Noise. Noise that was also light. The night sky, if every star was as close as the sun. That’s what London was to Allison. Hundreds of thousands—millions—of voices screamed within her. Most were confused. Others were afraid they were going mad. Given what they’d lived through the last week, it was hard to fault their logic. Then there were the legions convinced this was a trap by Merlin and his turncoat superheroes, screaming abuse and threats at Allison from both their minds and their lungs. The barest sliver of herself still paying attention to the physical world could’ve sworn she truly heard them, drifting and slithering through the trees around St. Paul’s like demons on the wind. Allison didn’t try to assuage any of them. It’d be like trying to be an ombudsman for her gut flora. She simply kept broadcasting Myrddin’s riddle, over and over:
When did falling stars grant no one’s wish?
She was a lighthouse in a roiling psychic sea. Eventually, London’s citizens, more than Allison could hope to count—a cloud of glowing plankton carried on the tides of unthinking matter—began to answer her message. Much of it was babble. More than a hundred thousand people repeated Betty’s answer of “When you tell someone what your wish was,” in nearly as many variations. Legions of children (and a surprising number of grown ups) recollected wishes gone unanswered or seemingly actively repudiated by the cold stars. Love. Wealth. Ponies and pet dragons. The city had become a vast, fractal brain, each cell and neuron a complete mind working independently of the rest. Woefully inefficient, but powerful.
Allison was not inefficient. She sat cross legged before Myrddin’s shelter of locks. She opened and shut her mouth over and over, letting each answer die in her throat as they failed to banish “No” from her myriad futures. She’d set Alberto and Miri help process to deluge the torrent of answers. Better three fingers in the dyke than one. Still, the living fibres of Allison’s costume gorged on her sweat. The tips of her fingers and toes were cold and numb, but the real, feverish heat radiating off her could be felt from feet away.
Billy stepped forward pulling along Betty in his hand. “Allie—”
Tom put his arm out. “I wouldn’t distract her right now. Pretty sure we’re standing in the middle of something big.”
Tom was wise.
The answers kept flowing; from the rich, the poor, the young and the very old; and everything outside and inbetween. A blasphemous young man in Chelsea offered the Nativity as a possibility. Conversely, a conservative vicar in Kensington suggested horoscopes. A poet at Middlesex simply said, “When you wish to put the stars back1.”
For whatever reason, the musings of a mother of four in a Poplar flat rose above the din inside Allison:
“I remember once, in the war, we got caught outside. My mum and dad, they must’ve thought we were dead, but I was so little. I think a searchlight or something must’ve glanced off the bomb.” The distant echo of a shudder. “Like a falling star—”
Allison gasped like a fish pulled up into the dry. The future shifted as she fell on her back. Her body tensed and shook. All across London, the air itself seemed to exhale, its people alone inside their heads again.
Tom, Billy and the grown ups flocked around Allison. Her blood was lead in her veins, but Betty and Dr. Death lifted her up between them like she was a dry husk. “Christ, girl,” said Dr. Death. “You’re half-cooked.”
“Did you find the answer?” asked Tom.
Allison didn’t have the energy to open her mouth. The answer passed from her to Tom like a dying dove.
“Ah.” Tom glowered up the face in the dome. “The Blitz. Don’t know if the Brits were wishing for anything, but the Nazis were. Didn’t work.”
Tom shouted. “London! Either of them! Nobody’s ever talking about Cardiff!”
The face sighed. “Well, I tried.”
The dome collapsed, the locks exploding into rusty dust before fading into nothingness. A flock of great stones froze in the air, boulders riding steady, invisible geyers of force. Myrddin twisted around to face the interlopers, arms still raised in occultic exertion. “My king—”
Billy pointed at Betty, his eyes fixed coldly on Myrddin. “You lied.”
Myrddin regarded the young woman supporting Allison Kinsey’s pallid form. He’d seen her face before, in a future he’d sought to discard. The lady tilted her head. “I still loved Billy, sir. Why would you ever tell a child they weren’t loved?”
Myrddin averted his eyes. “I—I couldn’t let him be distracted—”
The roar hit Myrddin like a giant’s fist. He flew backwards, landing hard on a ledger stone. Pain gnawed at the wizard’s back, as though the tombstone were devouring him. Before Myrddin could draw a breath, Billy was on top of him. His claws slashed and dug into Myrddin’s face.
“You thought I was dumb! Weak!”
Myrddin grabbed the boy’s arm. “No—Billy, I never—“
Billy broke free with almost pantherine strength, wrapping his claws around Myrddin’s neck. “Shut up! You don’t get to use me! I’m mine! Nobody’s going to treat me like I’m not mine anymore!”
Betty ran over and pulled Billy to his feet by his shoulders. “That’s enough, honey.”
Billy breathed heavily, nodding slowly. That was enough being David for him.
Betty looked down at Myrddin. He wheezed, “You are a good woman. A good mother—”
She kicked him in the side.
Billy gathered himself. “Betty, there’s something I need to do now.”
“You don’t have to do anything, sweetheart.”
Billy looked at Myrddin’s stolen stones, still frozen mid-dance. “It’s okay, Mum. It won’t be hard.”
Billy strode towards the stones and spread his arms. Myrddin managed to sit up. “Wait!” The shout wracked his chest, but Myrddin kept on. “My king, please!”
Transformation bloomed in Billy’s hands. Silver storm clouds swallowed the stones. Billy found his lips trying to twitch into a smile. He could feel the atoms dancing. He thought about David again. Sometimes he confused Billy. Sometimes Billy even felt sorry for him.
Sometimes, Billy understood him completely.
The stones plummeted from the cloud like oversized hail. They’d become cold, inert iron; stone that did not sing. Myrddin gasped as he felt his spellwork evaporate, as insubstantial as dew under the noon sun. Horror anthesized his pain and drove him to his feet. He stared at the stones. They were dead to him. William—Myrddin’s king—had stranded them all in this doomed world. Sense abandoned Myrddin. Rage rose in his throat as chants in Old Welsh, Latin; even English, that young Saxon bastard. A spell was born in his hands, red and grey with snapping jaws and—
Myrddin had enchanted himself against all sorts of things: fire, clubs, swords; even the eyes of fate.
Guns, though? Those were new.
Betty gasped as the bullet whizzed deftly into Myrddin’s skull. Dr. Death’s outstretched pistol sighed smoke. Billy looked away with screwed shut eyes as his brief mentor fell to the grass, blood oozing from a bindi sized hole in his forehead. Not forever, not forever, not forever, he kept repeating silently.
The forest of London went first. All around St. Paul’s, the trees dissolved into vivid yellow particles, so light they rose on the air itself. Billy thought it was gold dust at first, until the tickle in his nostrils told him it was pollen.
Then, not far away but much higher up, Gloriana—the woman with gold in her veins—blinked. She was floating above the Thames. Specifically, she was floating high above what appeared to be a bipedal battleship, shaking a brown naked boy child by the ankle. A little girl in what looked like a dancer’s leotard was clinging to her left leg, trying to bite and scratch at her shin. The boy glared upside down at her. “What’s the matter?” he asked sourly. “Arm getting tired?”
“…Why is my chest sore?”
Fifty feet under them, the Scorpion glanced about itself, its many lights blinking confusingly. In St. John’s Chapel, the hero Nevermore awoke to melting ice and terrifying numbness. And in the York Minster2, Esclabor the Saracen took one last puff of his cigar. “I’m glad it’s over.”
“What’s that, mate?” asked the Crimson Comet from the bar stool beside him.
Metropole shook his head, like a man waking up. He narrowed his eyes at the other superhero. “Ah, who are you?” His long face went pale. “And what the fuck’s happened to Piccadilly?”
Ralph Rivers sighed. “You might want another drink.”
Darkness. Even more complete than in the Caledonian Forest. But still, it whispered.
Myrddin opened his eyes and sucked in a hungry breath. Dried blood clung to his face like vampiric warpaint, baked by the heat of his resurrection. Betty Sullivan was holding Billy on her lap in front of Myrddin, toying with Billy’s blond, human hair. “I’m sorry Myrddin,” said Billy. “I couldn’t just take the whole world away from them.” He looked down. “My… first parents did that to me. Then Lawrence tried to do it to me and my friends. He thought he was helping us, too.”
Myrddin didn’t respond. The graveyard—all of London—was covered in fine, bumblebee yellow powder. The remnants of his forest. He rubbed his fingers in the pollen.
“Myrddin,” said Billy, “are you alright.”
The city could breathe again. It tutted in Myrddin’s ears, finally able to patiently explain what it needed to tell him. Myrddin nodded at its silent counsel. He’d been wrong to try and smother this place with his past. It didn’t matter that the Romans had built the city. British hands and lives had made it what it was today, and it’d been here much longer than Myrddin. It knew as much as the trees and the rivers.
It told him why Nimuë had put him in the earth.
Myrddin rose to his feet. “I’m sorry, Billy.”
Billy raised an eyebrow. “Is that the kind of sorry you say before you’re mean?”
Myrddin chuckled sadly. “No. I fear I reversed the order on that. But the error was not only mine. Those war-mongering fools. They woke me too early.”
Betty and Billy rose warily. “What are you saying?” asked Betty.
“Whatever happens out there in the world, there will be a day when every Britain is threatened.”
“Every Britain?” asked Billy. “Like, Scotland, Wales, Northern—”
Myrddin raised a hand. “It’s alright, William. You don’t need to understand.”
Billy yelped. Myrddin’s feet were sinking into the grass as though they were cinematic quicksand. “Myrddin, what are you—”
“Don’t be a king, Billy. Be a man. It’s always better to be a man.”
Allison Kinsey was leaning fully against Dr. Death, struggling to keep her eyes shut. She could swear she saw Myrddin disappearing beneath the ground. As sleep claimed her, a voice not belonging to Alberto or her sister whispered inside her:
I shall return, girl, at the end of everything. At True November.
There was a roar in Allison’s ears. It didn’t hurt her ears or jar her at all. She felt used to it, as though she’d fallen asleep next to a waterfall. She was being held, too, like a much younger girl. The strong arms that held Allison jogged her lightly.
“Come on, Allie,” she heard Ralph Rivers say.
Allison opened her eyes. The Crimson Comet was carrying her. They were standing with the other Catalpans between a chest high barrier of ice and the Thames. Beyond it, thousands and thousands of Londoners were yelling and screaming.
No, they were cheering.
Close-Cut was at the Comet’s side, an arm about… halfway across his broad shoulders. David and Brit were blowing kisses to the crowd, someone having somehow convinced the former to put his costume back on. Arnold was shooting lime lightning into the air like fireworks. Allison spotted Mabel in the sky, riding a pegasus flanked by a few of Catlapa’s fliers. On the ground, Billy was holding Betty’s hand. Tom proudly held up Billy’s other hand, bathing Excalibur in light. Billy smiled bashfully.
Allison rolled her eyes. Everyone else was looking cool in front of the whole world, and she was being carried like a baby.
Ralph turned to Wally. Eh, what the hell.
He pulled Wally into a deep kiss. If anyone watching objected, their alarm blended seamlessly with the rest of the noise.
Allison cringed. And now the grown ups were kissing, too.
Then it struck her. Billy holding the sword. Thousands of humans cheering.
They’d did it.
Billy gently pulled his sword hand from Tom’s and turned to the Thames. He threw Excalibur over the water. It spun through the air, sunlight flashing off the engravings on its blade:
Take me up—Cast me away—Take me up—Cast me away—
A pale arm caught Arthur’s blade.
The alien catheters and IVs withdrew like sated worms from Angela Barnes.
“You’re not going to use that bloody gun are ya?” Fred Barnes asked, voice too soft for his words. The last ten days had been rough on the man: trapped alone on Bròn Binn, his son missing for over a week, his wife languishing in his imagination. When the Catalpans had finally made it home, Mrs Barne’s fingertips had gone black.
Dr. Death shook his head. “No, Mr. Barnes.” He pulled a needle full of something clear from his jacket. “For the sake of our ears, we’ll go for something quieter…”
What felt like half of Catalpa watched with bated breath as Dr. Death slid the needle into Angela’s sweat-slick arm. On the one hand, he found the vein quickly and cleanly. On the other, he didn’t bother making sure the needle was free of air. What would be the point?
Angela Barnes barely felt herself slip away.
She stood in a snowy back garden in her leather work apron. The cold felt strange. She felt the dearth of heat in the air, but she did not shiver or feel the urge to shove her hands in her pockets. The chill had become a strange cousin to warmth, with its own virtues. She turned to find an old man sitting beneath a mound of blankets and winter clothing, his face all but hidden by his wooly cap and scarf. What skin Angela could make out was paper white. His dark irises were framed by scarlet cobwebs. Angela knew in her blood and bones how the cold would be hitting him.
Stubborn old goat, she found herself thinking.
The old man spoke, his words heavy with effort, “The new boy’s an idiot.”
Angela knew he wasn’t speaking to her. Behind her, a young man with blond curly hair was working diligently on a wood and wire chicken coop. Strong and handsome, his powerful shoulders were stiff in a way Angela knew well. The bearing of a man refusing to cry. “Carl Vince? I went to school with him.”
“Yep,” said the old man. “Don’t know how he finished school and you didn’t. Boy couldn’t add one and one together…”
Silence hung between the two men.
“You know,” said the young fella. “I could just build you a new chicken coop. I’ve got some ideas—”
The old man raised a hand, it shook. “None of your funny tricks, boy. If you’re gonna do it, do it properly.”
A frightening, rattling sigh. “It ain’t like that, son. It’s just… me and your ma have to keep it going when you’re not around.”
The man’s son nodded, a little too hard. “I get it.”
Angela looked between the two men and shook her head sadly. “Silly boys…”3
Angela gasped awake. Almost before she could suck back in the air, her husband and sons embraced her:
“Mummy!” Arnold cried.
“Thank God, Ange,” her husband murmured tearfully against her neck. “Thank God…”
In less than a minute, Dr. Death was gliding through Freedom Point’s infirmary, administering his healing poisons. The sick returned to life and health in explosions of heat and gold. One trypanophobic patient asked for the bullet instead of the needle
Allison and her mother watched the deadly business of medicine. “Are you going to tell me everything I did was dangerous and I should’ve let the grown ups handle everything?” Allison asked mildly.
Drina Kinsey shrugged. “Seems like things worked out about as well as we could ask.” She smiled down at her daughter. “I’m proud of you, Allie, really.”
Allison took her mother’s hand and squeezed.
Angela Barnes wasn’t one for lying in bed all day. After a few minutes, she managed to wrest herself from her family’s embrace and get back on her feet. There’d be all the time in the world for them soon. She had business to attend to. Arnold trailed after her like a baby duck, but that was perfectly alright.
She found David lurking near the infirmary’s door. “Hey, Mrs Barnes. Glad you’re better.”
“Thank you, David,” said Angela, trying to keep her composure in her hospital gown and bare feet. For once, David was more appropriately dressed than her. “I wanted to say, before my… spell, the things I said…” She looked down at her son at her side. “They were wrong. Beastly, in fact. I apologize.
David nodded. “Ah, thanks.”
“I was thinking, some night, once everything’s calmed down, would you like to join us for dinner? If Mrs Allworth doesn’t mind, of course.”
David looked at Arnold. The other boy looked fit to explode. David smiled. “Sure thing, Mrs Barnes.”
“I expect clothes. Real ones.”
A cry of surprise drew the three’s eyes to the middle of the sickbay. Therese Fletcher—the Mirror Queen with her hood down—was waving about the arm of a woman in orange. “I bloody found her! Finally!”
The few people who recognized her prize went quiet, but it became catching quickly.
“…Good job, Therese,” said Allison, eyes fixed on the newcomer. “But we already found someone to fix everyone.”
“What,” Therese said flatly.
Dr. Death, about to finish off the last patient, waved. “Hi. Dr. Death. These guys saved London for my bosses.”
Therese took a deep, aggrieved breath. “You’re telling me, that I spent weeks looking for this lady”—she pointed sharply at the woman in the orange hood—“While you people went on a great big adventure? And you didn’t call me? I spent days traipsing around Poland! I had to go beat up Timothy bloody Valour in the end!” Therese threw her hands up. “Fine, whatever. Quarantine over.” She started striding towards the infirmary’s exit. “I’m going to get a drink.” She stopped mid-stalk and looked at Close-Cut. “You, you’re making me a new costume.”
“As if you had to ask, ma’am.”
David ignored Therese’s tantrum, and instead focused on the lady in orange. He stepped forwards, peering under her hood. She took an anxious half step back, a stuttered word on her lips. She was ignored. David wrapped his arms around her middle, head buried against her shoulder. “I missed you, Auntie.”
A deep tremor of relief shook Eliza Winter. She let herself hold David. “I missed you too.”
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1. Lawrence Upton would go on to become a leading figure in the British poetry revival of the 70s and 80s. During that period, he reinvented his style and subject matter to blend natural phenomena with images of urban desolation. ↩
2. Later redubbed “The French House” in 1984, a popular nickname for the Soho pub and dining house. ↩
3. Near-death (or post-death, as the case may be) experiences often share many similarities. Commonly reported elements include bright, white light, a sense of peace or other positive emotions, or the proverbial “life flashing before your eyes.” Between 1966 and 67, however, an anomalous trend emerged. Many individuals who came close to death during this period instead reported witnessing a conversation between a man and his son, or other, more surreal, scenes from the life of a young superhuman boy. ↩