Chapter One Hundred and Fifteen: The Matter of Catalpa

Two SAS men roughly dragged the possessed Starry Knight out of the gaol. Next time the pair shared a pint with their colleagues, they’d brag about manhandling a mad superhero. For now they moved like they were escorting an angry bull made of glass. Allison Kinsey had forced Sir Cai to remove his host’s prototype spacesuit and don grey prison fatigues. The brown boy had taunted Sir Cai wearing the helmet. He didn’t put up much of a fight. Briefly forgetting Allison’s hold on his nervous system, Sir Cai was gripped with envy for the soldiers’ weapons. His new body’s memories told him what they were, what they could do. Suddenly, years of slaying giants with sharp points of steel felt like far too much effort.

Sir Edward, Jack Lyons, Dr. Death and the Catalpans were standing in the middle of the island. A pentagram of vine-thick power cables had been laid out on the grass and coated with salt. Each point was marked by a different contraption. A sparking box with crucifixes bolted to it. An electric boiler that reeked of frankincense and sage. A Japanese saisenbako wrapped with rice-chaff rope and plastered with paper seals embroidered with circuitry. In the middle, a silver half-sphere with a small dome rested on a bed of rock-salt, a thick cap floating magnetically above it. Sir Cai didn’t recognize half the devices, but he’d spent enough time in Myrddin Wyllt’s company to recognize magic when he saw it. He frowned. “You think you can exorcise me?”

“Something like that,” said Allison.

“I am no demon!” cried Sir Cai. “I am here on the authority of God!”

“Sure you are,” said Allison flatly. “You can let go of him now,” she told the soldiers. 

They obeyed. Without being told, Sir Cai walked towards the pentagram. He couldn’t get used to how the evil little girl compelled him. It wasn’t like strings tugged on his bones. His body simply aligned with her wishes. His will was as breath against rock. He wondered if this was how Anthony Peake felt. There was a moment of tension when Sir Cai had to step over the salted cables—like walking against a stiff wind—but he pushed through it. Dr. Death looked at Mistress Quickly. “We ready to start, Miss?”

Mistress Quickly nodded, not looking up from the repurposed television remote she was holding. “Go ahead.”

Dr. Death stepped into the pentagram. Mistress Quickly tapped a few buttons. The power cables hummed to life around him and the knight. “Sir Cai, I take it?” he asked the prisoner. 

“That I am,” Sir Cai answered sourly. 

Dr. Death flashed him a grin. “And here I thought you were called Starry Knight.”

“He was not worthy of his flesh’s might. What do they call you?”

“Dr. Death.” 

Sir Cai laughed. “You aren’t  the first young knight to try on a sobriquet too big for you, boy. Was ‘dragon-slayer’ and ‘ogre-gutter’ taken?”

Dr. Death whipped his pistol out from his black coat and fired a round into the air, before aiming it again between Anthony Peake’s eyes. “I consider it aspirational.”

Sir Cai flinched with everyone else, but was quickly smirking crookedly at the gun-barrel. “You think I’m a savage, don’t you?” He tapped Starry Knight’s temples. “I know that there is no magic in your hand. Just powder and blacksmithery.  And I know you people are too soft to strike down your brother.”

Dr. Death cocked his head. “Oh, right,” he said. “We hadn’t met before this, had we?”

Dr. Death squeezed the trigger. Blood sprayed out the back of Anthony Peak’s head. As the body fell, something grey and sharp flowed out of its mouth; a whirling cloud of blades that snapped and shrieked at Dr. Death. The good superhero staggered backwards. He had seen death (of a sort) many, many times, but this was still a surprise. Who knew ghosts were made of metal?  

Mistress Quickly stabbed a button on the remote. The half-sphere glowed. The spirit was dragged down towards it like flecks of rust to magnetic ore. Sir Cai’s essence let out a cry and lunged for Dr. Death, worming into his chest. The Crimson Comet moved to intervene, but Mistress Quickly put an arm out in front of him. “He can handle this.”

Dr. Death gasped, his body jerking and twitching like there was an angry cat lodged in his stomach. His face roiled, lips gurning. “…Oh no you don’t, buster!” 

Dr. Death brought his pistol under his chin and fired. Sir Cai’s essence once more screamed out into the air, carried by a spout of brain and bone. It circled in the air, desperately searching for a new harbour as the half-sphere again dragged it down. Within seconds, it merged completely with the metal. The cap fell down over the dome with a clang. The electric whir died down.

At the same moment, a wave of light and heat exploded from Anthony Peake’s body. The superhero shot upright like a child from a nightmare.  “I—what…” The superhero glanced up at the open grey sky, then down at himself. “Where’s my suit? What have you done with my—” His eyes widened when he spotted Dr. Death’s corpse. “Oh, God…”

Life returned to Dr. Death explosively. He yawned and stretched as the light faded. “Glad that worked.”

Peake shook his head. “What the hell is going on—” A tide of secondhand memory broke over Starry Knight. Laughter in his throat as flesh and bone cracked and burst. People who he’d helped set up tents and shared cups of tea with. “I—no I—what did I…”

Anthony Peake broke into confused, horrified tears. Ralph Rivers sighed and shook his head sympathetically. He sat down beside Starry Knight and patted him on the back. “I know, mate. It’s not your fault.”

Peake handled for the moment, Mistress Quickly checked her Carnacki battery, thumping it firmly with a closed fist. “If any of you’ve ever wanted to know how much the human soul weighs, I’d say about thirty grams? Still not lugging this thing around, though.”

Sir Edwards’ professional frown fluctuated like an EEG. “So, Miss Kinsey, what now?”

Allison watched Starry Knight weep. “I’ll need a map of King Arthur stuff in Great Britain. And hot chocolate.”

Billy, Myrddin, and Sir Bedwyr stood atop a waterfall on the River Trevillet, cradled by curved stone walls crusted with frost and moss. The moon was hiding behind heavy winter clouds. The water below almost glowed with darkness. It was so cold, Billy’s costume had grown long sleeves and trousers. Myrddin had made them stand all in the river. Billy’s ankles were numb. He didn’t dare complain.

“But Myrddin,” said Bedwyr, “I threw the sword away at Camlann, miles away!” He looked down over the lip of the waterfall. He could only tell there was a drop by the churning noise, but sound could tell you a lot. “I doubt the river here is deep enough for a child, let alone—”

Merlin raised his hand. “I assure you, good knight, that does not matter.”

Billy rotated his wrist, feeling the weight of Caledfwlch in his hand. “Excuse me, Mr. Myrddin?”

“Yes, my liege?”

“Why do I need a new sword? I just got this one. Isn’t it wasteful?”

“A prudent question,” said Myrddin. “Caledfwlch is but a tool to read men’s hearts”—the wizard recalled some Plato—“to sort gold from brass and iron. Otherwise, it is merely the memory of a sword King Gwenddolau once wielded.”

“Who’s that?” asked Billy.

Myrddin sighed. Perhaps his first king was lucky to be forgotten. He for one didn’t enjoy reading about himself. “A small king, your highness. A good man, but part of the problem. As I was saying, Caledfwlch is as fine a sword as any smithed by mortals. I doubt Excalibur was smithed by anyone. Certainly not by any mortal. You will need it for the work ahead of us.”

Billy nodded, though the super in him wondered how much of a difference one sword could make. Maybe it shot lasers. Myrddin banged his staff against the river bed. “Come on, Nimuë. I need the sword.”

The plunge-pool at the bottom of the waterfall glowed arsenic green as it came to a boil. A pillar of foam rose up through the darkness. A pair of slender, fungus white arms surfaced from the crest, followed by a head of long, muddy green hair. The woman’s eyes were bright red with black slitted pupils, like a frog’s. Her fingers were webbed. Her breasts were bare, her waist trailing off into the water. Billy wondered if she had legs. Mostly, though, he tried not to stare. Were Allison and Miri going to look like that one day?

The woman smiled, revealing rows of pike-sharp teeth. It looked like a smile, at least. Maybe she was just showing off. Sir Bedwyr fell into a kneel, eyes cast downward. In a low, gurgling voice, she said, “I see you’re up again, Myrddin.” She regarded Billy with bemused interest. “And you’ve found yourself a new saviour I take it? A handsomely curious specimen. I hope you haven’t poached a child of my kind.”

Billy looked down at the dark, green accented water. Somehow, he always imagined the Lady of the Lake being less… David’s granddad. 

“William is no fairy,” said Myrddin. “Though he is a wonder.”

Billy still couldn’t believe Merlin was impressed by him. 

“I thought not,” said Nimuë. “He has fur and he’s dressed. Nice costume, by the way.”

“Th-thanks,” said Billy.

Nimuë looked at Sir Bedwyr. “Rise, knight. Don’t tell me you’re still ashamed.”

Sir Bedwyr got to his feet, but didn’t meet Nimuë’s eyes. “I should’ve returned the sword at once. I lied to my king!”

“And then you did what he asked. Come, man, it’s been over a thousand years.”

“For you it has, my lady,” retorted Sir Bedwyr. “For me, it’s been less than a month.”

Nimuë frowned thoughtfully. “Hmm. I recall Sir Bedwyr entering a hermitage after Camlann.” She looked at Myrddin. “Tell me, Myrddin. Did you truly call up this knight’s spirit, or is he merely a memory?”

Beldwyr didn’t say anything to that. Myrddin grit his teeth. “You’re asking me questions? Why did you do it, Nimuë? Put me in the earth when Britain needed me? When Arthur needed me?” 

Nimuë smiled again, this time not showing her teeth. “It wouldn’t have turned out the way you thought, my love. Your vision might be deeper than most men, but that’s not saying much. And you always did think with your horn.”

Billy knew from the stories that Merlin and the Lady of the Lake were boyfriend and girlfriend. They never did a good job of explaining why she trapped him, but apparently, neither did she. Now, he was just surprised they were ever together like that. But then, David’s granddad had a baby with someone. Billy suddenly wanted to ask Grandfather Ocean if he was married. Myrddin put a hand on his shoulder. “This boy is worthy. Will you grant us Excalibur?”

“I suppose the same trick won’t work on you twice,” said Nimuë. She leaned forward to examine Billy. “Why do you want to be king, child?”

Billy stammered. “I—I just want to help people.”

Nimuë sniffed. She smelled no lie from the child. The fairy shook her head. “Where do you find these boys, Myrddin?”

“Fate delivers?”

Nimuë had no eyebrows. If she had, she might’ve arched one. “And you still blame me for how it all turned out. Very well.” She raised her hand. A silver sword handle materialized in her hand like frost in the air meeting to become ice. Its guards were fish fins, with a diamond clear as water set into the hilt. Nimuë plunged the handle into the water supporting her, pulling out a glassy, transparent blade. Nimuë twisted the sword, displaying the phrases engraved in gold on each side, not in English, but Billy could still read them: “Take me up,” and “Cast me away.”  Nimuë handed the sword to Billy. “Does it feel right in your hand, child?”

Billy flexed the sword. It was like air laced with silver—just heavy enough he knew it was there when he closed his eyes. “…It does.”

“Do you retain the scabbard, my lady?” asked Beldwyr. “My king might have lived on if he hadn’t—”   

“Of course I do,” answered Nimuë. She pulled a sapphire blue scabbard from the water, tossing it to Myrddin. 

“Is the scabbard important?” asked Billy.

“Vital,” said Myrddin. The wizard removed a small dagger from a coat pocket. “Behold.” He ran the tip of the blade along his open palm. It cut through the skin like velvet, but no blood escaped the wound. “So long as the scabbard is on your person, William, you shall not bleed.” He handed the scabbard to Billy. The moment it left his hands, his hand started bleeding. 

Billy tried to hand it back to Myrddin. “You can hold it till your hand’s better, sir.”

Myrddin shook his head. “No, my king. It is yours now.”

“Good luck, child,” said Nimuë. “We shall all need it.”

Billy looked up at Myrddin. “I’m ready to help. But is what’s coming really so… big?”

“I could show you, though it would not be an easy sight.”

“My friend Tom says it’s always good to know what you’re dealing with. He’s smart.”

Myrddin sighed. “As you command, my king.” He put his hands on the sides of Billy’s head. “Quisquis vera petit duraeque oracula mortis fortis adit. Da nomina rebus, da loca, da vocem, qua mecum fata loquantur1.

Great birds flew across the seas. Metal-phoenixes that would not rise again as they crashed to earth. Forests burned. Skyscrapers were stripped to skeletons as the humans they harboured evaporated. Eyeballs melted in their sockets. Flesh stripped from bone. And that was just the first minutes. First there was no summer, as the ash of millions and billions of dead fled into the sky, reaching in vain for Heaven. Then the sun’s rays, sharpened by thin air, turned the skin they struck into open, weeping wounds. Wombs soured, babies emerged from their mothers without bones or brains, or as tangled balls of flesh and limbs. Plagues dead for decades and centuries rose again.  Billions withered into living skeletons as they tore the bark from trees. Those who stubbornly clung to life prostrated themselves before a dark angel…

Billy didn’t even notice when he stumbled over the waterfall. Myrddin and Bedwyr almost followed trying to catch him. 

William!” cried the wizard.

Nimuë caught Billy, holding the boy in the clammy warmth of her arms. “You could’ve chosen a better spot to share, Myrddin.”    

Myrddin heaved with relief. “Are you alright, my king?”

Billy looked hard at the wizard. “Whatever we need to do, I’ll do it.”

It wasn’t hard for Allison to figure out where Merlin and the knights were. She just thought very hard about going to various Arthurian sites until the wizard put his hand over her third eye. It was a bit like hiding something from Superman in a lead box. The mere attempt at concealment gave him away. Tintagel was only her fourth attempt. Allison didn’t find that amazingly encouraging, though. She knew Merlin would be expecting them. Now the Catalpans, Jack Lyons, Bròn Binn’s detachment of SAS, and a few very bewildered local policemen were besieging King Arthur’s Castle Hotel. It was strange, Allison thought, having the army and police on side for once. 

Allison stood behind the police cordon, sirens painting the hotel’s brown Neo-Norman face red and blue like an indecisive artist, watching the windows for movement. She tensed at every shadow that flitted across the bright glass.  Going in guns and powers blazing was out of the question. They probably had the custodians hostage. More importantly, they had Billy. Jack Lyons periodically tried to coax them out via megaphone:

Please bring the child and the civilians to the front door. We only want to see they’re unharmed…” 

Starving the knights out didn’t feel like a winning strategy to Allison. They had Merlin. He could probably grow a fruit-tree in the middle of the dining room or something. But they had other options… 

Drina appeared behind her daughter, rubbing her shoulders. There’d been no convincing her and Mr. Barnes to stay back on the island. Not with Billy kidnapped. “Don’t worry, love. I’m sure he’s fine.”

“I know he is,” said Allison. “Billy’s still in pretty much all the futures.” Somehow, grown-up platitudes didn’t sound any less hollow when you knew they were true.

Drina let go of Allison and staggered backwards, crying out in alarm as Tom Long’s outline rose from the ground in front of them. Once his feet were safely out of the ground, the outline filled with colour. Not much, though. Allison had Close-Cut outfit Tom with his own super-suit: a jet black body glove with a splash of white over his right arm and shoulder and an empty circle on his chest. Tom had grumbled, but Allison said it was good PR. “Sorry Mrs Kinsey,” he said. His expression was even graver than usual. No surprise; he was alone.

“Where’s Billy?” Allison asked. “Is he in the hotel? Did they see you?”

“No, he’s in there,” replied Tom. His mouth twitched with consternation. He rubbed the back of his neck. “I tried to get him out, but he didn’t let me.”

“What?” said Allison.

“He said he wanted to stay! That he was helping Merlin or whatever his other name is ‘save England’.” Tom shook his head. “He wanted to make me one of his knights!”

“What’d you say?” asked Allison.

“That he was nuts, what else? Jesus, I know Billy’s… Billy, but he’s usually not that off with the fairies.”

“Excuse me, Tom,” said Drina. “But couldn’t you have, well, dragged Billy out?” 

“He said he would scream,” muttered Tom.

“He said he would scream,” repeated Drina, a touch flatly. 

Billy said he’d scream, ma’am.”

“Ah, fair,” said Drina. Hoping to reclaim some sense of authority, she added, “We better go tell everyone.”

As they made their way to the police work tent, Allison said to Tom, “You really should pick a superhero name to go with the costume. Helps leave a good impression on the normals.”

“Sure thing, Miss Lawrence.”

Quick as a snake, Allison pinched Tom on the neck. Hard. He winced. “Okay, maybe I deserved that.”

“He didn’t seem drugged?” asked Mistress Quickly. “Or bewitched or whatever?”

Tom shook his head. “Nah. Scared, maybe. Tired, definitely.” He quirked a shoulder. “I mean,  that makes sense. It’s way past his bedtime.”

“This is no time for jokes,” said the Crimson Comet. 

“I’m not joking,” retorted Tom.

Miri appeared above everyone. She looked just about ready to personally tear open the hotel. Somehow. “You said he looked scared. Are they hurting him?” 

“Don’t think so, Ghost-Girl,” said Tom. “Didn’t look like that kind of scared. Trust me, Miri. I’ve seen enough little kids get beat to tell. It was more like…” He looked at his fellow Institute children. “Remember when Bran and Sheilah2 stood up to Lawrence? It was a bit like that. You know. Determined.”

“Children are easily led,” remarked Jack Lyons. “Idealistic by nature. It’s not hard to believe our foe has a silver tongue.” Every child in the tent glared at Lyons. He smiled apologetically. “Present company excluded, of course.”

“What’s our next move?” asked Close-Cut. 

“Our next move is to get Billy out of there!” insisted Miri, loudly. “We didn’t leave everyone with the witch lady when they said they wanted to stay! And why do magic people keep picking on us?”

“Good question…” muttered Mabel.

The chief constable barged into the tent, declaring in a thick, Cornish accent “Some folks are coming out of the building!”

Merlin had changed considerably since Allison’s glimpse of him. Or, given how far she’d had to dig into the past for it, it might have been more accurate to say her information was woefully out of date. He strode out of the hotel’s front doors in a crisp suit. The only real tell that he was a wizard was his staff. A troupe of hotel staff staggered out behind him. Whatever Tom had said about Billy, these people were clearly enchanted, swaying on their feet and glancing around like there were birds flying around their heads. 

“We’re taking reservations for the spring…” drawled a maid. 

“I do not need these people,” declared Myrddin. “They are free.”

The staff started lurching towards the cordon. 

“I assume the Gypsy child wants to speak with me?”

Allison hooked her leg over the police tape, but her mother put a firm hand on her shoulder. “Excuse me?”

“Mum! He’s asking for me!” 

“Oh, that’s an improvement,” said Drina. “Now he’s asking.” 

“Would the lady feel better if I accompanied Allison?” asked Jack Lyons.

“If you accompanied us, yes,” replied Drina.

“A fair compromise.” Jack looked at Allison. “Your mother is a brave woman, Miss Kinsey.”

“Yeah…” Allison tried not to think about how bringing her mum turned out the last hostage situation, only for a groundskeeper to bump into her. 

“Damn rabbits…” 

The two Kinseys and Jack Lyons approached Merlin. Allison was very to the point. “Give us back Billy.” 

“William St. George is my king. I would not dare hold him against his wishes.”

Allison and her mother exchanged looks. Jack Lyons cleared his throat. “That may be, but there is the matter of the… unfortunate business in France. You killed nine British citizens. You are most definitely holding eleven more in bondage.”

Myrddin counted in his head. “Then Sir Cai is no longer among those who breathe. It is as the fates have told me.”

“Sort of,” said Allison. She called behind her, “Comet!” 

Ralph Rivers awkwardly ducked under the police tape, carrying Mistress Quickly’s Carnacki battery over.

“This is the holding cell for the entity you call ‘Sir Cai.’ Its inventor was… reticent to describe the conditions within,” said Jack Lyons, “but I’m led to understand they’re quite unpleasant. We have the means to extract the rest of your knights into such devices, unless you consent to send them on their way back to their appropriate netherworlds.  In light of your… reputed services to Great Britain, the Crown is willing to extend clemency towards you in exchange for further aid.“

Myrddin grunted. “Those people wanted me to kill millions more in the name of your ‘Crown.’ Now you demand the same.” He glared at the Canarcki battery. “You can keep him. Let Cai be your butcher.”

“Please, sir,” said Drina. “Billy is very dear to us. We just want to know he’s alright.”

“I am, Mrs Kinsey.”

Billy poked his head out shly between the hotel doors. The blue of his costume had turned tyrian purple. His cape had thickened into fur. Instead of a domino mask, he wore a gold coronet studded with sapphires. He stepped out into the night and gave a small wave. A blue scabbard hung off his belt. “Hi everyone!” He pointed at his head. “Do you like my crown? I made it myself!”  

Far back, Tom Long pinched the bridge of his nose. “Oh, God.”   

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1. “Whoso braves the oracles of death in search of truth, should gain a sure response. Let the hidden fates tell through thy voice the mysteries to come.”

2. Formerly known as Metonymy and Artume.

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