket patterned with the Union Jack, with a ruffled collar reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Sir Edward could only wonder what had possessed the Crimson Comet of all people to throw in with these freaks.
“Mistress Quickly, court scientist and artificer!”
Sir Edward held his breath as Mistress Quickly stalked down the carpet in her sleek black battlesuit, the lenses of her mask as large and cold as an insect’s eyes. He dreaded thinking about what she could do with the Skylon prototype2.
“David Barthe, grandson and prince of all oceans, rivers, lakes, large puddles, and taps!”
Water streamed down the carpet. It rose and coalesced into a grinning brown skinned boy—clearly basking in the attention—still covered neck-to-ankles in a green-blue liquid membrane. Sir Edward did not know how lucky he was. Or how much convincing that had taken.
“And finally, brave adventurer William St. George, accompanied by the English emissary, Jack Lyons!”
Jack Lyons emerged from the portal with his usual easy confidence, prompting a wave of salutes from the soldiers. Jack Lyons returned the gesture with one hand. In the other, he pulled along a cart laden with suitcases. At his side was what appeared to be a tiger shaped like a boy, in what looked like a cross between a superhero costume and a scout’s uniform. The child (if that was the term) was vibrating with clear excitement. Jack Lyons slapped Sir Edward on the shoulder.
“Got to hand it to the Australians, they know how to make an entrance!”
“Indeed,” Sir Edward replied flatly.
What had he done?
There was some debate about who would attend the briefing. Apart from half the “embassy” being literal children, Drina Kinsey and Fred Barnes were clearly civilians; even if the latter objected strongly to the description:
“I served for ten years, goddamnit!”
Allison had put her foot down. If the Brits wanted their help, nobody was being left out of the loop. Sir Edward had relented, the humiliation tinting his thoughts a satisfying blue. Jack Lyons and the Catalpans had piled into a meeting room in the tower house that had replaced the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It was a grey, dusty kind of space with a large blackboard dominating one wall. It could’ve been a classroom in a boarding school for rich folk who thought Eton wasn’t miserable enough for their kids. Arnold wasn’t impressed. He bet Penderghast and all them American super-people had a way cooler secret base3. An SAS man manned a slide projector, much the way the year seven kids at Arnold and Allison’s old school would at morning assembly.
Sir Edward wasn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Not that telling him that would cause him any offence. His was a cultivated anonymity: a three-piece suit chosen for the precisely uninteresting shade of stormcloud grey, bespoke tailored to look respectable, but not flattering. A face kept habitually clean of stubble, but with an unobtrusive ministerial moustache. A set of spectacles just wide enough about the rim to conceal some measure of his brow. A bowler hat sitting on a centre parting dyed to a muddy shade of brown. Grey hair would imply infirmity. Anything else might make him stand out. Sir Edward had designed himself to blend into the background, and thus, render the machinery of state invisible.
“This is Roundtable,” he said, waving a long white pointer at the projector screen, his thin shadow an intruder in a colorful crowd of thirteen grinning, laughing superheroes. The picture appeared to have been taken at some kind of high-class function. Drina and Mistress Quickly swore they could see the back of Princess Margaret’s head. “A team of superhumans who have dedicated themselves to the protection of Queen and Country.”
Allison raised a hand.
“Yes, Miss Kinsey?”
“So, they’re like Paranormal Response Squads the Americans have?” The girl examined her fingernails theatrically. “Me and Miri beat up one in Perth last year. They weren’t that tough.”
Drina looked sternly at her daughter. “That was you? What were you doing? Running around picking on Americans?”
“They were trying to kidnap a kid!” Allison protested.
“That was kind of a side-thingy,” Miri’s voice echoed from nowhere and everywhere.
“Thanks, Miri,” Allison said dryly.
Sir Edward sucked in a breath. “To answer your question, no, Roundtable is no military unit. They are a fully independent organization of patriotic men and women. All the Crown did was introduce them to one another.”
Close-Cut and the Crimson Comet exchanged a dubious look in their chairs.
Mistress Quickly’s machine filtered voice asked, “And do you pay those men and women?”
“…They are remunerated,” admitted Sir Edward.
A strange, synthetic chuckle.
Sir Edward shook his head. “We did not ask you here to discuss our relationship with Roundtable.”
“Well, get on with it,” said Allison. She tilted her head to her slightly. She could hear a song. Like jazz being played at the centre of the Earth. “And I can hear that super standing in the hallway. Why’s he got a dog? A sick dog?”
“Doggies don’t like me much…” said Billy from the back of the room.
“Me neither,” said David, shrugging. “Not a big loss. Dogs are just crap land-seals anyway.”
“Don’t be vulgar, David,” Drina said.
Mabel laughed. “How many dogs have you ever met?”
“Oh, and I bet you’ve hung out with tons of seals,” David retorted.
Sir Edward inwardly pondered whether a nuclear response wouldn’t have been less fuss and bother. He cut in over the babble. “Continuing.” He gestured at the soldier operating the projector. Its carousel clicked. Roundtable was replaced on the screen by a map of France. An arrow emerged from a point deep within the Brittany, helpfully labeled “Paimpont.4” “On January 20th, 1967, Roundtable accompanied an archeological expedition by Cambridge University to western France—”
“Um,” said Arnold. “Why did a bunch of dinosaur hunter guys need a bunch of superheroes to babysit them?”
Sir Edward shut his eyes for a second, composing himself. “The expedition wasn’t searching for fossils, young Mr. Barnes—”
“Yeah,” interrupted Allison. “Those are paleontologists, not archeologists.”
“…Yes, indeed,” said Sir Edward. “The expedition was building on recent evidence suggesting that the Matter of Britain—”
“King Arthur and junk,” Alllison explained to her friends.
“…May have more historical basis than previously considered. ”
Billy grinned, his shoulders bunching with excitement. King Arthur’s real! Then a thoughtful frown crossed his face. He raised his arm. The gesture made Sir Edward want to weep. “Yes, young man?”
“Why would you be looking for King Arthur stuff in France?”
Sir Edward looked at Allison. “I assume you would like to explain this to Mr. St George, Miss Kinsey?”
Allison twisted around in her seat. “Britain’s borders—you know, the lines on the map—used to be a lot different. Like, back when King Arthur was supposed to have lived, Scotland wasn’t part of Britain, but a bit of France was.”
“Oh,” said Billy. “Okay.”
Allison nodded. “Good.” She turned back to face Sir Edward. “Still doesn’t explain why you sent thirteen superheroes to dig up old crowns or whatever.”
“In these trying times, such discoveries would do much to bolster British morale. Thus, the Minister of State judged the expedition to be of national importance. It should also be noted that, aside from his magical expertise, Dr. Merlin is also an avid student of history.”
“The bloke in the picture with the purple waistcoat and the hat?” Allison asked.
Sir Edward nodded. The girl pumped her first. “Got it in one!
“Very good,” said Sir Edward, lips a thin line beneath his moustache. “What’s less good is that neither the archeologists or Roundtable have reported back in two weeks.”
“That does sound concerning,” commented Drina.
“Also, come on, don’t lie, you wanted to find Excalibur,” said Allison. “Don’t think it’d help you if World War Three happens, by the way. Even if it fires lasers or something.”
“We were open to any and all discoveries, Miss Kinsey,” said Sir Edward. “And regardless of Excalibur or any such relic’s… martial capabilities, it would be of great help in reminding the British people of the history and tradition that binds us together.”
Wally leaned over and whispered in Ralph’s ear, “And make the Republicans shut up…”
The Crimson snickered, before grabbing his composure again. “Have you contacted the French authorities?” he asked.
It took Sir Edward a moment to answer. “…That would be politically unwise.”
“Why not?” asked Mabel.
“Did Napoleon come back to life while we weren’t looking?” added Allison.
“The French don’t know about the expedition,” said Sir Edward. “Both the archeology team and Roundtable filtered into the country over the course of a month, under assumed names.”
“For the love of God, why?” asked Close-Cut, shaking his head in disbelief. “You weren’t exactly plotting an invasion… were ya?”
“The State Minister wished to avoid competing claims on any artifacts and human remains that may have been discovered.”
Mistress Quickly let out another peal of mechanized laughter, slapping her spandex-wrapped knee. “Of course you didn’t…”
“I assume you want us to go find them?” asked Allison.
“That we do,” said Sir Edward. “Before we discuss the matter further, I think it prudent we discuss payment for your trouble.”
“I like the sound of that,” said Mr. Barnes, sitting beside his son.
“Understandable. I’ve been told your town is suffering from a measles outbreak?”
“I’m afraid so,” answered the Comet.
“Well, we have a team of doctors and nurses—”
Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles. Sir Edward ignored them. “…And we’re prepared to dispatch them to Catalpa at your earliest convenience. Tonight, even.”
Close-Cut blinked. “You don’t expect us to find your people that fast, do you?”
Sir Edward shook his head. “Of course not. Disease does not work on a timetable. Think of it as advanced payment.”
“That’s mighty kind of you,” said the Comet. “We do have some people in a precarious state of things.”
“Yeah,” grunted Fred. “Gotta say, I expected you Poms to yank us around a bit.”
That statement soured Sir Edward a little. It made it harder to derive any satisfaction from his next move. “It must be said, our doctors can’t guarantee the recovery of any of your people. Measles is a terrible disease…”
“We know,” said Mistress Quickly. “We’re not fools.”
“We do, however, have someone who can guarantee it.” He gestured at the meeting room’s door. The soldier got up from the projector and opened it. A very fit, darkly handsome young man with slicked black hair in what appeared to be a jet-black doctor’s coat walked into the room. Everyone in the room recognized him from the Roundtable picture. He was leading a golden retriever on a lead. The beast looked like it was made of suffering. It was almost skeletal, but a grotesque lump protruded from its abdomen. Its fur reeked of shit and piss. The dog struggled to keep up with the man, its legs threatening to give way beneath it. It growled weakly at Billy as they passed him, his scent confusing the animal. The boy recoiled and whimpered. The dog made the same noise at David, but he just poked his tongue out at it. Mabel punched him in the shoulder.
“Poor thing,” Jack Lyons said under her breath as the dog and man reached Sir Edward’s side. The golden retriever slowly, painfully lay down at their feet.
“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Christopher Elderwood, the newest member of Roundtable.”
Christopher Elderwood smiled. “When I’m in this get-up they usually call me Dr. Death.”
“Cheery name…” said Mistress Quickly.
“Would you like to introduce our other guest?” Sir Edward asked Dr. Death.
“Would be happy to.” Dr. Death crouched down next to the dog and stroked his head. “This is Sir Snuffles. He’s six years old, belongs to the groundskeeper’s daughter, and is a very good boy. He’s also got a tumour the size of a cantaloupe growing next to his stomach. Frankly, it’s monstrous that I haven’t done this already…”
Dr. Death stood back up. In one fluid motion, he pulled a pistol from his coat and shot Sir Snuffles in the head.
Billy’s scream managed to drown out the gunshot. The room shuddered. Old dust sprinkled onto the shouting Catalpans. The Crimson Comet shot up out of his seat, angry red energy crackling up his form. “You rat bastard!”
Close-Cut put a restraining arm around his lover’s shoulder. “You’ll send the ceiling falling around our ears!”
Drina had instinctively pulled her daughter into her side, right out of her chair. She glared at Dr. Death and Sir Edward, ignoring her daughter’s very physical protests. “How could you—in front of children?”
Sir Edward raised his hands. He was beginning to reconsider the dramatic approach. “Now now, if you’ll just wait a moment—”
Sir Edward—indeed everyone in the room—was cut off by a wave of heat. It was like someone had lit a bonfire. Golden light filled the room. When it faded, the only sounds were Billy crying, and Sir Snuffles panting happily. He was back on his feet. New fat and muscle had been laid over his bones like concrete over steel girders. The tumour was gone.
“I’m the world’s only pacifist murderer,” said Dr. Death, clearly basking in the shock he’d caused. “Everything I kill comes back to life. In perfect health.” The super didn’t fail to spot Mr. Barnes looking hungrily at him. “When did that happen?” he asked, pointing at the man’s leg stumps.
“Korea,” answered Fred.
“Sorry,” said Dr. Death, sounding genuinely contrite. “Needs to be a mite fresher than that.”
The bad news didn’t make Fred Barnes miss a beat. “But you can do measles, right? Even if they’re in a bad way?”
“…Send him to Catalpa,” Fred said breathlessly. “Right now.”
“When your fellows have done their job,” said Sir Edward firmy.
“Piss off. You don’t dangle this in front of our faces and pull it away.”
“We are already sending your town plenty of help.”
“A man has died!” roared Fred. “My wife hasn’t opened her eyes for days. You expect us to hunt for the Holy Grail or whatever bollocks while our people rot?”
Jack Lyons stood up. “Sir Edward, if I may be so bold, perhaps you could reconsider? The Catalpans have shown me nothing but courtesy since I arrived in their town.”
“Yeah!” agreed Fred, loudly. “We could’ve called him a POW and kept him!”
Of course Lyons would play nice with them, Edward thought. Jack was the opposite of him. People like him existed to draw eyes. To make people proud. Sir Edward didn’t have that luxury. Jack Lyons wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences. “Thank you for your input, Lyons. But there are practical considerations here. These people—as complicated I’m sure their circumstances are—are outlaws. We need leverage.” Sir Edward’s eyes darted between the two supervillains in the room. “I’m sure Close-Cut and Mistress Quickly understand.”
“Do I get a say?” asked Dr. Death.
“Bastards!” screamed Fred. “Stingy old Pommy pricks! It’s Gallipoli all over again.”
“Arnold,” said Drina. “You might want to take your father out for some air.”
Arnold nodded hastily.
“Don’t talk about me like I’m a bloody dog, woman—what’re you doing, boy?”
Arnold pushed his father out of the meeting room. As deeply uncomfortable as it was, he didn’t dare use his power on him. As Fred’s ranting and raving faded, Ralph sighed. “We accept your terms.”
“Good,” said Sir Edward. “I assume you can transport the doctors back to Catalpa.”
“Within the hour,” said Mistress Quickly.
Sir Edward clapped. “Right. We’ll have papers and transport prepared for you within three days. Two of our embedded agents will meet you on arrival.” He pointed at Billy. “You might wish to leave Mr. St. George here or at Catalpa.”
“Or,” said Mistress Quickly, “I open a portal to Brittany tomorrow morning, and you give your embedded agents the month off?”
“…That works too, yes.”
“And we can take Billy,” added Allison. “That’s very important.”
“It is?” asked Billy, still drying the fur around his eyes.
“Course it is,” insisted Allison. She looked up at Sir Edward. “We’ll need files on all the Roundtable people you sent. Copies for me, Mistress Quickly…” She turned to address the Comet and Close-Cut. “Can you two share?”
The pair nodded.
“So yeah, gonna need those tonight.”
Sir Edward agreed to hand over the classified data to the ten year old.
1. Scots Gaelic for “Sweet Sorrow.” ↩
2. It was somewhat presumptuous of Sir Edward to assume Maude Simmons would be overly impressed by their technology. ↩
3. A brutalist monstrosity just outside of Washington. The modernist architecture makes it surprisingly difficult to notice when the hallways rearrange themselves. Arnold was very disappointed when he learned its existence was in no way secret. ↩
4. A small town that grew up around the abbey Our Lady of Pampoint, founded by Breton high king and Catholic saint Judicael in the mid 7th century. ↩