Category Archives: Book Four: The Utopians

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.”

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1. Lawrence Upton would go on to become a leading figure in the British poetry revival of the 70s and 80s. During that period, he reinvented his style and subject matter to blend natural phenomena with images of urban desolation.

2. Later redubbed “The French House” in 1984, a popular nickname for the Soho pub and dining house.

3. Near-death (or post-death, as the case may be) experiences often share many similarities. Commonly reported elements include bright, white light, a sense of peace or other positive emotions, or the proverbial “life flashing before your eyes.” Between 1966 and 67, however, an anomalous trend emerged. Many individuals who came close to death during this period instead reported witnessing a conversation between a man and his son, or other, more surreal, scenes from the life of a young superhuman boy.

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 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.

Chapter One Hundred and Thirteen: A Cavourite Knight

The North Sea storm imposed itself on the mediterranean winter just long enough to deposit Jack Lyons and the Catalpa supers in Brocéliande Forest. The roaring waves and moaning wind fell to birdsong and a crisp breeze whispering through bare oaks and birches. Billy St. George shuffled his feet, enjoying the crunch of fallen leaves. “This is nice,” he said.

“Says the boy with fur,” said Mabel, awkwardly trying to rub her hands together without dropping her picture binder. A pair of comic-panel gloves grew over them from her sleeves.

David sighed happily and spread his arms, hints of frost in his costume. “Ah, my homeland.”

“Your mum spoke Occitan, didn’t she?” asked Allison, taking in their landing site. “They’re more southeast of here.”

“Same thing,” said David.

The Crimson Comet looked up through the trees. The sky was showering down the kind of exhausted sunshine that only comes after a rainstorm. The sigh of the heavens. “You know, back in the War, I don’t think I ever noticed how beautiful this country is.”

Close-Cut threw his arm around the superhero, twirling his Saint George’s Cross umbrella in his free hand. “That’s probably because you were busy being shot at.”

Wally,” Ralph said out the corner of his mouth, tilting his head towards Jack Lyons. “Not in front of the hundred year old straight.

“Can we please get on with it?” snapped Arnold. “My mum is waiting for us!”

Jack Lyons clapped. “I must agree with young Mr. Barnes here. His mother isn’t the only one.” He looked at Allison. “Does our little oracle have anything to add before we set out?”

Allison looked warily at the man. Who are you? “So we all know the expedition was looking for King Arthur and Excalibur.”

“Should’ve asked me,” said Mistress Quickly. “King Arthur died years back.”

Jack Lyons arched an eyebrow. “Isn’t that something of an understatement, Mistress Quickly?”

She shrugged. “Depends. How long ago was World War 2?”

Jack Lyons blinked, shaking his head slightly. “Excuse me, ma’am?”

“King Arthur returned in 1941. Surely a good candidate for ‘Britain’s Darkest Hour’ don’t you agree?” 

“What happened to him?” asked Close-Cut.

“Blown up in the Cardiff Blitz. Turns out a king isn’t much on his own.”

“Good lord,” said Jack Lyons. “You didn’t think to tell anyone?” 

“When is a good time during a war to tell a country their legendary hero king lies dead under a pile of Welsh rubble?”

Jack Lyons bowed his head. “God save the King…” 

“Could’ve gotten ugly if He did,” said Mistress Quickly. “England’s out of practise with civil wars. It would’ve been a bad time for a succession crisis.”

“Look,” said Allison, “we already knew the Poms were wasting their time.” 

Jack Lyons frowned. “Now hang on a moment, young lady—”

Allison raised a finger. “I think Starry Knight is why the expedition’s missing.”

“Why’s that?” asked Arnold.

“His file said he had… problems,” answered Allison. “Also, we fight him in six—seven—out of ten versions of today.”

“Great,” said Mabel. “Got that to look forward to.”

“Poor guy,” said Billy.

“We can take him,” added David. 

“Also,” said Allison. “If we walk that way for about four miles”—she pointed eastward—“we’re gonna see something horrible. I’m guessing it’s got something to do with this?”

“You guess?” said Close-Cut.

Allison grit her teeth. “I don’t get context, guys.” 

Miri appeared beside her sister, giving everyone a small wave. “Good morning!”

“Miri,” said Allison, “your range is better than mine. Go scout for Starry Knight.”

Miri nodded. “Okay.” 

She vanished. As she did, Allison quickly shouted after her, “Do it invisible!”

Allison knew for a fact there was only a fifty-fifty chance she’d listen. “Right,” she said. “Let’s go.”

The party made their way through the forest, Allison leading the way. They walked through fields of dead leaves and melting sleet; rough diamonds hidden in gold and amber. Billy had to be stopped from running after a doe he spotted. It started to rain a few times, but only enough to tickle the partys’ skin. Close-Cut didn’t even bother opening his umbrella. For a few metres, the trees off their right opened to reveal a large pond, winter-black with slicks of sunlight playing across its surface. Any other day, it would’ve been a pleasant country ramble. Jack Lyons kept humming. They tried to avoid the many paths and roads that snaked through the forest. People called it a “fairy wood” but Brocéliande was hardly wilderness. Folks of all sorts had been going about their business in Paimpont since the Stone Age. The woods were dotted with cottages, manors, and even old industrial forges. If fairies had ever lived in Brocéliande, they had probably moved out even before the abbey was built. 

As Allison walked, the horrible thing loomed larger in the swarming futures. Clouds of possibility converged together, swallowing other alternatives. She tried to look past it, to the glittering, golden future she was working towards. A crowd of thousands—millions—cheering for Allison and her friends, Billy, for some reason, holding a gleaming sword above his head. Catalpa building higher and better. The sun, hiding behind the storm. That had to be worth some fights and grossness… 

“Bon sang1!

The supers swung around to find three sets of eyes staring at them—one man and two women. Twenty-somethings. They were all dressed in winter hiking gear, collapsible trekking poles in hand. They looked terrified. Jack Lyons stepped forward and spread his arms, smiling benignly. “Bonjour! Nous ne vous voulons aucun mal2.”   

The three screamed, dropping their walking sticks and fleeing into the trees. 

“Well that feels like a bit of an overreaction,” said Mistress Quickly. She looked at Close-Cut. “Maybe they saw your umbrella.” 

Close-Cut grunted. “It’d probably have helped if you weren’t wearing a bug-eyed gas-mask, my dear.”

Allison looked at Jack Lyons. “I’m guessing your bosses wouldn’t want them telling the coppers we were here?”

“Well, no—”

“I’ll handle it.”

Allison kicked off the ground, zooming after the hikers. She closed in on the man, wrapping her arms around his head. “Don’t squirm!” she shouted in French, sending Alberto’s hooks into her prey. He quickly went limp. Allison had to lower him gently onto the leaf-littered forest floor. She called back to her fellows, “Get the other two!”

The Crimson Comet looked sadly at the two fleeing women. He sighed. “Arnold, I really don’t want to risk hitting the poor ladies.”

“Sure thing, Ralph.”

The Crimson Comet appeared in a green flash directly in the women’s path. They screamed anew, turning to run in the other direction only for the hulking superhero to pull them into a very glum bear hug. They thrashed and beat their fists against his invulnerable chest:

Enfoirés! Bande de malades!3

“Enculé4! Espèce de cinglés5!”  

Ralph grimaced. “I’m very sorry, ladies.” Luckily for him, Allison was soon over to send the women to sleep with a touch. They laid the three hikers side-by-side on the softest patch of forest within reach. David had wanted to draw some moustaches on them, but was overruled by way of a smack from Ralph. 

“Will they be alright?” asked Jack Lyons. 

“Yeah,” said Allison. “They’ll wake up in like, ten minutes. Won’t remember us, either.”

“Find anything useful in their brains by any chance?” asked Mistress Quickly. 

“Yes, actually. Nothing first hand, but people and the papers ‘round here have been talking about a bunch of supervillains tearing up the place. Guess it isn’t just Starry Knight.”

Jack shook his head. “Doesn’t sound like Roundtable to me.”

“Have you ever met Roundtable, Mr. Lyons?” Allison asked sharply.

“I’m afraid I haven’t had the pleasure,” admitted Jack Lyons. “But I’ve been told they’re all good tommies.”

Mistress Quickly laughed. “British people causing a ruckus abroad, who’s ever heard of such a thing?”

“Huh,” said Mabel. “I thought you guys all worked at the Phare.”

Jack smiled. “I come and go.”

They moved on. After half an hour, Allison raised a hand at the edge of a clearing. Everyone stopped. “The horrible thing’s just ahead. Billy, you might want to stay here?”

Billy looked at Jack Lyons, thankful he didn’t notice. He wasn’t going to look like a wimp in front of him. Billy puffed his chest. “I can take it.”

Allison sighed. “Fine.” 

They walked into a campsite.  A young nation of flies buzzed about the stench; decay mixed with rain and new growth. Like compost. Rain pooled on the roofs of tents. Sodden books mouldered on workbenches. Equipment rusted like broken swords in the dirt, the archeological arms of corpses lying strewn in strange ruin. Some were missing their heads or had holes in their chests. Others looked like they’d been torn apart by wild dogs. A few people had been reduced to puddles of crushed flesh and bone, as though someone had dropped a marble block on top of them. 

At the centre was a pit of crystals next to a flat slab of rock. Its lid, no doubt. A man stood at the edge of the pit. Flowers grew from around his eyes, leaving dried trails of blood and dew. Beetles crawled in and out of the grass that erupted out his mouth. His neat philosopher’s beard had been colonized by moss. The only thing keeping him upright were the roots that had shot up through his body.

All Jack Lyons had to say was, “God rest their souls.”

Allison was very glad her mother and Mr. Barnes had stayed back at Bròn Binn, even as glorified hostages. She examined the standing corpse. His waistcoat was tyrian purple. Dr. Merlin. She heard Billy vomiting on his shoes. He was crying, too. 

Told ya. “Could someone take care of Billy?”

Close-Cut put a hand on Billy’s shoulder, gently leading him away from the scene. “Come on, boy, it’s alright.”

Mistress Quickly scanned a few of the corpses, electronic text dancing in her visor optics. She had reduced Sherlock Holmes, Hercule Peroit, and Miss Marple to a few circuits in her helmet.  She pointed at a headless young woman. “This poor girl looks like she was decapitated with one strong cut, but my spectographics can’t detect any metal particles.”

“Gloriana,” said Allison. “She makes swords and stuff out of light.”

Mistress Quickly turned to face one of the mauled bodies. “Teeth and claw marks are consistent with a wolf or wild dog, but the saliva in the wounds has human DNA.”

“Animal Kingdom. Turns into animals.”

Mistress Quickly stepped over to one of the gory human pancakes. “White male, mid-forties. If I’m reading this right, he either took a brief trip to the bottom of the Marianas Trench, or a planet about five times the size of ours. Looks like you were right about Starry Knight, Allison.”

“You know,” said Close-Cut. “I can believe one superhero going nuts and murdering some archeologists. Two, on the same team? Bit less likely, but maybe it was a Bonnie and Clyde thing. Three of them, though? Something’s sus.”

“I don’t see any other superheroes lying around here,” commented Mabel. “Could’ve been more.”

“Maybe,” said the Crimson Comet. “But they also could’ve been in plainclothes.” He thought back to the hikers. “Come to think of it, maybe we should be.”

“I don’t dress down for anyone, dear,” said Close-Cut.

“There’s another thing,” said Allison. She tapped Dr. Merlin on the sleeve, immediately regretting it. It was like touching furry cheese. “Nobody on Roundtable can do this.”  

“I assume you’re going to check the yesterdays?” asked Mistress Quickly. 

“Yep,” said Allison. “Miri!” 

Miri appeared again beside her sister. “Yeah?”

“I’m going to look at the past. Mind the shop.”

“You know, sis, you’re getting kinda bossy lately—”

“Just do it.”

Miri rolled her eyes. “Fine.” Miri vanished. Allison’s costume morphed into her sister’s. 

Once she was sure Miri was firmly in the driver’s seat, Allison stepped out of their shared body. It disappeared behind her, carried away by the flow of days. The sun and moon flickered above Allison’s head like a dying candle. Raindrops flew up into the sky. The corpses rotted in reverse. Flies settled on their birthplaces to shed their legs and wings, before crawling back into their eggs to be collected by their mothers. Then Allison hit the massacre. Robots forged from cars and trucks tore people apart like shoddy dolls. Hail and wind scoured skin and flesh from bone. People were captured and devoured by gigantic globs of coloured, waxy goo. Allison tried to ignore the victim’s faces. Their screams. The shadows of fear and suffering they left on the ether. Instead, she focused on counting their murderers:

Ironclad… Weathermonger… Pāhoehoe… 

Dr. Merlin was begging at the feet of a broad, hairy man in tattered brown skins. His beard was black, riddled with leaves and twigs, his ears faintly pointed. He held a staff carved of light apple wood.   

“Why are you doing this?” moaned Dr. Merlin. “We’re your people!”

In an old tongue—one that made Allison wonder who she’d learned it from—the man spoke. “Stand.”

Apparently, Dr. Merlin understood the command. He rose on shaking feet. He only came to the man’s chest. 

What do they call you?” 

“Al—Alphonsus Summers…”

That’s not all they call you, is it?

The wizard laughed hysterically. “Dr. Merlin! They call me Dr. Merlin.” 

The man tapped his staff against Summers’ chest. “You are not Merlin.” 

Alphonsus screamed as the roots strangled his veins and broke his bones. The man looked right past him. At Allison. In perfect English, he said. “Don’t think I don’t see you, Gypsy child.” The man raised a calloused hand— 

Allison gasped as she was forced back into her body.

Hey! Miri cried inside her. Little warning—  

“They’re being controlled,” blurted Allison. “All of them.”    

“By whom?” asked Jack Lyons. 

“I—I think it’s Merlin.”

“What,” said Close-Cut, pointing at Dr. Merlin’s body, “him?” 

Allison shook her head. “No. I mean the real Merlin.” 

Jack Lyons and the Catalpans spent the next fifteen minutes searching the campsite and the human remains. After that, Jack had Arnold teleport the corpses to Bròn Binn, eyes turned skyward the whole time. Lyons said it was for autopsy and eventual burial. Allison was sure those reasons were true. She was also sure it was so the French police didn’t find anything. She doubted the archeologists and their staff had asked to be buried with their tents and equipment, but they sent those back, too. One thing they found was an itinerary of sites the team had planned on visiting. The flat stone that had ended up spelling their death was near the bottom. Below it were locales such as the Tombeau du Géant, a tumulus said to be the grave of a giant felled by the Knights of the Round Table; the Fontaine de Barenton to the west of the forest, whose waters were said to cure madness; and finally the Tombeau de Merlin. Or In English, the Tomb of Merlin. 

“Surprised it’s so low on the list,” said the Crimson Comet. 

“Perhaps they thought it was a touch obvious,” commented Jack Lyons. “If they were truly trying to find Merlin, that is.”

“Of course they bloody were,” said Allison. “Why do you think they had a bunch of superheroes with them?”

“Language, little lady.”

“Don’t call me that,” snapped Allison. “Never call anyone that. And the reason the tomb is so low is because it’s too old to be Merlin’s. It was built by like, cave-people.”

“Well,” said Jack Lyons, “learn something new every day.”

What Allison wanted to learn that day was how much of this was news to Jack Lyons. Or why a dead man was less of a ghost than her own sister. “We’re going to the tomb,” she said. 

“Why?” asked Close-Cut. “You said it didn’t have anything to do with Merlin.”

“It doesn’t,” agreed Allison. “But most of the futures where we catch Starry Knight involve us going there.”

“You still seem very fixated on Mr. Peake, Miss Kinsey,” said Jack.

“He’s the only one I see us fighting today. I think Merlin took the others somewhere else and left him here.”

Jack Lyons rubbed his chin. “Interesting. Why do you think he did that?”

Allison shrugged. “Don’t know. Maybe he’s guarding something. Maybe he’s just annoying.” 

“Well,” said Jack. “I suppose we’ll find out.”

The group set forth again. 

“Billy,” Arnold said as they walked. “I can zap you home if you want. It was pretty nasty back there.”

Billy shoved his hands into his very practical pockets and looked down at his navy-blue shoes. “Why are you only asking me?”

“You just looked upset, is all…”

Billy looked Arnold in the eye. “You didn’t like looking at the dead people either. Are you going home?”

“I—I need to be here. For my mum.”   

“So I don’t need to be here? I’m just… what? A stuffed tiger?”

Arnold stammered. “No. I mean—you’re not…” 

“Everyone treats you and Allie and everyone like you’re grownups. Why do they treat me like a baby?”

“I mean, we are bigger than you!”

“A year! You’re like, a year older than me!” 

“More like eighteen months,” said Allison from the front. 

“That’s still not much! Miri’s not even one! You don’t treat her like this!”

“Miri doesn’t have a body,” said Arnold. “She can’t bleed.”

Allison can,” muttered Billy. “You all can…”

They managed to avoid running into any hikers or bewitched superheroes, soon reaching the tomb. It was likely a tomb6 built long before the age of writing and kings. Then, like Troy before it, treasure hunters and what could loosely be called “archeologists” decided it belonged to Merlin, and dynamited it. Now it was little more than a pair of rocks encircled by flagstones and a log fence. Tourists and neopagans in search of an authentic anchor for their new faith left gifts and notes for Merlin. 

Someone had also stuck a sword in one of the stones. It looked like an Iron Age relic that had ignored time itself. Its hilt was gold with two roaring chimeras for the guards. Its long blade glinted in the winter sun.

“My God,” whispered Jack Lyons. “Excalibur…” 

“Nah,” said Allison. “King Arthur got that from the Lady in the Lake. This is the sword in the stone.”

“Does that one have a name?” asked Billy.

“Yep,” answered Allison. “Caledfwlch. Or Caliburnus. Depends what language you’re using7.”

Billy stepped forward. A shift in futures made Allison throw her arm out in front of him. “Don’t touch it.” 

Billy looked at her. Quickly, Allison added, “Nobody touch—”

The storm roiled. The golden probabilities Allison hunted receded. Many evaporated altogether.  

Why—      

A roar echoed over the trees. A great silver meteor dropped from the sky, landing with shocking lightness between the Catalpans and the sword in the stone. Starry Knight rose from his crouch. His ancestral spacesuit was stained brown with dirt and dried gore. In an imperious, if slightly muffled voice, he said, “Who dares approach Caledfwlch?”

The supers exchanged looks. By some silent agreement, Jack Lyons stepped forward:

“Starry Knight—Mr. Peake—I’m Jack Lyons. Sir Edward sent me to check up on you and your pals. What’s happened here?”

Starry Knight laughed. “I am no ‘Starry Knight.’ I am Cai8! Son of Cynyr Ceinfarfog, king of Dyfed9! Brother to the Pendragon himself—” 

“Foster brother,” Allison muttered under her breath.”

“…First Knight of the Round Table!”  

“He at least looks the part, give or take a couple thousand years,” said Mistress Quickly. 

Jack Lyons nodded. “Anthony, I can see you’re not well.”

Allison could confirm that, if not in the sense Jack Lyons meant. Starry Knight had two songs warring within his suit. One was played on a giant’s organ, carved out of a mountain, echoing over forests of coral. The other was a piddling, human tune, martial and little else. It was like listening to a battle of the bands that had forgotten to take turns. Allison had little doubt which one was doing the talking   

“None of us blame you for what happened at the campsite. We just want to get you some help.”  

“I need no help from the likes of you.”

Jack Lyons’ face darkened. “Please don’t make us hurt you.”

Another aristocratic laugh. “Hurt me? You think I fear a crowd of mummers, jesters and children?”

“You should,” said Allison. 

Arnold raised his hand first—a mistake.  At the same time, Sir Cai raised his own heavy-gloved fist. The air between them stretched and warped. The lightning that lashed from Arnold’s fingers fell far short of the astro-knight. It was meant to cross ten feet, not ten miles. Sir Cai chuckled. A grey beam from his palm struck Arnold in the chest. For a moment, nothing happened. Arnold patted himself up and down. Finding nothing amiss, he jeered at the knight, “A nothing beam? What kind of superpower is that?”

Behind Starry Knight’s helmet, Sir Cai smiled. Arnold jerked as silver wires spider-webbed from his body, striking rocks, trees, and even Mabel, binding them all together into an earthly constellation before fading away. Mabel staggered into Arnold’s side, almost knocking him over. A pebble flicked up into the side of his head. “Ow!”

The trees Arnold was hooked to started to shake. Allison could hear their roots strain in the soil. She yelled at Ralph, “Get him in the air!”

The Crimson Comet leapt at Arnold and pulled him into his arms, absconding into the sky. A few seconds later, a dozen trees and a cloud of rock and dirt wrenched themselves out of the ground and raced after them. Mother Nature’s own V-2 rockets.

Mabel screamed as she was pulled into the air after Arnold. She shut up quickly. It was like trying to swallow a leaf-blower business end first.  Mabel sometimes envied Miri and Allison’s flight. This was proving a great vaccine for jealousy. The beginnings of rain battered against her. She and a small, angry forest chased a shooting star over Brocéliande. 

To Mabel’s credit, she didn’t drop her binder; it was practically a body part. Allison came flying to her side. Some of Billy’s mercury smoke bloomed in her hands, evaporating to reveal a branching metal chain with a thick spike on one end, and two manacles on the other. 

“The heck is that for?” Mabel tried to shout over the wind. She could barely hear herself. Allison fell back slightly, slipping the mannacle around Mabel’s ankles and closing them with a long pin. 

“What’re you doing?”

“Grounding you!” Allison pulled Mabel downward by the chain, her unnatural momentum warring with Arnold’s swollen, discriminating gravity well. Twigs and branches scraped and snagged at Mabel as they descended through the forest canopy. When her feet were only an inch off the ground, Allison used Żywie’s old tricks to flood her muscles with adrenaline, forcing the spike-end of the chain deep into a tree trunk.

Mabel floated at a slanted angle, chain taut, picture-binder held tight against her chest. She frowned deeply. “You couldn’t have put me facing the right way?”

Allison flew back towards the Tomb, calling back, “Make us some monsters, will ya?”

Close-Cut was taking on Sir Cai hand-to-hand, the dynamic circuitry of his suit multiplying his strength ten fold, eating blows from the possessed superhero and turning it into might. He whacked his umbrella against Starry Knight’s helmet, electricity crackling across his helmet with every blow. Sir Cai managed to land a hit in Close-Cut’s chest. The bottom fell out of his stomach as he floated up into the trees.

“Goddamnit!” he shouted, trying to push himself down by flapping his arms as Sir Cai pointed and laughed. A laser-blast  hit the knight’s shoulder. He screamed as molten metal and fabric fused to his skin, swinging around to find Mistress Quickly aiming her multi-gun at him. She fired again. This time, the bolts of light were caught in a gravitational lens, warping their spectra to uselessness. Sir Cai roared, two points of cold light burning behind his helmet visor.

The air around Mistress Quickly shimmered. Her shoulders grew heavy as her suit glowed with the strain of spreading gravity’s impact on her across the multiverse. Maude rolled to the side just in time to see the grass where she’d been standing flatten, twigs snapping as rocks were ground into powder, as though the air had become a millstone. She spotted David. The boy had turned himself into an ice sculpture. 

“Don’t suppose you can suck the blood out of his brain for a second?” 

Nope,” David hummed in his glass harp voice. “Can’t touch anything inside his stupid spacesuit.”

“Of course,” said Mistress Quickly. She reminded herself to try and replicate the effect, assuming they beat this idiot. 

Sir Cai was only a little disappointed by the black lady’s escape. Sure, it was satisfying to watch people… collapse under his invisible weights, but this new body still had such wonderful magic. He wondered if this was what Myrddin and his fellow blasphemers felt like. No wonder they risked damnation—    

Sir Cai’s revelry was cut short by a punch to his side by a ruddy-skinned cyclops. Before he could regain his bearings, a time-lost crusader slammed a mace into his back, forcing him to the ground. Sir Cai looked up at the monster and knight, with his strange helmet and vivid blue cloak.

“Surrender?” asked the crusader in a Pepé Le Pew accent. 

Sir Cai was awash with nostalgia. It was like questing with his brother again. He answered this unexpected kindness by charging at the figures. He soon found they—and the other beasts and monsters that soon joined them—ignored the magic of his host. He had no sword, only his fists. That was alright. It was like being a boy again.

Near the fence, Billy invisibly watched the mad superhero fight Mabel’s minions. “Sir Cai” was laughing. He was having fun. And he wasn’t helping. He was a super. A new human, even if that was now a bad thing to say. Wasn’t he supposed to be strong? Brave? His friends were. What could he do? Starry Knight was sick, or possessed, or something. He couldn’t just turn him into something shiny. His roar could hurt everyone. He was useless. Dumb. A baby.

He still had to try. Billy looked at the sword in the stone. It was some kind of magic. Merlin put it there. How couldn’t it be? 

Sir Cai had a giant ant in a chokehold10 when something hard and fast struck him in the visor. His world cracked around a metallic yellow pit. The glass didn’t shatter completely. It was designed to remain airtight on the surface of the Moon. 

Jack Lyons stood in front of Starry Knight, his pistol still smoking. “Be gentle, Mr. Barthe,” he said. “I still think a good man is inside there.”

But then, it wasn’t designed to be shot, either

Mist seeped through the fissures in Starry Knight’s visor. It coalesced into water, forcing its way up Anthony Peake’s nose and down his throat. Sir Cai’s broken world melted. He staggered and sputtered, grabbing the stone without a sword in it and blindly hurling it. He managed to hit Jack Lyons, sending him hurtling into a tree. It snapped in half behind him—   

A strange sound. Iron sliding smoothly out of rock. Caledfwlch was hovering shakily in front of what was left of the Tombeau de Merlin, blade raised skyward. 

The water inside Starry Knight’s helmet went still. At the same time, Sir Cai fell to his knees. “My God…”

Billy appeared beneath the sword. “Um, is this supposed to happen? Did I break it?”

“A new Pendragon… a new king…”

Billy vanished in a swirl of autumn leaves. So did the sword.

The water in Starry Knight’s ears shrieked. “Billy!

The Crimson Comet swooped above the scene. A streak of green lightning forked down and hit Starry Knight square in the helmet. It vanished, water spilling out and revealing a middle aged, scarn man with grey temples. Allison burst screaming out of the trees and wrapped her arms around Peake’s head. Sir Cai gasped, “We shall have a king again…”

Allison hissed in his ear. “Sleep.”

Sir Kai slumped forward. Allison didn’t bother catching him. The sound of many trees falling on the woods did not go unheard. Close-Cut yelped as he fell to the ground. Allison straightened and dropped to her feet. She was smiling. The golden probabilities had brightened again.

“That wasn’t too hard,” she said. She looked about at the other supers. “Everyone okay? Where’s Billy?” She cupped her hands around her mouth. “Billy! You can stop being invisible now! It’s over.”

David reformed into flesh and blood beside her. “H—he’s gone, Allie.” 

“What?”

Close-Cut dusted himself off gravely. “He pulled the sword from the stone. It… took him away.”

“Oh. Oh, God…” Allison bit her lip. “I told him not to touch it…” 

Mabel emerged into the circle. Her costume had already regenerated from her trip through the skies and trees. Her nose, however, was bleeding. “Did we win?” she asked. “Where’s Arnold? And Billy?”

“I’m sure Arnold Barnes is still safe with the Crimson Comet,” said Jack Lyons. “However, I’m afraid William has been taken, and we don’t know where.”

Allison’s patience ran out. Billy was missing. Billy. God’s favourite. There was no room in her universe for any more mystery. “Lyons,” she said. “Can you just tell us what your deal is?”

Jack Lyon’s face twitched uncharacteristically. “My deal?”

“You died in 1902. Your gravestone said so. What are you doing here?

Everyone looked at him. 

“Questions have been raised,” said Mistress Quickly. “And we’re in no mood for secrets.”

“Unless you eat suckling babes or something, I’d just cough it up,” said Close-Cut. “We’ve probably seen odder.”

Jack Lyons sighed. The Crimson Comet descended into the circle, Arnold still in his arms, much to the boy’s clear embarrassment. 

“Crikey,” said Ralph, “hope they aren’t all that tough.”

“Ralph,” said Jack. “Do you remember France? You and me, I mean.”

Ralph frowned. “Yeah,” he said, “You were brave.”

Jack Lyons looked right at the superhero. “I’m not the Jack Lyons you met in the war, Mr. Rivers. And he was not the first.”

Previous Chapter Next Chapter


1. Literally “Good blood!” usually used to express shock or anger.

2. “Hello! We mean you no harm!”

3. “Bastards! Bunch of sickos!”

4. Insult meaning roughly, “person who has been fucked in the arse.”

5. “You psychos!”

6. Specifically a Neolithic dolmen, a kind of single chambered burial chamber.

7. Welsh and Latin, respectively.

8. Commonly rendered as “Kay” in modern English.

9. A petty kingdom in southwest Wales during sub-Roman Britain.

10. Well, for a human. Starry Knight didn’t have enough arms to cover the creature’s spiracles.

Chapter One Hundred and Eleven: The Phare

The Houses of Parliament got Westminster. The Crown got Buckingham Palace. The Ministry of Paranormality got the Phare. 

Bròn Binn1 was a green eye set in grey Atlantic waves. It was a bare, exposed place. Two people standing at either end of it could almost look each other in the eye. Its ancient veil of trees had been stripped for firewood and grazing land. Now, the only things that grew tall on the island were built by men. For centuries, Bròn Binn’s chief export was light. Coal, then whale oil, then finally arc-lamps cut paths for ships through night and fog. It was a strange post. Though no man, woman, or child had ever passed away on the island, more ghosts nested at Bròn Binn than seabirds. Keepers and their families would spot strangers walking along the island’s cliffs. Food and drink went missing. Chores and maintenance would seemingly perform themselves. Draught horses and sheep would sicken and die, their carcasses decaying with peculiar rapidity. Childless keepers would hear young laughter on the wind. 

The stories had come to a bloody end in 1902, when a keeper butchered his wife and children. He was waiting at the dock to make a full confession when the supply boat pulled in, claiming his family had been stolen and replaced by Sithchean. Fairies. Changelings. Whatever the keeper claimed, the bodies had certainly looked human: inside and out. The investigation that followed (conducted, rumour had it, by Jack Lyons himself) blamed the keeper’s madness on the liquid mercury the lighthouse’s lens assembly floated in. Escaping the gallows, the keeper was consigned to an asylum, but died not three weeks later. The mortician—when plied with a few pints—would claim he’d started rotting before he died. 

The lighthouse remained after that, if increasingly automated. Horror and tragedy didn’t banish the night or close the roads of the sea. However, Bròn Binn also became home to the Phare. A beacon and watchpost for those Britons caught between the human and the fae. The uncanny turned to the service of Queen and Country. 

Sir Edward Blyth stood at the southern end of the island, coat pulled tight around himself. The wind was a pack of biting, howling wolves trampling across Bròn Binn. He was flanked on each side by four armed SAS, winged Excaliburs wreathed in flames on their tan berets. By definition, these men were the cream of the crop. However, to be posted to Bròn Binn—especially with what was happening in Berlin—they were also very slightly curdled. The bottom ten percent of the 99th percentile. Sir Edward wasn’t too bothered by that. The best soldiers in the world would be unlikely to be much help against their guests.

Sending Jack Lyons was a desperation move on Sir Edward’s part. One that’d cost him a lot of political capital and the government an expensive prototype. He’d half hoped it’d fail. If it didn’t, he’d likely still be paying interest on it till the day he retired. 

Then, the night before, an envelope had appeared in a flash of green light on Edward’s desk. He’d had one of the soldiers open it: 

Tomorrow, at the southern cliff face. Please prepare snacks.

Sir Edward looked out to sea, then at his watch. It was noon. That time of year, it might as well have been dusk. There was no sign of that flying saucer the Catalpans flew around in. He hoped the bloody convicts hadn’t gotten their time-zones mixed up. He was startled by the unit’s CO barking: “At the ready, men!”

A moonstone marble had appeared in the air in front of Sir Edward. The aging civil servant staggered backwards as it began to grow. The roiling grey sea and clouds off Bròn Binn were eclipsed by a clear, blue sky. A strange, silver tower topped with what looked like a spaceship from Venus loomed over fields of rusted buildings. The future, surrounded by a slum. The smell of fresh rain on dust flowed from the portal. Before Sir Edward could compose himself again, trumpets blared as ten knights in full plate appeared, marching out the portal in two lines and turning on their heels to face each other. A red carpet unfurled like a great tongue onto the scraggy grass, down which a medieval herald in a deep purple tunic walked to meet Sir Edward. The SAS troops aimed their rifles at the anachronistic figure, but his only reaction was to raise and unfurl a scroll. The herald cleared his throat.

“By the authority of the Free City of Catalpa,” he said in a parodic English accent. “I present to you, good folk of the Phare, the Catalpan Embassy!”

The trumpets sounded again, this time joined by drums.

“Presenting, Allison and Myriad Kinsey, chief songstress and guardian spirit of Catalpa, and their mother, the good lady Drina Kinsey.”

A corpse-pale little girl with fiery red eyes, wrapped in tye-dye rainbows with a nine-pointed star emblazoned on her chest stepped into view. Another girl that could’ve been her living sister in what looked like a pearlescent swimsuit flickered into being on her left. A few of the SAS flinched. There was something about living on a haunted island that made a man a mite twitchy about seeing ghosts. They were joined by an olive skinned woman in a grey winter coat. She took the red-eyed girl’s right hand, and the three of them stepped through the portal, the young girls striding while the woman tried to keep up, waving and smiling timidly at the soldiers. If Sir Edward wasn’t mistaken, the sister with the colour in her skin was actually walking a quarter of an inch above the carpet. 

“Sir Edward, right?” asked the rainbow girl when they reached the man.

He nodded. “Yes… Allison Kinsey?”

She folded her arms confidently. “Yep. Call me Symphony, if you like.”

Sir Edward thought he’d stick to “Miss Kinsey” for now.

The other girl smiled broadly. “I’m Miri!” she chirped, before looking at her sister. “Does my name have to have ‘Kinsey’ in it? I’ve never even met your—”

Allison raised a hand. “We’ll talk about it later. Promise.”

The presumed Mrs Kinsey shook Sir Edward’s hand. “Thank you for having us,” she said, like this was a social visit. “I hope we can help you.”

“As do we, Mrs Kinsey.” Sir Edward wondered what this woman could do. She had to have done something special, to produce such odd children. From the look she gave him at the word ‘Mrs’, he decided to switch to ‘Ms’.

The herald spoke again, “The court courier, Arnold Barnes, and his father, the honourable  Corporal First-Class Fredrick Barnes!”

A stern, legless man in the dress uniform of Australian Army was pushed down the carpet by a boy in a black cloak riddled with fork lightning. The man tossed off a salute to the SAS troops, who responded in kind, if only through force of habit.

“Mabel Henderson, Mistress of Ceremonies, creatrix of men, giver of life, queen of—”

“Give it a rest, Mabs,” Allison Kinsey called.

“Spoilsport,” said a slightly large girl with bushy auburn hair as she made her way down the carpet, blowing kisses like a movie star at a premiere. She was wearing a suit that could’ve been sewn out of discarded copies of the Beano.  

“The Crimson Comet and Close-Cut, sheriff and court tailor of Catalpa!”

Two colourful old men walked through the portal side by side. Sir Edward of course recognized the Crimson Comet—stormer of France and Berlin—even if his metal wings were new. He even recognized Close-Cut from his brief but eventful time on the UK supervillain scene. By name, of course. Close-Cut never wore the same costume twice. Today, he was wearing slacks and a suit-jacket patterned with the Union Jack, with a ruffled collar reminiscent of a lion’s mane. Sir Edward could only wonder what had possessed the Crimson Comet of all people to throw in with these freaks.

“Mistress Quickly, court scientist and artificer!”

Sir Edward held his breath as Mistress Quickly stalked down the carpet in her sleek black battlesuit, the lenses of her mask as large and cold as an insect’s eyes. He dreaded thinking about what she could do with the Skylon prototype2.    

“David Barthe, grandson and prince of all oceans, rivers, lakes, large puddles, and taps!”

Water streamed down the carpet. It rose and coalesced into a grinning brown skinned boy—clearly basking in the attention—still covered neck-to-ankles in a green-blue liquid membrane. Sir Edward did not know how lucky he was. Or how much convincing that had taken.

“And finally, brave adventurer William St. George, accompanied by the English emissary, Jack Lyons!”

Jack Lyons emerged from the portal with his usual easy confidence, prompting a wave of salutes from the soldiers. Jack Lyons returned the gesture with one hand. In the other, he pulled along a cart laden with suitcases. At his side was what appeared to be a tiger shaped like a boy, in what looked like a cross between a superhero costume and a scout’s uniform. The child (if that was the term) was vibrating with clear excitement. Jack Lyons slapped Sir Edward on the shoulder.

“Got to hand it to the Australians, they know how to make an entrance!”

“Indeed,” Sir Edward replied flatly.

What had he done?

There was some debate about who would attend the briefing. Apart from half the “embassy” being literal children, Drina Kinsey and Fred Barnes were clearly civilians; even if the latter objected strongly to the description:

“I served for ten years, goddamnit!”  

Allison had put her foot down. If the Brits wanted their help, nobody was being left out of the loop. Sir Edward had relented, the humiliation tinting his thoughts a satisfying blue. Jack Lyons and the Catalpans had piled into a meeting room in the tower house that had replaced the old lighthouse keeper’s cottage. It was a grey, dusty kind of space with a large blackboard dominating one wall. It could’ve been a classroom in a boarding school for rich folk who thought Eton wasn’t miserable enough for their kids. Arnold wasn’t impressed. He bet Penderghast and all them American super-people had a way cooler secret base3. An SAS man manned a slide projector, much the way the year seven kids at Arnold and Allison’s old school would at morning assembly. 

Sir Edward wasn’t particularly remarkable to look at. Not that telling him that would cause him any offence. His was a cultivated anonymity: a three-piece suit chosen for the precisely uninteresting shade of stormcloud grey, bespoke tailored to look respectable, but not flattering. A face kept habitually clean of stubble, but with an unobtrusive ministerial moustache. A set of spectacles just wide enough about the rim to conceal some measure of his brow.  A bowler hat sitting on a centre parting dyed to a muddy shade of brown. Grey hair would imply infirmity. Anything else might make him stand out. Sir Edward had designed himself to blend into the background, and thus, render the machinery of state invisible.

“This is Roundtable,” he said, waving a long white pointer at the projector screen, his thin shadow an intruder in a colorful crowd of thirteen grinning, laughing superheroes. The picture appeared to have been taken at some kind of high-class function. Drina and Mistress Quickly swore they could see the back of Princess Margaret’s head. “A team of superhumans who have dedicated themselves to the protection of Queen and Country.”

Allison raised a hand.

“Yes, Miss Kinsey?”

“So, they’re like Paranormal Response Squads the Americans have?” The girl examined her fingernails theatrically. “Me and Miri beat up one in Perth last year. They weren’t that tough.”

Drina looked sternly at her daughter. “That was you? What were you doing? Running around picking on Americans?”

“They were trying to kidnap a kid!” Allison protested.

That was kind of a side-thingy,” Miri’s voice echoed from nowhere and everywhere.

Thanks, Miri,” Allison said dryly. 

Sir Edward sucked in a breath. “To answer your question, no, Roundtable is no military unit. They are a fully independent organization of patriotic men and women. All the Crown did was introduce them to one another.” 

Close-Cut and the Crimson Comet exchanged a dubious look in their chairs. 

Mistress Quickly’s machine filtered voice asked, “And do you pay those men and women?”

“…They are remunerated,” admitted Sir Edward.

A strange, synthetic chuckle.

Sir Edward shook his head. “We did not ask you here to discuss our relationship with Roundtable.”

“Well, get on with it,” said Allison. She tilted her head to her slightly. She could hear a song. Like jazz being played at the centre of the Earth. “And I can hear that super standing in the hallway. Why’s he got a dog? A sick dog?” 

“Doggies don’t like me much…” said Billy from the back of the room.

“Me neither,” said David, shrugging. “Not a big loss. Dogs are just crap land-seals anyway.”

“Don’t be vulgar, David,” Drina said.

Mabel laughed. “How many dogs have you ever met?”

“Oh, and I bet you’ve hung out with tons of seals,” David retorted.

Sir Edward inwardly pondered whether a nuclear response wouldn’t have been less fuss and bother. He cut in over the babble. “Continuing.” He gestured at the soldier operating the projector. Its carousel clicked. Roundtable was replaced on the screen by a map of France. An arrow emerged from a point deep within the Brittany, helpfully labeled “Paimpont.4” “On January 20th, 1967, Roundtable accompanied an archeological expedition by Cambridge University to western France—”

“Um,” said Arnold. “Why did a bunch of dinosaur hunter guys need a bunch of superheroes to babysit them?”

Sir Edward shut his eyes for a second, composing himself. “The expedition wasn’t searching for fossils, young Mr. Barnes—”

“Yeah,” interrupted Allison. “Those are paleontologists, not archeologists.” 

“…Yes, indeed,” said Sir Edward. “The expedition was building on recent evidence suggesting that the Matter of Britain—”

“King Arthur and junk,” Alllison explained to her friends.

“…May have more historical basis than previously considered. ”

Billy grinned, his shoulders bunching with excitement. King Arthur’s real! Then a thoughtful frown crossed his face. He raised his arm. The gesture made Sir Edward want to weep. “Yes, young man?”

“Why would you be looking for King Arthur stuff in France?”

Sir Edward looked at Allison. “I assume you would like to explain this to Mr. St George, Miss Kinsey?”

Allison twisted around in her seat. “Britain’s borders—you know, the lines on the map—used to be a lot different. Like, back when King Arthur was supposed to have lived, Scotland wasn’t part of Britain, but a bit of France was.”

“Oh,” said Billy. “Okay.”

Allison nodded. “Good.” She turned back to face Sir Edward. “Still doesn’t explain why you sent thirteen superheroes to dig up old crowns or whatever.”  

“In these trying times, such discoveries would do much to bolster British morale. Thus, the Minister of State judged the expedition to be of national importance. It should also be noted that, aside from his magical expertise, Dr. Merlin is also an avid student of history.”

“The bloke in the picture with the purple waistcoat and the hat?” Allison asked.

Sir Edward nodded. The girl pumped her first. “Got it in one! 

“Very good,” said Sir Edward, lips a thin line beneath his moustache. “What’s less good is that neither the archeologists or Roundtable have reported back in two weeks.”

“That does sound concerning,” commented Drina.

“Also, come on, don’t lie, you wanted to find Excalibur,” said Allison. “Don’t think it’d help you if World War Three happens, by the way. Even if it fires lasers or something.”

“We were open to any and all discoveries, Miss Kinsey,” said Sir Edward. “And regardless of Excalibur or any such relic’s… martial capabilities, it would be of great help in reminding the British people of the history and tradition that binds us together.”  

Wally leaned over and whispered in Ralph’s ear, “And make the Republicans shut up…

 The Crimson snickered, before grabbing his composure again. “Have you contacted the French authorities?” he asked. 

It took Sir Edward a moment to answer. “…That would be politically unwise.”

“Why not?” asked Mabel. 

“Did Napoleon come back to life while we weren’t looking?” added Allison.

“The French don’t know about the expedition,” said Sir Edward. “Both the archeology team and Roundtable filtered into the country over the course of a month, under assumed names.”

“For the love of God, why?” asked Close-Cut, shaking his head in disbelief. “You weren’t exactly plotting an invasion…  were ya?”

“The State Minister wished to avoid competing claims on any artifacts and human remains that may have been discovered.”

Mistress Quickly let out another peal of mechanized laughter, slapping her spandex-wrapped knee. “Of course you didn’t…”

“I assume you want us to go find them?” asked Allison.

“That we do,” said Sir Edward. “Before we discuss the matter further, I think it prudent we discuss payment for your trouble.”

“I like the sound of that,” said Mr. Barnes, sitting beside his son.

“Understandable. I’ve been told your town is suffering from a measles outbreak?”

“I’m afraid so,” answered the Comet.

“Well, we have a team of doctors and nurses—”

Allison and Arnold both stifled giggles. Sir Edward ignored them. “…And we’re prepared to dispatch them to Catalpa at your earliest convenience. Tonight, even.”

Close-Cut blinked. “You don’t expect us to find your people that fast, do you?”

Sir Edward shook his head. “Of course not. Disease does not work on a timetable. Think of it as advanced payment.”

“That’s mighty kind of you,” said the Comet. “We do have some people in a precarious state of things.” 

“Yeah,” grunted Fred. “Gotta say, I expected you Poms to yank us around a bit.”     

That statement soured Sir Edward a little. It made it harder to derive any satisfaction from his next move. “It must be said, our doctors can’t guarantee the recovery of any of your people. Measles is a terrible disease…”

“We know,” said Mistress Quickly. “We’re not fools.”

“We do, however, have someone who can guarantee it.” He gestured at the meeting room’s door. The soldier got up from the projector and opened it. A very fit, darkly handsome young man with slicked black hair in what appeared to be a jet-black doctor’s coat walked into the room. Everyone in the room recognized him from the Roundtable picture. He was leading a golden retriever on a lead. The beast looked like it was made of suffering. It was almost skeletal, but a grotesque lump protruded from its abdomen. Its fur reeked of shit and piss. The dog struggled to keep up with the man, its legs threatening to give way beneath it. It growled weakly at Billy as they passed him, his scent confusing the animal. The boy recoiled and whimpered. The dog made the same noise at David, but he just poked his tongue out at it. Mabel punched him in the shoulder.

“Poor thing,” Jack Lyons said under her breath as the dog and man reached Sir Edward’s side. The golden retriever slowly, painfully lay down at their feet. 

“This, ladies and gentlemen, is Christopher Elderwood, the newest member of Roundtable.”

Christopher Elderwood smiled. “When I’m in this get-up they usually call me Dr. Death.”

“Cheery name…” said Mistress Quickly.

“Would you like to introduce our other guest?” Sir Edward asked Dr. Death.

“Would be happy to.” Dr. Death crouched down next to the dog and stroked his head. “This is Sir Snuffles. He’s six years old, belongs to the groundskeeper’s daughter, and is a very good boy. He’s also got a tumour the size of a cantaloupe growing next to his stomach. Frankly, it’s monstrous that I haven’t done this already…”

Dr. Death stood back up. In one fluid motion, he pulled a pistol from his coat and shot Sir Snuffles in the head. 

Billy’s scream managed to drown out the gunshot. The room shuddered. Old dust sprinkled onto the shouting Catalpans. The Crimson Comet shot up out of his seat, angry red energy crackling up his form. “You rat bastard!” 

Close-Cut put a restraining arm around his lover’s shoulder. “You’ll send the ceiling falling around our ears!”

Drina had instinctively pulled her daughter into her side, right out of her chair. She glared at Dr. Death and Sir Edward, ignoring her daughter’s very physical protests. “How could you—in front of children?”   

Sir Edward raised his hands. He was beginning to reconsider the dramatic approach. “Now now, if you’ll just wait a moment—”      

Sir Edward—indeed everyone in the room—was cut off by a wave of heat. It was like someone had lit a bonfire. Golden light filled the room. When it faded, the only sounds were Billy crying, and Sir Snuffles panting happily. He was back on his feet. New fat and muscle had been laid over his bones like concrete over steel girders. The tumour was gone. 

“I’m the world’s only pacifist murderer,” said Dr. Death, clearly basking in the shock he’d caused. “Everything I kill comes back to life. In perfect health.” The super didn’t fail to spot Mr. Barnes looking hungrily at him. “When did that happen?” he asked, pointing at the man’s leg stumps.

“Korea,” answered Fred.

“Sorry,” said Dr. Death, sounding genuinely contrite. “Needs to be a mite fresher than that.”

The bad news didn’t make Fred Barnes miss a beat. “But you can do measles, right? Even if they’re in a bad way?”

“Easily.”

“…Send him to Catalpa,” Fred said breathlessly. “Right now.”

“When your fellows have done their job,” said Sir Edward firmy.

“Piss off. You don’t dangle this in front of our faces and pull it away.”

“We are already sending your town plenty of help.”

“A man has died!” roared Fred. “My wife hasn’t opened her eyes for days. You expect us to hunt for the Holy Grail or whatever bollocks while our people rot?” 

Jack Lyons stood up. “Sir Edward, if I may be so bold, perhaps you could reconsider? The Catalpans have shown me nothing but courtesy since I arrived in their town.”

“Yeah!” agreed Fred, loudly. “We could’ve called him a POW and kept him!”    

Of course Lyons would play nice with them, Edward thought. Jack was the opposite of him. People like him existed to draw eyes. To make people proud. Sir Edward didn’t have that luxury. Jack Lyons wouldn’t have to deal with the consequences. “Thank you for your input, Lyons. But there are practical considerations here. These people—as complicated I’m sure their circumstances are—are outlaws. We need leverage.” Sir Edward’s eyes darted between the two supervillains in the room. “I’m sure Close-Cut and Mistress Quickly understand.”

“Do I get a say?” asked Dr. Death.

“No.”

Bastards!” screamed Fred. “Stingy old Pommy pricks! It’s Gallipoli all over again.” 

“Arnold,” said Drina. “You might want to take your father out for some air.”

Arnold nodded hastily. 

“Don’t talk about me like I’m a bloody dog, woman—what’re you doing, boy?

Arnold pushed his father out of the meeting room. As deeply uncomfortable as it was, he didn’t dare use his power on him. As Fred’s ranting and raving faded, Ralph sighed. “We accept your terms.”

“Good,” said Sir Edward. “I assume you can transport the doctors back to Catalpa.”

“Within the hour,” said Mistress Quickly.

Sir Edward clapped. “Right. We’ll have papers and transport prepared for you within three days. Two of our embedded agents will meet you on arrival.” He pointed at Billy. “You might wish to leave Mr. St. George here or at Catalpa.”

“Or,” said Mistress Quickly, “I open a portal to Brittany tomorrow morning, and you give your embedded agents the month off?”

“…That works too, yes.”

“And we can take Billy,” added Allison. “That’s very important.”

“It is?” asked Billy, still drying the fur around his eyes.

“Course it is,” insisted Allison. She looked up at Sir Edward. “We’ll need files on all the Roundtable people you sent. Copies for me, Mistress Quickly…” She turned to address the Comet and Close-Cut. “Can you two share?”

The pair nodded. 

“So yeah, gonna need those tonight.”

Sir Edward agreed to hand over the classified data to the ten year old. 

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1. Scots Gaelic for “Sweet Sorrow.”

2. It was somewhat presumptuous of Sir Edward to assume Maude Simmons would be overly impressed by their technology.

3. A brutalist monstrosity just outside of Washington. The modernist architecture makes it surprisingly difficult to notice when the hallways rearrange themselves. Arnold was very disappointed when he learned its existence was in no way secret.

4. A small town that grew up around the abbey Our Lady of Pampoint, founded by Breton high king and Catholic saint Judicael in the mid 7th century.

Chapter One Hundred and Ten: The Special Relationship

The exhaustion told Angela she was still alive. It had been her companion her entire adult life. The pain and fever made her wonder briefly if she was in Hell. But no. Whatever mistakes she’d made—and she’d made plenty—God kept His promises. Besides, her son was there. 

Arnold knelt by her bedside, hands held together with his eyes closed. “Hail Mary, full of grace, the Lord is with you”—he shook his head—“thee.”

He was a good boy.

Angela heard her husband wheeling over, back from one his rare, brief absences:

“Whatcha doing, boy?”

“Ah, praying… yeah.”

“…Budge over. You’re gonna have to show me the words. Haven’t done this since I was six.”

“Okay. Hail Mary, full of grace…”

Fred repeated after his son, “Hail Mary, full of grace…” 

Angela wanted to laugh. For her husband, faith was like light to a cavefish. He was physically incapable of reverence. That should have worried her more, but how could God condemn a man like her Fred?

“Blessed art thou amongst women…” 

Angela knew he meant those words, though. 

Why did she love him? Was it because Fred was strong? He was, of course. The strongest man Angela knew. But she’d cared for him when he’d come home destroyed, body and soul. Because he was handsome? He was that, too, even after all these years. But the world had tried to take that from him—altered him—and she hadn’t cared. Arnold had been born from passion. If he had come home with no face, or burnt black and red, it wouldn’t have mattered. Was it that Fred was kind? Because he was. That felt like the best answer to Angela. The most sensible. But sometimes, after the world had decided it was done with him, Fred hadn’t been the easiest man to love. But that had never stopped Angela. She feared even if he were cruel or craven, she would still love him. Maybe, she simply loved Fred because he was there.  

No. That couldn’t be it. She’d loved him when he was gone, too.   

Perhaps there was no reason. Perhaps love just happened, damn your “reasons.” Was that how it was for God? To have no choice but to love every man, woman and child—every living thing that ever was? The very thought terrified Angela. 

Time moved strangely for Angela. When she tried to pay attention to it, it froze. When she didn’t, it drained away like water through a sieve. People came and went. She tried to pray for Jacob Gittelmen and his young granddaughter when he passed, but the words kept escaping her. She was sure God got the point. After that, Allison vanished from the infirmary. Good, Angela thought. The girl was suffocating on obligation. The fact her son came and went too was also a relief. The young should not suffer for the old. 

Arnold did visit her, though. Every day. He wasn’t the only one. Sometimes, Mabel joined him. Sometimes, it was Allison. Then there was one visit where Arnold wasn’t there at all.

She’d thought it was him, at first. The same light footsteps. The comforting weight on the bedsheets about her feet. The sound of hands fiddling with a scrap of paper.

She only realized who it was when he spoke.

“Our Father who art in Heaven,” David muttered. “I’m sorry if I say this wrong. I had to ask Sarah how to do it. I know this lady’s an angry bat, but please, please don’t let her die. She’s Arnold’s mum. He’s good.

Angela forced her eyes open slightly. They were met with a blur of blue and brown. The boy was wearing his costume.  

“He’s better than me, and maybe that’s why I deserved it when you took my mum away.” In an even more hushed, rushed tone, he added, “Even though that’s really dumb and mean of you.” 

“But Arnold’s better, and he loves her. He doesn’t deserve for you to hurt him. So, please, keep her safe… this is dumb.” He let out a long sigh. “Amen, I guess.”

“Dave?”

The weight left her bed.

“Shit- Hi, Arn.”

“What are you doing here?”

“Uh. Heard you were coming for a visit. Thought I’d keep you company. Didn’t want you being all pathetic.”


“…Were you praying?”

“Yeah,” admitted David. “Sarah said I should do it. I don’t think it really works when we’re both gods.”

It should’ve been a brag; a bit of boastful blasphemy. But David sounded perfectly matted-a-fact. 

“Different kind of god,” said Arnold. “You’re big. He’s… everything.”

Angela loved her son.

“Whatever,” David muttered. “You doing okay?”

“I am,” said Arnold. “I think. It’s dad I’m worried about.”

“You are?”

“Yeah… Think he’ll… Be okay, if she doesn’t… You know.”

David snickered.

“Yeah. He’ll be fine. Cuz she’s gonna make it. And he knows it. You can tell it just by looking at him. He knows she’s gonna make it through with every piece of him.”

“… Thanks, Dave.”

“Heh. You’re welcome. C’mere.”

A weight at the end of the bed again as David tugged his boyfriend over for a kiss.

Angela didn’t know what to think. Fred had done that for her. She’d done the same for him. But it couldn’t be the same thing. Sin warped people like rotting wood. Her son was a good boy. Even David wasn’t—he wasn’t evil. And she couldn’t deny the Crimson Comet was a great man. The Bible spelled it out in plain English, but how could Angela be expected to ignore what her eyes and ears and bones told her?

She didn’t know. God, she was tired. But at least, for a moment, her boy was comforted. And for that, she was grateful.

Rain hissed like generations of vipers as it hammered against the Children Hall’s roof. It rained most days now in Catalpa. Drina Kinsey had picked a poor time of year to tell Allison to “go out and play.” She and Mabel lay on the attic’s wooden floor, the way they used to in the New Human Institute’s barn. Mabel’s conjured record player belted out Harry Belafonte’s “Jump in the Line” in a vain attempt to invoke sunnier days. The rain acted as complimentary static. Neither girl had the energy to dance. The only reason they bothered putting on music was that it was one of the few sensory pleasures Miri could indulge independently. 

“Sometimes I have these dreams,” said Mabel. “I wake up one morning and everyone in town’s dead like in Circle’s End. It’s almost as hot as there, too.”

“That’s dumb,” Allison said. “We haven’t had any new cases in over a week. We’ve just got to wait for everyone to get better.”

“I heard Mr. Gittelmen died.” 

“Yeah,” said Allison. “He did.”

“Is anyone going to tell Hannah?” asked Mabel. “She still thinks he’s just sick.”

Allison sighed. “The grown-ups will do it.”

Miri floated between the two corporeal girls like they were playing “light as a feather, stiff as a board” at a sleepover. “Was I greedy?” she asked.

“What?” said Mabel.

“If I’d just let the witch-lady take my body soon as she asked, Dr. Beaks could’ve fixed everybody.” 

“It’s okay to want things, Miri,” insisted Allison. 

“Okay,” said Miri. “So, could you change the record now? Something with a girl-singer.”

Allison rolled her eyes. “We just put this one on.”

Miri nodded. 

After a moment, she asked, “Where do dead people go?”

Allison waved her hands above her head. “Fine, fine!” 

Miri smiled innocently. “Thanks, Allie.”   

Grumbling, Allison got up and took Harry Belafonte off the turntable, replacing it with a Carpenters record. The moment the needle hit the vinyl, an angry klaxon screeched.

Miri put her hands over her ears at the same time as Allison. “I don’t like this song!” 

“It’s not a song.”

“UNIDENTIFIED AIRCRAFT DETECTED IN CATALPAN AIRSPACE,” droned Mistress Quickly’s mechanized voice.

Xylophones.

Allison rose up through the ceiling and into the rain. The gun placements Maude had installed on Freedom Point buzzed like a million wasps. White laser searchlights cut blue canyons through the grey shell of cloud. Allison became solid again:

“Costume on!”

Allison burst into the sky, steam trailing off her suddenly colourful shoulders. She built up speed. The sheets of rain she flew through were warm as bathwater. If it weren’t for the circumstances of her flight, Allison might’ve been having fun. It’d been months since anyone had tried dropping anything on Catalpa. Was this something to do with Europe? Had the Russians built themselves some more new nukes? Had World War Three finally arrived?

In seconds, she pierced the clouds, passing through the ungrounded fog into that place where the sun always shines. Slanted geysers of light erupted all around her. Just in case, Allison reached for Ralph Rivers’ song, feeling her skin harden.

She scanned the open sky. High above her, she spotted a tiny black speck—a scratch on the film of the sky. From Allison’s distance, it barely moved at all, but it was managing to weave its way through a flashing maze of lasers. She decided to investigate. The combination of her flight and the Comet’s carried Allison into the upper reaches of sky, scarring the air red in her wake. The howl of the wind died in her ears. She felt the atmosphere thin against her skin. Azure blue began to fade to starry black, as though God was running out of paint. The world lay spread out beneath Allison’s feet. Arnhem Land became a toe curled in the ocean. She could see the curve of the world.    

Instinctively, she stopped breathing. Ralph could never go this high in just his costume, unless he wanted to meet the ground again at terminal velocity. According to Maude, Allison only needed about ten percent of the oxygen most girls did to stay conscious. Her lungs and tissues stored it with startling efficiency. It was one of many accommodations her biology had made for flight; like how the moisture on her eyeballs neither froze nor evaporated as the temperature plummeted; her indifference to extreme G-forces; or the compass that had been lodged in her brain. That was something people forgot: most of the really good powers needed five or ten more little powers to be useful. 

It took Allison a moment to believe her eyes when the speck resolved. It was a genuine Buck Rogers rocket ship, cast in jet-black, propelled through the upper atmosphere by three blue-flaming jets. It looked like it belonged in miniature on a sci-fi writer’s mantlepiece. If it flew over a suburb at the right hour, it could’ve spawned a whole generation of UFO-watchers.  She could hear a song coming from inside, broadly human but with a strange metallic edge—  

A laser cut through the rocket, severing its wings and engines in a scream of fire. The sound of wrenching metal was strangely muted. This high up, there was less air to carry it. The cone tumbled through the air. As Allison watched, a hatch blew, ejecting something out in the open air. She swooped towards it.

It was a man—or at least something shaped like a man—strapped into a pilot’s seat. He was covered head to toe in what looked like crinkly baking foil. His face was concealed behind a dark visor, a plastic elephant’s trunk trailing from his mouth to a pair of oxygen tanks strapped to his chest. He looked like he’d put his backpack on backwards. His song was completely untroubled, if excited. Allison tried to look inside his thoughts, but it was like trying to make out someone’s face through frosted glass.

The pilot (or cargo) gave Allison two thumbs up. Tilting her head, she glanced at the nearest bundle of futures:

She couldn’t help but laugh.

Allison left the man to his fall, instead flying towards the main body of his aircraft. At a glance, the engine section looked like it would land somewhere off the coast, but the cone’s trajectory took it upsettingly close to Catalpa itself. As she threw her back against the metal hulk, pushing against it with her supernatural momentum, she saw a parachute explode open above the falling man. It was proudly emblazoned with a Union Jack. 

Far below—despite the rain, despite the measles, and very much despite the still blaring air-raid sirens—a crowd was gathering in the streets. 

“Do you think it’s a spaceman?” Billy asked over the alarm. 

Mabel was looking through a pair of binoculars she’d conjured, her scrapbook safely hidden in a waterproof ziplock bag. “Depends,” she said, “Is England outer-space?”

The Catalpans parted as the man landed, his parachute falling atop him. A few people gasped, though many more laughed as they saw him clearly struggling to free himself from his seat beneath the red, blue and white fabric. 

The Crimson Comet stepped forward and ripped away the parachute. Its owner carefully got to his feet. 

“State your intentions and don’t make any sudden moves,” said the Comet. “We don’t want any trouble.”

The pilot shed his flight suit like a cicada that’d outgrown its skin. A bronzed man with slicked back black hair nines in a crisp three piece suit and cloak stepped out.

Ralph squinted. “…Jack Lyons?”

The man looked at the Crimson Comet for a few seconds. Then he smiled. “Comet? Is that you?”

The two of them swung around at the sound of a hard, heavy thud. Allison Kinsey was floating behind them, the body of Jack Lyons’ rocket lying sideways across the street below her, rain slowly eating away at the flames.

“We’re keeping this,” she declared.

“Jack Lyons,” said Wally Grimsby, “for real?”

“Yeah,” replied Ralph. “Jack Lyons.  Did a couple of missions with him back in the War. Hasn’t aged a day…”

Ralph was standing inside an old English phone box next to Libertalia Tavern. The actual phone had been ripped out and replaced with a small television. On the screen, Ralph’s boyfriend was nursing a martini at Clarks, the premier drinking establishment of the Flying Man’s undersea lair.  The old supervillain was lounging in a purple bathrobe monogrammed with a red and blue diamond. 

“You’re telling me! My dad used to tell me stories about Jack Lyons. Very past-tense stories.” Wally laughed. “There were kids books and everything!” He made a frame with his hands, moving it in front of his face as he listed, “Jack Lyons and the Abominable Snowman! Jack Lyons and the Mad Mahdi1! Jack Lyons and the Haunted Diving Suit! Jack Lyons and the Zulus!” 

“…That last one doesn’t sound as fun.”

“It was a different time, Ralph,” said Wally. “I honestly wasn’t sure if he was real growing up.” He glanced up at the ceiling. “Hey, Blancheflor, could you check if Jack Lyons was real?”

“Working,” answered the Flying Man’s computerized assistant, followed by some confectured humming like an old librarian leafing through a reference book. It even had the sound of page turns.

“…Very much real it seems, Mr. Grimsby,” Blanceflor quickly reported. “Born in Bombay 1860 to Reginald and Padma Lyons, Jack Lyons distinguished himself as a petty officer in the British Army, before being headhunted by the crown’s nascent intelligence organs. From the 1880s to about 1902, he made a name for himself dealing with the supernatural and what we now call superhumans. After that, records become… spotty.”

“That man does not look a hundred and six,” said Ralph.

Wally shrugged. “Maybe it’s a codename.”

Ralph shook his head. “Same bloke I knew in Europe, I’d swear by it.”

“Occam’s razor then,” said Wally. “Lucky bastard’s immortal. Not that uncommon in our crowd.”

“Then where’s he been since the War?” asked Ralph. 

“No idea,” replied Wally. “Isn’t the pressing question what he’s doing in Catalpa?”

“Says he’s here on behalf of the Crown. Gonna tell us more at the council meeting.”

“Send me the minutes,” said Wally. He smiled. “I was wrong, though, that isn’t the most pressing question.”

“What is it, then?”

Wally leaned forwards. “Is he handsome? Dashing, even?” 

Ralph flashed a crooked grin. “Damn, Wally. I thought we had something here.”

Wally laughed. “Oh, shut up. You know I go for ugly men.”

“Thanks.” Ralph heard the air pop behind him. “There’s my ride. Talk to you tomorrow?”

“Sure,” said Wally. “Oh! Tell David he better not miss Mrs Allworth’s call if he knows what’s good for him.”

“Will do,” said Ralph. He kissed his palm, raising it to the screen. “Love ya.”

Wally repeated the gesture. “Love you too.” 

The screen shut off. Ralph sighed, turned around, and stepped through the egg portal in front of the video-booth. It took him to the Freedom Point canteen. A long folding bench had been set up for the city council. Allison waved at Ralph as the rest of his fellows murmured vague greetings. 

“It’s good to see you again, Crimson Comet,” said Jack Lyons. He was sitting patiently before the Catalpans on an old wooden chair, back straight, left leg folded over his right, a quiet smile playing across his lips.

“I wager I’d say the same if your entrance hadn’t been so peculiar,” said Ralph.

“I thought someone was trying to nuke us,” added Mistress Quickly. “It was almost nostalgic.”

“I apologize for any alarm I may have caused your fair town,” said Jack Lyons. 

He spoke with perfect BBC pronunciation, the kind that didn’t occur in nature. It didn’t sit well with Allison. It was like Lawrence had found the fountain of youth and a tan. 

“I had intended to simply take a passenger plane and wait for one of your resident drives, but when you announced the hiatus, the boffins set me up with a prototype… well, I can hardly call it a plane, can I?”

“Awful lot of trouble just to visit a town in the middle of a pandemic,” opined Paul Haldor. 

“I assure you, I only intrude at the behest of the Crown. The Emp—” He stopped himself. “The Commonwealth needs assistance only your town can provide.”

“We’re all ears,” said Allison. 

Lyons removed an audio-cassette from his breast pocket. “I’m sorry, I should have asked this first—does anyone have a tape-player?”

One was found. The Lyons and the council clustered around the machine as it spoke in a sober, British voice:

This is Sir Edward Blythe of the Ministry of Paranormality. We seek the aid of Catalpa and its denizens in tracking down several British superhumans we believe to be lost in foreign territory. We believe this to be of the utmost importance to the security of both the United Kingdom and the wider Commonwealth. Her Majesty’s Government is prepared to offer Catalpa political and material aid in exchange for her assistance and discretion. Our agent will provide coordinates for further discussion of this matter. Message ends.

Lyons opened his mouth and raised a finger. “You might want to remove the—”

“THIS MESSAGE WILL SELF DESTRUCT.” 

A sizzling pop. The tape-player spewed acrid black smoke, greeted by coughing and waving hands. Jack Lyons held his cape over his mouth and nose. “I did tell Sir Blythe that I could destroy the tape myself…”

“So,” said Allison over the sound of Maude Simmons swearing about her tape player, “the Queen’s asking a bunch of outlaws for help?”

“Why not get the Yanks?” asked Night-Tide. “Don’t they have supers out the wazoo?”

“The wa—” Jack Lyons shook his head. “I myself asked the very same question”—he glanced about at the council—“no offense meant. I was told allowing the Americans to hear about this might threaten something called the special relationship.”

Maude laughed. “Ha! You know what? I believe that.”

“Will you help us?” 

Lyons had been looking at the Crimson Comet when he asked that, but it was Allison who cleared her throat and answered:

“The council will talk about it. The Comet says you’re cool, so we’ll let you walk around for now.” Allison looked at Paul. “Maybe Hettie could make him lunch or something?”

“Could do.”

Jack Lyons flashed Allison a grin. “That would be lovely, young miss.”

Allison wrinkled her nose. The man thought she was funny. This could not be tolerated. 

Mistress Quickly arranged an egg-portal to Libertalia for Lyons. When it closed behind him, she said, “He’s definitely got some shit under his hat. That ship of his was nuclear powered, and the shielding is shit. He should be a baked potato made of cancer. Allie, you tried his song?”

Allison shook her head. “It made my teeth rattle. Like trying to eat a lollipop off a power-drill.”

“He’s old as sin, too,” said Ralph. “My granddad’s action-hero.”

Paul remarked, “I didn’t know we had a problem with supers here.” 

“It’s still weird,” said Maude. “Doesn’t Britain have a spare Sherlock Holmes or two? Why do they need us?”

“Why not?” said Allison. “We’re great.”

“We could use the help,” Night-Tide said. “Material and medical are very similar words. We still have people fighting this.”

“Isn’t there an easy answer?” Paul said. “Allie, what happens if we help the Poms?”

Allison closed her eyes. She pictured herself saying “yes” to Jack Lyons. The future shattered and reformed into a thousand new mosaics. A few glittered.

She smiled. “We’re going to England.”

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1. Specifically Muhammad Ahmad bin Abd Allah, messianic religious leader and ruler of Sudan.

Chapter One Hundred and Nine: The Arrows of the Sun

Angela Barnes was sweltering. She’d thought she was done with hot flushes months back. It was probably the summer heat. Or the “wet” or the “build up” or whatever they called it up here. The sky was a miser rich with rain, and Angela bore its weight on her shoulders with none of its cool relief. Her skin itched. Too much Irish in her, she guessed. What Angela was sure of was that she wasn’t ill. She didn’t have time for it.

The gravy congealed on the cooling lamb chops. The steam rising from the peas and mash potatoes slowly dwindled. Two seats at the Barnes table were empty.

“Fred,” Angela said evenly, “what time did I tell Arnold and Mabel to be home?”

“Six, love,” her husband answered. 

“And what time is it now?” she asked, knowing the answer down to the second.

Fred obediently glanced at his watch. “A quarter-past.” His hand crept towards his fork. 

Angela clapped her hand over his. She almost fell over in her chair. “Not until everyone’s here.”

Fred laughed. “Feeling petty tonight, Ange?”

Angela winced. Blood roared in her temples “I told them. I told them—”

Costume off!” 

There was a muted thunderclap. The back screen-door rattled open and shut:

“I’m here, I’m here!

“See?” said Fred. “No harm done.”

Arnold ran into the kitchen in plainclothes, smelling faintly of lightning. “Sorry Mum!” he said, sliding sideways into his usual chair and digging in without a second thought. He didn’t offer an apology to his father, not that the man wanted for one.

“Mistress Quickly needed me for vacuum work,” Arnold explained through a mouthful of potato and pea mush. “She was super particular about it, too.”

Angela screwed her eyes shut and banged the hilt of her knife against the table. “Don’t talk with your mouth full!” she said, a little too loud for her own liking. “We haven’t even said grace!” 

Arnold swallowed so hard it hurt. “Sorry, Mum.”

“Ah, leave off him, woman,” said Fred. “What’s the point of praying when you’re hungry?” He gestured at Arnold. “Boy’ll just ask for food.”

Arnold stifled a giggle. 

“It’s not about asking for—” Angela kept eyes fixed on her plate like she was trying to ward off motion sickness. Her brain felt like a fish tank in an earthquake. It sloshed. Why did Fred have to be so blasphemous in front of the boy? She closed her eyes. “Where’s Mabel?” 

An arch, boyish voice drawled into the kitchen, “She’s having dinner at the Kinseys tonight.” 

David was leaning against the doorframe, arms folded, smiling impishly. As usual, he was stark naked. 

Angela groaned. “For crying out loud, Arnold, I made up a plate for her!” 

“Sorry!” Arnold whined. “It’s not like she said she’d be home for dinner.”

Silly me, Angela fumed inside, assuming the girl who eats and sleeps here almost every night might be around for dinner. Children were beasts. What did they think she was? A machine? An automatic assembly line of meals and clean laundry? 

There was no question of inviting David to eat with them. The fragile non-aggression pact between him and Angela wouldn’t survive it. But like many such doctrines, it depended on both sides keeping to their lines. David strolled over and picked up Mabel’s plate.

“Don’t touch it!” Angela snapped, inadvertently banging her knee against the underside of the table and sending the cutlery rattling. She hissed through her teeth. It felt like she’d hit solid steel.

Fred put a hand on David’s shoulder, his grip gentle but firm. “What’re you doing with my wife’s cooking, boy?”

David gave Fred six more years until calling him “boy” would go from accurate to racist. He shrugged. “Sarah doesn’t feel like cooking tonight. Says it’s too hot and that I’d probably just eat the rest of Granddad’s birthday porpoise because I’m an awful sea-goblin.” She was right1. David looked over at Angela. “Figured she might like a home-cooked meal. And everyone loves your lamb so…”     

Fred held his gaze for a moment, then let go of the water-sprite. “Good lad.” He looked at his wife. “You fine with that, Ange?”

Arnold’s eyes darted nervously between David and his mother. 

Angela sighed and nodded. Wastefulness was a sin, and the Lord knew Sarah had a lot on her shoulders. At least some of that burden was trying to pay her back with food tonight. “Sure, go ahead. Send Mrs Allworth my regards.”

“Cool,” said David. He plucked the plate back up and made for the door. When he passed Arnold, he pivoted downward on one foot and kissed him on the lips. Forgetting where he was for a moment, Arnold kissed him back.

David and Arnold yelped as Angela’s plate flew over the former’s head, shattering in a splattery mess against the kitchen wall. Arnold’s mother had risen from her chair, breathing heavily.

Fred shook his head, gawping slightly. “What’s gotten into ya, Ange?”

Angela pointed a shaky finger at David. “You see what he’s doing, don’t you?”

David scowled. “And what’s that, lady?”

Arnold desperately mimed “silence” at the other boy. 

“Taking him. And Allison.” Angela wiped sweat from her brow. “Making them… animals. Slimy and slippery and wrong. Arnold was a good boy, Fred.”

“Still is,” Fred replied sternly.

“But he won’t be!” she snapped. “Not if this keeps up! Not with this little toe rag and his—  ways.”

There was a long silence at that.

“Boyfriend,” David said flatly. “That’s the word you’re too scared to say. And fuck you.”

“Get out of my house you queer little shit!”

Nobody in the kitchen spoke. Arnold’s eyes were watering.

“And would it kill you to say grace?”

Angela slumped forwards against the table, her water glass toppling and soaking her hair.

“…Ange?” Fred wheeled over to his wife’s side. He hoisted her upright best he could. “Ange!” 


David frowned. Then flinched when Arnold slapped him.

“Stop it!” Arnold yelled. “You let her up right now!”

“What—fuck. It’s not me, Arn!”

Fred put his hand over Angela’s forehead. Her skin screamed with heat. He looked at David and shouted, “Get help! For Christ’s sake, get help!”

Before David could respond, Arnold zapped him to the sickbay, followed seconds later by his parents. 

Arnold fell to his knees and burst into confused tears. Somewhere out there, Elsa Lieroinen was laughing. 

Chen Liu sat at his workbench, grinding a silver disk against his electric grinding wheel, fingers wrapped in blue alligator tape. There was something humbling about working with silver. It wasn’t that its colour or luster appealed less to Chen. He had a soft spot for the metal. It didn’t listen to his power. He had to work with it—browbeat and wheedle it into shape. If gold was Chen’s dog, silver was his cat. 

A quick flash with a blowtorch and a sulphur bath darkened the face of the coin. The engraving work shone against the black patina. It could’ve been a roadmap for Therese. It’d turned out well, Chen thought. It felt good to do some proper jeweling again. Made him feel less “AU” and more “Chen.” But the circumstances… 

There was a knock at Chen’s front door. He decided the bandana he had tied around his face counted as a mask.

“I hope this is important—”

Chen froze mid-sentence. Drina Kinsey was on his doorstop. And he wasn’t wearing a shirt.

“Afternoon, Chen.”

Chen stammered. “Hey, Drina, I—” He glanced down at his bare chest. “…Sorry. Wasn’t expecting company.” He scratched the back of his neck. “Ruddy hot today, isn’t it?”

Behind her cloth mask, Drina smiled. “It’s fine. Nothing I haven’t seen before.” She flexed her eyebrows. “A bit less, actually.”

Chen blinked. “Drina!” 

“Ah, lighten up.” Drina reached into her bag, removing a small newspaper package. “I made you a corn beef sandwich. Don’t worry, I had gloves on.”

“You shouldn’t have.”

Drina shrugged. “I was making some for Allie and the Barnes’. You were on my way.” 

“Still,” said Chen. He glanced back into his home. “Actually, there’s something I want to drop off to the Barnes. Mind the company?”

“Not at all. Haven’t exactly had much adult conversation the last couple of weeks.”

“Just let me get cleaned up,” said Chen. “I’d invite you in, but the whole place kind of smells like rotten eggs right now.”

“It’s fine.” 

Drina couldn’t help but watch Chen walk back inside. Something about the way his legs moved beneath his denim trousers…

The pair walked through the deserted streets of Catalpa. All the water-fountains were cordoned off with tape. The town pool’s gate was locked: now the exclusive domain of David Barthe. Drina was sure it was a mixed blessing for the boy. Occasionally people leaned out of their windows to say hello, hungry for any human interaction. The humidity was intense today, but you could smell rain in the air. The roads were lined with drying mud. Storm clouds circled patiently in the sky. Every once in a while, the sky thundered, as though chuckling at its own reticence.

“They’ve moved some folks to the Flying Man’s… I think the word is base?” said Drina. “You know, vulnerable people. That pregnant girl that arrived with me; Lana and her baby; Sarah…”

“Sensible,” said Chen. “Measles is bloody awful if you’re really young or really old. There was an outbreak back in Chinatown when I was eleven, I think. Took an uncle and a cousin.”

“Oh, Chen,” said Drina. “I’m sorry.”

Chen shrugged. “I wasn’t there. I only heard about it in letters.”

“Ah.” 

The two walked in companionable silence for a bit.

“They had it on the ship I came on,” said Drina suddenly. “It was…” She shook her head at the memory. “I got lucky.”

“God,” said Chen. “At least here we’ve got space.”       

“Yep,” said Drina. Her lip curled. “Mind you, the Flying Man’s home has air-conditioning.” 

“Sometimes I wonder why Sarah doesn’t just live there,” said Chen. “It sounds very flash.”

“Be like living in her son’s tomb, wouldn’t it?” said Drina. “Besides, I think the last fortnight has reminded me how important company is.”

“True.” Chen finally unwrapped his sandwich and took a bite. “Mhmm. This is really good silverside, Drina.”

Drina blushed. “Thanks.”

They passed by Libertalia for a glass of wine. Not that they stepped inside the place. Not that “glasses” were involved. Instead, Hettie Haldor reached her marble arm (smelling faintly of the disinfectant she’d bathed in) out through a window and poured some red into paper cups. Allison had suggested the idea to the Haldors. In Florence they’d been called buchette del vino: a way for the rich to avoid taxation and for the people to avoid sobriety during plagues. In Catalpa, as everywhere, people adapted.

Drina sipped hers and smacked her lips. “…Not quite right, is it?”

“You get what you’re given,” Hettie called from within the pub.

Chen nodded. “It’s better than nothing.”

“We shouldn’t be allowing it at all.”

Chen and Drina turned to find the Crimson Comet standing in front of them. He was in full costume—wings out—with the addition of a dark red faceplate streaked with a gold comet. It gave the whole look an unfortunate raptorial quality. 

“Thanks for the support, Mr. Rivers…” Hettie said. 

“People don’t need a reason to stand around outside right now,” Ralph insisted.

“If it helps,” said Drina, “we’re only stopping on our way to the tower.”

Ralph raised an eyebrow. “Why’s that?”

“Delivering food to the Barnes’ and my daughter.”

Ralph rubbed his chin. “…Fair enough I suppose.” He pointed sharply at the two of them. “Don’t linger, though.” Then he called into the window, “And get me a beer if you’re doing this!”

“Sure, your majesty.”

Drina and Chen left him to his drink. 

“Someone’s on a power-kick,” muttered Chen.

“Be kind,” said Drina. “Wally’s stuck under the sea.”

Sixty was no age to catch measles. Ralph was hardly any younger, but like everyone else who could call Eliza Winter a friend, he’d been immunized long ago. 

“Someone has to keep things under control,” Ralph had said.

Close-Cut still insisted he wear the filter-mask he’d made for him. 

They had to take the long way up to Freedom Point’s entrance. The portal-eggs were for urgent use only right now. The elevator was rigged out of a suspended platform used for window cleaning. Drina gripped the handrails with white knuckles as the cables drew them into the air. “…Not good with heights,” she said out the corner of her mouth, head turned upwards.

Chen wrapped an arm around her shoulders. “Don’t worry, I gotcha.” 

Brandon Kurtz no longer stood in the front lobby. Instead, Mabel Henderson shoved a registry book at them. 

“Name, date, time,” she said sternly.

Drina signed in for her and Chen. She couldn’t blame Mabel for being so serious. She’d lost one northern town before.

The Freedom Point infirmary was intended to house maybe a dozen patients. Now it held over three times that many people. Angela had been the town butcher. One of the town’s busiest, most prominent women. And she hadn’t even known she was infected. Drina and Chen could hear the chorus of coughs and wheezes before they saw the extra cots spilled out into the hallway in waves of triage. The worse the prognosis, the closer the patient was to the actual sickbay. Inside, Nurse Sandra bustled between beds; changing IV bags and bedpans; checking breathing and pulses; taking temperatures and laying moistened clothes over foreheads. 

The nurse lay a stethoscope over Brandon Kurtz’ chest. His breath crackled in her ears. “Fluid up in Mr. Kurtz’ lungs.”

At the centre of the room, Allison Kinsey nodded. “Stand back.” 

Her eyes glowed milky green. Brandon jerked and retched in his bed. Sputum fountained out of his mouth, spiraling through the air into a medical waste container. 

Catalpa had no doctors. But Allison Kinsey had met a fair few. 

“Allie,” said Drina. “You really should eat something.”

“Later,” said Allison, gently turning over an unconscious patient. 

Drina saw the dark patches under her daughter’s eyes. “How much sleep are you getting?” Allison had insisted on relocating to the tower full time a week ago, over Drina’s objections.

“I just slept three nights ago.”

“Three nights?” 

“It’s different for me, Mum.” 

How different?” Drina wanted to ask.

As patient zero, Angela Barnes was in one of the built in sickbay beds: the giant clam shells filled with wiggling tongues. Her face was dominated by an angry red rash. Her eyes were shut. Her husband and youngest son sat on either side of her, both masked. Nurse Sandra and Allison had warned them against touching her. 

Chen approached the bed and cleared his throat. Both Barnes glared at the man:

“Not now, AU,” said Arnold blearily.


“What the fuck are you doing here?” demanded Fred.

“Language,” muttered Arnold. Someone had to say it if his mother couldn’t.

“Yeah, I know, not the person you want to see,” said Chen. He held out the two wrapped sandwiches. “Here. Corn beef.”

Fred scowled.

“Look, before you throw them in the bin, Drina made them, Not me.”

After a moment, Fred grunted and snatched the sandwiches. “Tell her me and the boy say thanks and clear off.” 

Chen sighed. “There is something I wanted to give your wife, Mr. Barnes.”

“What?”

Chen removed the coin he’d made from his pocket and handed it to Arnold. Engraved on the obverse was a long haired man with a thigh wound holding a pilgrim’s staff. On the reverse, a dog offering up a piece of bread. Along the edges was written “Saint Roch”2.

“Your mum’s a good woman,” said Chen. “She’s been good to me. God knows I didn’t do anything to deserve it.” He pointed at the coin. “I don’t go in for that kind of thing usually, but I know Mrs Barnes is a believer so…” He squinted his shoulder. “Seemed like something she’d like.”

Arnold closed his hand around the coin. “I think she would, Dad.”

After a long moment, Fred Barnes nodded. “Yeah.”

“Good,” said Chen. “Guess I’ll be off then.” He looked right at Angela. “Best wishes, Mrs Barnes.”

As Chen turned, he heard the beginnings of tears. Arnold was embracing his weeping father.

“She’s so strong, Arn…”

“I know, Dad.” 

Chen didn’t dare say anything. Something about the way Arnold held his father told him this wasn’t the first time he’d seen the man cry.

That night, there was a town meeting. Nearly four hundred chairs spaced out at the foot of Freedom’s point, their occupants nearly all masked. A surgical conference from a political cartoon. The air reeked of mosquito repellent. In front of the crowd was a hastily erected stage with six chairs: The Catalpa City Council. The council was a fairly amorphous entity at the best of times. People wandered in and out as their interest in local governance ebbed and waned. The outbreak had only caused more shifts in its makeup. At the moment, it consisted of:

  1. Mistress Quickly, as the town’s chief scientist. With Close-Cut holed up in Lyonesse, she was also pulling double duty repping the supervillain crowd.
  2. Paul Haldor, representing the town’s baseline humans, filling in for Angela Barnes. 
  3. The Crimson Comet, sheriff of Catalpa and standard bearer for the resident superheroes.
  4. Frances Robinson, sometimes called Night-Tide. A Darwinite superheroine, on the council because there was no way the supervillains were getting more seats on the council than honest to God heroes. 
  5. Jon Griffiths, a man who appeared to be made of living red spaghetti with two bulbous ping-pong ball eyes, representing all those in Catalpa whose powers left them looking… otherwise. 
  6. And finally, Allison Kinsey. There was once a vague idea that she represented Catalpa’s many unaccompanied children, but really, it just felt wrong to not have her around.   

“…We’re pretty sure we’ve managed to break the chain of transmission,” said Allison Kinsey, her voice amplified by the button-microphone pinned to her costume’s collar. She flashed a smile that only women manning make-up counters should use. “Once we’re past the incubation period, we can get back to building our city!”

The girl clearly expected applause. Instead, she got a wave of whispers and murmurs. 

In the third row, Chen leaned over to Drina and whispered, “She is way too young to be doing PR-talk…”

“Don’t have to tell me.”

“Does anyone have any questions?” asked the Crimson Comet.

A forest of raised hands. 

Eenie, menie, minee… 

The Comet pointed at a meaty, liver-spotted arm. “Yes, Brenda?”

Brenda McCullough cleared her throat. “How come none of you big-brains can’t just cure the measles?”

Mistress Quickly of course fielded that one. “I’m sorry to say, but none of us super-scientists are dab hands at virology.”

Brenda snorted. “You grew a little girl! How can you not fix the measles! They’ve got a vaccine in the States!”

“I’m sure you already knew this, Brenda,” said Maude, “But there’s a big difference between an inoculation and an antidote.” She folded her arms. “As for Miri’s project, most women can grow little girls, can’t they?”

A few scattered chuckles. 

“And I’m not too proud to admit I had help with that,” continued Maude. “We’re supers, guys, not gods.” She spotted a nut-brown hand waving from a middle row. “And for those of us who are gods, I should remind people that divinity isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Chariots of iron and all that.”

“Bunch of bull,” grumbled Brenda. 

“Please, Brenda,” said Night-Tide. “There are children here.”

“You bloody supes can do whatever miracles you like, but when it’s something we need…”

A man yelled from the back, “It’s a little convenient nobody in charge has gotten sick!” 

The council all exchanged looks. 

Maude smiled sourly. “I’ve caught four strains of measles on four different worlds. My immune system is way out of this planet’s league.” 

“I do not have any blood,” said Mr. Griffiths, his surprisingly clear, mild voice rustling his tentacles like wind through curtains.

“I’m literally standing in for a councilwoman who got sick,” said Mr. Haldor. 

“I’m a vegetarian,” explained Night-Tide. “Good woman though Mrs Barnes is, we don’t do much business.”

“Never going to let us forget that,” said Maude under her breath, hand over her mic.

“Me and Miss Kinsey were made immune to a lot of ailments by a healer we both knew,” said the Comet.

“And why can’t we get her in?” 

“Therese is looking for her,” said Allison. “Big country on a big planet.”

“What I want to know is how the measles got here,” said an old man. 

Maude sighed. “We’ve explained this. Mrs Barnes—”

“But how did it get here?”   

“Catalpa isn’t exactly a closed community,” said Night-Tide.

“It’s obvious, isn’t it?” A man near the back rose from his seat and pointed towards the front. “It was the bloody chink!” 

It took Chen a moment to realize he was talking about him. He twisted around in his chair. “Excuse me?”

Ralph groaned. “For Christ’s sake, Jared…” 

“Did anyone bother testing him when he got here?” another voice asked, loudly. “God knows what he’s carrying.”

Allison, young as she was, tried to use logic, “Chen’s immune too. Just like me and Ralph.”

“His lot are dirty. They carry it with them.” 

“For all we know the witch sent him here!”

Chen clenched a fist. He wanted to scream the arseholes into the ground. But anger was a privilege not afforded to men who’d done the things he’d done. But then, it also wasn’t afforded to men who looked like him.

Drina shot to her feet. “Shame on you all.” 

Chen put a hand on her arm. “Drina, you don’t have to—”

Drina pulled away from him. “It’s not just about you, Chen.” She pointed at her daughter, then back at herself. “Me? My daughter? The kid you all worship? Gypsy.”

On stage, Allison swallowed. She’d never heard her mother… admit it like that before. The only reason she knew about it was the Physician, and the Physician had a weird sense of humour at the best of times.

“Are we dirty?”

Stammering. “I—I meant supervillains—”

“Thanks,” Mistress Quickly said flatly.

Drina rolled her eyes. “Pull the other one. Chen came here to help. He risked his life to save our kids, and you’re all looking for an excuse to indulge your pigshit ignorance.”

“I can take it, Drina,” said Chen. 

“You made mistakes Chen,” said Drina. “Doesn’t mean you have to put up with dickheads the rest of your life.” She marched brazenly up to the stage, clambering onto it with determined awkwardness and taking her daughter by the hand. “We’re going home.”

Allison blinked and shook her head. “No I’m not.”

Drina started walking offstage, dragging Allison with her. “I won’t have you listening to this filth!”

Ralph sighed. “Allie, listen to your mother. We can manage—”

Allison pulled her hand effortlessly from her mother’s grip. “I need to be here!”

God, when’d she get so strong? “You are ten years old!”

Mother and daughter locked gazes for a moment, war passing between their eyes. Without breaking eye contact, Allison’s feet left the ground. 

Drina staggered forward, trying to grab a foot. “Allie! Allie!”

Allison didn’t answer. Drina’s hands found only empty air. The girl shrunk as she rose higher, flitting around Freedom Point like a rainbow raven haunting London Tower.

Drina let out an inarticulate noise of maternal fury. She became aware of the audience staring at her in silence. She glared back at them. “You’re all ruining her.”

She stormed off into the night. 

“If you haven’t gotten the hint,” said Night-Tide. “Meeting adjourned.”

If Ralph Rivers was the sheriff, and Allison Kinsey the child-empress, Maude Simmons might’ve said she was the high-priestess of Catalpa. It wasn’t that much of a stretch. There was a distinct engineering mindset in the old polytheisms. Zeus and his cronies weren’t interested in a “personal relationship” with mankind or whatever it was Christ and his dad wanted. Old gods cared about your actions, not your feelings. Orthopaxy trumped orthodoxy any day. Trying to perform a sacrifice with unexpunged sins was no different from waltzing into a clean room covered in microbes. Other than that, if the priests recited the program correctly and input the right materials (flawless black heifers, unbruised fruit, suckling babes) the gods would oblige. You didn’t have to understand why. Leave that to the philosophers. Or the theoretical physicists. 

The machine they called Dr. Beaks lay across a metal gurney, cloak removed, its naked, ruined mechanisms open to the air. Mistress Quickly was performing an autopsy with designs towards resurrection. So far, her findings weren’t promising. Maude had never gone in for robots. She liked her privacy too much to invent a machine to destroy it. Still, it wasn’t the first time she’d taken one apart. But Dr. Beaks was something else. Even accounting for the structural damage, he seemed… incomplete. Like a corpse missing its skeleton. He had no wires in him. No screws or weld marks. The pieces looked like they’d been grown into shape like metal bonsai trees. She had no clue how they fit or stayed together. His manipulator arms were made of something like living—dead—modeling clay. Protean and endlessly adaptable. Running electricity through them made them shift from scalpels to syringes to tweezers. Maude had learned quickly that his “eyes” were purely cosmetic. She’d yet to locate any discrete computation in Dr. Beaks. Her running theory was that that was handled by his entire molecular structure. Blancheflor swore up and down he wasn’t remote controlled. 

Maude sighed. “Goddamn it, Joseph.”

“Danny, take a note.”

The lab answered with silence, accented by the quiet hum of machines. 

“Bugger.” 

Doc Danny had the measles. Maude had gotten used to thinking of her assistant like her belt. Always there. 

The lab’s door-alarm buzzed. Mistress Quickly glanced at a recycled television to find Mrs Kinsey shuffling her feet outside. 

“Enter.”

The doors slid open. Drina marched inside. “When will that robot be fixed?”

“At this rate… I have no idea.”

Drina ran her hands down her face. “…Then what’s the point of you? What’s the point of portals and fancy water fountains and self-building houses if my little girl has to play doctor with life and death on the line? On top of everything else!” 

Religion back in the day was results oriented. If the rain didn’t fall or the crops didn’t grow, people started asking the priests difficult questions. And people didn’t change much. Maude Simmons walked over to the bench she’d set her coffee pot on and poured herself a mug. She took a sip. It tasted like cigarette ash mixed with milk. Only appropriate. “I’m sorry Mrs Kinsey. I’m sorry I can’t recreate the work of an alien god. I guess I’m not trying hard enough to steal my dead friend’s work.”

“…Sorry,” said Drina. 

Maude sighed. “It’s fine. Measles is making us all crabby bitches.” She took another mug from a cupboard. “Want some coffee? It’s bloody awful.”

“…Can you make it a beer?” 

The two women pulled up a chair and drank.

“It’s still perverse,” said Drina. “The way people worship her here. She’s like a cross between Baby Jesus and a farm mule.”

“Don’t have to tell me twice,” said Maude. “You have to remember, a lot of these people are literal asylum inmates.”

“They weren’t thrown in there for being mad, though.” 

“That’s the thing about asylums,” said Maude. “If you weren’t mad when you went in, you’ll get there eventually. Trust me, I know.”

“Going to tell me about that?”

“Check back in a year or five. Look, Drina. These people were desperate, hounded, and loathed. I escaped that crap a long time ago, but I know what it feels like. Your daughter saved them from that. Gave them somewhere they could be free.” Maude thought about it. “Well, I did a lot of that, but Allison’s a little girl who flies and glows sometimes, you can guess who draws more eyes.” 

“You don’t see them making the Queen do the washing up.”

“You assume we’re making Allison do what she does,” countered Maude. “Have you considered that maybe your daughter wants to help? That she is, in fact, a good girl?”

“Of course she’s a good girl,” snapped Drina. “But it’s not about her being good, Maude. It’s fear.  She has an entire town full of people looking to her for answers, and she’s terrified she’ll fail them. You people are asking her to hold up the sky for you.”

“I’m not,” said Maude. “The others? Absolutely. And it’s not fair. What am I supposed to do about it?” 

“…I don’t know.” 

Both women drank. 

“There is a way you can help, Drina.”

“I’d be happy to.”

“Might want to wait till I tell you how before saying that. The council’s talked it over, and we’re putting new resident pick-ups on hold. We can’t bring people into an epidemic. We’re stretched thin as it is. We’ve already prepared a message.”

“…You haven’t told Allie, have you?”

“This wasn’t a decision for her. A lot of people may have forgotten Allison is a child, but we haven’t.” Maude took a deep breath. “We want you to break the news to her. Me and Ralph, we’re too much her friends and not enough grown-ups in her head.”

Drina nodded. “I understand.”

“You’ll do it?”

“Yes.” Drina finished her beer and stood up. “Best rip the plaster off now.”

“Want me to back you up?”

“No. I can handle my own daughter.” Drina glanced at the ruins of Dr. Beaks. “You will keep trying, won’t you?”

“Of course,” said Maude. “Joe did good work. Be a shame to let it go to waste.”

“Godspeed, Maude.”

Drina slipped her mask back on in the elevator up to the infirmary. “You can do this, Drina,” she kept telling herself. “She’s your daughter.”

The lights were dimmed on the infirmary floor. Patients slept in a thick soup of drugs. Drina could smell it seeping from their skin. That and urine mixed with antiseptics. Fred and Arnold lay asleep together on a cot beside Angela’s bed. Allison was holding a plastic cup filled with cold water to an old man’s lips.

“This okay, Mr. Gittelmen?” she asked softly. 

Mr. Gittelmen let out a keening wheeze. His long white beard contrasted disturbingly with his scarlet spotted face. “You’re a mitzvah, girl.”

Without looking at her mother, Allison said, “Hi, Mum.”

Drina didn’t answer for a moment. She was too distracted by Mr. Gittelmen’s fingertips. They were black. Before she could say anything, Nurse Sandra grabbed her shoulder. “Allie, could me and your mother have a word?”

“Sure,” Allison answered, eyes still fixed on Mr. Gittelmen. 

Nurse Sandra led Drina out of the sickbay back to the elevator bank. “You need to get that girl out of here. Now.”

“I thought she was helping you?”

“I’m a licensed nurse, Mrs Kinsey. I’m not saying a doctor wouldn’t be a help, if they had the right tools, but we don’t. And Allison isn’t a doctor.” She sighed. “She sleeps in a chair for ten minutes at a time. Sometimes she cries. Jacob Gittelmen is eighty-two years old. He has pneumonia in both lungs. Far as I can tell, his kidneys have completely packed it in. There’s necrosis in his extremities. He’s going to die, Drina. I’d give him hours. I don’t care what she’s seen or done, Allison isn’t ready for that. She thinks she can keep him alive.”        

Drina found herself laughing.

Sandra frowned. “Did I say something funny?”

“No,” replied Drina. “I just thought you were all mad.” 

“Take your daughter home, Mrs Kinsey. Make her sleep. Properly sleep. Play… I don’t know, Monopoly or something with her. Just don’t let her keep working.”

The laughter died fast. “Let me talk to her.”

Drina approached her daughter like her footsteps might make her shatter. “Allie, there’s something Mistress Quickly wanted me to tell—”

“We’re cancelling the resident drive,” Allison cut in.

“…You know?”

“I saw you and Maude talking about it,” said Allison. “In your head.” 

Drina suppressed a shudder. What did Allison see inside her? Inside everyone? “I know it seems heartless, Allie, but the council only wants to keep everyone safe.”

Allison nodded. “Yeah. It makes sense.” She bit her lip. “Is it bad I don’t mind?” Her breathing quickened. 

Drina stepped forward and hugged her daughter. “Of course not, honey.”

Allison murmured into her mother’s mid-section. “I don’t want more people to look after…”  

“It isn’t your job to look after grown ups.”

As they embraced, lights on Mr. Gittelmen’s sci-fi bed started blinking. Alarms beeped with soft, melodic urgency. Jacob groaned.

Nurse Sandra rushed over, examining the optics that ran along the edge of the bed. “We’re over the hump now. Won’t be long till Mr. Gittelmen’s gone home.”

Allison jerked weakly in her mother’s arms. “I can—”

“No,” Drina said firmly. “You can’t.”

“But his granddaughter! She’s little…” 

“We’ll look after her. We’ll look after you all.” Drina looked at Nurse Sandra. “Will you be alright here?”

The nurse nodded. “Of course.” She took Jacob’s hand. “We’ll be fine.”

Drina roused Arnold awake. He squinted up blearily at her and Allison. “What is it?”

A few seconds later, Drina appeared in a green flash on her house’s veranda, carrying Allison as best she could. She awkwardly walked the door handle with one hand:

Need one of those stupid spaceship doors… 

Once Drina got the door open, she staggered inside, making directly for the bedroom. She laid her daughter down on the bed. She was asleep, Thank Christ. As she watched, Allison’s costume shaped itself into polychrome pyjamas. Drina couldn’t help but smile at that. 

She was considering laying down next down to Allison when she heard a knock on the door:

Drina huffed. “What now?”

Dutifully, she answered the door, finding Chen on her doorstep. He was holding a small, badly wrapped box in one hand, and a bottle of red wine in the other.

“Evening, Drina.” Chen tried to look past the woman’s shoulders. “I saw you carrying Allie inside. Something the matter?”


Drina smiled tiredly. “There is, but  Chen. What brings you here?”

Chen held out the box. “I wanted to give you this.”

Drina took it into your hands. “Thank you. Can I ask why?”

“For yesterday, at that bloody meeting. Standing up for me. God knows people are still looking sideways at you for proposing child labour laws.” He smiled waggishly. “Wild pinko idea that is.” 

Drina giggled. She unwrapped the box. It was a slightly battered jewelry case. Inside was a silver necklace with a ruby pendant. 

“Oh, Chen…” She looked at him. “Why silver, though?”

“Oh, sorry, I—just feels weird giving people gold as a present, you know. It costs me nothing and—”


Drina smiled and raised a hand. “It’s lovely, Chen.”   

Chen let out a sigh of relief. “Good.” He raised the bottle of wine. “I got this in case you didn’t think so. Hettie’s still marginally fond of us for saving her kid, I guess.”

Drina rubbed her chin and hummed. “Tell you what, I’ll take the wine, too. If you help me drink it.”

They drank it in coffee mugs, till the sun rose over Freedom’s Point. Allison didn’t hear Jacob Gittelmen’s song end.  

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1. She was also working on a biography of her son. Working title: Why He Should’ve Let You Explode.

2. A Catholic saint, usually invoked for protection against plagues. Patron saint of bachelors, invalids, diseased cattle, and gravediggers, amongst other things.