All posts by thewizardofwoah

About thewizardofwoah

Amateur writer, snarker of silly things.

Progress Update (13/05/2022)

Hello again, Good Readers. I just wanted to let you guys know that at the beginning of the week, we handed over the manuscript for The Cold Peace over to an outside editor, who is presently looking over it. Me and Wrave will soon be starting work on the second volume. I apologise if the process is feeling a bit protracted, but we were stalled for about a month and a half when my computer failed, and I had to replace the whole thing, which was a bit of a financial and technical ordeal. That’s sorted now, so I expect the next volumes will proceed more smoothly.

Best regards, Henry.

Hiatus/Textual Rennovation Announcement (25/11/2021)

The New Humans will be going on a hiatus of new material for a while. The chapters you have seen so far have been first drafts, and we’ve reached a point where the final sections would rely on material that is already planned to be changed. We’re currently working on revising and editing the earlier material to reflect our evolving vision for the story. Progress is going well, and the new material will be available in some format reasonably soon.

Best wishes, as always, thank you for reading.

–Henry and William.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty-One: Dispatches From Tomorrow

<Nova Australian University Press, in partnership with the Catalpa Heritage Board, is proud to present the centennial edition of Dispatches from Tomorrow: Eighteen Months in the Super-City of Catalpa, by renowned journalist and superhuman correspondent Jessica Switt. The 1970 monograph was one of the earliest popular accounts of the burgeoning superhuman subculture of the mid-20th century, and the first intimate exposure many baseline humans had to the fledgling community of Catalpa. This new printing (coming Fall 2070 in paperback, hardcover, digital, and new neural-pollen formats) comes with annotations from leading superhuman, 20th century, and Catalpa historians. With the full permission and cooperation of Jessica Switt’s estate, we have also been able to include her original draft notes. Excerpts below.>

February 28th, 1967:

To my knowledge, Catalpa is the first city on this planet to have anything close to a superhuman majority. It is perhaps sadly fitting for its first funeral to be for an ordinary man. 

I am sorry to admit neither myself nor Mr. French1 ever got to know Jacob Gittleman. In a city full of wonders, it is easy to forget there is no such thing as a boring human being2. I’m told by those who knew him well that Jacob was a New Australian—though long before that term became fashionable—a Jewish escapee from interminable Russian pogroms3. Some things, unfortunately, never change.  Most such refugees ended up in the USA or Britain, though I am sure our country is better for having had Mr. Gittleman in it. He married, raised a family, ran a shop, and bought a house; the Australian dream4

His family was so assimilated into the fabric of the nation that, when his son found out his daughter could jog twelve miles an hour5, he and his wife immediately called the DDHA. The elder Gittleman, though, had a long memory, and took Naomi far, far away. It seems strange, that such a child would need the help of an old man to escape mere mortals, but only if you don’t know children. 

Now Jacob Gittleman has returned to dust, a dead Jew in a town with no rabbi; not even any other Jewish adults. A problem to be sure. Luckily, Catalpa boasts a fine religious scholar—even if she is only ten years old.

Ideally, a Jewish funeral is held as soon as possible, but the measles have kept everyone indoors and isolated for weeks. Embalming is forbidden, not that the town has any morticians. Perhaps Miss Kinsey could do the job, but who would ask such a thing of her? No matter. Catalpa has crypts of ice and alien steel. 

It’s hot today, but it’s always hot this far north. If anything, the weather’s improving. It hasn’t rained for two whole days. The air is thinning again.  Most of Catalpa has gathered in the grasslands beyond town, whether out of respect for the deceased or cabin fever. Few mourners are in black, for few Catalpans brought formal wear when they left for this strange new world. There are exceptions. Someone, Mrs Barnes perhaps, has provided Naomi with a white dress. The founding children’s polymorphic costumes have all forsaken their usual bright colours. David Barthe’s costume in particular—which I’m told he didn’t even have to be bribed to wear—puts me in mind of the sea on a starry, cloudless night. Wallace Grimsby’s suit is a tailored void that eats sunlight. Its perfect blackness feels as showy as a peacock’s tail feathers, but I have no doubt that for Close Cut, dressing down would be the ultimate disrespect.            

A plot has been dug without mechanical or supernatural aid, at Allison Kinsey’s insistence. Mr. Gittelmen was the one irrecoverable causality of the epidemic. I fear his death is a weight on Miss Kinsey’s conscience.  

Four strong men carry the coffin: all superheroes, all in costume. There was some argument about that. There’s never been enough super-people in one place for people to decide if costumed pall-bearers are gaudy or uplifting. I for one wouldn’t say no to being carried to my grave by actual superheroes, and Naomi agreed with me:

“I think Granddad would like that.”

And that was the end of that discussion.

The box is plain pine. If this was a Gentile funeral, I’d put that down to poverty, but I’m told that’s traditional for Jewish coffins. An aron, they call them. A man is shut inside—body unburdened by chemicals or preservatives—and not seen again by anyone except God. A pragmatic burial for a pragmatic people. 

As proxy rabbi, Miss Kinsey begins the service with a brief eulogy. Like many eulogies given by caring strangers, it is nonspecific and broad, though heavy with what I believe is genuine sorrow. She thanks Nurse Sandy for tending to Mr. Gittelman in his last moments, I suspect for her own sake as much as the man’s. She promises Naomi that she will be looked after, as though she isn’t a child herself. There’s guilt in that promise, I think. Allison has only recently left the orphan’s clique, and now she welcomes another girl into it. 

The other mourners voice their agreement in hushed voices. Naomi places her face in her hands, either to hide new tears or shield herself from the weight of all this attention. Either way, I can’t say I blame her. 

A few people speak for Mr. Gittleman. Not too many—Jacob was a quiet, retiring type, and I suspect still conflicted about the crime committed in his granddaughter’s name. This funeral is as much for her sake as it is her grandfather’s, and I think even for the town as a whole. It is how they remind themselves they’re still civilized, out here on the edge of the world. Still, those who do speak, mean it. Nurse Sandy speaks of his good humour in the infirmary, when he was still able to speak. Chen Liu talks about their common profession as jewellers, while also alluding with grim wryness to their shared otherness among us white folk. At the end, Naomi works up the courage to speak:

“I think—Granddad was the nicest man in the world. And very brave.”

She need say nothing more.

Miss Kinsey leads the crowd in a Jewish hymn. She sings like a cantor’s daughter. Maude Simmons follows without difficulty. The rest of us… try our best, or remain respectfully silent.

Later, I asked6 Mrs Barnes—town standard bearer for Catholicism—if she felt strange singing Jewish songs:

“They’re still for the Father, ma’am.”

As I listen to the old Hebrew words, I find my mind wandering to the Jewish right of return. I wonder, if a Jewish superhuman felt the need to leave their homeland, where would they go? Israel or Catalpa? Which is stronger? Faith, or power?

We each drop a handful of dirt atop the coffin, and the service concludes. A portal is opened to the wake in Freedom’s Point. I am not surprised Naomi does not linger. I do, though, watching the gravediggers finish filling in the plot. I think about the man who, in a way, started this city: Herbert Lawrence. Was this how he imagined the end of the human species? Respectfully interred by our successors?

From what I’ve seen, the people who buried Jacob Gittelmen don’t seem all that changed.

Later, a fence was built around the grave, with space for more. Pragmatic.

March 9th, 1967

“Turkey sandwich for Mrs Abebe!”

“She’s in the back, Billy.”

The boy beside me scowls, and, with an air of petulance, states:

“I’m wearing the costume.”

“Right. Right. He’s in the back, Growltiger.”

Billy smiles. In this town, on a good day, he is known as Growltiger. Everyone does their part in Catalpa: even the children. It sounds practically dickensian, but the children themselves don’t seem to mind. Growltiger runs a sandwich route, delivering lunch to the hardworking people of Catalpa.

I follow Billy into the greenhouse. The scents of oranges, apples, pomegranates and more spice the humidity. Lumusi Abebe is stroking a pepper plant:

“Come on, honey, do not sulk,” she says, her words honeyed and gentle. Her English is excellent for a native Ghanan7. Since Allison Kinsey widened the recruitment drives, Catalpa has gotten very international.

Back very straight, Billy presents his newspaper wrapped package like it’s vital military intel. “Turkey on white, lettuce and cheese,” he rattles off.

Mrs Abebe raises an eyebrow. “I told them brown.”

Billy’s eyes widen. “Oh. I can take it back—”

Mrs Abebe waves off the suggestion. “Do not worry about it, child. Just not used to the white stuff, that’s all.” She smiles. “Thank you, Growltiger.”

Billy seems to grow half an inch at the use of his supernym, though his expression quickly sobers. He nods gravely. “I’ll tell Miss Sybil, though. You work hard.”

I glance around the indoor jungle. “I’m shocked you feel the need to order out.”

A sighing laugh. “Trust me, Miss Switt, fruit can get very boring.”

Billy scarpers off to hand lunch over to the lesser horticulturalists. Lumusi watches with bemusement. “That boy better find someone kind, or he will be eaten alive.”

Next we stop by a construction site. The influx of new residents has demanded much expansion, some of which is being overseen by Barry Robson. Sometimes, they call him Fo-Fum8.

“Parole officer here to bring me my BLT?” the big man asks.

“Yep!” Billy smiles waggishly. “Long as you haven’t robbed any banks today.”

“With Comet doing heavy lifting work right across the street? I’d be mad, lad.”

“Oh. He’s over that way? Cool. He was up next.”

“I take it you have a history with Barry?” I ask as we leave.

“Yeah. Me and some friends beat him and his friends up for being bad… Miss Switt?”

“Hmm?”

“What’s a parole officer?”

As we near the end of the route, I ask Billy why he feels this is the best use of his time. Sandwich toting does feel like an odd calling for a living philosopher’s stone.

“You could make raw materials for the tradies or scientists.”

“Oh, I do that too. Just thought I could help more.”

Billy is a ridiculously good boy.

We come to a stop at Billy’s house. The metal walls are painted to resemble white plaster. The patio is made of wood from no living tree. 

“Miss Switt, could I ask you something?”

“Sure thing.”

“When you put all this in your book, do you mind saying my name is ‘Billy Sullivan’? Not St. George?”

I nod. “Hand to God.”

I watch Billy embrace his mother on their doorstep. Mr. and Mrs St. George, you missed out. He asks that you do not contact him9.

May 16th, 1967

There have been many child rulers throughout history. Elagabalus10 of Rome, Tutankhamun11 of Egypt, Puyi12 of China, and now—whether people admit it or not— Allison Kinsey of Catalpa. For everyone’s sake, I hope the fates are kinder to her than her spiritual predecessors13

Today I am shadowing Miss Kinsey. She wakes up at 5am, and not half an hour later is outside my lodgings (a high-tech former prison cell) ready to drag me kicking and screaming into the morning. Normally, I would credit this early-rising spirit to dedication and work ethic. In this case, I think it’s safer to say it’s because she’s ten years old. 

Still, Allison Kinsey is the only ten year old I have met who wakes up with bags under her eyes.

After everyone else in town has had their breakfast, Allison takes her morning meeting with the city’s worthies. The main subject of the day is city expansion. The town’s population is on the brink of tripling, with new residents hailing from Melbourne to Moscow. Catalpa must bloom. As I sometimes do between research and helping Mr. Lewis, I take the minutes:

BARNES: We need more street lights. A lot of heavy goods workers are returning home after sunset, and there’s been a few near misses. 

(I should know. Just three days before, I was nearly trampled by a chariot drawn by enormous goats.)

KINSEY: Okay, so if we get a couple miles of PVC piping and copper wire, we can wire up the outskirts to the tower. Then as the city expands, we can—  

SIMMONS: Billy can’t handle PVC yet. Says it makes his teeth feel fuzzy. Lots of copper, too. Not much left of it to scavenge from the tower.

(Allison runs her hands down her face.)

KINSEY: Right. Maybe if we use iron—  

GRIMSBY: I can handle it, girl.

(Allison regards the old fellow the way my niece does an unopened Christmas present.)

GRIMSBY: Get Billy to whip me up some aluminium, I can cobble together something to fabricate some street lights. If Ralph is willing to lend a hand on material hunting, I should be able to fit them with photovoltaics.

RIVERS: In English?

(Close-Cut smiles indulgently.)

GRIMSBY: They turn sunlight into electricity, dear.

RIVERS: You lot and your loony gadgets.

KINSEY: It’ll take Billy a while to make that much aluminum. We don’t want him going nuts and turning the cove into a bubble bath again. 

(David Barthe was deeply torn about that.)

SIMMONS: Would anyone mind if I popped off to the Kuiper belt for a rock? I can bring it back here for mining.

(I suspect Mistress Quickly wanted some time alone.)

KINSEY: How long will that take? We need the saucer for pick-ups.

SIMMONS: To get to the belt and back? Maybe a fortnight. 

GRIMSBY: Another six days to set up the automation. 

(Allison claps her hands)

KINSEY: Right, go do that.

Once that’s done, Allison makes her rounds. Mrs Abebe at the greenhouses says Eliza Winter wishes to set up something called an “appkin plantation.”

“Sure,” Allison tells her. “But we’ll need to set up a pen for them. They bite14.”

Therese Fletcher is assembling stock for a town library from all over the globe. She assures me she’s paying for them, though where she gets the money eludes me. Allison and Louise “Brit” Michelson put down a brewing race-riot between newly arrived Japanese and Korean residents. Fred Barnes of all people speaks both languages passably. 

Allison rarely feels the need to linger long. There’s always more to do. At about half past one, she stops for lunch with her mother. 

“Why don’t you go play with David?” she suggests. “He says you haven’t been to his beach lately.”

Allison shakes her head. “We’re both busy.”

“I don’t think David’s ever busy, darling. Sometimes he’s just… useful. You promise you’ll take a day off tomorrow?”

Allison huffs. “Fine.”

After this interlude, Allison holds court in the former warden’s office at Freedom Tower, ready to serve her subjects:

“I need thirty pounds of uranium,” entreats Miss-Demeanour. “I promise it’s not for a bomb this time.”

“I caught my son smoking,” says Hettie Haldor, marble arms folded. “Kids in this town are getting wanton,” she tells the child-queen. 

“So, me, David, and Mr. Grimsby are up to a new Watercolours thing with the other hall kids,” says Mabel Henderson, her living fibre suit a mess of angry war-comic panels. She points next to her. “And he turns up to auditions twenty minutes late.” 

David Barthe sighs dramatically, dripping wet onto the shag carpet “I had a date with Brit! I brought a ‘sorry’ shark!”

“What am I going to do with a big dead fish, David?”

“It wasn’t dead yet! And lots of things! Set decoration! Catering!”

Ewww…” 

Allison Kinsey takes it all with quiet patience. It looks very similar to boredom.

It’s eight o’clock before Allison’s mother deems her work done for the day, calling her home via a Barnes sent note. I’d say she’s got more done today than most office workers do in a week.  As I walk her home, I hope she takes Mrs Kinsey’s advice tomorrow.  

“Miss Switt?” Allison asks tiredly. 

“Yes, Allison?”

“Would you like to come have dinner with us tomorrow?”

I’m surprised. Allison barely appeared to remember I was there most of the day. I am flattered, though. “Of course.”

“Thank you.”

May 17th, 1967

I feel my invitation to the Kinseys’ table had ulterior motives. Allison and Chen Liu sit opposite each other. Allison stares at the man with what I think is… suspicion? Mr. Liu, meanwhile, is tucking into Mrs Kinsey’s shepherd’s pie with some enthusiasm. More than the food deserves, if I am honest. The man can’t be faulted for his tactics. Drina, for her part, is glaring between myself and Allison as if wishing we’d catch fire.

After the first twenty minutes of this, I set down my fork.

“Is this a bad time?”

“No,” Allison says brightly, just as her mother says “Yes.”

I nod, and keep my quiet. It’s one of the first things you learn as a reporter: silence asks the best questions. Mr. Liu breaks first:

“No offence intended, Ms. Switt. Drina invited me here to get to know her daughter.” Very quickly, he adds, “And Miri. Not for an interview.”

Miri beams at the acknowledgement. It seems the terms of her relationship to Mrs Kinsey have yet to be negotiated. She’s wearing Brit’s body to dinner. Says that Mrs Barnes was serving something she didn’t like down at the Children’s Hall.

I raise my empty hands. ”Do you see a notepad? I didn’t even know you were going to be here, Mr. Liu.”

Allison has her arms folded. “Why do I need to get to know you? We know each other plenty. You attacked me and my friends.

Chen shrugs. “Me and your mother. We’re… spending a lot of time together.”

Allison cuts to the point. “You’re not my dad, AU.”

That’s the first lesson of Catalpa. I tell it to all who come here. This town is built on a thousand broken hearts. Everyone has a story. Oftentimes, it can be gleaned just by who’s not at the table with us.

“Allie!” Mrs Kinsey snaps. “You know Chen doesn’t like that name.”

I can’t blame him. Makes him sound like a currency abbreviation. Perhaps when the new money is rolled in? 

Chen sighs. “Allie, I’m not trying to be anything you don’t want me to be.”

“Yes you are! You’re coming over all the time, eating our food.” Allison points at her mother. “Mum’s married. To my dad.” She sputters. When she speaks coherently again, I think she’s attempting to channel Mrs Barnes. “It’s… sinful!” 

Silence. I am genuinely glad I brought only my memory. A pencil against paper would’ve been loud as gunfire.

Miri is the first to break. “…Can he be my dad, though?” she asks her sister. “He’s nice.”

Blood rushes to Chen’s face. This is the only time I have ever seen Allison glare at her sister. “No.”

Miri shrills, “Why not? I haven’t even met your dad! Chen’s nice!” 

Drina sets her fork down beside her plate.

“Allie. Look at me.”

She speaks in that tone that forces children to obey. I’ve tried it a hundred times—usually covering primary school puff pieces—but never figured out how to make it work.

“Drina,” says Chen. “It’s fine, really…”

Drina raises her hand. “Chen, this has nothing to do with you. Allie.”

Allison looks at her.

“Your father isn’t coming, Allie,” says Drina. “He wouldn’t come with me, and I don’t intend to wait for him.”

The quiet that follows is broken only when Allison stands from the table, and asks to be excused. Miri follows, a hug brewing between Louise’s arms, bless her heart. From upstairs, those who remain can hear her sobbing.

I pick up my wine glass.

“Times are tough all round,” I say, staring into the red liquid.

“She’ll get there,” says Drina, her fists clenched on the tabletop. “She just needs time. Please excuse yourself, Ms. Switt.”

Frankly, the command is a relief. I’m a journalist, not a voyeur. I head into the night, and go to Libertalia to drown out what I just saw15.

June 13th, 1967     

Eliza Winter does not live in Catalpa. She says she has obligations some miles east, to the powerless of this world. Still, distance means little in this town, so she is frequently dragged through wrinkles in space-time to mend misadventures. Today though, she’s visiting her nephew. 

David Barthe runs laughing over the water. Every comparison I can think of is both blasphemous and inaccurate. David is no one’s saviour. He exists all for his own sake. He’s naked, but it’s easy to forget that. His brown16 skin seems to radiate warmth. His wet black hair lies seal-slick against his scalp. I’m not sure I’ve ever seen it dry. The boy is the perfect blend of European and African, a living refutation of homogeneity. All around him, fish are flung from the ocean into a floating globe of water the size of a whale’s head. It could be an alien planet, streaked with drifting archipelagos of silver fish. 

Eliza, are you looking?”

I and Miss Winter are on a drift of ice, sitting atop a beach towel. With her orange cloak swapped out for an equally orange one piece swimsuit, Miss Winter does not look thirty-five years old. Lucky woman. Eliza smiles with proud languor behind her sunglasses:

“Yes, David, I’m watching.”

David sucks his lip in delight, and proceeds to cartwheel around the globe, more fish flying, flopping and gasping into the water. This is David’s great contribution to Catalpa: fishing. It’s hard to see it as a job, though, the way he does it. We should all be so lucky to find work indistinguishable from play. 

Eliza turns to me. “He never used to smile like that. It’s beautiful.” The words sound painful for her. She looks back at David, wistfully. “I wonder what his father would think…”

“Surely he’d be pleased?” 

Miss Winter nods vigorously. “I know he would be. Nothing else mattered to him. It’s just…” She shakes her head. “I’m not sure how much of Hugo is left in David. Was that all he got from his father? The parts that hurt?” She shakes her head. “Silly, greedy thought. Children aren’t made to be mirrors. But  Hugo would be happy that David reflects him so little. It’s… strange.”

“Excuse me.”

David is standing before us, arms folded, an arch, princely frown on his face.

“I have plenty of Dad in me.”

Eliza stammers. “Of course you do, David—”

David shakes his head. “You don’t have to lie, Auntie, even if you’re wrong.”

I feel an interview coming on. “Would you like to share, David?”   

David smiles. “We both liked movies! And I’m really good at maths!” He stands very straight and recites, “One, one, two, three, five, eight…” 

Eliza conceals a chuckle behind her hand. “The Fibonacci sequence.”

David nods happily, hopping onto the ice-raft and settling beside Miss Winter. He leans into her, eyes closed. “I’m not angry, Auntie. It can be hard to tell. Daddy was human. I’m not.”

Eliza frowns. “Oh, David, don’t talk like that.”

David looks up quizzically. “But it’s true!”

“Laurie said a lot of silly things about us.”

David shakes his head. “Not like Laurie said. We’re not the same. You’re a human, Arnold’s a human. Allison’s… still kind of  human, a little, but I think she’ll stop once we’re bigger.”

Do I detect a note of hope in the boy’s voice?

David puffs out his chest. “Me, I’m not even a super. I’m water. All of it.” 

“Like Neptune?” I ask. “Are you calling yourself a god, Mr. Barthe?”

It’s not an unreasonable idea. More than one superhero has claimed to be a byblow of the Olympians. I could believe David bleeds gold. 

David jumps to his feet and wriggles proudly. “Bigger.” 

“How so? To me, you seem the model of a healthy, superhuman ten year old. I hope that doesn’t offend, it’s still a wonderful thing to be.”

David regards me thoughtfully, head cocking back and forth. He places two fingers under his chin. “…I could show you.” 

My pen cuts a bleeding black gash across my notepad as I stagger to my feet. Every cell in me says “Yes!” well before my mouth does.

“David,” Eliza says sternly. “Don’t go playing tricks on Miss Switt.”

“I’m not!” David protests. “She wants to understand.”

I throw a glance back at Eliza. “I’m a big girl, Miss Winter. I can handle myself.”

I walk to the edge of the ice as Miss Winter watches warily. David takes me by the hand. I feel the warmth of it beneath his thin glove of water droplets. At his prompting, I step out onto the sea. For a moment, it bears my weight like a concrete sidewalk.

Then, it swallows us.

He takes me down. I’m not sure calling him “David” is entirely appropriate here. His body falls away as a cavern of spun ice forms around me. Its inner surfaces are riddled with whorls and spirals; a child’s drawings on a kitchen wall. We descend deeper and deeper over fields of coral and long, waving seaweed. I find myself wondering how much air is in this thing. Might David forget we who breathe?

The diving bell reaches the seafloor. A man’s shadow stands behind the green blue ice. Its owner steps through as if the walls aren’t even there. A man who could be David’s cousin, or perhaps his uncle. 

He is a god. I say this without hyperbole. It is evident in every part of him, though it’s not the body. No crass emulation of statues in old galleries. His skin is moonlight, not dead marble. Indeed, this man is slender, his features fine. His musculature defined, true, but faint. No. It’s in his bearing. The careless arrogance in eyes that glow with a far deeper, more ancient light than the boy who brought me here. 

He has David’s curls, and David’s beauty. There, the similarity ends.

“You want to understand us,” he says in a voice that contains no words beyond the quiet power of the surf. “You will fail.”

“I’d still like to try.”

David tears himself free from the ice. “Hey Grandpa.” He squints his fog green eyes. “You look… alive today.”

“This human is brave,” the man says. He smiles. His teeth are plated with abalone.

“…Did you brush your teeth?” David asks. “Where’s the algae?”

“She can ask her questions, my child. As many as she pleases.”

The god of oceans17 proves to be very engaging conversation. But that’s an interview I’ll be keeping to myself18.

July 17th, 1967

On Monday, July 17th, 1967, a East Berlin border guard was shot attempting to pursue a fugitive fleeing into the western half of that fractured city. The Warsaw Pact claimed the man was a spy for NATO. NATO claimed he was simply a refugee. Even today I can’t say what the truth is. What I do know is the German Democratic Republic blockaded West Berlin, with full Soviet backing. The Americans sent in their planes, and the the Soviets provided their allies with anti-aircraft guns, “to guard against imperialist bombings.” The Americans called it a blatant act of intimidation. Vietnam was emptied of troops for Germany. On the 28th, the Fulda Gap bled Soviet tanks.

I wasn’t there when World War 3 began, but I saw it’s end.


1. Ronald French (born April 5th 1947) was the photographer who accompanied Jessica Switt on her journey to Catalpa. Many of the pictures he took in this period became illustrations in Dispatches From Tomorrow, but he would also release his own book—Burnished Light and Rippling Capes—to great success.

2.  [Ed. note.] A good line, but is it true? Might seem insincere. Eh, it’s probably true for better people.

3.  It is believed Jacob Gittleman was a witness to the Kishinev pogrom of 1903, which ended with between forty-nine and a hundred and twenty Jewish casualties, along with a number of rapes and damage to over a thousand homes.

4.  Jessica Switt was most likely referring to the property ownership aspect of that sentence. The Australian dream could be said to have a narrower focus than its American cousin.

5.  [Ed. note.] Do I ask the girl for her best time? Is that rude?

6.  [Ed. note.] Oof, tense swap. Can I sneak it through?

7.  [Ed. note.] I mean, I assume it is. Haven’t met many Ghanans.

8.  Fo-Fum, a member of the briefly lived Fearsome Three (originally Four) supervillain team. A small-time outfit, the group itself made little impact, though their attempted robbery of the rural town of Northam was the first recorded engagement of Growltiger, Brushstroke, Steelwing, and Elsewhere. After leaving the group, its fourth member Primadonna would be briefly associated with the Coven as the second Vixen, while Chisel would find great fame as a founding member of the Aegis.

9.  [Ed. note.] Check with legal. Bryant St. George crushes people with money like that Alma-Tadema painting.

10.  Elagabalus, officially known as Antonius, Emperor of Rome from 218 to 222 AD. Elagabalus was placed on the throne after a revolt led by his grandmother at the age of fourteen, and was assassinated by his own Praetorian Guard four years later. Elagablus is largely remembered for his bizarre list of sexual eccentricities, which purportedly included prostituting himself in front of brothels dressed in women’s clothing. However—similar to other colourful emperors like Nero or Caligula—historians are divided on the veracity of these accounts. Some scholars even regard Elagabalus as one of the earliest recorded transgender individuals, having reportedly preferred feminine pronouns and sought out a physician who could provide him with a vagina.

11.  Late 18th Dynasty Pharaoh of Egypt, Tutankhamun took his throne at the age of eight or nine. He is known for his restoration of the traditional ancient Egyptian religion after its abandonment in favour of Atenism by his presumed father, Akhenaten. His reign, though eventful, was short, ending with his death at age eighteen or nineteen, from causes still debated to this day. Morbidly enough, “King Tut’s” mummy provides us with the earliest genetic evidence of malaria.

12.  Puyi, the Xuantong Emperor, last ruler of the Chinese Qing Dynasty. Chosen by his great-grandmother as emperor at age two, he was only six when he was forced to abdicate by the Xinhai Revolution, though he was allowed to retain his title and privileges, being treated much as a foreign monarch would by the Republic of China, in order to smooth the way for President Yüan Shih-k’ai’s bid to be crowned emperor himself. He was also briefly restored to his throne by the warlord Zhang Xun for eleven days in July, 1917, after which he was installed by the Japanese Empire as puppet-ruler of Manchukuo. After the defeat of Japan in World War 2, he was extradited by the Soviet Union back to China, where the new communist government chose to rehabilitate him into something resembling an ordinary citizen. By all accounts, he was much happier as a gardener.

13.  Younger readers—raised under the compromise of liberal democracy and the Power Dynasties—might wonder why children being active in geopolitics seems so remarkable to Jessica Switt. We must stress, all the individuals she lists were completely mortal and baseline, despite certain claims to the contrary made of the first two.

14. Eliza Winter was a pioneer in the field of humane, sustainable meat. Her early successes largely consisted of asexually reproducing, sub-animal masses of beef and poultry, that existed in a state of constant chemical bliss, even orgasming when cut apart. Eliza Winter’s power and genius as a biologist is unsurpassed, but she will be the first to admit PR is not her strong suit.

15.  [Ed. note.] Didn’t work, obviously. Not sure if I’ll print this. Feels like a violation. Maybe I’ll keep it in the files. If this book ever gets somewhere, they can release it when I’m dead and my grandchildren want some cash.

16.  [Ed. note.] “Caramel” makes it sound like I want to eat him.

17.  [Ed. note.] I still think he and David are putting on airs. “More than gods.” Who do they think they are? The Beatles?

18.  [Ed. note.] He was alright, once he got some practise in. Not exactly Zeus, I’m thinking. Now, if only he could give an actual interview worth a damn.

Chapter One Hundred and Twenty: The Fisher Wizard

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.”

“…Which Blitz?

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.”

“…Sorry, Dad.”

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.”

“…Fine.”

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.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


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.

Chapter One Hundred and Nineteen: The Riddle of Myrddin

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.

Oh, yeah.             

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…

“I—I…”

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. 

Shit.      

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.”

“Or…” 

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.

“Break?”

“Break.”

“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?”

“Yep.”

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?”

“He lied.”

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.

“… Rude.”

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.

Metal tore.

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—”

“No.”

“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!” 

“Ain’t arguing—shit!”

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.”

No.”

“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. 

What—”

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?”

“Gotta try.”

“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.”

“Good.”

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.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


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.

Chapter One Hundred and Eighteen: Camlann

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—  

Ah!”

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. “
“—Bitch.”  

“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. 

“Harry!”

“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.”

“Okay.”

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!”

“Pushing it.” 

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:

Wheeeeee!

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.

Get him!  

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?”  

“…I’ll try.”

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.   

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


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.

Chapter One Hundred and Seventeen: The Forest of London

Every mature city is an argument between commerce and tradition—with the needs of the people caught in the middle. Few things demonstrate this better than the protected views of London. For decades, many sightlines in the city had been preserved by law, like a large, rambling family trying to keep its small and slight members from getting lost in the Christmas photo. Buildings would be built contorted or with odd dimensions in a game of architectural Twister. Thus, people at Alexandra Palace, Primrose Hill, and Westminster Pier could all see what Myrddin Wilt had done to St. Paul’s Cathedral. 

The church’s white cladding was buried beneath green ivy and wild flowers: bluebells, pink foxglove, and marigold. A strange compromise between Christianity and nature worship. Striking, but far from unique in the new London. Four days earlier, the entire Greater Metropolitan Area had been engulfed by resurgent nature. The roads and alleys were choked by trees like fat clogged arteries; rivers of green broken by the paint jobs of stranded cars. For the first time in centuries, the Thames flowed through forest. 

From orbit, London was an island of spring in a swirling sea of grey clouds. Winter had been banished months early by Weathermonger. Overall, the city had sustained surprisingly little damage. The trees had not torn through the concrete and asphalt, but risen as smoothly as mangroves through water. Roots had made every effort to avoid power lines and especially water-pipes. Walls at risk of crumbling under the added weight had instead found themselves propped up beneath the soil. Myrddin hadn’t wished harm on any Briton. Only to fortify London from intruders and internal revolt as he prepared to transition the country into the next world. Despite his consideration, millions cowered in their homes.

The wizard was hard at work in St. Paul’s churchyard. Out of convenience and respect for the dead buried there, Myrddin had kept the plot of land clear of new trees. Above him, over a dozen great stones waltzed slowly through the air. Galahad (still seething over his new feminine anatomy) had flown all over Britain fetching them. Stonehenge, Castlerigg, the Ring of Brodgar—they had all been pilfered. Myrddin felt a touch of guilt dismantling such ancient works, but it was necessary. He made smooth, careful gestures, subtly altering the speed and trajectory of the stones with each twitch of his fingers. A resonance hummed in the back of Myrddin’s head, like a song sung in another room. Right now it was discordant, but each adjustment Myrddin made to the stones brought it closer to harmony. It reminded him of learning to play the lyre as a boy. Once he found the tune, they all would… go.

A bell chimed in one of the cathedral’s towers. Great Paul or Tom or someone. Myrddin sighed. It was time for the daily audiences. William would need his counsel. His strength. With a flick of his wrist, Myrddin froze the rocks in mid-air and turned back towards the cathedral. Though the so-called Queen and her ministers had fled shamefully early, Myrddin had rejected both Buckingham Palace and Westminster for the seat of William’s court. He may only have been on nodding terms with God, but better His house than either of those monuments to human venality. In truth, London had struck Myrddin with horror. In his day, Londinium had been a hollow shell, the still-warm grave of Roman Britain. The new city could’ve been built by giants, but giants inordinately fond of glass. Megalithic yet fragile. The towns Myrddin had seen in the Otherworld felt more human. In truth, half the reason he’d brought back the trees was to blunt the horror of the place. That and assure himself he could still work wonders. One wanted to feel confident before trying what he was planning.

Billy sat on a throne usually reserved for the Bishop of London in the eastern apse of the cathedral, where the high altar had stood before he’d taken up residence.  Green, leaf dappled shadows filtered in through the high windows. Galahad—his designated bodyguard—stood at Billy’s side, trying not to squirm in his alien flesh. In front of them, one of Sir Bedwyr/Ironclad’s robots (made out of a Sunbeam Alpine) had forced a masked man in a blue suit and green Tyrolean into a crouch. At their side, a teenage boy in a bomber jacket and a shaved head beat a police truncheon against his open palm. One of William’s “New Knights,” recruited from London’s dissatisfied youth. There were always angry young men looking for a leader. They were just usually led by someone older than themselves. 

“What was this man’s crime?” asked Billy. 

“Crime?” said the prone man disbelievingly. “I’m a goddamn superhero!” He looked up at Galahad. “Gloriana, what the hell are you doing—”

The New Knight struck the prisoner across the face. “Speak when you’re spoken to!”

The superhero glared acid at the young man.

Hey!” cried Billy, his voice sending ripples through the air. “We don’t do that!” 

“He jumped us in Kensington! Broke my brother’s arm and leg!”

He sounded angry, but Billy could hear something else in the new knight’s voice. A kind of excitement. Billy knew it felt good to be angry sometimes. Like you had permission to be just as bad back. Did big people feel like that, too?

“We need to teach him—”

“Your king has set a standard,” said Myrddin as he stalked down the choir. “If you wish to call yourself a knight, follow it.”

The superhero let out a laugh. It made his rising bruises smart, but it couldn’t be helped. “Knight?” He smirked up at the new knight. “Has your dad even taught you how to shave yet?”

The new knight made to hit the man again, but his arm stiffened when he felt Billy’s glare on him. 

“Whatever this knight’s conduct,” said Myrddin. “Such insurrection cannot be tolerated. Especially not now.” He looked up at Billy. “What is your judgement, King?”

Billy swallowed dryly. He hated this part. He didn’t know why Myrddin made him decide. “Um…” He looked plaintively at the superhero. “You could join us,” he said. “Help make things nicer.”

“Piss off, kid.”

The new knight hit him again. Galahad snarled. “Mind your tongue, witchling!”

“Says the mad flying woman!”

“I don’t think you can expect any cooperation, my liege,” said Myrddin mildly.

“The Gatehouse,” Billy blurted. “Send him to the Gatehouse.”

“Send me where?” 

“Very well.” Myrddin was of course familiar with the Gatehouse. Even in his day, the green mote had stained the moon’s silvered face. He’d always assumed it was some fairy city, though William had said it was in fact the work of men from behind the sky, whatever difference that made. He pointed his staff at the superhero. “Carmina possunt caelo deducere lunam, vel  luna id corpus suspendo1.

The superhero thrashed in the robot’s grip as his flesh and clothing grew translucent, falling away to reveal a single point of light that floated up into the apse’s domed ceiling, passing through St. Paul’s painted forehead. Billy hoped the moon people were nice to him. That unpleasant duty discharged, he turned his attention to the new knight. “You,” he said sharply, “you’re on garden duty for a week.”

“But that’s peasant’s work!”  

Suit you just fine then,” Galahad muttered below his breath.

“It’s important,” Billy said firmly. “Everyone has to eat.” He tried to think of what Allison would say. Probably too mean. Tom? Too many swear words. Split the difference. “You’re clearly not ready to be on the streets, anway.”

The new knight squirmed like a boy in his Sunday best. Then the rage exploded out of him. “Bullshit! Some little shit isn’t making me—”

“You said this one’s scared of heights?” asked Billy.

“Yes, your highness,” replied Myrddin. 

“Put him somewhere high.” Billy added, “With a ladder.”

The knight went pale, “Wait—”

He vanished.

Billy slumped in his throne. That was mean. It felt good. That made it worse. “Myrddin, could we take a break?”

“Many more of your subjects wish to speak to you, William.”

“I need to talk to you. Alone.”

“Of course, my king.”    

They spoke in the confession booth, because it was there. Billy sometimes ate his lunch there. It was like a little office you could move. Sometimes, he prayed; to whom, he wasn’t quite sure. “I don’t like the New Knights. They’re mean. A bunch of them keep picking on coloured people! Some of them are stealing!”

“That is unfortunate,” Myrddin said from behind the confession screen. “But we need their muscle. Even I and your knights cannot subdue a city this size on our own.”

“But knights are supposed to be good!” Billy cried. “Noble!”

Myrddin sighed. “William, do you know what ‘noble’ means?”

“Good and kind and brave and stuff,” Billy answered confidently.

“Maybe it means that now, to you,” replied Myrddin. “But first, it meant the quality of the nobility. Of rulers. A knight is a ruler, William, if a smaller one than the king. A step between the crown and the peasantry. Are all rulers good and kind, William?”

Billy winced. He was no student of history, but he was not totally ignorant. “No…” 

“You have a point about knights being brave. A knight is also a warrior. They earn their privilege through force of arms. But are all warriors good and kind, William? Did our own Sir Cai seem so to you? In the stories they wrote about us, did we never make mistakes?”

Billy didn’t answer the question. He didn’t have to. “…We should be better than this.”

“You’re right of course. In the Britain to come, we will not brook those who prey on their own. The New Knights will be… dealt with.”

Billy knew a euphemism when he heard one. “That’s not better! We can’t just… toss people away like that. Like they’re… like they’re…” He shook his hands as he tried to find the comparison. “Tissues!”

Myrddin clenched a fist. He was a patient man. He had to be. William was a good boy—almost too good for the role fate had cast him in. But sometimes he asked so much of him… “What is it you want me to do, Billy?”

“Just… just be good.” Billy stood up. His bones felt old. “Come on. People want to see me.”

Some, as is eternal, wanted food. Billy made sure they got it. Others wanted to track down loved ones lost in the chaos of the past week. Billy told Myrddin to do what he could for them, even if it delayed the great work. Somehow, the more the wizard protested on that account, the firmer Billy became. A few people just wanted to complain about hay fever. Others were there to report their neighbours to the new authorities, eyes full of spite and hunger. Billy assured them he would look into the allegations. When he had time. 

During a lull between audiences, Billy noticed Galahad trying to find a footing where he didn’t feel the weight of Gloriana’s chest. He felt sorry for the knight, which was still confusing. As amazing as knowing and talking to the Knights of the Round Table was, they were still hogging  other people’s bodies. Myrddin said that would be sorted after the transition. He said that about a lot of things. Still, Galahad was here now. Why not give him something else to think about? “Hey.”

It took Galahad a moment to realise his king was addressing him. “Yes, my liege?” 

“Uh, could I ask you something?” 

“Do not hesitate, my king.”

“So, ah, you know Gloriana?”

Galahad scowled. It was an ugly expression on Gloriana’s face. “The flesh I’m trapped in, yes?”

Billy frowned. “You shouldn’t talk about her that way. She’s the only reason you’re here.”

A scoff. “She did not volunteer, King.”

Billy squirmed on his throne. Did they have to keep reminding him? “Can you… hear her?”

“No. I know what she knows, I remember what she remembers—when I wish—but she does not speak to me. Good thing, too.” Galahad jerked like he was trying to throw a net off his stolen shoulders. “Her body torments me enough without her voice in my ear.”

“Oh,” said Billy. “It wasn’t like that with me and Miri.”

“Miri being…”

“Allie’s sister. She doesn’t have a body, so sometimes she borrows mine.” 

Galahad snarled, “She dares invade your person! I’ll put her to the sword! I’ll—”

Billy wasn’t sure how Galahad thought he’d do that, but he still threw his hands up. “No, no! I let her do it.” He slumped in the throne, remembering sharing himself with Miri. It felt like a living dream. A good dream; the kind you had on the edge of waking, when you could just remember there was something else on the other side. Their thoughts and impulses wrapped around each other like entwined lighting. Like if a hug was a conversation. It was hard for Billy to call it possession. Miri never did anything he didn’t want to do. They were just… together. He sighed. He was getting homesick.

“Your highness,” said Galahad. “Could I ask you something?” 

Billy shook himself. “Ah, sure.”

“…How do you stand it?”

Billy tilted his head. “Stand what?”

“Being so…” Galahad took a deep breath. “Warped. What foul witch or magician did this to you?” 

Billy blinked. “Oh. Nobody, I think. I was born this way.”

“Sweet Mother of God… how are you still sane?” 

Billy shrugged. “It’s not so bad. The fur keeps me warm, the claws are good for opening cans.” His tail twitched. “And I’m really good at balancing. Is being a lady all that bad? Most of the ones I know seem okay with it.

Gahalad looked down at Gloriana’s figure and shuddered. “I’ve not dwelt in this form for a month and—it’s like having raw chicken nailed to my chest! Bits of me have been carved away! I now longer fit my shadow!” He looked pleadingly up at Billy. “Are you telling me you’ve never felt trapped in that shape?”

Billy knew what the knight wanted to hear. “Yeah,” he said. “Sometimes.” 

It was only half-true. Billy had felt trapped loads of times. In his house. By people who wanted to change him, yet wanted nothing to nothing to do with him. But not in his own skin. David was right about one thing, even if he was wrong about costumes: fur was cool. Still, nobody wanted to be alone, even in misery. 

Galahad nodded. “You handle it with pure grace, your highness.”

“Thanks,” said Billy, not looking at the knight. He wondered why Myrddin forced Galahad to stay in that body. Did the wizard not know any ladies? “I’m ready to get back to work, Myrddin.”

“As you wish, your highness.”

The next audience was another supplicant, a little old lady with a face like cracked, pore-blocked leather. She was forcing a smile. “Young… King, I’m here for my grandson. He’s about your age I think—”

“Be concise, good lady,” Myrddin insisted.

The woman’s smile faltered. Billy saw her swallow. “So sorry. It’s just, he needs this medicine—insulin I think it’s called—and my daughter’s had to ration it for him with the roads blocked.” A dry chuckle, cousin to a sob. “Blitz spirit and all. But he’s getting a bit under the weather…”

Billy took a deep breath. “Go home and bring me what you have left.”

“But your highness-”

“I’ll use it to make more, I promise.”

Billy had lied. He wasn’t ready. But he was going to try. 

⬗  

“We need a doctor,” insisted Billy. “I can make all the medicines the people need, but I need someone who knows how to use them.”

Billy had gathered Myrddin and those knights who weren’t on patrol in the cathedral’s triforium—a hidden gallery hosting cupboards full of liturgical documents, Viking gravestones from the land’s pagan past, and masonry salvaged from the church’s previous lives. “Galahad, try and find me someone who knows about medicine and stuff.”

“But sire,” said Galahad, “Sir Bedwyr is already skilled in the healing arts.”

Sir Bedwyr held the tiny insulin bottle up between his fingers, inspecting it. “This substance truly cures that boy’s ills?” he asked. “What form of panacea is it, then?”

Billy looked apologetically at Bedwyr. “I’m sorry Bedwyr, I know you’re really smart, but we need someone more… up to date.”

Bedwyr tilted his head. “I understand.”

“Excuse me, sire,” said Myrddin. “Must I be present? You appear to be handling this admirably, and I have more important matters—”

Billy pointed sternly at the wizard, his claw glinting. “People getting sick is important, Myrddin. Is the world going to end today?”

“…Doubtful, sire.”

“Then you can stay here and help.”

Myrddin grit his teeth. “Very well. Though I must remind you, William, ‘today’ will be ‘tomorrow’ soon enough.” 

  
“What garb do the modern medics wear, highness?” asked Galahad.

“White gowns,” said Billy.  

“You might want to be more specific, son,” called a chipper voice from below. Billy and the knights rushed to the banister to find Jack Lyons standing alone in the middle of the nave. He was smiling mildly, waving. “You don’t want Sir Galahad snatching some poor inpatient from St. Thomas.” The man’s expression darkened. “They have enough problems as it is.”

“Jack Lyons!” Billy realized he was smiling. He hardened his face. “What are you doing here?”

Jack Lyons raised his hands. “I’m here to talk.” He glanced up at the church’s high windows, cataracts of green shadow that stained his suit. “I think we can agree this isn’t where we want to be.”

“I can send him away again, your highness,” Myrddin said under his breath. “He is but a man, if a man made of crystal instead of meat.”

“Crystal, you say?” said Lanslod, smacking his leather gloved hands together, producing blue sparks. “You can grind that into powder if you try hard enough…”

Billy threw up a hand. “I want to talk. Kings do that.”

For a while now, Billy had been trying without much success to come up with his own means of superpowered conveyance. Propelling himself into the air by roaring downwards hadn’t worked. He had tried to create some kind of disc to fly on like Mr. Liu did, but though Billy could make atoms and molecules do what he liked, they still listened to gravity. So, Billy had to make do with Galahad carrying him down into the nave, hands under his armpits. It mangled to niggle even his easy-going dignity. Myrddin fluttered down as a flock of bright blue barn swallows. Billy wondered why he could keep his clothes and David needed a special alien costume. Maybe he was fibbing. 

“Mr. Wyltt—” 

“That is not a surname, Lyons.”

“Ah. My apologies. Myrddin—if I may call you that—I understand what you’re going through. Both our Britains slipped away in our sleep. But trying to impose them on the here and now will only cause suffering—”

“I recreate nothing, Jack Lyons. I am no slave to nostalgia. The Britain I offer was not the Britain of my childhood. The architects of my youth failed. They have failed again—”

“Excuse me,” said Billy. “Why are you talking to Myrddin? You came to talk to me.”

Myrddin and Jack Lyons both went silent. 

“You’re right, I’m very sorry.” Jack Lyons got down on one knee so he was at eye level with Billy. “Son, don’t you think this is all a bit much? These trees alone are causing a lot of trouble.”

Behind Billy, Galahad shouted, “You speak to our king as a mere child!”  

Billy glanced over his shoulder at the knight. “I’m nine.” He turned back to Jack. “Yeah. I think we could lose the trees.”

“Sire,” said Myrddin. “The forest keeps us safe from interlopers.”

“But it keeps the people from getting what they need,” countered Billy. “Besides. There’s an interloper right here.”

“Do you really think they will let us complete the great work?”

“I mean, I’ve been thinking… do we have to move England and everything to keep it safe? I mean, Mistress Quickly can make force fields. I bet you two could whip up something really neat together, maybe for the whole world!”

Jack looked up at Myrddin. “The boy doesn’t make a half-bad king, does he? Perhaps it was wrong of us to wake you up, just to ask you to kill. But surely you still want to protect our land?”

“That’s what I’m doing,” said Myrddin firmly.

“I don’t think it’s the right way to do it, but,” said Billy. He closed his eyes and nodded vigorously. “It isn’t. We should put those stones back. Get rid of the trees.” He shrugged. “I guess we can keep them where it’s nicer.”

Myrddin shook his head. “You stupid boy…” 

Galahad and the knights still watching from the balustrades gasped. Billy raised an eyebrow. “Pardon.”

Myrddin shouted, “Don’t you think I tried this? The gentle change? Planting the seeds of the new within the old? It’s a salt plain, Billy! Nothing can grow from it!” He took Billy by the shoulders and shook him. “Think, boy—”

Whatever happened, Myrddin would have regretted those words. Laying a hand on his king. He had nothing but respect for William’s earnest heart. He certainly would never have hurt him. But the microcamera in Jack Lyons’ bolo tie couldn’t see that. And Billy St. George was very, very loved. 

As in Camlann, so in London… 

Galahad forced Myrddin and Billy apart. “Control yourself, sorcerer!”

There was a rushing sound. Pressure equalizing. The voice of the crowd outside the church picked up like waves in a storm. “What’s happening?” asked Billy.

Jack Lyons shook his head. “Hasty…”

Myrddin pointed at him, breathing heavily. “Seize him.”

Jack Lyons went quietly as Galahad dragged him after Billy and Myrddin. The four stepped out of the church doors. The gathered tide of Londoners were pointing up at an egg of grey, foreign sky. It was hatching, releasing a flock of colourfully clad figures.

Despite himself, Jack Lyons smiled. “People of London, look up!”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. “Spells may pull the moon down from the sky but I ask instead to raise this body to her.”

Chapter One Hundred and Sixteen: St. George and the Vampire

“It looks nice, Billy,” said Drina carefully. “I like the leafy parts. I bet Mr. Liu would be pleased to see it.”

Jack Lyons nodded. “You should come and show everyone.”

Billy made to step forward, but paused with his foot in the air. “Wait, are you trying to grab me? Like Tom tried?”

Allison shot a glance back at Tom. The older boy threw his arms up. She turned back to William. “Billy, what are you doing?”

“Me and Myrddin are going to save England!” Billy had clearly practised saying the wizard’s name many times. Hastily, he added, “And Wales.” He looked at Myrddin. “We’re going to save Scotland too, right?”

“It would be hard not to,” answered Myrddin. “We are the same island.”

“What about Ireland?” asked Billy.

“If we have time.”

“Save England from what?” asked Allison. “Republicans?” She was a touch too proud of herself for that one.

“Nuclear war!” cried Billy. “And the bird!”

“The bird?” asked the Crimson Comet, still holding the Carnacki battery. He looked at Myrddin. “And you know what nuclear war is?”

“Do you know what an onager1 is?” Myrddin asked back.

“No.”

“Then I can know what nuclear weapons are.”

“You’re a bit late!” called Mistress Quickly, hands cupped around her mouth like a jeering football2 fan. “Me and the Flying Man took care of the nukes! I made the bloody uranium into glassware!”

“Really?” asked Close-Cut.

“For special occasions,” clarified Mistress Quickly. “But you get as many rads from a plane ri—”

Myrddin’s voice hissed in Maude’s ear, “Eschaton has been dead for a year. You are a fool if you think the nations of the world won’t split the atom again over and over.

Maude shuddered. “Eschaton” had been her suggestion for Joe’s supernym. He’d snobbishly refused to take one, and now people would forever be calling him “the Flying Man.” 

“And how are you going to save Britain from nuclear war, Billy?”

“Myrddin says he can take the island to Fairyland!” 

Billy was grinning, which told Allison she knew more about fairy tales than he did. “You’re gonna kidnap gazillions of people to Fairyland?”

“They can come back if the world doesn’t explode!” Billy insisted. “Or once it gets better after, I guess.”

“It will no doubt be a difficult adjustment,” said Myrddin. “But I believe William has the heart and courage to lead us through.”

“We could take Catalpa, too,” suggested Billy. “Then we’d all be safe! And neighbours!”

“Hell no!” shouted Allison. 

Jack Lyons raised his hands. “Let’s try and stay civil, everyone.”

“Right, that’s it.” Tom’s outline barged through the police line, filling in again as he approached Billy and the others. “Come on, Billy, we’re going home.”

“No I’m not,” said Billy. “Myrddin needs me!”

Tom scowled. “You’re not even a Pom! How can you be king of England?” 

“He is still a child of Albion,” said Myrddin. “Even with the Saxon blood in his veins.”

“I should remind everyone,” said Jack Lyons, “the throne of Great Britain and all her possessions is currently filled.”

Billy tilted his head. “Oh yeah.” He looked up at Myrddin. “What are we going to do with Princess Elizabeth3? I heard she’s nice.”

“We shall discuss that matter later, my king.”

The Crimson Comet shook his head, mouth agape. “He’s nine years old!”

Billy pouted and pointed at Allison. “Allie’s ten and she’s the boss of Catalpa.”

“And you know what?” said Tom. “That’s a bit nuts, too!”

Drina gave a small nod of assent.

“Hey!” Allison cried. 

“But at least Allie isn’t dragging us all to the Dark Ages to hang out with the bloody fairies! Whatcha going to do, Billy? Make everyone till the fields for your barons and lords? I thought you were better than that crap.”

“It won’t be like that!”

“All shall have a part to play,” intoned Myrddin calmly. “All shall know their place.”

Billy frowned at the wizard. “You’re not helping.”

Miri cleaved from Allison. “This is stupid! You have to come home, because if you go live in another dimension or whatever, we can’t play together. So there!”

That was the first thing that seemed to give Billy pause. “I mean, you could visit. Myrddin says people from here have been going to Fairyland since forever.”

Miri put her hands on her spectral hips, mimicking both Allison and Arnold’s mothers. “First I have to ask Allie if I can hug you, now I have to go to Fairyland to see you?”  

Billy sighed. “Miri, this is important…” 

Miri huffed. “Everything’s more important than me.”    

Billy gasped as Miri merged with his body. Excalibur glowed in its scabbard. He retched as Miri’s smokey form erupted from his mouth, glaring as she pulled her image back together. “You tried to possess me!”

Drina gave Miri a chastising look. “Miri!”

“He was being dumb.”

Ralph Rivers took a step forward. “Billy—”

Billy growled. That alone sent the Comet, Tom, Jack and the Kinseys all flying backwards. The Carnaki battery fell onto the driveway. Someone listening closely might’ve heard it grunt in pain. 

“Stay back!” shouted Billy. 

Allison watched Jack Lyons dust off his suit. When she rolled over in the grass, she found her mother groaning and rubbing her side. Allison rose off the ground, glaring fire at Billy. The air around her shimmered in the siren light.

“Whatcha gonna do, Allison? Use your Alberto powers on me?” 

The grass combusted under Allison, bright crescents of lava spinning around her. “Maybe! After I beat some sense back into you! You hurt my mum!”

Billy spotted Mrs Kinsey, only now sitting up. His eyes widened. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, Mrs Kinsey—“

“You’re gonna be!”

“It really isn’t that bad, hon—”

“I’m gonna grab you by the tail and spin you ‘round my head!”

“If you’re so intent on violence, young lady,” said Myrddin, “I might have a way of settling this dispute quickly and cleanly.”

Billy and Allison both looked at the wizard. “What?” they both asked, nearly in unison.

“Simple,” he replied. “The way champions have put rest to conflicts since men discovered the hardness of wood, bone, and metal. A duel.”

⬗   

Rock Cannon/Gawaine stood on the lawn behind the hotel. Thick trails of black powder snaked through the grass from either side of him, curving and meeting again to form a wide circle. He jumped backwards as the circle exploded into a rainbow ring of fireworks. When the sparks and smoke cleared, they were left with a circular trench. The terms of the duel were simple: single combat, with no outside assistance for either Billy or Allison. Billy had insisted it not even be till first blood4. Instead, the first child knocked into the trench lost. If Billy won, the Catalpans would return to Bròn Binn empty handed. If Allison won, Myrddin would free Roundtable and submit himself to custody. 

The two children sealed the deal with a spit handshake, Myrddin watching intently. It put Allison on edge. How could Myrddin think this would turn out well for him? Allison had the combined fighting skill of dozens. Her flesh and bone were thoroughly posthuman. She could conjure lava and make the air boil. She could fly. She could control minds. Billy wasn’t even good at soccer. He wasn’t even using the magic sword. Myrddin had to have a trick up his sleeve. The fact Billy was still wearing Excalbur’s scabbard made her uneasy, too. It was either pointless, or secretly clever. Still, this was her best chance of ending things quickly. 

Myrddin bore Billy into the ring on invisible wings. Allison simply leapt across, her flight lending the movement a kind of eerie grace. Torchless flames bobbed and floated around the ring. On Allison’s side of the ring, the Catalpans were watching gravely. Mrs Kinsey was torn. On the one hand, she was obligated to support her daughter, and she was fighting for a good cause. On the other, she was also beating up a sweet, smaller boy. Nobody who loved either child wanted to see this. Meanwhile, on Billy’s side, Myrddin’s band of possessed superheroes were whooping and cheering:

Long live the king! Long live the king!

Myrddin, though, was silent. As a gesture of good faith, Bedwyr was presently binding his hands and covering his mouth, lest he work his sorcery. Billy and Allison stood opposite each other, feet fixed to the ground, Allison far more expertly. “I don’t want to hurt you, Allie,” Billy said.

“Then give up,” said Allison. Honestly, she couldn’t quite return Billy’s sentiment. He was being dumb. She would beat him sensible again. Her pleasure. And he’d hurt her mum. 

As part of the negotiations, Mistress Quickly had won the right to start the duel. She raised her multi-gun into the air. Her mask amplified her voice when she shouted, “En garde!”   

At the flash of the laser blast (to which Bedwyr gasped), the children screamed and ran for each other. Allison had expected an easy fight. She was surprised to be the first to be knocked flat. She charged Billy with all the speed her legs could muster, going for an easy clothesline to send him sprawling from the ring. The first shockwave simply took her legs from under her with a yelp.

And then he kicked her in the face.

… What?

She barely felt it, but still. Allison was thankful Billy was wearing shoes. Myrrdin’s knights cheered. The Catalpans were gripped by a stunned silence.

Billy looked down at her, his eyes glassy.

“I have to win, Allie,” he said, his tone apologetic. “I’m sorry.”

She would have answered, if another bark of sonic force hadn’t sent her scrambling to the side. She reached out for a song. Comet. Tried to blast herself towards Billy with Ralph’s tempestuous flight power. Nothing happened. The song was there—inside her—  but she couldn’t touch it. She tried for Arnold’s. Same thing. “Time out!” she shouted.

Against all reason, Billy halted.

“What?” he asked.

“Why aren’t my powers working?”

Billy looked back at Myrddin, frowning. “You said you wouldn’t mess with Allie.”

“She may use whatever power or skill is within the ring.” Myrrdin explained, his mouth momentarily unbound by Bedwyr. “No more, no less.”

“That’s not fair!” cried Allison. 

“So you should be allowed to pilfer the might of all your friends, while my king must fight alone?” He shrugged. “Make do with the three strains of enchantment inside you. My liege shall still best you.”

Allison glared.

Like hell he will. Allison frowned hard. “Time in.” She took a hold of Billy’s song, letting the electric riffs vibrate through her. Mercury matter-mist bloomed in her hand just long enough to twist the air into sand. She flew at Billy, throwing the sand into his eyes. Billy screamed, throwing his own shimmering field up in front of him like a wall. It evaporated to reveal an actual wall of rough stone. It stopped her short, but only for a moment, and he still had to clear his eyes. 

Allison circled back while the boy-king rubbed them clear, then tackled him from behind. Billy reached behind him and grabbed her by the hair, pulling hard enough to pull follicles free. A complete schoolboy move, but effective. Allison screamed before she drove her knee between his legs. He dodged with a frankly impressive degree of agility, but she still made contact. He squeaked.

Why am I doing this? Allison asked herself. She managed to get a hand on the nape of Billy’s neck and tried to worm her will into him—  

Allie, don’t—  

It was like touching a live electrical outlet with her tongue. Inside of her, Miri and Alberto grew faint, like shadows withering in candlelight. She flinched away, remembering Miri’s attempt to get inside Billy.

Did you not see Miri’s fuckup, Allie?

There was no time out this time. She hesitated, and that gave Billy enough time to sink his claws into her wrist, hard enough to draw blood. Her fingers flexed instinctively, and his neck was free. Billy snarled at Allison. “Cheater!” 

Even that was enough to rustle her hair. 

Billy vanished. Allison couldn’t even figure out where his song was coming from, as though the ring was equipped with surround sound playing Billy’s soul. Somewhere to the left, she heard a deep breath. She took flight, just in time to brace herself against Billy’s voice. She threw her internal momentum against the onslaught of sound. It was like walking backwards against a hurricane. She turned around to see Billy pop back into being, still roaring. Slowly, Allison was pushed back, the ground beneath her being stripped of grass and topsoil. When she was just over the edge of the pit, Billy ran out of breath and bent over gasping. Allison looked down and smiled grimly. “You really think you can get me down there?’

Billy knew Allison thought he was dumb, or at least not as bright as her. For once, he was glad for that. He dug his feet into the ground. Matter mist crept out from under his shoes, weaving  between particles of soil and rock and flowing out from the trench wall. In the deep shadow, you couldn’t make out the scattering of silver glitter. Allison didn’t notice when she inhaled it. Inside her lungs, oxygen turned to nitrous oxygen. As it worked into her blood and brain, she started to giggle, her flight becoming shaky. Billy raised his hands, more matter-mist erupting from in front of his palms. It reared above Allison, condensing air into something much heavier. 

The Crimson Comet shouted, “Look out, Allie!” but the sound of his voice didn’t make it past the trench’s outer wall. That would be helping, after all. Heavy chains dropped on top of Allison. If she’d been in a fit state, she could’ve kept afloat. Right now, they threatened to overwhelm her. She thrashed and yelled like Marley’s ghost, and that was when a final, ragged shout from Billy shoved her hard down onto the trench floor—  

Allison felt grass beneath her cheek. Grey, weary light momentarily dazzled her wide, dark-drinking pupils. Allison tricked her body into thinking she was lifting a car off her mother or best friend and threw the chains aside with a grunt. When she got up, she found her friends, Lyons, and the SAS troops milling confusedly about her. They were back on Bròn Binn. The Phare was swinging its arclight blade across the sky. Allison couldn’t tell if it was early morning or evening. It reminded her of falling asleep sick in the afternoon, and waking up not knowing if she’d slept for a day or an hour. 

“Good going, Allie!” cried David. “You lost to Billy.”

“He had a dumb magic sword thingy helping him! Like to see you try!”

“Sure, I’d win!”

Mabel was looking up at the sky. “Does anyone know the time difference between Scotland and Cornwall?”

“Officially, there is none,” answered Jack Lyons. “Nature disagrees, but not this much.”

The sound of hurried footsteps and martial, circular breathing. A fresh batch of soldiers were running up to them, aiming their guns at them. Allison threw her arms up indignantly. “Hey! We were invited!”

The soldiers parted for a disheveled looking Sir Edwards. The skin under his eyes was grey for lack of sleep. “And where the hell were you?”

Jack Lyons fielded that one, “Tintagel, if you’ll recall, Sir Edwards. I’m afraid we failed to capture Myrddin or secure the St. George boy.”

Sir Edwards shook his head. “You’re telling me! You’ve been gone eight days! The country is on the brink! We’ve had to send the royal family to Canada! We’re governing out of regional fallout shelters!”

“But we were just—” Allison grit her teeth, then snarled, “Friggin magic!” At least she knew what Myrddin’s trick was. Except, that didn’t make sense. Allison still had to lose first. Maybe that was the trick. Assuming Billy was a complete pushover. Allison suddenly felt both mean and foolish. 

Mistress Quickly did the sums in her head. “I’d say we could’ve made that with a light jog? Assuming we could walk on water”—Maude raised a finger as David opened his mouth—“all walk on water.” She sighed. “I’ll say this, he didn’t factor in breaks.”

“Wait,” said Jack. “You’re saying he made us walk back?”

Who bloody cares?” Sir Edwards yelled. “What are you going to do about London?”

One by one, the new arrivals turned to look at him.

“…What’s wrong with London?” asked Allison.

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. An ancient, torsion-powered Roman catapult.

2. American, European, or Australian, take your pick.

3. A force of habit on Billy’s part, as Elizabeth the Second had ascended to the throne in 1965.

4. Not that that would even work, given the scabbard’s properties.

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.”   

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


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.

Chapter One Hundred and Fourteen: The Tiger of Albion

On a peninsula they called an island, Myrddin Wyllt sat in front of a cave. The seer had visited the place many times. Spent hours squatting in its dark mouth waiting for the tide to come in, a seed daring to be swallowed. For when the cave drank the sea, the future washed over him. Not today, though. Right now, Myrddin needed the winter-weary sun. A pile of books lay in the sand next to him. They were strange to the grain. They were written in a script Myrddin had until now glimpsed only in visions. Their paper was white as pearl, yet painfully thin and flimsy. His fingers kept tearing the page corners. He could tell the text within wasn’t the work of human hands. A monk could spend a year on the thinnest volume and not produce such miniscule, immaculately consistent marks, with less than an ant’s width between each letter. And some of these books were more than a thousand pages long. Myrddin knew this for a fact. They put numbers on them. Had men forgotten how to count? 

Myrddin did not like much of what he read. The world he’d slept through was a swamp of pain and violence. Wars that would once have consumed hundreds or thousands now boasted deaths in numbers Myrddin had never needed to know. Human craft now surpassed even his greatest magics. Now men could end the world by accident. Worse still, some would do it on purpose. Who should be able to boast that power but God? One god, though men today were afraid to use the word, had tried to take away that power. Tried to save every man, woman and child in this world.

They’d killed him for that.

Right now, Myrddin was reading about himself, albeit under the name the Romans had given him. When he was young, he would have been thrilled to hear men sing of him. Every bard wished for that. To be transfigured from singer to song. Now it was a cruel joke. It wasn’t even the slander. Calling him a cambion, the fruit of diabolical outrage. People had been whispering that behind his back for years. Fools who could only think what their priests told them. The kind who couldn’t name what came between day and night. It was what had happened after Nimuë put him in the earth. 

Myrddin watched the dusty silver waves crash onto the shore. He remembered the morning they’d carried a naked babe to his feet, warm and alive in those cold waters, his red shock of hair a flame they could not extinguish. He remembered raising the child to the sky and weeping. “Here is an heir for Uther!” Tennyson had him shout. 

The poet was wrong. Uther—Uthyr—couldn’t have been further from Myrddin’s mind. All that mattered was that he had a prince. A prince who would bring peace to the land. Myrddin wasn’t surprised that people called him a devil. Easier to believe his power and madness—and Myrddin had gone mad—was born from the pit, not mere human violence. From watching his lord and his brother be slaughtered in front of him. Myrddin’s allies and beneficiaries claimed his visions came from God. That He had given Myrddin leave to practise his magic. Myrddin couldn’t believe that. Not unless God lived in the shadows of trees. In silence so deep, Myrddin could hear his tears hit the ground.

All his efforts. All his sins and miracles. They had not lasted a single lifetime. 

Myrddin felt something rushing towards him across the sea—  

A boy with a mask like a bandit stood in the surf. His skin was concealed by short, black-striped orange fur, a cat’s tail waving behind him. He was holding a sword shakily above his head. Caledfwlch. Myrddin slowly got to his feet, dropping the Idylls of the King. His mouth fell agape. In the same moment, Caledfwlch slipped out of the boy’s clawed hands into the water.

“Sorry, sorry!” cried Billy St. George. He looked about the beach. “Um, excuse me, sir, am I still in France?”

Myrddin ran into the water, embracing the strange child.

Billy patted the man’s side awkwardly. “Ah, hi.”

Once more, the world had delivered Myrddin a prince. Once more, he wept.

“Are you okay mister?”

⬗ 

The gaol on Bròn Binn wasn’t meant for long-term confinement. It was a simple brick building with five cells, each with an old-fashioned iron barred door. Any member of Roundtable could’ve torn it apart all on their lonesome. Metropole could even politely ask the cell doors to open themselves. It was a drunk tank, a place for hot tempers to cool. If the Ministry of Paranormality needed to properly imprison a superhuman, they had another island for that, a bleak place between the Outer Hebridees and… somewhere else. Today, though, escape was impossible. At least, if Allison Kinsey said it was.

Sir Cai sat brooding on the cell bench. They hadn’t given him back the helmet. He liked the helmet. Sir Cai itched without it on, like there were archers aiming for his head. A weakness inherited from the flesh he wore. He’d spent a few minutes experimenting with the strange water-powered latrine, until he heard the red-eyed girl laughing at him. He had tried to stop for the sake of his dignity, but it became a compulsion as urgent as breath. His actions weren’t his own. Sir Cai could not even beg for release. He was only able to pull himself away when the witch-child tilted her head and wrinkled her nose, as though a ghost had whispered a bad joke in his ear.

“Come on,” said Allison. “Just tell us what you were doing in the forest.”

The girl looked like Nimuë’s spawn. Bloodless as a fish. Bending men with only a touch and her voice. Sir Cai wanted to see the girl’s bones break from the weight of the air on her shoulders. He wanted to bury her in the rubble of this building. But his new magic lay still inside him, as though an iron horseshoe had been hung around his neck. Glaring back at the girl and her black-clad companion was all the spite Sir Cai could muster.  

Allison rolled her eyes. Alberto was going to gloat for days. “Spit it out.”

“I was left to guard the sword,” Sir Cai blurted, unable to stop himself.

“And why did Merlin stick his magic sword in a French rock?” asked Mistress Quickly. “Seems like a waste of good metal.”

Sir Cai grit his teeth. “His name—isn’t…” He screwed his eyes shut, tremoring, before the answer fled his lips. “…It was our land before the whore put Myrddin in the earth. He didn’t realize that had changed until he drove Caledfwlch into the stone. Said he didn’t have time to pull it back out…”

Sir Cai flinched at Mistress Quickly’s laughter. It was the mirth of wasps. “Oh, I’ve been there, mate.”

“And they just left you. All by yourself.”

Sir Cai stood tall. “Only I was worthy.”

“Did they tell you where they were going?”

Sir Cai frowned. “Great Britain, of course.”

Allison huffed. “Did they tell you where in Great Britain?”

“…I did not need to know.”

“Course not.” Allison squinted at Starry Knight’s mind, bricked up behind the edifice of Sir Cai. Anthony Peake was trapped in a ship that shouldn’t have existed for nearly fifty years, beyond the reach of one world and falling short of another. The stale, four day old air stank of sweat and fear. Warning claxons blended with screams. Over and over, they fell to Earth. A memory prison built of despair and self-recrimination. Merlin hadn’t lacked for building materials. 

“You know,” said Allison, “I’m not surprised Myriddin left you to guard the sword.”

Sir Cai smiled. “I see my reputation has not withered with the ages.”

Allison shrugged her shoulders. “You mean people still remember you’re a prat? Yeah, they do.”

Anthony Peake’s lips and eyebrows twitched as Sir Cai searched his host’s vocabulary. His face went red when he realized what the girl called him. “Mind your tongue, you pale little slattern!”

“Oh come on, everyone knows you were a dickhead.” Allison glanced up at Mistress Quickly. “Mistress, do you remember what Robert Graves called our guest?”

“Afraid I don’t, Allie.” It was the truth, but Maude tried to make it sound ironic.

Allison smiled acidly at Sir Cai. “A buffoon. The chief of cooks.”

Sir Cai’s hand flew to a sword that wasn’t there. “I’ll have his head!”

“Remember when Percival broke your shoulder? Because you slapped a lady!”

“She had it coming!”

Allison tutted.

“No wonder your dad liked Arthur more.”

“That’s a lie!”

That was one use for precognition: knowing what insults would land. 

“Is it?” asked Allison. “While you’re answering questions, why’d ya kill Loholt? Your own nephew<a title=”A piece of genuine slander found only in Perlesvaus, an Old French Arthurian romance from the 13th century.” href=”#fn1″ id=”ref1″>1…”

Sir Cai stammered. The red rage in his cheeks became white hot. An old wound opened inside him. He remembered his brother’s son fading away, after what they did to him at Din Guarie2. How Arthur and Gwenhwyfar had wept… 

“As I live and breathe, girl my sword shall be your bridegroom.”

Mistress Quickly grimaced behind her mask, but Allison just giggled. “I bet Arthur only let you in the club because he felt sorry for you. You bent the knee to your own squire.”            

Sir Cai roared. “I am a prince of Dyfed!”

Allison folded her arms and raised her chin. “You’re a Welsh warlord nobody even remembers, gone a thousand years.”

Jack Lyons stood guard outside the gaol block, shaking his head at what he heard. This wasn’t interrogation. Just childish cruelty. He heaved a sigh. It wouldn’t be working so well if her words weren’t true. Sir Cai probably deserved every word. He wished he could let his mind slide off it, like the children cavorting in the air above him: one spectral, the other icy mist.     

They were playing tag. While their friend tore her way through a dead man’s psyche. While their friend was God knows where, probably in the company of a murderous wizard. No wonder the Catalpans hadn’t seen him as strange. He was the least of it.

“When did this all get so normal for you?” he asked, more to himself than to them.

Miri stopped mid-air.

“What do you mean?” she asked. “This is normal.”

Jack chuckled.

“No, little miss. It really isn’t.”

David dropped out the air, bare flesh again, and shrugged. “Says you.”

“Says reality, precedent,” Jack countered. “Behind me, a little girl is interrogating a man from a fairy-story for the Crown. I’m a dead man recreated by alien technology again and again in a lighthouse basement, and even to me, this is too much. When did you get so numb to it all?”

The children looked at each other.

“I mean,” Miri said, “An alien made me too. It’s not that weird.”

“All of this got pretty normal after some arsehole shot my mum,” David added. “Hard to top that. Besides, who wants to be normal? You’re like, immortal. Even more immortal than me!”

Jack shook his head. “No, Mr. Venter. I’m not immortal. I get to die as many times as Queen and Country ask of me. And if someone wrecked the contraption under our feet, Jack Lyons would be gone forever in less than five weeks, even this animate cadaver that stands before you.”

“You’re a Frankenstein?” asked David. “Neat.”     

“You mean the monster?” Jack corrected3. “No.” Never use metaphorical language with children. Especially ones who forgot to dress. “I’m more like one of Miss Henderson’s creations. Simply one that can only be sent away by time.”

There was a quiet, then Miri spoke.

“Um,” she asked. “What does dying feel like? I think I died once. I kinda wanna be sure.”

He looked at her, one eyebrow raised. “The first time—when the real Jack Lyons died—was like being turned inside out and set on fire.. Machinery commiting my cells and atoms to memory with basilisk eyes.” 

David frowned. “People used to call my dad that. Dumb name.” 

“My apologies. Never mean to offend. Dying is not a standardized experience. In France—after my scrape with Mr. Rivers, of course—Jerry dropped a bomb on me. Didn’t feel a thing. One second there was a whistle in my ears, the next someone was handing me a towel and some trousers in the cavern. I believe they were sending me to Suez.”  

“What’s it like when you just… don’t die long enough?” asked Miri. 

Jack sighed. “I grow numb, Miss Kinsey. I’m told for most dying people, touch goes last. For me it’s the first. Sometimes I think it’s purgatory washing over me. My echoes only last a month or two. Most of them are spent in airplanes and offices. How can they merit paradise or damnation?” Jack Lyons shook himself. He was getting poetic. Never a good sign. He looked sharply at the fae children. “I must ask, how can you two play while your friend is missing?” He pointed at David. “And where did your costume go?”

“Got bored of it,” David answered, running into Miri’s own reply:

“You heard Allie,” she said, again, perplexed. “Billy’s fine. His futures are still pretty much okay.”

David kept talking, “And I don’t get cold anyway. Well, I do, but it’s fun.”   

Jack Lyons almost envied the boy. Not so much the shamelessness—Jack was proud of his tailoring—but these days, differences in temperature weren’t even interesting to him anymore. As relevant to his well being as his elevation above sea-level. He remembered being seven years old, heading to boarding school in Scotland for the first time. He’d felt like his bones would shatter from the cold. He missed that. 

“Way I see it,” said David. “You’re lucky. You got off the human train, and now you can take bullets to the chest—”

Miri thrust her arm through David’s head. Jack winced at the sight.        

“You’re it!” she yelled, plunging through the scrubby ground.

David swore gleefully. “Bitch! I’mma getcha for that!” 

The boy collapsed into water, his remains soaking into the cold soil like it was the height of summer. 

Maybe that was his problem, thought Jack Lyons. He was a man with a monster’s life. These children resembled only themselves. Perhaps that was a blessing. 

Allison and Mistress Quickly exited the gaol. Allison had a peeved satisfaction, like someone who’d swatted a spider but now had to clean it up. 

“Doesn’t sound like you had much luck in there,” commented Jack. 

“Nope,” Mistress Quickly replied with mechanical flatness. 

“Was hoping he’d lose control if we got him really mad,” said Allison. “But he’s wedged inside Mr. Peake pretty tight.” She looked up at Jack. “You ever had to open a drawer, but it’s so full of junk it gets caught?”

“Afraid I haven’t had the pleasure, but I think I understand the principle.”

“Let me guess,” said Mistress Quickly. “The kitchen was the domain of the servants?”

“…Yes,” admitted Jack Lyons. 

Allison continued, “And you’re afraid if you pull too hard you’ll break something and your dad will smack you…”  She trailed off, eyes snapping to Maude. “Couple of nights ago, could you see me in your bedroom?”

Jack Lyons glanced sideways at Mistress Quickly. She tried not to meet his eyes. “…Yes. Yes I could.” She tapped the lenses of her mask. “Contacts.”

“Can you see ghosts?”  

“Yes, actually.” Maude titled her gloved hand. “Ghosts kind of live on the border of science and magic. Bit like jaffa cakes.” She looked between Allison and Jack Lyons. “I mean, are they cakes, or biscuits? Does it matter?”

“I believe the answer’s in the name,” opined Lyons. 

“They’re biscuits,” said Allison. She would’ve argued the case further, but there were more pressing matters. “Can you catch ghosts, Maude?”

Mistress Quickly rubbed her chin and clicked her tongue. It sounded like a soda-tab being pulled. “I had been looking into making Miri a timeout corner…”

“And then what happened?”

Billy shrunk slightly in his chair. The thing nobody told you about round tables was how easily everyone’s eyes fell on one person. It made Billy ticklish. All these heroes—these real knights—staring at him, waiting for him to speak like he was Jack Lyons. Or King Arthur. Billy swallowed. “We made the prison disappear with everyone in it. Then we built our town around it.”

The knights let out a great cheer. Some were still in their new superhero gear, a bit grubby after two weeks of continuous use. Others had tried to adapt modern fashion, to limited success. Sir Gawaine, clad in the flesh of the Welsh hero Rock Cannon, had covered himself with belts; around his waist, his shoulders, and across his chest. He slapped Myrddin on the shoulder. “Now why didn’t you ever pull that trick for us?”

Merlin—Myrddin, Billy didn’t want to be rude—wasn’t what the boy had expected. Billy had always pictured the legendary wizard as a spindly, white-bearded old man in a blue robe and pointy hat. Sometimes the robe or hat (or both) was bedazzled with stars. But Myrrdin… well, he was old, Billy supposed, but only as much as Mr. Rivers. His beard was short and black, with only the smallest flecks of grey. Solidly built, too. He could have been mistaken for a knight himself. Unlike them, though, he was dressed quite acceptably for his place and time in a brown tweed suit. If Billy had been more exposed to the world’s stereotypes, he might’ve said he looked like a secondary school maths teacher. Myrddin sipped his wine evenly. “Clearly our young king’s powers are beyond even mine.”

Billy felt himself blush beneath his fur. They kept calling him that. King. Far as he knew, neither his mother nor father were any kind of royalty, even if they were rich. The sword must be broken. “It wasn’t really my powers,” he insisted. “Mau—Mistress Quickly was the one who disappeared the prison. A lot of people made it happen.” He shrugged. “I didn’t do much…”

Disbelieving laughter.

“Do not sell yourself short, William,” said Myrddin. “By the sounds of it, this Mistress Quickly wouldn’t have been able to smuggle in her tools if it weren’t for your bravery. No, you did not liberate the fortress alone, but no king rules without a retinue. Arthur didn’t. Your modesty and generosity with credit due speaks well of you.”

“Uh, thanks,” said Billy.

A few seats down from Billy, Sir Bedwyr raised Ironclad’s hand. With Sir Cai and Starry Knight absent from the table, Sir Bedwyr and the form he’d stolen most looked the part of a true knight, clad in armour seemingly shaped from old British automobiles. “If you’d pardon the request, your highness, could you show us your alchemy again.”

Billy had gathered that meant his matter-mist. He nodded. Billy didn’t think saying no would be smart. These people were baddies—even if they had the same names as brave knights—and Billy supposed he was their prisoner, even if they thought he was the king of… something. Besides, saying no would be rude. “Sure.” He spread his arms and wriggled his fingers. A ribbon of shiny fog weaved between Billy’s hands. He squinted, tongue poking out the corner of his mouth. Red, blue and green plumes of flame whistled out from the mist, flaring rhythmically to “Click Go the Shears.”

The knights applauded. Sir Bedwyr had his hands under his chin in awe. “I spent years trying to transmute the elements. Our king does it on a whim…”

Billy found himself smiling. In a city of wonders, it was easy to forget you were special. He shook himself. Bad people, Billy reminded himself. He’d seen what they’d done to those people in Brocéliande. Billy looked straight at Myrddin, trying to channel some of Tom Long’s steel into his gaze. “Mr… Myrddin, why did you kill all those people? In the forest I mean. Dr. Merlin had freed you, and you killed him.”

A hush fell over the table. A few of the knights hung their heads.

“Your highness,” said Myrddin, “Dr. Merlin and his compatriots did not wake me out of kindness. They wanted to use me. Make me into a weapon in a swollen, far away war, waged not for the good of the Britons, but that of their rulers. I would not be made a tool of selfish men. I’m sure you can understand, if what you’ve told me of this Lawrence is true.”

Billy guessed he did… sort of. He knew Lawrence’s plans made Allison and David mad. Billy knew it should’ve made him mad. But the idea of married days had never scared him. Babies were cute. There were a bunch of girls at the Institute he liked hugging and playing with. The prospect was too far away to even be real, like old age or the year 2000. 

“I will admit that I perhaps… acted hastily,” said Myrddin. “But rest assured, your highness, I and my knights have not shed any innocent blood since then, either here or in the forest.”

“You sure?” asked Billy. “Starry—Sir Cai seemed… mean.”

“Do not trouble yourself. I ordered Sir Cai not to harm any civilian he came across. One of the conditions of his new life—for all your knights, William—is that they cannot disobey my commands.”

Some of the knights muttered assent. 

“He tried to kill Arnold,” Billy said.

“He attacked first. I couldn’t leave a knight unable to defend himself.”

A thought occurred to Billy. “Wait, if I’m the king, shouldn’t they be listening to me?”

“Our king has a good point,” said Galahad. He had been sleeved into the form of Gloriana—a lady super of considerable strength. Her white body glove had gone grey with grime. Galahad held himself incredibly stiffly, Billy thought. He (she?) looked like David when made to wear… most things. “We swore our oaths to Arthur, not you.”

Myrrdin nodded. “An oversight, yes. When I put your souls into their new forms, I didn’t know if anyone living was still worthy to pull Caledfwlch free.” He looked earnestly at Billy. “But do not worry, your highness, I am sworn to your service, and through me, your knights.” 

Lanslod4—lodged in the body of Weathermonger—slapped Billy on the shoulder, almost knocking him out of his chair. “Your highness, you haven’t touched your wine!”

Billy regarded the dark red glass next to his dinner dubiously. “I’m a kid. I’m not s’posed to drink wine.”

The knights all laughed, bar Galahad. “Wine is a vice,” he said. “Our king is wise to avoid its influence.”

Lanslod laughed. “Do loosen up, daughter.” He leaned to his other neighbour. “My, this new tongue has such funny phrases.”

Galahad suppressed a grimace. “I am not your daughter.” Under his breath, he added, “And you’re still loose enough for the both of us…” 

“What do you drink then?” Lanslod asked Billy. “When your tongue bores of water?”

“Orange juice?” offered Billy. “Coke?”

“I’ve tried that,” said Bedwyr. “The bubbles sting the tongue.”

Billy struggled to imagine a knight being hurt by coke.            

“Come on, your highness,” said Lanslod. “A little wine has never hurt a growing boy.”

Billy glanced around the table. Everyone was looking at him expectantly. Even Myrddin was cooly observing him. Billy gulped. Didn’t want to look like a wimp in front of the evil fake knights. He snatched up the glass of wine and threw it down his throat. It tasted like cough medicine. Burny cough medicine. Billy sputtered, pink spit splattering against his dinner plate. The knights cheered and laughed. It didn’t strike Billy as cruel, though. More like how Betty would laugh when he messed something up. Like he was telling a brilliant joke. Billy noticed he was smiling again, and again, he tried to banish it. This wasn’t real. They were like Lawrence, pretending to like him—  

Except Lawrence had never been good at pretending he liked Billy. He’d seen how the old man refused to look directly at him. He knew he’d wanted Miss Żywie to change him. Make him look normal. That idea had scared Billy way more than married days.

Myrddin raised a hand. The mirth subsided. “I shall leave you good knights to your revels,” he said. “Your highness, if we could talk in private?”

Billy nodded. “Okay.”

The pair left the knights to sing and drink at the King Arthur’s Castle Hotel5’s replica roundtable. It was actually more accurate than most such recreations: it was made of wood. Centuries of treasure-hunters had been searching in vain. Of course, King Arthur’s roundtable had never rested anywhere near Tintagel. The Pendragon in fact hadn’t spent much time in the area at all: only his conception and a few days after his birth. But pilgrimage sites and tourist-traps had been built with less reason. The hotel was fortunately in custodianship for the winter. As they made their way through the halls of the hotel, Billy wondered if he should be trying to escape. It seemed like what Allison, or David, or especially Tom would be doing. Stupid idea, Billy decided. Allison could fly. David could slither through water-pipes or swim through the ocean. Tom could just walk right through the walls. Billy didn’t even know really where he was, aside from probably England6. And he couldn’t well ask for directions, looking the way he did. Best sit tight and wait for the others to save him. 

The thought of that made him angry with himself.

Billy sat on the four-poster bed in the hotel’s most expensive suite. Myrddin had occupied it until he arrived, but he was eager to hand it over to his liege. At the moment, he was gazing out the room’s window, into the night.

“Mr. Myrddin,” said Billy. “What do you want me for?”

Myrddin was silent for a moment. “William, do you know why I put the first Pendragon on the throne?”

“You mean Arthur? Because he was the rightful king.”

“But why was he the right king?”

“…I don’t know? He seemed like a good bloke.”

“He was,” said Myrddin. “But he needed to be strong, too. To unite the Britons. To protect them from the deprecations of invaders and the petty tyrants within our borders; and sometimes, to protect the people from themselves. From their own pride and ambition. These islands once ruled more of the world than Rome at her height.” Myrddin shook his head. “So much cruelty. And for what? So they could moan over past glory while their country rots around them.”

Billy suspected Myrddin was talking about Grown-Up Stuff. He could just make out the corners of what the wizard was saying. “Um, sir, I don’t know if you’ve heard, but England still has a king”—Billy shook his head—“Queen, now. It changed last year.”

Myrddin grit his teeth and tried to ignore the part about England. Far too late to do anything about that. “I am aware of the House of Windsor, William. Layabouts. Had to change their name so people wouldn’t notice they were German. Is it true that each year, their current chieftess reads out a speech written by her ministers and pretends they’re her words7? Her ideas? She is a figurehead. A puppet worked by very small men.”         

“Maybe?”

Myrddin strode over to Billy, kneeling so he was eye-level with the boy. “There’s a war coming, William. One that will engulf this country and the rest of the world. It will drown these islands in fire. Sour the sea and soil. Poison the people’s very bones. More folk live in the British Isles now than any other time. I can save them all, but it will mean… a change in the way they live. In the country itself. They’ll need a leader to guide them through it. A ruler; kind, strong, and wise I know you’re kind, Billy. It drips from your words. You’re strong, too. And I can help you be wise.”

Billy gulped. “But I’m just a kid.”

Merlin thought he was strong. Merlin. Wasn’t he supposed to be smart?

“Your friend Allison, she’s not much older than you. And she’s protecting her own corner of the world.”

“You… like what Allison’s doing?” Billy asked. 

“She is trying to build a better place. It is admirable. I only wish all the peoples of the world had someone like you or her to guide them. It is providence you two met. You have seen how one so small can bear the burden of power.”

“…I don’t want to leave them.”

“We all must make sacrifices. I’m sure Allison has.”

Allison had. But she also had one thing Billy didn’t. “Myrddin, you know stuff, right?”

“Many things. Never enough.”

“Could I ask you something?”

“Of course, William. I am your servant.”

“Betty. The lady who took care of me. I’ve been waiting for her to come to Catalpa for ages. Can you—can you see if she still wants me?”

Myrddin closed his eyes. “I will try, my king.” Omens put on mystery plays behind the wizard’s eyelids. He sighed. “I see a woman with a pink-skinned child in her arms. She is… content.”

Billy sat there on the bed. He blinked. His breathing lost its rhythm as he started to sob. Myrddin put his arms around the child. Sometimes, Myrddin wondered, if things had turned out differently, could he have been kind?

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. A piece of genuine slander found only in Perlesvaus, an Old French Arthurian romance from the 13th century.

2. A Celtic fort in Northumberland, later the site of Bamburgh Castle.

3. A distinction without a meaning, as clearly the creature from Frankenstein would bear his father’s surname.

4. Commonly rendered in modern English as “Lancelot.”

5. It was later renamed Camelot Castle Hotel—an even less accurate name.

6. Specifically the Atlantic coast of Cornwall.

7. Myrddin is referring to the State Opening of Parliament, which includes a speech by the current British monarch detailing the government’s plans for the coming year.