If Callum could make only one thing clear from the start, it was this: he wasn’t scared.
Tristan didn’t believe him. Said he could tell Callum was scared of all the rubble and whatever might be inside. He was wrong, of course. Part of Callum wanted to hit Tristan for even saying it. The rest wanted to show him how wrong he was.
The ages since the place exploded may as well not have happened — Madame Tussauds looked just as messed up as it did four months ago. It wasn’t the exact same, not with how much they had to move around to get all the dead folks out. Tristan said there were some two hundred people killed, and that the news was hiding it from everyone. His dad was one of the people called in, he said, so he knew even if they were keeping it a secret.
Callum asked why they’d call a vet in when a wax museum exploded. Tristan said there were probably dogs or something inside. The scrap after Callum called him a liar earned him a plaster on his forehead, a hell of a talking-to from his stepfather, and something to prove.
No way there were still any bodies, right? Just wax ones. Callum would go in and find some wax hand or head or whatever, then take it and tell Tristan it was from one of the dead people. Make him the scared one.
The only scared one. Callum wasn’t scared.
He should have brought a second torch.
He wasn’t supposed to be out this late. The remnants of the place weren’t exactly close to home, either. It didn’t matter. His mother was asleep, his stepfather was at work. Night shift.
It was just Callum, the bombed-out shell of a museum, and a whole lot of shadows.
He went inside, picking his way around wreckage. Not really an inside somewhere this destroyed, but close enough. The bits of wall left standing gave some shield from the wind.
G-d, Callum hated winter. It made staying out of the house a pain. He always ended up losing his gloves and getting gross city slush in the holes in his trainers. It was only December. Months of cold to go.
As strange as Madame Tussauds and all the stuff inside was, it still blocked the worst of the cold. Better than nothing.
Still. He hated this place, too.
The torch in his hand was a small, cheap thing. He had a better one in his room, one that he’d rather keep there. If something happened and it broke, better for it to be the crap one. Its flickering made everything look all spooky, but it was just a building. Nothing here but creepy wax figures and bricks.
A circle of light traced along the ground as he tread through, tugging the zipper of his coat as high as possible. His hands felt cracked by icy wind. Must be bright red by now. Whatever. He’d live.
None of it could ever be as cold as that dark, dark water anyway. None of the shadows here would ever be as black.
He wasn’t scared then, so of course he wouldn’t be scared now. After that, nothing could scare him, not shadows or cold or his stepfather or—
“No more than the last six times we were here.”
Or the fact that he was very, very much not alone.
Breath went harsh in his throat before he managed to catch it. Callum flipped his torch off as he listened as hard as he could.
“I just want to be sure.”
A woman’s voice. Callum thought he might recognize it, maybe.
“I know, but I’m telling you — nothing feels off here.” A man, not one Callum recognized. “Or, nothing besides leftover energy. Without anything to sustain it and this close to the eye, it was never gonna last.”
Couple of tramps, maybe? No reason for Callum to get their attention by moving yet. Way too likely he’d stumble on something trying to trace his footsteps back out of this place.
Their talk about eyes and energy sounded far too close to the kind of stuff the darkness people said, though. If either of them started chanting, he was gone.
“G-d, it smells like death, though,” the man said after a bit.
“They should’ve recovered all the bodies by now, but I can—”
“No, no. Not like corpses or blood or something. Like death.” Another pause. Callum assumed the woman looked as confused as he felt, and the man went on. “Y’know how Georgie’s apartment smells a little like it, under everything else? Not strong or anything, but still with that death smell.”
“...No?” More question than statement. Must have just realized how much of a loon her friend was.
“Oh.” Torchlight swept across the rubble again, so Callum tucked himself even further behind the broken down wall. “Well, it’s like that.”
A long silence, long enough that Callum wondered if they were snogging or something, when the guy said, “Could be him.”
No reply besides a hum. Callum didn’t think she was agreeing.
Tension made way for boredom. Whoever these people were, they spent their free time standing around in broken-down buildings talking about stuff that didn’t make any sense. Not in an interesting way either — the same sort of dull nonsense that made Callum immediately tune out whenever his stepfather started going on about how great the Tories were or whatever else.
With slow steps, Callum backed up, then turned to go. He didn’t find any of the wax figures, so no proof to give Tristan, but he’d rather get out of here than hunt through more. The cold and time of night meant it wasn’t worth hanging around waiting for the others to go.
Three steps later, something shifted in the rubble. A ragged lump of fur that Callum hadn’t even realized was an animal sprang to its feet when he got too close and burst off into the gloom. Callum stumbled back, hand flying to his mouth to muffle his shout of surprise. Adrenaline kicked his heartbeat back up to racing.
“The hell was that?!”
“No idea.” The man’s voice was a little breathless. Whatever that thing was, it must have been a hell of a shock when it ran through. “A— a cat?”
“That did not look like a cat.”
“What, you think something squatting here would follow the rules you expect?”
“So you think the stranger is present enough to change stuff, still.”
What stranger? Was there someone else hiding in here, too? Callum’s itch to leave doubled, but if whatever that thing was put the two on edge, they might hear him.
He’d hide in the dark a bit longer, then. Least he knew they couldn’t see him.
“With enough time. There’s not enough power behind it to do anything major.” The man sighed. “The troupe’s dead, Basira. Guaranteed. Whatever that was, it’s probably just been living here for a while.”
The troupe? Were they some of the people who got caught up in the blast?
Callum wondered if he should have brushed Tristan’s death toll off so fast. According to this guy, everyone from some group got taken out. Jeez.
“Dead or just gone?”
“Dead. I mean, not everyone there was part of the troupe — the dollmaker, the couriers, those sorts — so I’m not sure about them, but Nikola and the rest are dead.”
If Callum thought these two made no sense before, now they sounded like a couple of proper lunatics. This guy said he just knew some group was dead? Flat out? Lunatic.
“Fine. We should get back to the Institute.”
“Mm.” Some shuffling steps, then, “What food do you think cat-adjacent things like?”
“I swear to G-d—”
“Hey, I don’t live with all you guys. The Magnus Institute is not my home sweet home. Maybe that thing is what’ll really liven it up at my house.”
The what? Callum knew the place, kind of, but why the hell would people live there? It was just a building full of crackpots that always made his mother roll her eyes. Guess it was no wonder that these folks were from there, not when they were spouting this much garbage.
“Pretty sure it’d go for your fingers first.”
“Considering how messed my blood and all is, I doubt it’d settle with that for long. Assuming it could even get through all the scars.”
Conversation went quiet as the pair of them made their way out at last. The silence they left behind felt heavy, and all the shadows seemed darker.
It was just Callum’s now, though. All that dark and silence, and no one he had to share it with. No one else was hiding in here.
The next day, he told Tristan he wasn’t scared of Madame Tussauds — he went inside. No bits of wax people to prove it. All he had was a story.
Tristan called him a liar. Callum socked him in the nose. By the end of this scrap, Callum had four more plasters and one less friend.
Fine. He’d never liked Tristan very much, anyway.
“How can I help you, dear?”
Callum scowled at the woman at the desk. Dear. G-d.
When he didn’t say anything, her face went from annoyingly cheery to puzzled. “Does one of your parents work here?”
He scoffed at that. “No.”
“...Are you here to make a statement?”
Make a statement? What, like some kind of report? He’d rather run outside and jump in the Thames. Instead of saying so, he shrugged with one shoulder.
The receptionist looked past him to the door leading outside. When she went from the snowstorm beyond back to Callum’s thin coat and worn trainers, the pity on her face made hot embarrassment fill his throat. He crushed it down with another scowl.
At least she didn’t bring it up, only said, “Just let me know if you need anything,” before returning to her work.
Callum threw himself into one of the nearby chairs with his backpack in his lap. He could leave now. Not put up with her patronizing.
It was warm, though. He’d just stay until his hands didn’t feel so stiff. Maybe that’d be long enough to figure out why he came here at all.
He tugged at the zipper on his bag’s front pocket. No reason to it beyond something to fiddle with.
No reason to rush out, either. He could warm up, then leave.
Why did he come to the Magnus Institute, of all places? This was stupid. He should go.
Maybe he could do some homework while he was here. Might as well. He had a couple hours before his mother would worry.
Unless today was one of those days she freaked out and acted like she had to keep him in sight at all times or he’d get snatched up again. At least she stopped trying to pull him out of class in the middle of the day.
Those days didn’t happen as much anymore. He was probably clear.
Unless he wasn’t.
“Do you want a sweet?”
Callum looked up from his bag to see receptionist lady holding out a round tin. If he was gonna be here, may as well.
“My name is Rosie, by the way.”
Muffled by the strawberry drop in his mouth, he replied, “Callum.”
She smiled. “Lovely to meet you.”
Shrug. Drop back into the chair.
“Let me know if you need anything, Callum.”
“You already said that.”
Rosie didn’t pause in typing. “I just thought it’d sound better with a name.”
He didn’t know how to reply, so he didn’t bother trying. When the last of his sweet melted, he left for the cold without saying goodbye.
An orange sweet, today. Doing his homework in a lobby chair wasn’t comfortable, but he made it work. Not like his handwriting could get any worse.
“How’re you today, dear?”
He rolled his eyes at the coddling as he plucked a blackberry drop from the tin. “Fine.”
“Glad to hear it.”
As she tucked the tin back in a drawer, Callum noticed a matching one right beside it. The other looked older. The one she offered to him was new.
“Hey.” Given without thought. Today he picked a lemon drop, feet shifting in his new shoes.
Loose term, of course. Charity shops didn’t fill the shelves with new things. Still, these had no holes and weren’t broken in too terribly, so new worked fine.
“Staying warm, I hope?”
“Mm.” He already lost his gloves again, but Christmas meant a new (actually new) coat along with the shoes. Warmer than he was before.
Reading would be a lot easier than hunching over maths homework with nothing but a folder to support the page, but g-d, Callum hated reading. Letters never stayed where they were supposed to. Words, neither. Far as the response questions his teacher assigned went, he’d just ask Tristan if he could copy—
He’d just… make something up. Wouldn’t be the first time. Peter Pan was a movie too, right? Maybe it was close enough to fool his teacher.
Two problems into his maths worksheet, a thud echoed from the floor above.
Rosie barely spared a glance from her work. “Something we’re likely better off not being a part of, dear.”
Another problem, another crash. What sounded like shouting, too.
This place was meant to be about ghosts and monsters and stuff, right? Callum didn’t think any of that was real, but he also didn’t used to think warehouses could look like big churches. Maybe it was something cool.
Instead of asking Rosie what was going on again, he left his bag on his chair and went for the stairs. Rosie was focused on whatever work she had. That plus how good Callum was at staying fast and quiet meant sneaking off was kiddie stuff.
Paused at the landing. Listening.
Another crash, and screams. What the hell kind of monster got loose? Zombies? A werewolf? He crept towards the double door to the left with his heart in his throat. He wasn’t scared, though. Only a baby would be scared.
Before he could grab either handle, the doors burst open to show a bunch of people looking all sorts of freaked out. They barreled past with no mind to him.
“Evacuation procedure,” called a familiar voice from the back. Some woman. “Get to the courtyard!”
As the other people rushed ahead, the one shouting caught sight of him.
“Callum, what— What the hell are you doing— Doesn’t matter. We need to go.”
Callum’s head jerked back in surprise. Dark-skinned lady, covered hair. He knew her. “You’re one of those coppers.” Scratch what he was doing here, what was she doing?
Scratch that, too. Why the hell was she hanging around Madame Tussauds in the middle of the night a couple weeks ago?
“Come on.” She grabbed him by the arm and tugged him along for about two seconds before he yanked out of her grip. He could walk on his own.
From the room cop lady was shepherding them away from, he heard another voice.
“Lovely of you to join us, ladies and gentlemen, but I am going to need you to put that desk down—”
Callum knew that voice, too.
He had to see whatever weird stuff was going on in there. Soon as cop lady shouted another order to the herd, he broke off and pelted back the way he came.
First thing he saw was a desk bursting into wood chips as it hit the wall. Callum dove behind another desk in an instant and hoped none of them saw.
The blood rushing in his ears wasn’t enough to muffle the guy saying, “...Well, that’s on me for not specifying, I— hey—”
Callum peered out from his cover to see the guy duck under a massive fist and take a few quick steps back, interrupted by a spin to dodge another swipe from… whatever these things were. They looked kind of like people, but huge and ugly, all bulging muscles and too many limbs.
A couple of the things started to head for another door. Through the glass pane wall, Callum could see into some kind of meeting room with regular folks huddled together against the back wall. Before they could do anything but scream, a snap so loud it made Callum’s head ring pierced through.
He locked back onto the first guy’s wide smile. “A bit rude to ignore your host, friends.”
One of the things near him made to punch him in the head, but he dodged without batting an eye.
“You all realize how much you telegraph your hits, right? Come on.” He snapped a few more times, taunting. “Try something interesting.”
One of the people (were they people?) looked over the others in the group as they collected in the middle of the room. “Lookin’ like there’s six of us, one of you.” Its voice was so low and rumbly it was hard to make out. “Seems pretty interesting to me.”
The guy laughed, all short and sharp. “Prove it.”
Callum watched, mouth hanging open, as the pack of gross muscley things closed in.
It was only moments before the guy slipped free of the knot of movement in the middle. He moved like water around swinging fists, kicks, all sorts of swipes from way too many limbs. The sound they made as they moved was even more nasty than the way they looked — this awful meaty noise that made Callum’s stomach roll and nose scrunch.
Still, even outnumbered as anything, the guy seemed bored. Callum almost expected him to yawn.
At one point, he snatched what looked like a snowglobe off one desk. Something shifted in the corner of Callum’s eye, but no way was he gonna miss a second of this.
The guy threw the snowglobe up in the air as he ducked under one hit, then caught it again. One swing later, it shattered over the back of one thing’s head, and the thing doubled over with a growl.
Callum pumped one fist in excitement. This was awesome.
Even better was when the guy went still for just a beat between two of them, then dropped right before one landed a hit so it’d collide with its teammate. It took both hands slapped over his mouth for Callum to muffle his shout of laughter.
One thing got both hands on one of the guy’s arms — hands huge enough to wrap all the way around. The guy dropped low again and aimed a kick at its leg, but before he could follow through, another grabbed his other arm. Didn’t matter how much he pulled and twisted. They gripped tight enough Callum swore he could feel bruises digging into his own arms, and together held the guy out towards the one who spoke at the start.
Callum felt his heart speed up again as he ducked back down. He almost felt like he was watching a show for a bit, but no. No, these were real monsters, and this was a real man who was about to get killed.
“Interesting enough for you now, pretty boy?”
A pause. “Is— Is that your worst? Pretty boy?”
“What, you want me to call you—”
“Whatever it is, no. Jesus.” Callum heard a few more snaps, and peeked over the desk again to see. Maybe it was some kind of nervous tic of the guy’s or something. “Before you draw and quarter me or whatever it is you’re going for, mind if I ask a question?”
The hulking thing paused in cracking its knuckles. “Huh?”
“Do you know what the phrase smoke and mirrors means?”
“What, like a magic show or somethin’?” Even with how weirdly low and rumbly its voice was, Callum could tell it was laughing.
The guy grinned. “It means the distraction.”
As soon as he said that, the shape Callum saw shifting earlier darted forward. It leapt in the air and landed hard on one of the things’ backs, and a second later, drove a long, dark knife right into its shoulder.
Screaming the whole while, of course. The woman looked furious.
The two holding the other guy jolted, stunned enough that he was able to twist free. “Took you long enough!”
“Shut the hell up, pretty boy, or I’m—” She jerked the knife free and leapt back. “—stabbing you next!”
“Flesh creatures first, me later!”
The pair of them moved stupidly quick. As the guy tucked and rolled under one trying to grab him again, the woman sailed over him with that knife outstretched. Blood everywhere. Awesome.
Callum’s mouth was hanging open again, he knew. Didn’t matter. He didn’t want to miss a second, not while these two were going at it with a bunch of mountain-sized flesh creatures.
As soon as he had that thought, one of the creatures grabbed the tall guy around the torso and threw him right at the desk Callum was hiding behind. He scrambled back under and prayed no one saw him as pens and pencils went sailing onto the floor — not the guy or any of the monsters.
Legs caged him — two normal looking ones that Callum assumed were the guy’s, and three gross fleshy awful ones. Only two of the gross ones actually touched the ground. Callum had no idea what was happening above him, but based on the way what he could see moved, the guy was pinned on his back trying to hold off the monster.
“Melanie!” Strained. “Would love to borrow that knife of y— shit—”
“Get your own!” Barked back before another scream and slashing noise.
Callum scanned the space around him without any idea what he was looking for until he spotted it: a letter opener.
He had to move fast if he didn’t want to get kicked, or worse. One hand darted out from his shelter as he reached as far as he could.
Before he could second-guess it, Callum swung hard to stab the monster in one of its ankles, then shoved himself deeper under the desk until his back hit wood paneling.
Hearing the monster howl in pain made a fierce sort of pride fill his chest, and he watched with plenty of satisfaction as it staggered back. He did that.
The guy on the desk wasted no time. Callum lost sight of him as he rolled to the side, and a beat later his voice came from further away.
“C’mon, right over here! Unless one little cut is enough to keep you down.”
Roaring, it followed after the taunt. Callum poked his head out again to watch. Soon as he did, he met eyes with the guy.
Wink, finger to his lips.
Right when the monster turned to see what the guy was looking at, the woman flew in with her knife still in hand and face still twisted.
The guy caught his eye again, this time with a quick motion of his hand downwards — a clear signal to stay in his cover. Callum didn’t think twice.
It wasn’t long before the screaming and sounds of a fight faded down to the woman’s voice.
Callum figured he was safe to look again. Just a peek. Real quick.
The only monster still standing was the three-legged one. The letter opener was still sticking out of its ankle, which, gross, but also kind of cool. It was covered in more cuts and slashes that Callum assumed was all from the woman clinging to his back.
“Oh, shit,” the guy hissed suddenly. “Basira forgot to lock one of the doors leading outside!”
“She— what?” Breathless and ragged. “We’re on the s—”
Before the woman could finish, the guy gestured to some door on the other side of the room, all bright yellow wood.
“Wh— Oh. Oh.” As she jumped away from the monster again, she said, “Oh no, this is, um— terrible!”
The guy shot her a look that almost made Callum laugh. Even if he’d let it out, the monster’s own laugh would’ve covered it, no problem. It barreled towards the yellow door without stopping once and burst through.
Whatever was on the other side of the door hit like a slap, but like, on his brain. Callum cringed back.
He didn’t have to cringe for long, not when moments later the door shut again. Next to it was a person — he… thought, anyway — with red glasses. Something about her moved weirdly, like she was just a bunch of drawings all layered on each other.
Whatever was up with her body, it didn’t stop her from taking a bow. The guy clapped politely.
“Kinda disappointed he fell for that,” the knife lady said. Callum hadn’t realized until now how short she was — just a few inches taller than him.
“With your acting, it’s a miracle he did,” the guy shot back. Knife lady flipped him off.
Callum couldn’t keep it in his head anymore. He leapt to his feet.
“That was awesome! Like, how you just dodged around all those kicks and punches and stuff like—” He did his best to demonstrate, grinning. “And, and how you just flew in with a knife and just went crazy on them, all—” Callum’s hands slashed through the air. “Like that and— and that and you were so fast and then—!” His arms flew out wide to encompass the total disaster of the room.
Desks were all over the place. That and bits of monster. Knife lady had a ton of blood on her. Not so much on the guy, but he wasn’t spotless. He couldn't tell with door lady, not when looking at her too long gave Callum a headache.
“And then— then the door, then… Dead. Wow.” Self-consciousness turned his guts icy. “Or whatever.”
When something shifted behind him, Callum turned so fast he almost fell over. Was one of the monsters still alive?
But no, no flesh creature things. Just the copper again.
She folded her arms as she took in the disaster all around them, then pinned him in place with dark eyes. “Want to tell me what you’re doing here, Callum?”
Before he could say anything, the guy behind him called, “Uh, stabbing Jared Hopworth with letter openers. Great kid.”
Cop lady glowered at him for a split second, then looked back down.
May as well be honest, right? He shrugged.
“Rosie gives me sweets.”