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On Folly Bridge

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Although he was a man of science, Charles Xavier believed in ghosts.

For as long as he could remember, his questing mind had occasionally encountered a consciousness unattached to a body. He’d never investigated much, however; the living interested him more than the dead, and the dead usually kept to themselves.

Until he moved to Oxford, no ghost had ever tried to kill him.

Very late one night, as he was walking home along the Thames, drunk on the charms of a redheaded scholar of pre-Mayan linguistics (and the scholar’s fine whiskey), Charles experienced something strange. The skin across his temples tightened, then began to ache. At first, he thought the unpleasant pressure was the beginnings of a hangover. But as he walked, and the pain continued to grow, he realized that the sensation was coming from outside his head, not inside it—specifically from the bridge straddling the river ahead of him.

Folly Bridge. The name sparked a memory of some recent, half-heard conversation. Whispers in college, about a suicide, perhaps more than one. Odd, the remembered voice had said, since the river’s too shallow to drown in there; it used to be a cattle ford.

Charles rubbed his forehead, and tried to figure out what on or about the bridge was generating the sensation. The night was moonless and murky, nearly deserted at that hour, and for a while he could see nothing on the bridge or near it. Then, a slim shape resolved itself out of the gloom: a man in a long coat, with what looked like an old-fashioned Trilby on his head. The man stood quite still, and yet the space around him roiled with energy.

But what kind of energy? Charles sent his own mental tendrils out, trying to understand it. At first, it seemed to resemble his own methods for controlling the thoughts of others, but as he prowled delicately around its edges, he saw that rather than being powered solely by the individual wielding it, it was fueled by its own internal structures, drawing its strength from the workings of patterns as intricate as that of the bridge itself.

It poured out of the man, as strong as anything Charles could have deployed himself. And yet it was being repulsed. Some other consciousness was blocking it, pushing it back toward its origin, though Charles could see no other being on the bridge.

Curiosity cleared the late-night muzziness from his head. He drew nearer. Was this a struggle between mutants, fellow beings of whom he had not been aware? Or was it some secret new technology, designed to use thought waves? A few steps closer, and he was on the bridge itself. And now he saw another shape, this one almost transparent, nearly indistinguishable from the mist. This also was a man, shorter, something antiquated about his silhouette, knee-length trousers and a tight coat, a flat cap on his head. Charles pushed at him with his mind, trying to see how he could be blocking the other man’s punishing force.

He got only a burst of fury, the taste of marsh and beer, and the smell of coal smoke before the man noticed him. He swung around—Charles caught a glimpse of a square face contorted with rage—and, as if batting away an annoying fly, waved a stubby arm over his head.

The world turned upside down. Charles gasped as something invisible grabbed him, lifted him off his feet, and flung him over the railing of the bridge. He hit the water head first, with an impact so hard his thoughts broke and scattered. He gulped down a mouthful of brackish river before he could stop himself. The water was as dark as the air, but colder, and though he kicked and flailed he could not tell which way was up.

Almost panicking now, he thrashed his arms and legs, trying to find air, or something to grab onto, or at least the bottom of the river. It’s not deep enough here to drown, remember? he told himself, but his body, already choking on the water in his lungs, told him those college wags were fools. You can drown in a bathtub, didn’t you know?

And then, out of nowhere, arms closed around him. A woman’s arms, soft, bare, and so white against all the blackness that they almost glowed. Hallucination? Charles wondered. Don’t drowning men dream of mermaids?

“Hold still,” said a woman’s voice inside his head. “You’re making this much more difficult than it needs to be.”

“What? Drowning?” he gasped, as his head broke the surface.

“No, you silly man.” She sounded amused, and very posh. “Rescuing you.”

With his few remaining wits, Charles tried to see inside her mind. But it slid away from him, as liquid as the river, more sinuous and opaque than any human mind he’d ever encountered. A mermaid after all?.

“Don’t be ridiculous.” Her laughter was somehow both uncanny and ladylike, like wind along water.

“I can swim, you know,” Charles protested, as she tugged him effortlessly towards the shore, but all he got in reply was a disbelieving hmmpf.

“Thank you, my dear,” said a man’s voice, as the woman hauled him unceremoniously onto the island between the two parts of the bridge. “I can take him from here.”

“Thank you, Thomas. He was beginning to be a nuisance. No, not you, darling.” She patted Charles’ soaking hair with the hand that wasn’t holding him upright. “You’re a peach, I'm sure. Take good care of him, Inspector.”

“I will, and give my best to Oxley.”

The man—Inspector Thomas, apparently—took hold of one of Charles’ arms as the woman let go of the other. With the smallest of splashes, she was gone. She was, Charles saw before the river covered her, completely naked.

All at once, he started to shake, his wet clothes and the strange night catching up to him.

“You poor chap,” said Thomas. “You must be done in. And I’m afraid we should both have been thanking you.” He sounded older than Charles had expected, with a public school accent right out of a prewar film. “You distracted Ayres at just the right moment.”

“Was he—?”

“Yes, a ghost. Quite a vengeful one, too. Here, take this.” Thomas shrugged out of his great coat and draped it around Charles’ shoulders. It was heavy and warm and smelled of expensive aftershave. “There used to be a toll to cross this bridge. When they abolished it in 1850, they took away his livelihood. I’m afraid he reacted rather badly.”

“1850. That’s quite a slow burn.” Suddenly, Charles’ legs wouldn’t hold him. He sat abruptly on the muddy riverbank.

“Oh dear.” Thomas crouched beside him. “If you reach into the left hand pocket you’ll find a flask. Yes, that’s it. Big swallow, that’s a good lad. And another. Better?”

The brandy burned down Charles’ throat, but it helped with the shivering, even if it did go straight to his head. “And was she a mutant?”

“Mutant? Good Lord, what ugly names you youngsters have for things. No, that was Isis, the genus loci of this river. I’d do my best to be polite to her, if I were you. And never use that word in her hearing.” Thomas held out his hand and murmured something. A tiny flame kindled in his palm, giving off light, but no heat. In its glow, Charles could see a worn, intelligent face under grey hair. “She thinks you’re a baby wizard, by the way. Are you? Who is your master?”

“A wizard?” Charles stifled a bubble of brandy-induced laughter. Raven would never believe this. “My master? Oh wait—is that what you think you are, a wizard?”

With an exhausted clumsiness, he reached into the other man’s mind. A welter of images rushed at him: a pale, dark-clad woman opening a heavy door; something huge—a tank? Could it be a tank?—exploding into flames; a crowd of boys in an old-fashioned school dining hall, shouting and laughing. And through it all, a loneliness, a tightly-held reserve, and an overwhelming grief.

“I am a wizard,” said Thomas, with great dignity, getting to his feet with his hand to his head. “Perhaps the last one. What on earth are you?”

Charles got to his feet as well. “A mutant, I’m afraid.” He held out his hand. “Allow me to introduce myself: Charles Xavier, telepath. Though usually I’m more skillful about it than that. My apologies.”

“Detective Inspector Thomas Nightingale, wizard.” He gave Charles a firm handshake. “And no apology necessary, especially when you’ve endured a soaking for my sake. Perhaps I can buy you breakfast to make up for it; the cafes near the market should be opening soon.”

“A policeman and a wizard.” Charles whistled. “Can’t imagine getting involved with law enforcement myself.”

Friends now, or at least sword brothers in supernatural battle, they scrambled off the bank and back across the bridge towards the center of town.

“Perhaps we’re closer than you think,” Charles mused aloud. “Perhaps magic is a form of mutation.”

“I doubt it,” said Thomas, uninterested. “You have to go to school to become a wizard, or at least apprentice to one.”

“A school,” said Charles, as the sky lightened over Oxford. “Now there’s an idea.”