On a bright midsummer noon, the prince of the sea visited the Tower of London, to play hide and seek with the ravens.
David crept along the stone arches of St. John’s Chapel, trying to stifle a giggle. When he reached one of the thick, rectangular pillars, he wrapped his arms around the stone and shimmied around to the other side. He could have simply misted or flowed around the obstacle as water, but sometimes, it felt good to simply use his body, his mother and father’s legacy to him. He dropped down onto the next stretch of arch, flinching at a loud, raspy caw behind him. He swung around to find a raven staring at him. Its body swirled like the contents of an inkwell in an earthquake. Its outline was faintly blurry, but its eyes were smouldering red coals.
David grinned. “You are so cute.” He wondered if Stratogale or Ophelia could’ve talked to the thing.
The raven let out another caw and flew at David. He leapt to the side, clear off the arch, turning to mist in midair. The raven cocked its head towards him, too late to avoid smashing into the pillar. Its shadowy body splattered against the brickwork, dripping down the stone like melted liquorice.
David hung as water vapour in the centre of the chapel for a moment, so spread out he was nearly invisible, waiting for the penny to drop.
A raucous choir of bird calls, about as in time with each other as a crowd of drunk Christmas carolers. Dozens—hundreds—of shadow-fleshed ravens streamed out from the dark corners of the chapel. They swirled about the chamber like a river of pitch winding through the air, their feathers and bodies flowing into each other, barely remaining distinct. Probably trying to figure out where he’d gone, David thought. There was something about this guy’s powers that was ducking just below the window of memory. David probably should’ve read the Roundtable files more closely, but he wasn’t much for non-fiction these days. Plus, paper and water didn’t mix well. He noticed the stream of ravens seemed to be curving around the upper and lower windows at the front of the chapel.
David pulled his mass together, compressing into a sphere of ice. Then he shattered, becoming an array of crystals. A smashed chandelier in free fall. The ice captured and scattered the light streaming through the windows in a seizure of sunbeams. When they struck the ravens, they set them alight. Fire spread through their ranks. Soon the river of pitch was a red and orange aurora. In seconds, all that was left of the unkindness was ash.
David dropped in a crouch into the chapel aisle, flesh and blood wrapped in alien fibre again. He crowed, “Olly olly oxen free!”
The sound of splintering wood like the crackle of flame. An axe dug and clawed through the chapel door, until it tore from its hinges and fell with a thud onto the stone tiles. A powerful wall of muscle, clad in a forest green tunic and a black executioner’s hood replaced it. He carried an axe of crystalized darkness, like glacial ice in the dead of night. Nevermore. David had been playing hide and seek with the man for half an hour. The possessed superhero wasn’t very good at it, though. He hadn’t even counted first.
David smiled. “You know, the door was unlocked.”
Nevermore screamed and rushed at the water-sprite, swinging his axe in front of him. David ducked and weaved around him. Mostly the axe bit into empty air, or the wood of the antique church pews. Once, though…
“What’s the matter, can’t—”
David’s taunts were cut off by a choking gasp. Nevermore’s axe had collided with his side, digging into his ribs. Blood mixed with the shadow like blood and tar.
Behind his hood, Nevermore’s eyes widened. Behind them, the knight Sir Galeschin the golden haired1—nephew of the Pendragon himself—blanched. He’d never killed a child before. He’d assumed this creature was a demon, merely wearing the skin of a boy, but the look on his face. The way his mouth snapped open and shut, like a puppet managed by shaky hands…
Galeschin sighed and averted his eyes. “I’m sorry, lad.”
David smiled. He melted away, even his blood on the axe turning spring-clear. The water slid across the floor like a creeping carpet of mold. David reformed in front of the chapel’s altar, bent with laughter. “The look on your face…”
Nevermore bellowed with rage. He let go of his shadow-axe, letting it evaporate. He instead thrust his palms forward. A pillar of shadow roared at David, engulfing him and forming into a black sarcophagus around his body, leaving only his head clear. David yelped. He couldn’t feel anything below his neck. He could’ve been one of the heads that once decorated Traitor’s Gate.
Nevermore laughed. “Hah! Got you, you smug little prick—aaah!”
Luckily for the sea-prince, he was not alone. The chapel door hit Nevermore square in the back. He fell flat on his face, the darkness around David evaporating in the same moment.
The star-girl stood in the ruined doorways, clapping imaginary dust from her hands. “Twice in one day. You’re getting sloppy.”
David smirked. “I would’ve gotten out.”
“Sure you would’ve.”
Nevermore groaned. “I can’t feel my legs…”
David kicked the superhero in the side. “See how you like it!”
Brit was rubbing her chin. “He could be lying, you know. Or be able to heal or something. We should tie him up.”
Soon, Nevermore was encased from the neck down in a block of ice, formed from water siphoned from the Tower of London’s restroom sinks and toilets. Especially the toilets.
“There,” said David, admiring his handiwork. “That should hold him.”
Sir Galeschin tried to spit at David and Brit. The glob of sputum stopped and reversed halfway, flying into the knight’s stolen mouth. He sputtered, the children laughing.
“So, we’ve put out all the fires…” said Brit.
“And we just caught another knight,” continued David.
“You’ll both rot in hell…”
“Oh,” said David. “One thing first.” He turned his back to Nevermore. “Costume off.”
Nevermore just rolled his eyes at the mooning. The children ran off giggling. They rambled through the Tower of London; jumping on the four poster bed in the recreation of Edward the First’s bedchambers above Traitor’s Gate; sword-fighting in oversized metal helmets in the royal armoury; and teasing the real ravens in the aviary. Eventually, they discovered the Jewel House and the treasures within.
Brit balanced the Imperial State Crown on her head. It kept slipping down over her eyes. David blew a silver trumpet behind her. She turned to find her friend adorned in every ring and necklace he could find. He could’ve been one of Edgar Rice Burroughs’ Martians, freshly hatched from his mammalian egg. “Am I not resplendent?”
“So, clothes are alright, but shinies are cool?”
Brit picked up the Sovereign’s Sceptre (with dove) from where she’d set it down, twirling it in her hand. “Think they’d notice if we took home some souvenirs? I mean, we are saving their whole country.”
David shrugged. “Definitely keeping this,” he said, holding up an ornate golden spoon. “Did you know gold doesn’t rust?”
A rumble shook the jewel house’s walls. The children shared a glance and made their way out onto the Tower’s tree choked grounds. When Brit and David had arrived, they’d spotted the HMS Scorpion2 docked down river. They hadn’t paid it much notice. Just a big old boat. Now, a metal giant was rising from the water on great hydraulic legs. Its body bristled with guns. A radio tower protruded from its back like a crest. Its new, angular head let out a roar.
David and Brit watched it on an ice disk above the canopy. “Fo-Fum and Andrea are still sick, aren’t they?” asked David.
“Yep,” replied Brit. “More for us then.”
The children high-fived.
The green glare melted away into blue and white chessboard floor tiles and burnt orange formica surfaces. “Where are we?” asked Tom.
Billy looked about the small room. “A kitchen, I think.” He pointed at a lime green fridge. “See?”
“I know that,” said Tom. “But where?”
Allison raised her arm and pointed towards the kitchen door. “North’s that way.”
“…Okay, I didn’t know that, but c’mon!” Tom looked about the kitchen. The decor didn’t scream posh to him, but there were appliances on the countertops he didn’t have names for. He examined the refrigerator. Its door was plastered with evidence of humanity: including a calendar open to that month—apparently best represented by a breaching humpback whale—but marked for a date about a week back. That sent a ghost of panic shooting up Tom’s spine. Had Arnold sent them back in time?
…Or did whoever lived here just forget? Tom felt very silly, though who could blame him after the stunt Merlin pulled at the hotel?
Allison was doing her own exploration. The benchtops were covered in pots and pans, all filled with freshwater. Power outage? She skipped over to the kitchen window and pulled open the corn-cob curtains.
Trees. A wall of trees like iron bars, staining the sunlight green. “Okay, what’re the chances?”
“Are Arn’s powers on the fritz?” Tom pulled a piece of paper from the fridge, pinned between a ladybug magnet and a polaroid photo. “Next week someone’s going to see Fiddler on the Roof at Her Majesty’s Theatre. Now, I guess that could be the Queen of Sheba’s theatre, but that sounds pretty London to me.”
“I don’t think we’re in the wrong place,” said Billy, voice small.
“Why not?” asked Allison.
Billy pointed past Tom at the fridge. The older boy turned to look. With the ticket gone, you could see the subject of the photo behind it: Billy, flashing his friendly vampire grin over a birthday cake with six candles.
“Oh,” said Tom.
Hurried footsteps, rapidly drawing closer. Allison closed her eyes briefly. “Ah, guys, try to look not-scary.”
The kitchen door flew open. A young lady with disheveled, unwashed dark hair barged in wielding a tennis racket. “Get the hell out—”
Betty Sullivan trailed off. The racket fell with a rattle to the floor. She and Billy stared at each other for nearly ten seconds. Their songs peaked almost painfully in Allison’s ears. Their minds were constellations of supernovas. There was something else, too. It had neither sound nor colour, but Allison saw its torn, ragged edges; saw its sundered halves cautiously unfurl from Betty and Billy, reaching out disbelievingly before frantically weaving back together.
Allison knew it wasn’t a power thing. She just remembered.
Billy and Betty almost bowled each over. She pulled the boy up into her arms, pressing his face against her shoulder. “Oh, Billy…”
Allison waved weakly. “Ah, hi Miss Sullivan.”
Betty didn’t even register the other children. She finally set Billy down on his feet. She didn’t have much of a choice. He’d gotten so big. Had it really been nearly two years? How? She felt like someone had gone and clipped cells from a film she was watching. Her favourite film… “Billy, why… how are you here? I thought you were in that little town the supers made?”
“Catalpa,” cut in Allison, ever brand conscious.
“Yes, thank you.” Betty suddenly remembered who she was speaking to. “Oh, hello Allison. Good to see you again, I’m sorry about”—how to sum up over a year of horror stories?—“everything.”
“Thanks, Miss Sullivan,” said Allison.
Betty looked at Tom. “…You’re not Maelstrom, are you?”
Tom resisted rolling his eyes. “Nah, ma’am. Tom Long. Maelstrom goes by David these days.” Tom suppressed a smile. This lady only knew David when he’d been Mealy. Tom really wanted to see that reunion. “Billy’s told me about you. A lot. It’s frankly embarrassing how much he brings you up.”
Betty smiled. “Aww.” She shook her head. “Okay, asking again, what are you kids doing here?”
Billy rubbed his foot fretfully against the floor. “Um, I’m sort of the… king.”
Betty tilted her head. “Wait, that was you?” She tutted and shook her head. “Oh, Billy, honey…”
Billy threw his arms tight around Betty’s waist. His claws nearly tore at her blouse. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry—”
Betty opened her mouth to ask some follow up questions. They rushed to the tip of her tongue like deck passengers on a ship, threatening to overturn the whole boat. She held them back for the moment, rubbing Billy’s back. “Sshhh, shush. It’s alright. We all do silly things sometimes.”
Billy kept clinging. “…Why did you move to London?”
Betty sighed. “Your folks offered me a job here. I couldn’t really say no. My resume isn’t exactly long.” It was time to be honest. “I think they didn’t want me spreading gossip. It hurt, Billy, it really did. But I thought you’d be happy with Mr. Lawrence. Fool me…”
“No, I get it,” said Billy. Nothing his parents did could surprise him anymore. He looked around. “Where’s your baby?”
Betty blinked. “My baby?” She laughed. “I don’t have a baby.” In truth, Betty’s love life hadn’t gotten much more eventful since moving to London. Her last date had gotten a plate thrown his way when he mistook a picture of Billy for monster flick memorabilia.
“But Myrddin said…” Billy stepped away from Betty. He stared down at his shoes, breathing heavily. Matter mist sheathed balled fists. “Allison, we’re gonna get Myrddin. Now.”
Betty reached a hand out. “Billy?”
Tom nodded approvingly. Rage was like salt. Too much would kill you. Without it, the soul collapsed.
Two giants battled in the Thames, the water licking at heels of metal and ice. They weren’t making much headway.
The HMS Scorpion had transformed into a sturdy iron knight, seventy metres tall by twenty five wide. On one arm, it boasted all the cannons that had once graced its gun deck. In the other, it carried the two halves of its former hull, warped and repositioned now to form a greatshield, almost as tall as it was. Its AA guns had moved to its shoulders and formed a belt around its waist. A bipedal, crystalline crocodile scratched at the knight’s pig-iron chest with short, powerful arms, covered with spines and spikes of ice.
On one of the Thames’ concrete walls, David stood roaring and raving his arms as unselfconsciously as any boy alone in his room.
David had watched Godzilla at the children’s hall some months previously. The film had given him ideas. Not good ideas, but ideas. The Scorpion raised a knee to the monster’s face, and with a crack that rang out through half of London, shattered half its jaw against a bulwark knee. David cackled, his puppet rearing back dramatically as if hurt, before the Scorpion raised its tall shield like a spade and buried it straight through his monster’s torso, slicing it roughly in half.
As the first beast fell, another rose slowly to take its place, this one a giant ape. The scorpion turned, undaunted, and raised its gun arm.
From his distant perch, David frowned.
How to fight it, though?
“It’s too tough for water to do that much. Maybe—”
A plume of water rose up around the robot and froze solid. It shattered as the ship moved. The Scorpion didn’t even seem to notice.
“I want a turn,” said Brit, sitting by David’s side.
David froze in his revelry. “You sure?” he asked. “It’s kinda big.”
“Sure. Just lemme take a swim first. Boil the water for me.”
At that, Brit slid herself down off the bank, and into the Thames.
With a grin, David did as he was told. All about Brit’s shadow, the water bubbled. Then it froze. David boiled it again. It froze again. With each iteration, Brit glowed a little brighter under the water
The Scorpion had just beheaded its third rival: A giant tarantula dancing over the water like the arachnid saviour, when Brit made her move. A laser streak of pure, white light exploding from the water. She moved so fast that the air clapped with a sonic boom. The concrete bank from which she had kicked off exploded. She slammed into the Scorpion’s belly like a tiny, cackling missile.
A couple city blocks north, an egg portal opened in the graveyard of St. Paul’s Cathedral. It deposited Allison, Billy, Tom, a somewhat stunned Betty, and a freshly retrieved Dr. Death in front of the dome of locks Myrddin had placed over himself.
“Good aim, Blancheflor,” said Allison.
“Thank you, Miss Kinsey,” buzzed her watch.
Dr. Death glanced dubiously towards the crashes coming from the Thames. “This is why I’m not a frontline super.”
“Is this… normal for you now?” Betty asked Billy. Billy had tried to leave her at Bròn Binn, but she wouldn’t leave him alone. Allison could relate.
Billy shrugged. “Sorta? Not every day. More like… every third Wednesday?”
Tom cracked his knuckles. “Right. Mad Laurie’s great-great-grandpa’s in there, yeah?” Tom turned see-through and stepped confidently towards the churning mess of chains and locks.
Allison put a hand out. “You can’t—”
A loud pring sent Tom staggered backwards. He returned to solidity. “It’s like touching a fan!”
“Yep,” said Allison flatly.
“Maybe if I go under—”
“Then what are we—”
Dozens of locks came together to form a wall sized face. It stirred second hand memories of the Palazzo Braschi in Allison. In Myrddin’s voice, it gravely intoned, “Only those who answer my riddle may pass.”
Not much in the way of verse, Allison noted. Myrddin must’ve been in a rush. Tom frowned. “If he can make a magical thing that can block off me, why make it so you can open it with a riddle?”
“Basic magical law,” said Allison. “Choose between a bunch of weaknesses that make sense, or just one that doesn’t.”
Billy knew better than to argue with the fairy-tale Mussolini face. “We’re ready!”
“When did falling stars grant no one’s wish?”
“… I don’t get it,” Billy muttered.
“Okay,” said Tom. “Maybe not the worst idea.”
In the river, Brit was playing mosquito on the Scorpion, clambering up and down the giant like a spider-monkey punching craters in its hull. The Scorpion had stopped paying any attention to David’s icy beasts, focusing totally and utterly on swatting the girl. The machine guns on its waist were pointed upwards, trying to turn their bullets into antibodies, willing to risk a few dents in its hull to get rid of Brit. They just fed her energy. Or even more often, hit the spits of ice that rose to shield her. It made Brit smile. David could still be such a sweetie. She waved to him. He waved back, not noticing Gloriana landing silently behind him. Brit blinked. “David! Look out!”
Galahad twisted David around and picked him up by the neck. He growled. “Wanton demon! I know what you are.” He glanced up and down at David’s bare skin. “You wear flesh that isn’t yours!” Flesh you don’t deserve!”
David rolled his eyes, clawing at Gloriana’s unbreakable grip and trying to pull at the possessed superheroine’s blood—if it was him or her, he was picking her—but it didn’t listen. It was very unfair. He tried to shift to vapour, but his flesh was slow to listen. Too much of him was wrapped up in the Thames. He couldn’t just leave Brit—
Brit landed on top of Gloriana’s head, screaming and pulling at her brown curls. Galahad dropped David on his rear.
“Three—” Brit grunted. “—Times!”
David turned to ice in time for the Scorpion’s bullets to shatter his body and knock Brit off of Galahad. The knight panted as thick liquid light gushed from holes in Gloriana’s chest. He could feel the bullets melting inside of him as the wounds closed. He grimaced at the strange blood. “What is this woman?”
“A badarse,” said Brit, picking herself up. “She has lava for blood.”
“Witches! Witches, the lot of you!” He jabbed a finger at Brit like it was a dagger. “You made me one of you! A monster!”
The ice that was David melted and evaporated, forming into a spectre of the boy beside Brit. The children nodded as one. “Damn right, we are,” said Brit.
Back at the graveyard, Allison and company were trying to puzzle out the wizard’s riddle:
“When you tell someone what you wished for?” suggested Betty gamely.
“No,” said the giant face.
“Never,” suggested Tom. “Because wishing on stars doesn’t work.”
“Sourpuss,” Billy said out of the corner of his mouth.
“You are a ‘puss’!” Tom snapped back.
“I think you’re on the wrong track,” said Dr. Death. “He said ‘When did falling stars grant no one their wish?’ Past tense. I reckon he’s talking about some specific occasion, not”—he waved a hand—“the state of the world.”
Tom looked at Allison. “Can’t you just check the future for the answer?”
Allison glared back at the older boy. “Gee, okay, I’ll just check every combination of words until I find the right one. Billy’s little, he’ll probably still be alive by the time I’ve…” Allison’s words started to trail off. “…Found it.”
Tom snapped his fingers in Allison’s face. “You alright there, Allie?”
Allison shook her head. “Have any of you ever heard the thing about a million monkeys at a million typewriters banging out Shakespeare plays?”
“Vaguely?” said Betty.
“Wouldn’t you want them to write new plays?” asked Billy.
“Pretty sure it’s meant to be infinite monkeys,” added Dr. Death.
Allison shrugged. “Monkeys are dumb, Shakespeare is hard. What about seven million Londoners and one riddle?”
“…We’re talking about Londoners, right?” asked Dr. Death.
“I don’t think we have time to ask everyone in London,” said Billy diplomatically, only for his eyes to widen at Allison. “Oh.”
“You think you can handle that many people?” asked Tom. “All that once? All Alberto ever had to deal with was thirty people, max, and he went through a bottle of wine a day. And that’s when he was sober.”
Betty remembered how sweet Alberto Moretti had been to her the day they took Billy away. “What happened to Mr. Moretti?”
“Turned out he was a bastard,” said Tom. “Old Laurie’s chief brainwasher. Probably used his tricks on you.”
“Oh.” Betty wasn’t sure if that made her feel better or worse. Less of a fool, maybe. Even more powerless, definitely.
“And then Allison ate him and took his powers,” explained Billy helpfully.
Billy threw his hands up appeasingly. “Don’t worry, it was by accident.”
“Point is,” cut in Allison, “I can… ask everyone in London. And they can answer. Seven million people. Someone’s gotta figure it out. Even just by accident.”
Betty was only an expert on Billy’s powers, but she’d been to enough concerts and royal shows or even just out on the streets to know what even a mere few hundred voices could be like. And that was outside her head. “Are you sure, Allison?”
“Look at it this way,” said Dr. Death. “If you fry your brains, I can just blow them out—”
Betty slapped Dr. Death across his face. He rubbed his cheek. “This is why I don’t hang around civilians…”
“Right.” Allison sat down cross-legged. She didn’t want to risk falling over in her trance. Be very embarrassing. She looked up at Billy and Tom and the two grown ups. “Keep an eye on me, okay? I’m gonna be… distracted.”
Tom, Betty, and Dr. Death voiced their reassurances. Billy drew Excalibur from its scabbard. “You have my word.”
Allison took a deep breath and closed her eyes. Within her, Alberto’s voice was shrill:
Seven million people! Christ’s sake! Our brains will leak out of our bloody ears—
Allison felt Miri smother Alberto’s protests. By humming. She was a good sister.
It took Allison a few moments to visualise what she had to do. She pushed her mind out from her body in all directions, first swallowing her companions, making them annexes of her own consciousness. She could hear all four of them. The detente between curiosity and dread inside Dr Death. Tom’s angry fretfulness. Billy’s terrified optimism and still stinging betrayal. Betty’s sheer confusion. Joy ran under and through everything else inside her and Billy, though. It made Allison smile. She hoped it didn’t look weird. Myrddin’s dome was a psychic void, which was no surprise, though Allison had held out hope she could simply extract the answer from his mind. Would have been easier.
Allison made herself vast—a spider unspooling into its own web. Her presence drowned the wood and steel forest of London in an invisible flood. London’s people became minnows in her ocean, as aware of her as real fish were of air. They swam and wormed through Allison. Was this what an ant-hill felt like? Anger, confusion, fear, and every other emotion a person could feel burned bright and hot inside Allison, their colours melting white together. It felt like swallowing a whole galaxy. And they weren’t even thinking at her yet…
If Allison had truly been speaking, she would have cleared her throat:
People of London. Me and my friends—the people of Catalpa—are here to give your city back to you, but we need your help. A cruel wizard has given us a riddle to solve: when did falling stars grant no one their wish?
The length of a synapse firing. Then, in voices soft and loud, sharp and dull, the city roared.
1. Originally. Nevermore himself was a redhead. ↩
2. A Weapon-class destroyer constructed near the end of World War 2. In 1965, it took part in the Fleet Review celebrating the coronation of Queen Elizabeth the Second. ↩