48. The Taste of Lightning

Enk wasn’t sure how to describe it, and was quietly grateful he’d never have a reason to. A swarm of cockroaches in his mouth, spilling out over his skin; a pallid greying around his vision until even the stars were just variances of the blackness that surrounded them. There was no Grey London for him; no, the Prince needed him here, needed his frame. That’s where the magic was.

Innogen’s next arcing bolt of lightning didn’t come; there was no swirl of ozone, no corrosive blast of energy and wash of ammonia on the floor after it. She ran forwards, ducking under the flying debris, hunkering behind a curl in the wall as best she could while the Prince tilted his head to the side, disjointed, like he’d broken his neck, and grinned.

“What are you waiting for?!” Barbara yelled.

“That’s my cousin! I can’t – we need to find some other way!”

“Oh, come on!” Barbara yelled, bracing her green fists, fire foaming and spitting from her fingertips as she launched herself once more away from the black slime and the Prince that stood in their centre.

The stars weren’t this impossible spread any more; it wasn’t like the Prince’s oily surface was going to claim the whole world; now it had some malice to it, some wit. The shapes rose up – coagulating, condensing. Holland couldn’t help but imagine them as sharks’ fins, jutting up from the floor, ready to leap like the worst day at Bondi.

“Hey, you! Uh, um, black guy!” Holland yelled, ignoring the prickling of embarrassment, ignoring the thought you can’t think of a better way to say that?

“What?” Angus asked, staggering back from the spilled-black flow of rising stars. Then he stopped staggering, and like a sensible person, started to run. Cricket bat in his hand, woollen coat billowing as he ran, he almost missed Holland’s question.

“Do you remember being hit in the head with a chair?”

“What?!” Angus stopped short, spinning around and swiping at a black piece of sludge, watching it scattering. Far enough from the Prince, the gunk could be dispersed, could re-form. “I don’t remember much of anything!”

Well, that was an answer. Holland nodded. Every black smear streaked towards the crabs, arranged as a semicircular wall. Hit a crab, and dispersed harmlessly, spattering away again and, like a dazed dog, spun around for a moment before attempting to streak past Holland again. The strangest of it, though, was that they never seemed to move directly – like they were shooting past Holland’s location. If the fear was hurting the person inside the Prince, Holland knew one way to test the fear.

Holland turned and started to run – towards the Prince. The crabs scrabbled to keep up, forming their defensive line and throwing themselves forwards, anticipating the path. “Hey! Hey, guy in there!”

The crabs parted for a moment, and Holland swung the chunk of wood from the floor. The hit was so great as to break the wood, to send a shudder through the frame of the Prince – but it did go through him. There was some substance to him – some strength that wasn’t magic itself. Holland was so shocked at the force of the hit, the way the wood splintered, the way the crabs parted like a curtain and regathered in the arc of the swinging wood –

“Duck!”

Angus’ yell to Holland came just as a hand swept through the crabs, stacked up and arrayed. While the Prince had a hand like something drawn with fluid ink and dragged out across a wet page, it still hit the crabs like a hammer. The stacked up pile of robotic defences flipped and rolled, tumbling and scattered. Each one of them easily weighed as much as Holland did – and thanks to Angus’ yell, the claw shot over Holland, and not through.

Holland looked up, from a crouch, at the Prince of a Thousand Eyes. He stood, seething, resentful. Rage wracked along his frame, and Holland could see shards of something to it, something not-quite-there, something that was human, but not.

Not that Enk knew magic, per se. The crab did. The bodyguard, with the thick spine and the metalline carapace. The veteran, the warrior, the one who had done what needed to be done, as despairing as it was. The one who had taken a mad king and pulled him down, from his throne and crushed and fought and –

Enk felt his shoulders ripple, felt himself grow a foot in height but not in mass, becoming more stretched out and drawn; the muscles in his arms felt like strings connecting wires and elaborate farming equipment, his fingers long and black and clawlike, like they were crafted from some part of scissors.

“Back!” he yelled, laughing as he raised his hand, gesturing towards the strange newcomer – known as Angus, the researcher, the skeptic, the debunker, the person with the study and the words and the Chellini hypothesis, the person who had been nice to the lady in the pub – and tried to do something.

No, wrong, wait, wrong – the fingers were wrong. The claw was soft, with its extra devices. It did not have the precision. It could not be twisted right. The gesture was not important, but how the mind reacted to the gesture was. The need of the flesh to fuel the pattern in the mind- ngh!

Enk clapped one hand to the Prince’s head. Enk could only hope that the Prince felt the pain he felt. Not the blow to the head from the piece of wood – somehow, Enk hadn’t felt that much at all. But thinking about Angus, about the defiance, about the thing that was now free – it made part of Enk ache.

Scattering the crabs, the Prince leant forwards… and peered at the space where Holland stood. Head whipping left and right, eyes narrowing, it tried to find the source of the blow – and roared in anger at how it was ‘fooled.’ It ran forwards, towards the nearest person it could see. “You! Warlock!” it roared, pointing, leaping over the paths of green flame that Barbara shot through the air towards it.

Holland gasped… then exhaled as the Prince literally ran straight past. Then, Angus grunted, under the mass of broken and shattered crab parts.

“Oh, hell!” Holland blurted, starting to dig the British man out. “Um, um, sorry! Try not to – there are sharp bits! And goo! Keep your mouth closed, the, uh, the goo-“

Holland was busy; the guy with the club was immobilised; and the girl who seemed really competent wasn’t attacking. Goddammit! Barbara snarled as she ran along the chamber floor. With the water drained away, and the crab guardians missing, it sloped downwards, allowing her some distance from the black frame of the starborne Prince. Her hands opened and closed, creating lances of fire, which she threw like baseballs. Hitting the Prince was hard, but heclearly tried to avoid being hit by the lines of fire – which meant she could use them to control his position. If the lady with the guns, Cards, was backing her up, they might be able to stop this… thing.

Barbara tried to not let the creepiness of her thought process land. She was hoping to set up a person to be shot, multiple times, by a stranger. Thinking about either of those things as people was scary; better to think of it as a videogame moment, or a comic book. There weren’t any health bars, or sound effects, and the scent of her own hair, burning when she moved too quickly through the path of her own thrown flames, stung and made her feel sick.

The Prince surged over the swell in the ground, running towards her, darting left and right as she tried to box him in with blasts, and in those moments, she realised that perhaps it would have been nice to develop a bit more magic than just throwing fire at things. Throwing fire in a variety of ways was useful, but-

The Prince lashed up close, leaping into the blast, taking a hit straight in its chest, sweeping a clawed finger towards Barbara, who ducked only just in time. The next sweep came low, the next vertical; each time, the Prince struck at the air, dodging and curling around her while she shot blasts at him. Each shot threw her backwards, and gave a momentary line that the Prince had to avoid crossing. Suddenly, Barbara wasn’t trying to contain him for someone else, she was trying to survive an onslaught from something she had seen eat someone.

“Not running, this time?!” the Prince laughed, lunging forwards, flashing a row of fangs in which the stars themselves flared.

“Oh shut up,” she grunted, foot against a wall as she stepped back, jumped upwards and fired a blast down, down at his head, with both hands – throwing her up into the air and arcing away, up to the platform from which she’d jumped in the first place. With a higher vantage point, she could watch the teeming shark-fin blacknesses swarming around on the floor, aimlessly bouncing from wall to wall like a videogame hazard – and Holland trying to extract the British guy from a pile of discarded crabs. The gunslinger was-

Crack crack crack crack crack crack-

Barbara was clear, and Cards had a firing solution, it seemed. The woman was running sideways, both guns pointing at the beast. The Prince’s arm, turning from blades to chain in an instant, shot across the quad, hitting the opposite wall with a hooked blade, pulling him after her, and out of the way of the gunfire. From her vantage point, she could see the Prince – his ‘hair’ of smoke trailing a green colour. Well, hopefully he’d been hurt by that, but not much. On the other hand, he clearly had a real problem with gunfire. With something physical.

Barbara patted herself down, checking her pockets. Did it come with h-ahah. Fingers closed around the shape, familiar and dangerous in totally different ways, of Aikon. Hefting the phone in her hand, she briefly wondered if she should deliver it with some cool one-liner, if she could apologise to Aikon for what might go wrong. She thought about it, but gripping it in her fist, she knew she didn’t have the time. Plus she wasn’t that. That was… that was Spider-Man. That wasn’t her. Winding up her arm, watching the white-haired woman and the chain-swinging figure duelling against one another, she aimed, and threw. Aikon boomed through the air as it was thrown. She heard the ringtone, somehow ominous and threatening as Aikon flew towards the Prince –
diddle-ee-dee, diddle-ee-dee duddle dum dum dum

It cracked against the Prince’s shoulder. He whipped around at the wrong moment, pursuing Cards. While he lunged into the path of Aikon, it wasn’t into his head – instead, smacking into a part of stars and black flesh that billowed and tore with an audible breaking sound. The Prince threw his head back and hollered, yelling in pain as he swung his arm out, clutching at the wall. Enk didn’t feel that. Strange. The Prince had fought like Jubal, had fought like Shamgar, had fought like the Counsellor – but Enk had no idea why he was here. He gripped his hands tight, and tried, tried, to think about what he could do. What he was meant to do. The Prince was stunned, reeling, in pain; too human, too close to human, closer than it had been when it was Angus. What now, what did Enk know, what could he possibly do…? Jubal knew how to fight, and so did Shamgar – but one was for survival, the other for madness. The Bodyguard used magic, and claws…

Wait. Delilah. Delilah had learned to fight, when she’d left Sampson. Before that, however, she’d known something greater. She’d learned how to resist. How to give up, and then, more important than that, how not to give up. She had lived in the tent of the monster, she had been its wife, and even in that place, under that terror, she had resisted and hoped and she had used what she knew as a tool.

Enk knew one thing very well: How to not be very good at magic.

The black shark-fins stopped teeming, trembling on the floor; they spiralled, they unravelled, and seemed to vanish down into plugholes of nothing. The floor rippled and buckled under them, swallowing them up while the Prince himself stood, still, clutching at his head. Somewhere, a voice – not from his mouth, but from, from somewhere, as if at the bottom of a deep well, yelled.

“Hit him! Hit him now!”

Cards was already reaching for her latest set of guns, but she needn’t have bothered. All that time holding charge, all that time not firing at what she still thought of as her cousin had given her time to gather quite a bolt of lightning. One chance to fire, one opportunity – and this was it.

The Prince and Enk looked, through the holes in his fingers, as the world around him turned into a vast, rolling wall of white, impossibly fast, cracking through every part of his body. Barbara had thrown pure magic at the Prince; magic it could resist, could absorb; the fire that followed was more dangerous than the force itself. This wasn’t magic. This was magic guiding the lightning. The single, massive crackling arc of electric lightning hit Enk and the Prince square in the chest – but in the same way that a sledgehammer can hit a fly in the thorax. Smashed into by the bolt of energy, Enk felt his feet leave the floor, his whole body thrown backwards.

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