A brave knight battled a dragon over London Town. London Town was rooting for the dragon.
Yet, it was not the breed of dragon the knight and most of the folk below were familiar with. Its body was thirty metres of muscle sheathed in navy blue terracotta scales, its leonine head fringed by a seaweed green mane. It twisted and twirled through the air like a ribbon caught in an updraft, snapping its catfish whiskered jaws at the flying Sir Galahad.
The knight slashed at the beast with a sword forged of dawn light, plunging the blade under the dragon’s scales and prying them off like old wall tiles. The orange blood that spurted from the screeching dragon turned to amber in the open air.
Galahad grunted with frustration. He’d been fighting dragons for a solid fifteen minutes. The moment each monster fell dead from the sky, another took its place. Some had rainbow feathers and no limbs, others multiple canine heads. One had a turtle shell and projectile spines hidden amongst long green fur. This dragon didn’t didn’t even spit fire, but its arrival had broken Weathermonger’s spell of spring.
It was throwing Galahad off.
Far below the aerial arena in Paternoster Square, Mabel Henderson crouched behind a window in one of the red brick buildings that were the walls of Canon Alley, picture-binder leaning open against the glass. Much of Mabel’s power was tied up with the Qing Dynasty dragon fighting Gloriana, but she still had enough to give the skinheads in the tree-choked alley some trouble. She watched with satisfaction through gaps in the canopy as Myrddin’s New Knights clashed with their namesakes. Given that one side had plate armour and the other had leather jackets and denim jeans, the outcome was fairly predictable—
Mabel yelped as two huge, furry arms yanked her into the air. A bull gorilla bellowed into her ears. Mabel screwed her eyes shut—
A gas propelled harpoon skewered the gorilla in the leg. It dropped Mabel as it stumbled painfully and fell onto its back. Blood soaked into the office carpet. A black bearded man in a dark oilskin looked down at the wheezing animal. “Aye, at last, the great… brown… gorilla.”
Mabel stood up, dusting herself off and wishing she’d been able to think of a more appropriate ally to summon. Wasn’t even enough room for a biplane. She supposed it didn’t make much of a difference to the knight. The gorilla shrunk, its fur shedding to reveal a shivering, naked young man with skunk-stripe hair. Apparently Animal Kingdom worked on David rules rather than Tom ones, which did at least spare Mabel from beholding his costume. Unfortunately for the knight using him as a costume, the harpoon was not dislodged by the transformation.
“Which one are you?” asked Mabel.
The possessed superhero gasped, “Gingalain y—you vile little w—” He changed his mind. “
“Never heard of you.”
Sir Gingalain flashed Mabel an ugly, bitter smile. “This witchling shall never walk again… thanks to you.”
“Sure he will,” said Mabel. “Once we shoot you in the head.”
Gingalain whimpered. Mabel turned back to the window and cracked her knuckles. “You know what this fight needs? Goblins…”
Gawain ran through the forest surrounding St. Paul’s Cathedral, laying down a black trench behind him like a line on a treasure map. Every few yards, he willed it to ignite, sending chunks of concrete and trees exploding into the air. His honour cringed at running from a fight like this, but better that disgrace than—
The dark lady descended like a black angel riding a great silver leaf through the forest’s green roof, cutting Gawain off in his tracks. Even covered head to toe as she was, the strange, indecent clinginess of her garment left no illusion as to her sex. She raised her gun, strange, even to Rock Cannon’s memories. In a horrific, hornet swarm voice, she said, “I’ll take surrender or an actual fight, just no more running about, please.”
Gawain fell to Rock Cannon’s knees. “Please, dark lady! I cannot raise arms against a woman!”
Mistress Quickly tilted her helmeted head. She turned the click-wheel on her multi-gun to “All-Over Hayfever.” Had to consider the bloke he was wearing. “Sweet of you. Condescending, but sweet.”
She fired. Gawain rolled out of the way with less than a centimetre to spare. He threw his palms down against the paved forest floor, shooting out two black lines either side of him. A wall of dust and rubble erupted between him and Mistress Quickly. The super-scientist swore.
Gawain kept running, passing hapless, bewildered New Knights and changing direction everytime he spotted one of the strange, invading knights.
In his time, Gawain had been one of the finest warriors in Britain. Now, he was little more than a squire, wielding strange weapons too big for his hands. He was too panicked to notice the green darkness that crowded him on all sides glinting like an alien nightscape. Something bright and only semi-solid slammed into Gawain’s feet, tripping up the knight. Before he even hit the ground, the same substance bound his hands together behind his back. He felt his feet being pulled back to meet his wrists. Gawain craned his neck painfully. He’d been hogtied by gold, like some overwrought warning against the sin of avarice.
As Gawain struggled, a figure glided out of the darkness in front of him, riding a winged golden platform. His armour was gold, too, over a layer of a blindingly white fabric. If Gawain wasn’t seeing things, the man had a Catayan1 cast to his features, but when he spoke, he sounded more like King William than anyone else:
“Gawain, right?” said Chen Liu. “I heard you tangled with a green knight once.” He smiled sharply. “What about a gold knight?”
From the Golden Gallery atop the dome of St. Paul’s, the wizard Myrddin looked out over the forest of London, his king, his knight, and his prisoner at his side. He could see trees falling or being launched into the air like waves or water spouts at sea. Every minute, more “superheroes” emerged from the rent in the sky. He had eleven knights and a few dozen young fools. William had told him his home had more than a hundred wonder-workers.
“It’s over, Myrddin,” said Jack Lyons, hands bound in a knot of ivy. “Surrender now, for the sake of the people, if no one else.”
“Throw him over, Bedwyr” said Myrddin.
Billy looked aghast at the knight. “Don’t—”
Sir Bedwyr threw Jack Lyons over the gallery. He didn’t even cry out as he slipped over the dome out of sight.
Billy’s mouth hung open for a sec.
“…You killed him.”
Myrddin scoffed. “I did not. That ‘man’ is made of diamonds. Probably scrambling up the stairs as we speak.”
“I apologize, my king,” said Bedwyr. “I could not disobey an order from Myrddin’s mouth.”
Billy clenched his clawed fist, nearly drawing blood from his own palms. He glared up at Myrddin. “You promised I was the boss. That you wouldn’t make them do something I didn’t want them to do.”
“It was necessary—”
“No it wasn’t! You were just annoyed! So you hurt someone!”
Myrddin ignored the boy, turning to Bedwyr. “I will use what time we have left to complete the ritual, if I can. Good Bedwyr, if you please, awaken the diversion in the docks. Buy me time.”
Bedwyr nodded. “Yes, Myrddin.”
Billy hammered his fists against Myrddin’s side. “We’re not doing that!”
Myrddin pushed Billy off of him, gently but firmly. “It must be done, William. You can hang me on the other side, for all it matters.”
Billy sniffed, tears welling. “You’re just like Lawrence.”
Billy vanished. Myrddin could just make out the child’s hurried footsteps in the gallery dust. He knew enough of William’s past for his words to sting, but Myrddin’s soul was well calloused. He noticed Bedwyr looking at him.
“He’ll thank me one day. Now, to our tasks.”
Myrddin descended as a flock of birds down into the church graveyard, where his stolen stones still hung in the air. He raised his staff. “Hoc vide, ut dormiunt pessuli pessumi,
nec mea gratia commovent se ocius!2”
Metal locks of all shapes and sizes swarmed around Myrddin and the stones like a cloud of midges, coming together to form a shifting, churning dome. By the flickering light filtering through the gaps, Myrddin got back to work.
On Fleet Street, David had his back against the doors of the Daily Telegraph Building. Their glass panels were cracked and frosted with a week’s worth of moss. Five New Knights formed a wall in front of him, toting clubs and knives, their pockmarked faces contorted into sneers. The leader (mostly by virtue of a January birthday and long legs) spat at David’s bare feet. “Surrender, coco-puff?”
David grinned. The spit flew from the doorstep into the leader’s eye. He stumbled backwards into his comrades, right as the blood in his right arm jerked sideways, tearing muscle from bone and sending his knife into his neighbour’s cheek. Screams of pain and shock mingled as one as the other three New Knights lunged for David. They collided with the newspaper doors. David reformed out of mist where they’d been standing a second before. He stuck his tongue out at them, jeering, “Can’t catch me, can’t catch me!” and taking off into the trees.
“Get the nigger!” David heard the lead teen scream, no doubt clutching his ruined arm. It made him giggle. For years, Lawrence had told David people would hate him for being a super. Now they were going after him because he was brown. Humans were dumb. It wasn’t a very fair chase. The New Knights had to weave around the trees. David just turned misty every few seconds. And they were running above a web of water-pipes…
A geyser erupted under one of the running New Knights right between his legs, lifting the cringing teen up through the canopy.
“Don’t look back, man!”
David laughed. This was the most fun he’d had in clothes for weeks. He came to a stop in a clearing formed around the Temple Bar monument, looking up at the spiked metal dragon that stood atop the dirty concrete column, its forepaws wrapped around the shield of St. George. David wasn’t sure if the bloke who made it had meant to make it look like the dragon won, but it looked cool. It was a shame Mabel couldn’t do sculptures. He turned on his heels in time to catch the last two New Knights crashing through the trees. David smiled brightly. “Surrender pale… bald… dumb guys?”
One of the New Knights pounded his fist into his palm. “Fat chance, monster.”
Twin watery serpents burst out from the asphalt either side of the New Knight, bowling him over as they forced themselves into his mouth and nostrils. The young man flopped and thrashed like a beached fish, drowning in the middle of the road.
David looked at the other New Knight. “Gonna ask one more time: surrender?”
“Yes, please, for the love of God, stop!”
The serpents died. The fallen New Knight went limp. His back arched, a fountain of bile-tainted water spewing out of his mouth with a ragged wretch. He breathed like his lungs were full of thorns. Good, David thought. Sarah said he wouldn’t get dessert for a week if he killed anyone. Still, had to make sure they didn’t go back on their surrender. The New Knights screamed as their hands were forced together, their veins bulging like ropes. Blood leaked, then gushed through their skin, slithering down their arms to form rings around their wrists and freezing solid. Both teens fainted. David clapped his hands together. Job well done—
David’s feet slipped out from under him. A sphere of ozone tinted air lifted him into the air. David turned into water, sloshed about, then evaporated. No good. The bubble was watertight. When he returned to flesh, there was someone standing under him: a woman in an orange leotard with a four-leaf clover stamped over her chest. Her hair was even dyed green. David recognized her. Cessair—Roundtable’s token Northern Irish member3. He had no idea which knight was inside her, and did not care in the slightest. Cessair smiled. In a very un-Irish accent, she said, “Gotcha, water-demon.”
David hammered his fists against the force-field, swearing silently. Then he grinned.
“What are you smiling at?”
A white streak struck Cessair in the side, knocking her out of sight like a slide in a view-finder. Brit stumbled to a stop, glowing softly with a dazed grin on her face. At the same time, the bubble around David popped, sending the boy falling onto his rump. “Could’ve given me some warning,” he said, rubbing his new sore spot.
“Not giving any warning was kinda the whole idea.”
Close-Cut had furnished Brit with her own super-suit, a body-glove swirling with dark purples and blues around two black globes set against a red sun on her chest. Even David had to admit it looked good. “Still, nice one.” He glanced in the direction Cessair had flown. “She gonna be alright?”
“Probably,” said Brit, shrugging. “If her legs don’t work or something, Dr. Death can fix it.”
David winced. Allison’s voice was echoing in his skull:
David! Spitfire’s on the move. Get over here before we’ve got another Great Fire of London!
“Allie needs me…” David scrunched his face and pointed westwards. “That way… mind giving me a lift?”
Brit smiled and slapped David on his shoulder. “Sure, ya weirdo.”
David wrapped his arms around Brit’s shoulder and his legs around her torso. She bore the weight easily. David pointed forwards grandly. “Off, my noble steed!”
Brit took off in a run, gaining speed and luminosity as her body collided with the air, draining it of heat and momentum. Her footprints were patches of ice. She leapt, breaching the canopy like a tiny aeronautic dolphin. She and David sailed over the tree-tops, catching sight of an orange canyon of fire in the distance, eroding the green around it like water through soft clay. Brit gulped. “That’s what Miri’s birthday party’s going to look like, isn’t it?”
Piccadilly Circus was screaming. The whole of London was at least grumbling, but Piccadilly was completely hysterical. Allison couldn’t blame the junction. She’d be grumpy too if part of her was melting. Spitfire was possibly Roundtable’s most powerful member, maybe the strongest super living in Western Europe. For brief sprints, he could burn in excess of six thousand kelvin. Much of the time, he didn’t even need to get close to you to win. Convection handled it for him. At the same time, he usually avoided the spotlight. That was the thing about fire powers. Burnt out buildings and barbecued flesh didn’t make for great PR. The US hadn’t put Hiroshima on a recruiting poster. In a city of trees, Myrddin had been smart enough to keep whoever he had shoved in the superhero on a leash.
Then the Catalpans had attacked.
Allison lay on her stomach on the roof of the Criterion Theatre, arms spread either side of her, fingers stirring the concrete like bowls of water. Behind her, Metropole leaned smoking against an air-conditioning unit. Esclabor the Saracen had been surprisingly cooperative when Allison ran into him in the woods:
“Look, Arthur was a great friend of mine, but Britain is another man’s country.” The lost king had glanced about and whispered with his hand to his mouth, “Also, I can still take or leave that ‘Christ’ fellow.”
And so, the exiled pagan lord had offered his services as Allison’s jukebox.
Piccadilly’s tree cover had been reduced to a lake of ash and burning coals. The junction’s signs had gone dark for the first time since 1949. Red Coca-Cola signs had been scorched black. Cigarette advertisements had gone up in flames. Lightbulbs had exploded, raining skin-shredding hail over the road and sidewalks. With Metropole’s power, Allison had forced the buildings at each exit to slide together like the Clashing Rocks, turning Piccadilly into an architectural bullring. The roundabout had turned into a vortex of concrete and asphalt, slowly but surely pulling in Spitfire.
The superhero’s asbestos costume had been vapourized half an hour ago, leaving only a man with the skin of the sun, ink spots swirling over blindingly white flesh. Allison saw him scream with rage. She couldn’t make out his voice, but the bonfire roar of superheated air served well enough.
Rubbish bins hurled refuse at Spitfire that splattered into messes of melted metal and plastic against the side of his head. Lampposts stretched like tentacles to wrap around his limbs, holding on as long as possible before subsiding into the molten slag around Spitfire’s feet. Every ten seconds or so, a bright red mass struck and bounced off Spitfire like a giant, superheated pinball:
My hair’s starting to singe, Allie, thought the Crimson Comet, loudly.
If David would stop taking his sweet time… Allison thought back.
I’m coming, I’m coming!
Brit and David landed on the roof of the London Pavillion. They ran to the railings and looked out over the destruction. Brit whistled.
We need a lot of water quick, Allison broadcasted.
David looked up at the thick winter clouds. “Hey, Brit, think you could throw me up there?”
“Decided to end it all, water-boy?”
David grinned. “C’mon, it’ll be cool.”
Brit thrust her arm out over the railing. The heat rising up from the circus made her glow like the northstar. Soon, David couldn’t even make out her face. She got to her knees and laid out her hands. “Okay, ready.”
David stepped with unnecessary gentleness onto Brit’s open palms. Then she threw him straight up. David shot into the sky like a tiny, watery rocket:
David disappeared into the clouds, the wound he left closing under him. Brit had just enough time to tilt her head.
The clouds fell over Piccadilly Circus. All at once. Less rain than a misplaced tidal wave. What windows had survived the inferno were shattered. A tide of steam hissed up from the flooded junction. Spitfire stood naked and extinguished in ankle deep water. Allison jumped to her feet.
The Crimson Comet leapt down from the green dome of the County Fire Office, landing a king-hit on Spitfire and spinning him around to continue the beat down. Allison watched from her rooftop, swaying from side to side. Push him left—no, my left! Back a bit—perfect!
A hole opened in the road under Spitfire, swallowing the super whole and shutting again without a trace. Sir Sagramore landed on his feet in perfect darkness. His legs should’ve been shattered by the fall, but this strange new flesh was made of sterner stuff than that. The knight stretched out his arms, finding no walls. He couldn’t yet summon back the inner fire to banish the shadows. A thought quickened his breathing. Was this death? Had his last strange journey come to an end? Was this the pit?
A noise. Musical, but like nothing Sagramore had ever heard, not even on the island of everlasting spring. A trumpet, perhaps? One worthy only of Gabriel himself. His hopes rose. Perhaps this was death, but it need not be the end for him. Another sound joined the trumpet, like a cavalry charge pounding the ground with hooves of steel. Great gates opening, perhaps? As though in answer, two glorious spheres of white light broke through the darkness. Sagramore laughed, his fear leaving him. He’d made it. All his triumphs, all his mistakes, they didn’t matter now—
Wait. Two lights? Odd number. Oughtn’t it be three?
The lights were almost upon him. They burned away the darkness, revealing curved brick walls. Spitfire’s knowledge stirred within Sagramore. The train whistle blew again. “Oh, fu—”
Allison winced as she felt Spitfire slip under the wheels. She raised her arm to her mouth, speaking into her communicator watch. “Blanceflor, we need Tom under Piccadilly Station, stat.”
Tom Long rose transparently through the Piccadilly roundabout, dragging an unconscious Spitfire up behind him. They both filled with colour. Spitfire’s skin was almost a solid, purple bruise. Tom glanced at the super, his eyes flashing white. “Ah, this fella’s bleeding pretty bad inside. Might want to ship him over to Dr. Death.”
Allison raised her communicator watch. “Blancheflor, tell Dr. Death we’re sending Spitfire to the exorcism ring.”
“Doing so, ma’am.”
Allison nodded at Arnold. The cloaked boy pointed a finger at Spitfire, sending him away with a flicker of lightning.
“What now?” asked David.
“We’ve knocked most of the proper dangerous supers out of the game,” said the Crimson Comet. “Or drinking in a pub.” He looked up. Gloriana was currently fighting an Arabic roc. “Looks like Mabel’s got things under control on her end, good girl.”
“We need to get Billy back,” said Tom firmly. “Take me, I’ll talk some sense into him.”
“No offense,” said Allison, “But that didn’t work wonders at Tintagel.”
Tom grunted. “Then take Arn, too. Worst comes to worst, he teleports Billy home. Would probably mess up Merlin’s magic stuff, too.”
Arnold nodded. “Sounds like a plan.”
“Yeah,” said Allison. “David, you and Brit keep up fire control. Don’t want a gas-main blowing up.”
David saluted jauntily.
“Ralph… keep Esclabor drunk. Don’t want him changing his mind on us.”
The Crimson Comet sighed. “Sure.” It was a trying assignment. Folks from Esclabor’s time and place were much less strict about matters of the heart, and there were few things more uncomfortable than being hit on by a possessed man.
“Blancheflor, open us a portal to St. Paul’s.”
“Yes, ma’am,” Blancheflor’s tinny voice replied. “Just sorting out an exit with Spaceman Jones4—oh, there’s something you might want to see.”
An egg portal opened onto the steps of St. Paul’s. Allison stepped through first. “Holy crap!”
Jack Lyons lay in ruins in front of the church doors. His legs were shattered, literally shattered. The ragged stumps resembled cracked open geodes, revealing a shinny mess of crystals. The right side of his face had caved in. Still, he flashed the children a grin. “Hello, Miss Kinsey.”
Allison tried not to recoil.
Jack’s one good eye flicked over to Tom. “Thomas Long, correct?”
“Ah, yeah.” Tom waved weakly. “Good to meet ya.”
Jack chuckled. “If only the circumstances were better.”
“What the hell happened to you?” asked Arnold.
Jack tilted his chin upward. “Myrddin and I had a disagreement in the Golden Gallery. It seems my… structure was more far gone than I suspected.” He rocked towards the door. “Young William is inside. I assume you’re here to tend to him?”
“Yeah,” said Allison.
“Good. The boy’s having a rough time of it.”
“Is—is there anything we can do for you?” asked Arnold.
Jack closed his eyes. “Actually, there is. I think this time around is done for me. I could do with a rest.”
Arnold’s eyes widened. “You want us to—”
Jack raised a shaky hand. “I think we all know what I’m asking, Mr. Barnes. If you could send me somewhere hot. The sun, or even just the Earth’s core. I think that would be a full stop for me.”
Arnold looked at Allison and Tom. The latter was avoiding his gaze, the former shrugged painfully. He looked back down at Jack Lyons. “Are you sure?”
“Quite sure. Don’t think of it the way I know you are, Mr. Barnes. I died a long time ago. This is just a brief intermission. I’ll be back when Britain needs me again.”
Arnold nodded. “Okay.”
He took aim, his lightning building to a crackle about his hands, and hesitated. After a moment, he closed his eyes.
“C’mon, Arn,” said Allison. “He needs this. It’s not Lawr—”
“He’s paid his dues, Allie,” Tom said shortly, stepping forwards and putting a hand on Allison’s shoulder. “Do it yourself. Lava.”
Allison nodded. “Right.”
Jack Lyons gave Arnold an apologetic smile as he melted.
Allison regarded her hand as the lava glow faded. She felt… odd. Not guilty or ashamed, but… strange. It wasn’t like the soldier bloke at the Institute. “Does that count?” she asked aloud. “As, you know, killing him?”
“Doesn’t matter,” said Tom. “Like you said. He needed it.”
Tom went transparent and stepped through the Great West Door. Arnold and Allison shared a brief look before pushing the doors open.
It didn’t take long for them to find Billy. He was curled up crying in front of his erstwhile throne, under the eyes of Saint Paul himself.
“Oi! Billy!” Tom ran down the aisle and past the choir to sit down beside Billy, drawing him into his arms. “Come on, it can’t be that bad…”
“Since when did Tom hug?” asked Arnold.
“Everyone hugs Billy,” replied Allison.
“I messed up,” sobbed Billy. “Myrddin won’t listen to me. He was never gonna listen to me.” He pressed his face against Tom’s chest. “I’m an idiot. No wonder Betty doesn’t want me…”
Tom blinked. “Wait, what? You saw Betty?”
“Myrddin told—” Billy’s voice trailed off. “…Me.”
“Billy, if there’s one thing I’ve learned, it’s that you never take old white fellas on their word. Especially when they’re poms.” Tom called out to Arnold and Allison. “Arn, zap us to Billy’s nanny. Right now!”
“What? We’re kind of busy—”
“It’s Billy. C’mon, Arn, I got you out of the last thing, didn’t I?”
Tom lifted Billy to his feet. “C’mon. We’re gonna see your mum. Your real mum.”
“You really think she wants to see me?”
“She’d be an idiot not to.”
Allison ran to their side. “Blancheflor, keep a lock on me and Tom. Don’t know where we’ll be ending up.”
Again, it took Arnold a few goes to get a spark. It always did when the destination was so uncertain. When he was given a question, rather than a location. But soon, he found Billy’s answer.
1. Derived from “Catay” an archaic name for China. ↩
2. “Behold how these cursed locks and bolts sleep on, not even for my sake will they bestir themselves!” ↩
3. The 1990s would not be kind to her. ↩
4. Joseph Allworth’s personal satellite. ↩