The question sat amongst them with a near physical presence. Perhaps the ancient machinery around them and its unnatural magical weight could do that, could take something as conceptual and unphysical as a question and lay it upon them like a blanket with some actual mass.
“This is good,” Enk said, looking up at the translucent mechanisms, the way the light flit from surface to surface as if water in pipes. “If it responds to the King – erm, if it responds to Holland, we have something we can do.” Nervousness wracked Enk’s voice. He was trying to remember the thoughts of The Prince itself, something ancient and reformed with the magic, and that alien mind slipped through his fingers too easily. The Prince wasn’t like the other minds. Remembering the Bodyguard’s mind was alien – locked away slivers of information that Enk had somehow been open to holding, but not grasping. The Prince was a thousand times more alien. The solution was on the tip of his tongue, but it was a corrosive one.
“Can you shut it down, Holland?” Barbara asked, standing by the throne, resting her hand on the arm of the structure.
Innogen stood closer to her cousin, out of the water, but she wasn’t paying attention to the three at the Throne. Her eyes were over to the side of the room, where Angus and Cards were standing. Sometime after Holland had made the throne light up, Angus had pulled Cards aside from the group and started to speak. From where Innogen stood, she couldn’t make out what he was saying – but his manner reflected Enk’s voice. Enk was struggling to think through a solution in a memory that wasn’t his. Angus seemed to be having an entirely different sort of crisis.
They were all so young. Angus felt every one of his years on his shoulders, as if somehow being born before Animaniacs made him ancient. When he’d been Enk’s age, the hardest question he’d had to answer was – well, it was probably ‘You wot, mate?’ and he’d mostly avoided that question as hard as he could. Now here, they were struggling with a world of magic. Being a teenager was hard enough. What were the kids going to do in these coming days? It was with this worry in his mind Angus had turned to Cards, seeking the counsel of the only other adult in the room.
“Ah, hello, miss. My name’s Angus, I don’t think we were properly introduced,” And just like that, he felt like he was at a party making a fool of himself rather than trying to have a serious discussion with the person he saw as The Other Adult in the room. “You would be-“
She cut him off with a raised hand, holding a small white card between her fingers, her eyebrow raised, her expression sharp.
“Ah,” he paused. “Eum, are you with the SAS?”
“The CIA, or um… the…” he paused, looking back at the group, “… Mounties?”
Angus folded his arm across his chest, elbow into his hand, and his face into his free hand. “I think I see how this line of conversation ends. Alright, can you tell me why you’re here?”
At least she seemed to be enjoying herself. The eye he could see was sparkling, even if her lips showed an expression that could only be raw, uncut boredom.
“Well…” he said, looking back at the throne. “This is… this is something very big, and I don’t consider myself any kind of expert on magic, but I’ve at least been paying attention to the news. I guess I’d, I mean, what do you think?” he asked, turning to look at her.
Do you think i have a card for this?
“… Ah.” He stopped short. “It’s just… you … I mean, for some reason I thought you… I don’t know, wrote them when you needed them.”
The sparkle in her eye stopped and she just glared at him.
“Ahah. Well, um,” he turned, and sighed, looking over at the throne, with Holland perched in place, the glittering lights rising and swelling around the children. Teenagers, but for some reason, the gap between fifteen and twenty-five seemed an infinity wide. “God, I’ve no idea what to say to them. I mean…”
Cards tapped his shoulder, holding up two cards, together.
Do you think i have a card for this?
Angus bit his lip. Somehow, he felt it wasn’t right to put this responsibility, the task before them, on the shoulders of what he still thought of as children. On the other hand, it wasn’t like he had any other options.
Enk and Holland’s conversation had that low, frantic quality to it of two people trying to open a car door without the handle, neither quite sure off if the other knows what they’re doing. Holland was already annoyed by the way Enk said ‘thing,’ as if it meant anyt- as if it had any meaning, and Enk wasn’t really listening to Holland as he strove to chase the last of the Prince’s memories that had been left in his head. Not to mention the wheezing pain in his chest every time he touched his own chest, or brushed it against something accidentally.
Barbara stood back, leaning away and tried not to look like she was holding a pair of shotguns. After all, she’d known Holland… weeks longer than this guy had. Not to mention that Holland had been possessed by precisely zero star-field piles of bubbling mass. That wasn’t exactly an easy thing to erase in Barbara’s mind. On the other hand, the other one – the cousin, Jen? She’d demonstrated that she was willing to bolt her cousin in the chest to save the day, which she had to certainly respect.
“What are they trying to do?” She eventually asked, leaning to the side, looking Innogen in the eye.
Innogen shrugged. “Don’t really know. I think Enk’s trying to find like, factory settings or something, or turn the batteries around.”
Barbara set her jaw. There weren’t any people from her school here. There weren’t any laws or really any of the things that would normally hold her back. There was just Holland, her friend, who she was worried about. When they were done here, Barbara was going to work out how to teleport again, and she was going to take Holland somewhere safe. Still, it didn’t hurt to be gracious. Tossing her head slightly, looking at the brunette, Barbara finally spoke:
“You know, you are really c-“
“HAH!” Enk yelled, thumping the arm of the throne. Holland leapt away like Enk’s fist was a thunderbolt, and then Barbara was moving.
“Hey!” Barbara yelled, clamping her hand on Enk’s wrist, just as Holland tried to intervene.
“No, no-“ Holland said, hands on Barbara’s arm. “We’ve got it working! Well, sort of. We’ve… we’ve made it respond to me. It thinks I’m the King.”
“Thank y’very much,” Innogen drawled, and lowered the hand pointed at Barbara’s head. Nobody laughed, but on the other hand, people didn’t seem to notice the scent of ozone either. “And what does that mean now?”
Enk held up three fingers. “First things first, we can stop it killing everything.” A pause. “I think.”
“We can,” Holland said, nodding seriously. “I mean, if that thing lighting up means what Enk thinks it means, it – yes. We can. We can save the world.” And there was something so proud in Holland’s voice at that.
“… Oh dear.” Innogen said. “I don’t like But. Why is there But?”
“There’s But because the device has been absorbing magic non-stop since magic came back. It’s soaking it up. What it’s meant to do is soak up all the magic, turn that magic into a crystal, then detonate the crystal and let that kill everyone.”
“Who made this thing?!” Barbara yelled.
In her pocket, her phone bleeted, displaying on its screen exactly what Enk said: “A crazy person. Anyway, it’s been absorbing magic for months now, and as it sucks up the magic, it speeds up. It’s eating more and more magic every minute. If we leave it alone, we can stop it detonating, and magic just goes away. Which, you know, means it goes back to the way it was. Probably undoes anything that’s… temporary, you know? Like the disappeared people.”
“… And if we want to keep magic?” Barbara asked, her eyes narrowing.
“Well, then we can stop it absorbing right now. It’ll form a crystal, but it’ll just sink down into the ocean. The crystal will break again, but it’ll take thousands of years, and it’ll fuel magic into a world that had magic already, instead of, um, none. Magic will be around, we’ll be able to use it and study it, but it’ll be weaker than it is now.”
Holland shifted in the throne. “Or I could try reversing the crystal, and just let all the magic out there. I mean, it’s possible that without the Prince there’s not as much danger to having it.”
Innogen looked between them. “What do you think?”
Barbara stopped looking at Innogen’s hair and gestured around them. “I think that we go to war over oil and magic can probably do all it can and more. I think it lets us make heroes and heal things we couldn’t. I mean, if it’s anything like I’ve dealt with.”
Holland squirmed uncomfortably, hands on the arms of the throne. “What about you, though?”
Innogen blinked. “Wait, me?”
“I mean, I’m thinking the free-for-all out there is kind of crazy. I heard some cities are missing and that’s pretty scary. And we’re so scared of people having access to bombs and stuff, but now we have people who can make bombs out of anything…” She rubbed her hand up through her scalp. “I’m pretty sure it’s best to keep some Magic, but I… I guess I’d really like some controls on it.”
Enk bit his lower lip. “I… I don’t want magic. I don’t want it around. I don’t think we should have it… it just seems to make problems. I mean, it’s been around how many months, and the world is so messed up?”
Barbara sniffed. “It’s like guns, you know, Enk. You can’t just get rid of them once they’re out there. The damage has been done – there’s no real way to control it after it’s happened.”
The two Canadians, the British man, and the Australian all looked at Barbara like she was insane.
Holland sat forwards. “I think… I think I know what to do.”
There was no more time left. The great and dreadful machine, risen up from the depths long-since-before, a relic of an early Age of Sand, from a point in history where the machinations of humanity were literally inconceivable, began to hum. It roared no longer – bellowing as it drew in the first guttering blasts of magic, as it stripped away the force in the world – and instead sent out its force in rippling waves. A mesh of sound, so subtle and subsonic that humans did not hear it, but instead felt it, somewhere that made them more nervous than being in this strange, damaged world of magical impossibility did.
There was no blast, no flash, no crack of thunder – merely the strange exultant feeling, the glory in the thunder, that came from hearing the blast and existing afterwards. A single strange moment in which every person could say, briefly, they felt the same thing.
There was, and a moment later, there was something else.
And in amongst the water-and-magic powered turning, the magical runeshaping that transformed the world, even for an instant, there was one little selfish secret, one little change. And Holland would think back on it, years later, and not feel the slightest bit of guilt.