46. Rising Doubt

Well, Innogen wasn’t having any of it. The only reason she didn’t interrupt the Prince was a matter of aiming practice. As the thing spoke, it stood still; as it stood still, she could gather the energy in her arms and through her chest and down to the crackling, growing orb between her palms. Fingers held like a cage, to contain what was, by any measure, a bullet crafted of lightning, she lowered her arms and stood as far behind it as she could.

“Enk? Get somewhere safe.”

Enk hadn’t demonstrated much aptitude for magic. It wasn’t a cruelty; it was a simple request. If she asked him to stay, she’d be endangering him – and besides, the middle of a fight with a puddle of rolling black and infinite space hardly seemed the time to start improvising.

Every second it spoke, she had another moment to charge the energy between her hands. A pattern swiftly fulfilled, her fingers tensing even as she spread them to accommodate a larger and larger sphere of energy. Doubt was fine – she could doubt whether or not she’d hit it, whether or not the hit was meaningful, or any such thing. What she didn’t doubt was the more moral aspects of her quandrary.

This thing is threatening every one of my friends, ergo, I am going to hit it in the head, very, very hard. Inwardly, she was proud of herself for remembering the word ergo. Enk’s mom would have been proud of that one.

Cursing inwardly, Cards holstered the most recent pair of guns, arms pumping as she ran down the corridor to close the distance between her and the target. It wasn’t like she hadn’t seen a host of strange things in the Columbian jungle, but most of them could be attributed to hallucinogens in the water. Lips set in a firm line, she ran up the curved side of the wall.

Stupid kids! She couldn’t open fire here. She was good, but she wasn’t so good when they were actually moving around. Normally, a gunshot made people stand still, or at the very least run away in a panic. These – these youths were engaging the Prince on their own terms, like this was something in a videogame. She needed to find a line of attack that didn’t feature a child on the other side of it.

At least there was one near-adult nearby.

Cursing outwardly, Angus scrabbled away from the bubbling puddle of ooze that the Prince of a Thousand Eyes had become. The terrifying spread created an eye watering effect, where a fluid right by his feet seemed to teem and swarm with dancing, golden lights and the yawning distance of everything in the universe that didn’t care about his existence. He’d stood on the edge of the Tower Bridge once as a younger and stupider man during what could only be described as a pub crawl for life’s designated drivers, and the feeling of distance between himself and the water had been dizzying.

Looking into the surface of the Prince, there was no down to look at. There just was… out. Everywhere. Everything. There was more everything than he had ever considered there might be. As the ooze crept towards his feet, pushing him further into a corner, cut off from escape routes. If he looked up and over he could see the brunette girl and the… cheer-leader…? What was a cheer-leader doing here? Good grief. If he looked down, though, he saw nothing but inky, swampy blackness and the infinity that lay beyond.

How dizzying to stand on the edge of forever, and not fall.

Thank god there were plucky teens around. Wait, that was explicitly not the way to think of these things. There was him and the woman with the guns, and they had to take care of these teenagers. The boy, the girls, and the one surrounded by crabs Angus couldn’t see properly.

He was holding something, and he only just realised what it was. In the explosion of the pub, as it was extracted and reabsorbed into the Prince’s teeming frame, Angus was holding a cricket bat. Gripping the stout length of wood by its handle, he flared his nostrils and tried not to think about fulfilling stereotypes when he swung it. As soon as the Prince brought something like a face near him…

The strangest thing about the crabs was what they didn’t do. When surrounded by individuals, Holland expected them to face inwards, not to array out and fan like they were… like they were some kind of disrespectful audience. They pushed themselves up on the tips of their lower set of legs, unfolding and rattling a tail, spines twisting in the air. A tentative step forwards and they moved with it, in perfect synchrony – remaining the exact same distance from Holland.

When the Prince raised its ‘arms’ and bellowed at the sky, roaring and bellowing in pain as a bolt of lightning thicker than a tree shot through its torso and maybe-its-head?-but-whatever, Holland ducked, hunkering down – and the crabs rattled up into place like a small wall, integrating and locking their claws together in a tessellating pattern.

Holland peeked over the top, watching the swirling mass of light and oil that the Prince had become put its ‘hands’ on the ceiling; then it wasn’t even humanoid any more, but more like architecture. It washed to the walls, two columns of cackling blackness in which mouths opened and closed with broad-fanged mouths, spreading out, separating Holland and Barbara from the others – the black guy and the girl with the ponytail and oh yes the lightning bolt. She was revving up another one, like she was prepping the engine on a particularly disobedient lawnmower.

“Barbara!” Holland yelled. “How do you-“ and a rattle of impact on the crabs suggested that whatever was going on on the other side of the wall was not something Holland could have survived. Lashing tendrils, explosions of force – there was something going on and sitting still was clearly not a good idea.

It seemed to Barbara the perfect time to start improvising. The brunette girl with the lightning was clearly an athlete; it showed in her shoulders, and her stance. Fit and strong and healthy but also used to using her height and strength. Not an athlete the way that Barbara was.

“Move!” Barbara yelled, because she knew the instinct was going to come a second later than Innogen should listen to it. The girl planted herself like a rhino when she took those shots. A two-legged artillery cannon was impressive indeed, but they had no idea where they had to strike the Prince.

And it was about striking him, wasn’t it?

Every single problem, really, came down to finding the right person and punching them in the face. There weren’t fashion concerns or tests to overcome or hassles with her dad or the concerns over whether Holland was just grateful to have a friend, or had that look because of that reason, or even what that meant for Barbara. No, these were the moments she enjoyed, when she stepped out and made herself into a superhero, because these were the moments when it was good guys, and bad guys, and those bad guys could hit the floor with a satisfying thump.

Her father would have been so proud of that reference.

When she leapt across the spreading ink, she threw her arm behind her and sent a churning line of green-black fire after her, throwing her upwards. Cards had led the way, but when she ran along this path, there was a path, rather than the vast, crushing cold of the depths of space. To call it aimed was perhaps overstating it, but it did its job – throwing her further forwards without her having had to touch the ‘ground’ on the way through.

Everything was a target, because everything had to be a target, because right now, they had no idea how to even hurt the Prince.

Innogen leapt sideways as a crushing tentacle of black force landed beside her, where she would have been if not for the yell. She looked annoyed at the advice but it beat being smashed.

When he was younger, Enk used to watch imported Sentai shows, until he grew old enough to care about what other people thought of the television shows he watched, even when they didn’t ask about it. Every single fight he’d seen in those shows had followed a pattern, a formula, where people attacked the hero only one at a time.

Watching the mess that ensued when five uncoordinated people, of varying degrees of skill and training, with different notions about what would and would not work, made it all crystallise in his mind. With everyone in motion, with the violence ranging from experienced expert to enthusiastic amateur in its construction, Enk had no clue what was going on.

Like the last Putty Trooper, convinced of his uselessness, he stood back, gripping the air and wishing he had Shamgar’s chain, or Delilah’s golden fists, or Jubal’s knives or a large, stabbing spine designed for a variety of subaquatic purposes. Everyone else just threw themselves in, after all.

Moments like these, Enk wished none of this had ever happened.

Ah. Yessss.

The voice spoke from just above and behind his ear, but without lips and breath.

The Prince was there.

The Prince had found him.

Enk looked down at his hands, and the whitest of white boys in Newfoundland saw his skin bubbling black, full of stars…