The ceiling, a curved, grey-green expanse, seemed to sweat long strands of cold, drizzling water. A dull ache sat somewhere behind Enk’s spine, while his chest ached with a dull throb that felt like the time he’d burned his thumb on a frying pan, only excruciatingly worse. Being a teenager was hard; all your frames of reference were so small. He’d never been shot or stabbed or broken a bone and now he was trying to find some way to catalogue in his mind the sensations sent through his body after having survived a lightning strike through the chest. When the Prince was in control of his body, he’d recognised his hands, his movements, his actions, but none of it had felt real.
Now, he felt it. The Prince was gone, and there was only Enk left to bear the weight of what he’d suffered.
Innogen came into view, kneeling down next to him and reaching out with one fingertip, still crackling a little from the static. Enk hoped one day he’d feel enough better about the experience to joke about how silly it looked, from his perspective. Then she touched his cheek, and he saw her lips move – and heard nothing. The pulsing in his head, that throbbing ache pushed inwards, against his head, and he heard nothing but washed out, emptiness, the roar and rush of nothing. Innogen’s hand pressed against his neck, and she worriedly pawed at his chest, below his sight. Nothing, numbness, no –
The roaring sound made him imagine that he was deaf all over again. Hands up to his ears, but he couldn’t feel if he was touching the right part of him. The whole of his world was a roaring pain in his chest, the sensation of his skin blistering and rippling unpleasantly. Then the dull roar stopped, filling his head instead with a silvered silence. Fingers clutched at his head, and his fingertips screamed as he felt himself dragging them over thousands of tiny bumps and ripples, ridges and lines. There was a burning heat in them too, a heat that pushed from the depths of an internal fire, fires driven by the way the cells that made up every part of him split and live and die and –
The sound returned. Another massive roaring, another bellowing in his head, another head-gripping moment of agony. Another clutch to his chest, buckling forwards, drawing in breath, heaving and gasping as he realised he’d crossed his hands over the massive region of red and black and ow that had burnt a hole through his waistcoat, shirt, and singlet. When he threw his head back to scream in pain, he hit the floor with the back of his head and barely felt it.
When the air hitting his lungs finally stopped tasting so vividly of everything, when he realised that the sound that hammered in his ears was his heartbeat. Finally, the weight of his very self became bearable, the sound of the air rushing past his ears tolerable, and very, very slowly, he sat up. The rags he wore on his chest fell down around him. Blinking owlishly, he looked left, right, up and in a daze at his cousin, at the strangers – huddled around him.
The American girl had green fire in her hands, and was glaring down at him like he was one wrong word away from losing whatever chest he had left. Next to him, the white-haired woman with the … creepy red eyes… held one gun, but it was cocked to the side, her finger not on the trigger, and she wasn’t pointing it directly at him. Comforting. The other two – the black guy and the one who’d led the crabs – stood at their sides.
Holland tugged on Barbara’s sleeve nervously. “Um, Barbara…?”
“What.” And she was cold as ice, her tone of voice completely unshaken, still looking down at Enk’s prone form.
“I think he’s okay.”
“How do you know?”
“… I don’t, really. Um…” Holland turned, hunkering down on one knee, across from Innogen as she helped Enk to sit up. “Hey, guy?”
“His name’s Hank,” Innogen said, holding his shoulders, careful to not touch any part of her cousin that was stained with smoke or burnt skin. I just threw a thunderstorm at my cousin and he’s still alive and oh geeze.
“Enk,” he corrected her, feeling his tongue slapping against the back of his teeth and oh god that was always there, wasn’t it? He just never noticed it. There was a moist slab of flesh in his mouth all the time and he just never noticed it.
“You okay, Enk?” Holland asked. “I’m just asking because um, Barbara might shoot you if you’re not.”
“How would that help!?” Innogen shot, glaring between Holland and Barbara.
Cards looked frustrated, looking at the arrayed teenagers. Even Angus was too young to really grasp what she was thinking, but nobody was happy with her expression.
“If he’s still the Prince, or if the Prince is coming back, or if he’s the Prince’s secret clone or-“ Barbara began, then stopped herself short. “Okay, shorter. Where’s the Prince?”
Holland sat back, resting on scuffed and wet shoes. “I can’t see him. And I mean, he kinda really doesn’t like me.”
Enk put his hand to his forehead, shielding himself from the stabbing lances of trillions of reflected photons. “I’m – he’s gone. Okay? I’m pretty sure he’s gone.”
Enk’s hand slipped on the curved wall as he struggled up to his feet, refusing Innogen’s assistance. “What do you want? He’s… ngh. He’s dead, at least… um, the version we had. That version’s dead.”
“There are multiple versions of him?” Barbara asked.
“What, was this a cover band…?” Angus asked, brows knotting.
Enk rubbed his hand in his eyes. And there it was. There was why it was all so scary, why it all hurt so much. Just like the Bodyguard, like Shamgar, Delilah and Jubal, he could feel the Prince’s memories. Those cycles, the burst of its short-lived existence… and now that memory, which had never really been alive was collapsing against his own experiences. Enk had been the Prince – and now a tiny sliver of the Prince remained behind, being Enk. “The idea isn’t gone,” Enk said, dredging the thoughts up. “It’s just an idea, of stars and space being a person, it’s, it’s… a personification?” He tested the word, seeing if it made sense when spoken aloud.
Angus adjusted his coat, helping the smaller boy stand up straight. “Right,” he said. “That makes sense – if human belief shapes magic, common beliefs would shape very powerful magical entities. The Romans believed that the stars in the sky were the scattered breast milk–“
“– of the goddess… really?” Angus stopped short. “This is mythology, there’s grosser stuff than that in it.”
“Yes, but… still. Eww.” Enk repeated himself.
“Does the Prince act based on human impulses, then? A man-made god…?” Angus mused aloud.
“No,” Enk said, rubbing his hand through his hair, feeling a splitting headache that wasn’t even in his splitting head. “Gods don’t work. By the time a religion happens, too many people believe too many different things. But the man in the sky is common across them all, and, and… Ngh. Ow, my head.”
Innogen supported her cousin, sliding her arm around him, her shoulder underneath his, hoisting him up. “It’s okay, Enk, you don’t need to do anything more.”
Enk shook his head. “I kinda do… I mean, I think I do.” He looked up. The places the memories overlapped were the strongest. The way desert sands felt, the feeling of helplessness running from a superior foe, those were thoughts that Enk couldn’t shake. They were too potent and real, they were common to three of the minds his own emptiness had found. But more than deserts were the oh-so-present memories of the Prince, and the memories of the Bodyguard. Memories of what it was he stood in, and what it was meant to do. “Okay, we’re going to … uh. I have to find the central … throne room? I think. It’s a room with a throne, and some controls, and we need to find it soon.” Enk paused only long enough for a breath, then steamrolled onwards. “This … building?” he said, gesturing around him, “is a bomb. Erm.”
Cards looked honestly relieved, as she fished out a slip of paper, holding it up:
Where’s the explosive?
“No, no, it’s all a bomb. The Prince was going to use it to remove all the magic that it wasn’t using – and kill everyone who wouldn’t go to Grey London. It’s a great big device that reacts to magic in the atmosphere. It soaks it up, it turns it inwards, then it’s designed to kill everything that’s connected to magic that isn’t inside it.”
Cards didn’t look surprised. More annoyed.
“But it’s designed to be controlled – the…” he paused, rubbing his forehead. “The King. The King of the… Crabs. They can…” he waved his hands. “There’s a big central chamber. Circular. It’s a throne. All we need to do is travel ‘inwards’ and we’ll find it. I think!”
“Then what…?” Asked Angus. “And how much time do we have…? Wait, I wa- hang on. I was part of the Prince and I don’t remember any of this. Why can you?”
Enk squinted at Angus. “I think I can hear dead people.”
Barbara threw her hands in the air. “Good a reason as any. Come on,” she gestured over her shoulder. “We need to find the centre of this place.” She turned on her heel. Cards looked at her moving back, shrugged, and tucked away her guns, following. Holland went after – with Enk and Innogen shuffling along behind them.
“What about the time frame…?” Angus asked, following on behind. “It’s been still for… uh. Hang on, what date is it…?”
The central chamber was a paler green than the rest of the structure; it glimmered as soft jade in candlelight, seemingly lit from within. Channels in the ground ran wide and clear, full of water that flowed in from the edges of the room – suggesting some vast piping system, keeping the room ever full and fresh, turning the water from a stagnant pool to a pure spring. It smelled of the sea, it smelled of foam. The center of the room was dominated by a throne – tall as the room, reaching the ceiling and transluscent as it approached the ceiling. It did not look comfortable to sit on – but then, the people who had owned this kingdom had not been people given to needs of soft flesh. The spires around it rang of memories, crystalline devices designed to tune the magic of the device, a device that would know only the word of the king. Memories darker than that swam… memories of a battle here, a battle between a bodyguard and a king, the murder of a monarch, the death of a civilisation, and the saving of a world.
Enk started at the edge of the room, stepping from dry place to dry place; originally, the patches he moved on were designed as decoration. Angus and Innogen waded in the ankle-deep water along with Cards – but Holland followed Enk’s path on the stone.
Cards flicked up her trademark piece of whiteness –
– as Enk made his way to the throne. “Okay… Okay!” He said. “We may have a problem.”
“We may have a problem!?” Angus yelled.
“The throne responds to the King – just like all the rest of this place. It’s the King’s throne, it’s the King’s defenses,” Enk said, his voice echoing surprisingly far in this room. “But, but there – maybe we can use magic to, um. Innogen? You know how to do things with Magic,” he said, helplessly.
Innogen looked at the others. At Barbara, at Angus, at Cards – who shrugged – and then back to Enk. “… Enk, I don’t think any of us can help…”
Everyone slowly turned to look at Holland. By Holland’s feet, down in the water, there were bright and glorious colours in the water – rising and sparkling, falling and sinking again. “Holllaannndd…” Barbara said, stepping forwards, wading over to her friend. “… What did you do…?”
Holland looked down nervously. Then, tentatively, one sneaker slid into the water. The colours parted, subsided – and a tone chimed through the room, gentle, accepting, warm. The throne coloured slightly – taking on a lavender hue.
“I think it thinks I’m the King.”
“Wait, you can’t be a King, you’re –“ Angus began, pulling his feet out of the water and perching on the edge of the water. “You’re a human.”
Holland thought back to a massive, cow-like construction of magic that thought it saw a cow. Holland remembered people at the bus stop who thought they saw a boy or a girl. Holland remembered the Prince seeing nothing. Holland remembered crab golems, mindless and obedient, filing up to protect what they had to think was a King. Barbara had seen Holland as a blazing star, hiding in infinite space; Enk had not seen Holland at all, when he was the Prince.
“I think…” Holland said, stepping forwards, up the path, and taking seat on the throne. It was hard and uncomfortable, but Holland had sat on cheaper seats. Hands rested on the arms of the seat. All around Holland, bright lights flared in the crystal spires, blossoming in riots of colour, colour that meant something to the King.
The Throne would obey its King. Unfortunately, its King did not know how to listen to the Throne.
Outside, the storm clouds spread further, as time grew yet shorter.