A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
"If you ask me," Randal said, sitting beside Keith at the casino bar, "if you ask me, mate, you and Roark have made a bit of a mess, yeah?" The big demon grinned, flagging down a bartender. He ordered a VB for himself, another scotch for Keith, then turned to rest both elbows against the counter. "Letting the old boy loose, that took some balls, I'll give you that. Stupid as hell, but it took some balls."
"Cheers." Keith accepted a fresh glass from the bartender and clinked it against Randal's stubbie
"Sabbath wanted me to tell you he's pissed off." Randal took a long pull of beer, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "Not that he said it like that, mind. He used the phrase quite upset and all, but he's pissed. More pissed than usual."
Keith drained the scotch. "We had a deal."
"Sure, no-ones arguing," Randal said. "He's just, you know..."
"Very pissed. Completely and utterly pissed." Randal frowned, looking up at the black globes encasing the security cameras on the ceiling. "Monumentally pissed, you know what I mean?"
Keith turned on his stool. The bar was tucked into the corner of the Casino foyer, facing towards the split-level gaming floor, and the steady electronic chime of the pokie machines waged war with the sound system. Lunch time on a Tuesday and the place still buzzed, tourists and locals showing up to feed money into the machine. Keith shook his head and turned back to Randal, meeting the demon's stare. "You think I should leave and come back when he's cooled off."
"Not saying that at all." Randal shrugged and lifted the stubbie to his lips. "It'd be smart, though. Real smart."
Keith reached out and plucked the VB from the demon's hands. "It's six degrees out," he said. "Harmony's been in a coma for weeks. There's a flock of Valkyrie hunting things in the Gloom, fighting whatever the fuck it was Roark and I set free, and they're going to gut every living sorcerer on the Coast if they aren't stopped. Exactly how is getting Sabbath pissed going to bother me right now?"
"Now, not at all," Randal said. "It's once this all over that he'll go to work, mate, and you don't want him holding a grudge when it happens."
Keith answered that with a snort and clapped Randal on the shoulder. "There's not a lot of sense worrying about tomorrow right now."
"I get it," Keith said. "I just don't have time, yeah? Whatever shit Sabbath's got planned, that's the price of doing business right now and it costs what it costs."
"If I were you, mate," Randal said, "I'd revise that position." The demon stood and took hold of Keith's arm, thick fingers closing tight around Keith's wiry bicep. It wasn't a tight grip, not even close, but it was firm and secure and promised immeasurable pain if Keith tried to escape. It meant they were on the clock, Randal doing Sabbath's bidding. Keith tried not to hold it against him.
He looked across the foyer, watching the sunlight gleam against the glass ceiling. "How have things been around here?"
"That's one of the things Sab' wants to talk about." Randal guided Keith down the stairs and towards the lifts leading up to the casino hotel.
They rode upwards, freshly laid wards brushing against Keith's consciousness like the sticky embrace of a spider's web. He stood in the rear of the elevator, back to the wall, watching the numbers slide pass. Randal whistled a tuneless song, one hand in his pocket, the other maintaining its steady grip on Keith's arm. After twelve floors the doors slid open and Randal stepped into the hall, dragging Keith after him.
"Hang on," Keith said, "you sure?"
"The boss moved." Randal nodded to one of the nondescript doors, identical to every other door on the level except for its proximity to a potted fern. "Abandoned the old place once the flock moved in, wanted somewhere where he could keep watch over the skies for a bit."
The big demon knocked on the door, settling in for a wait. Keith looked out the window, taking in the sweep of highway, high-rises, and beachfront that served as the view. Three glasses of scotch sat heavy in his stomach, weighing him down. The door lock clicked and Randal's grip tightened.
"Come on," Keith said. "Let's get it over with." He shook his arm free and crossed the threshold, skin prickling as he came in contact with the final ward securing the hotel room. It itched horribly, a niggling presence that burrowed beneath the skin and stayed there, but it would have been far worse for an uninvited Other, possibly even fatal if the demon's found a skilled sorcerer willing to work for them.
Sabbath sat on one of the double beds, wearing the skin of a plump man with a goatee and large glasses. The demon's shirt-sleeves were rolled up, exposing arms pitted with scar tissue, and he studied the footage the security footage on the television with interest. "Keith-boy," the demon said. He pointed to the second bed, eyes never leaving the TV screen. "Sit there for a moment, will you? I'll be with you in a second."
Keith sat, sinking into the plump mattress. Randal took up a position by the door, arms crossed, eyes focused on the tinted window. The big demon didn't look in Keith's direction, barely even acknowledged Sabbath's presence. He seemed to melt into the background, professionally non-descript, waiting for orders.
"These boys have been playing for hours," Sabbath said, pointing at the poker table on the screen. "One of them lost big, a couple of hundred thou'."
"And you're taking a professional interest?" Keith kept his face still as he said it, trying to ignore what he knew about the demon's recruitment policy.
"Not much point of that, is there? Not with everything going on." Sabbath's eyes flicked away from the screen, and Keith saw the anger smouldering in the red pupils. "He's a plant, Keithy-boy, some hack player they've sent in here to get my attention. Maybe he's working the Adelaide mob, looking for some payback after everything that's happened. Maybe just the pawn of some lesser sorcerer, a no-hoper with a modicum of magical talent who thinks he can take me while my attention is otherwise engaged by your little apocalypse."
"And maybe he's one of mine," Keith said. "Laying the ground-work for getting me out of my bargain."
"The thought had crossed my mind." Sabbath's grin was full of cruel intentions. "A soul is, after all, a terrible thing to trade away."
"Not really my style," Keith said.
"No, I suppose not. You're more inclined towards blunt force trauma." Sabbath turned off the television with the remote. "Which brings us to the topic of Monty."
"Your friend with the tentacles," Sabbath said. "The Other you and Danny Roark so conveniently convinced to abandon his little hideaway in Southport and go hunting bird-woman. We call him Monty, always have. Using his real name is a little..."
Sabbath snorted. "Respectful," the plump demon said. "His kind are anachronisms, Keithy-boy, ancient fears who've allowed themselves to diminish. We're the ones who thrive in your world, filling in the cracks and tapping into your petty fears and desires. Monty and his ilk have their place, but they lack finesse. Setting him loose creates problems."
Keith leant forward, elbows on his knees. "Is he fighting the Valkyries?"
"Are they too distracted to hunt us?"
Sabbath turned towards Randal. The bigger demon raised an eyebrow, then nodded. "For the moment," Sabbath said, "but—"
"He's solving our immediate problems," Keith said. "He bought Roark time to recover."
"Roark." Sabbath rolled his eyes, throwing up both hands. "You place too much faith in your friend. Way too much faith. Has he stopped the apocalypse yet? Has he really kept you safe? Hell, Keithy-boy, has he managed to wake your girl from her coma?"
"Things take time, Sabbath.
"Great." The demon bounced to his feet, sneering as he looked down. "But you're out of time. Monty puts a dent in the Valkyrie's numbers, but he can't hunt them all. They're camped out over the city, waiting for things to start. You're the one who said it, Keithy-boy. You're the one who came here spouting signs and portents. Things don't go well for anyone when the Fimbulwinter starts, not for your kind or mine."
"I wouldn't have pegged you as a man afraid of the cold, Sab',"
"Screw the cold." Keith didn't see the demon move, not really. It felt like a twitch of the eye, the pupil struggling to track the suddenly burst of motion and failing, and the demon ceased to be seated on the bed and instead grabbed Keith's jacket in both fists. Sabbath lifted, snarling, hoisting Keith upwards with furious strength. "The Fimbulwinter has nothing to do with cold, you idiot. It's Gloom, perpetual Gloom, the darkness writing itself over your world until the old gods wake and remake the world into whatever the fuck they want it to be."
"Fine." Keith tried to pretend his feet weren't dangling a foot off the ground. It wasn't easy. "What exactly do you want?"
"I know you struggle with the concept, Keithy, but you cut a deal." Sabbath lowered Keith to the floor, anger evaporating. "Your mentor undoubtedly finds it uncomfortable, you obviously don't like it much, but I'm on your side until this over and I'm the one who runs this city. My demons may not be equipped to hunt a horde of Valkyrie, but you're safer here than you are anywhere in this city. If Miss White is still injured, I suggest you move her before the next Tide."
"Yeah," Keith said. "That's going to happen."
"Keithy-boy, you wound me."
"No," Keith said, "I don't."
Randal's boisterous laughter filled the small hotel room. Sabbath turned his head, glaring, the pleasant smile growing tight. "No," he said, "I suppose you didn't, but I'd like to be wounded, Keithy-boy. It'd make me feel a damn sight better about the fact that there's Valkyrie camped out over my city, waiting for the eternal Gloom to begin. It would make me feel better than we're relying on you and that bastard Roark to keep things together. You're going to need sanctuary, and I'm it. The sooner you deal with that, the better."
"Maybe I'm not the problem."
Sabbath threw up its hands. "Then maybe it's time you stopped following Roark's lead."
"He's the one with a plan."
Randal coughed gently from his position by the door. "It's his plan that started this shit, mate. Not the best argument."
"My colleague is exactly right." Sabbath strode across the room, pacing like a caged animal. "The offer is officially open, Keithy-boy. Get your people here, all of them, and get them here soon. With that thing you unlashed running rampant and the Valkyries getting bitchy, the casino's the safest place in the city."
Keith frowned, hand hovering close to his belt line, right over the place where he usually holstered a back-up piece. "It scares me when you're helpful, Sab'."
"And it scares me with the man who has the power to save the world is willing to listen to the dick-head who helped set Ragnarök in motion. Wake up, Keithy-boy, it's time to be your own man."
Keith headed for the door, shaking his head. "Funny."
Keith stopped, looking over his shoulder. "Ten years ago," Keith said, "that's exactly the same argument Roark used to convince me I should quit working for you."
"I imagine he did it better," Sabbath said, "given that you seemed to have listened to him."
"No," Keith said, "not much better. He just did it in a way that was easier to trust."
Keith drove, windows down, following the coastline. The cruel wind that whipped across the water didn't do anything to deter the locals: surfers still carried their boards to the beach, wetsuits unzipped as they loped along the footpath; kids still played in the afternoon sun, knees exposed by their board-shirts.
For most people it qualified as a pleasant day, cooler than expected but still sunny and pleasant. Only the Other were scarce, laying low while Monty hunted Valkyrie flock in the Gloom, reading all the signs that things were going to get worse. Keith was used to seeing their faces amid the Gold Coast crowds, skulking and laying low, but always there. The Gold Coast attracted Other, lured them in with the promise of a city built on the temporary, people flowing in and out like tides. Now they'd gone to ground, invisible.
He turned right after Currumbin Bridge, heading down to the Alley. Nerves bubbled in Keith's stomach, jittery and unpleasant. There was a Gloom Tide coming, just a few hours away, and it wasn't a good idea to get caught. He parked at the Alley beachfront and climbed out, blinking in the afternoon sun. The rickety fence that held the dunes in place creaked in the breeze.
Danny Roark was waiting, perched on the edge of the picnic table, staring out across the city. The aging sorcerer looked as threadbare as his coat, an old man with a neatly-trimmed white beard and a kind of wiry strength. The woollen collar of his jacket was turned up against the cold, and he smoked as Keith walked over.
"Heck of a view," Roark said. "You can see most of the city from this beach."
Keith settled onto the table next to him. "Not really. There's another dozen suburbs south of here, and plenty of people living inland." He shrugged and nodded to the rows of towering holiday apartments, high-rise after high-rise done up in beige and pastels and implanted on the shore. "This is just the stuff they put on postcards."
"Close enough for our purposes, kid." Roark breathed against the cigarette, covering a grin with his hand. "Sabbath tell you what we wanted to know?"
"He offered to help."
Roark exhaled, and the wind clawed away the smoke. "Not what I asked."
"No, guess not." Keith plunged both hands into his jacket pockets, toying with his keys to give himself something to do. "He confirmed a few things. And Cottee was right—it's not the cold front we need to worry about."
Roark swore, cigarette cradled between two fingers. He scrubbed at his cheek with his free hand, trying to wipe away the tired expression on his face. "Cottee's going to be an annoying prick about it too."
"Sabbath give you a time?"
Keith nodded, fingers curled around the car keys, fighting the need to run. "Soon. That's all he gave us."
"Fucking brilliant." Roark stood, walking out onto the sand. He looked up, shading his eyes. "So these are the last days of sunlight, then. We do the rest in the dark."
"Sabbath could be lying."
"Nah, it makes too much sense." Roark dropped his cigarette, grinding the butt beneath the toe of his boot. "Everyone has a story about the chaos before the apocalypse, kid. The Norse called it the Fimbulwinter, three seasons of unrelenting snow with only two survivors. The Christians called it a flood that wiped out everyone but Noah and his wife. Dig deep enough and everyone has something like it in their history, even the fucking scientologists have the end of the world pegged somewhere in the deep dark past. Ragnarök happened and the age of the gods was over, then a new world order rose out of the chaos."
Keith's eyes flicked towards the water, the steady calls of the surfers as they caught the swell of a wave. "Those usually have survivors."
"This will too." Roark turned, face grave. "The Gloom's a reflection, fed and sustained by human belief, however slight. The older residents never got comfortable with that. They don't interact with us except for the times when the worlds are coterminous—v"
Keith grunted, and Roark halted. "Problem?"
"I'm not Cottee, mate," Keith said. "I'm the muscle, remember?"
"Ah." Roark fumbled in his pocket, drawing free another cigarette. "Sharing a common boundary," he said. "The times when they're close enough for the Gloom to leak over."
"Right," Keith said. "So the fires and the floods are just—"
"A really long stretch where something older and nastier than the Valkyrie gets to mess with our world," Roark said. "And if they kill off enough of us, leave behind a handful who believe what they want believed..." The old sorcerer lit his cigarette, not bothering to finish the thought.
Keith leant back on his heels. "Well," he said. "Fuck."
"That about covers it."
"You got a plan?"
Roark smoked, exhaled. "Nope."
They stood on the beach, staring at the sky. Keith waited for Roark to finish the cigarette.
"You want a lift back to Harmony's place?"
"You go," he said. "I'll find my own way."
"You sure that's smart?"
"I can take care of myself," Roark said. "We're running out of sunny days, kid, and I'd prefer to enjoy all I can of this one."
Keith turned, then hesitated. "You're shitting me, right?"
"Sure." Roark grinned as he plunged both hands into the pockets of his threadbare jacket. "Harmony left a couple of names in her notebooks, Other who were on our side. I figure I can lay low so long as our friend is out there, causing trouble for the Valkyrie. Maybe even patch up some of the problems we called by setting him loose."
Keith squinted, searching the sorcerer's face. "The demons call him Monty," he said.
Roark grinned. "The demons would."
"Sabbath offered us the casino. They've got the place warded heavier than anywhere else in the city, and they're holding steady against the flock. I know you don't like Sabbath, but..."
Roark's grin didn't falter. "Gloom Tide's coming, kid. You should probably get back to Harmony's place. I don't think Cottee's going to cut it once the Tide rises."
"Just think about it," Keith said. "We're running out of options."
Keith returned to Harmony's place, speeding along the Valley's winding roads in order to make it home before the Gloom Tide fell. Gareth Cottee was already outside, skipping stones across the dirt drive-way as he waited for Keith's return. The scruffy academic was getting restless, struggling with too long spent in closed quarters. He leapt to his feet as Keith parked, dusting both palms against his ragged jeans. "You're cutting it close."
"If you say so."
"Was it worth it?" Cottee said. "Did his demonic eminence have something worth making the journey for?"
"Sabbath wanted to help out."
"Help out how?"
"He wants to offer us rooms at the casino," Keith said. "Us and anyone on our side. He thinks we're going to get torn apart if we don't get our people in one place and hide behind wards."
"Can't say I fault his logic there." Cottee's eyes flicked towards the horizon. "It gives me the willies every time we hear that thing through the Gloom, and it's not like Miss White has recovered all that well since the Valkyries were distracted—"
Keith clenched a fist around the car keys. "You trying to get hit, Gareth?"
"Just stating the facts." Cottee flashed Keith an uneasy grin, giving ground as they climbed the short row of stairs. "You pitch it to Roark?"
"I tried. He wasn't interested." Keith stepped into the darkened hall. Harmony's old Queenslander was built to catch the breeze, the hallway running from front door to the veranda at the rear.
"Get him interested." Cottee dogged Keith's heels, moving like a skittish puppy. "We're not going to last long out here, Mister Murphy. Not without Harmony to sustain the wards. Roark is good, don't get me wrong, but—"
"We follow Roark's lead," Keith said. He pointed at the bedroom door. "You coming in?"
Cottee blanched and turned away. Keith just nodded. "Tides coming," he said. "I'll be out once it's done."
He shut the door behind him, shutting out the world.
Harmony's long dreadlocks were splayed across the pillow, twitching as she tossed and turned in her sleep. Pale scars showed on her arms and shoulders, the legacy of the Valkyrie's attack, but healing the wounds hadn't been enough to wake her, even if her breathing grew steadier and her dreams increasingly violent. Roark claimed she'd sleep until the end of the world, however soon that might be. It wasn't a comforting thought.
The Gloom Tide rose slowly, closing the house in a dark grip. Usually there was silence when the Gloom descended, or the cries of nearby Other revelling in the freedom that came with the shadows. All that had changed once they released Monty, once the war between Valkyrie and ancient Other began. The Gloom brought the hideous cries of the Valkyries, the flock calling to one-another as they hunted, and it brought the shrill scream of Monty as the ancient creature pounced. The Gloom warped the noises, made it impossible to tell where those that caused them were. One moment they were distant, something happening out on the horizon no mortal could see. The next they were terrifyingly close.
Keith ignored them, listening instead for Cottee's feet scuffing against the floorboards, crossing the house to light the tethered lanterns whose light still shone in the darkness. Harmony twisted, face pulled tight and angry, the scars left by her assault at the hands of the Valkyrie livid in the pale glow of the lamp. Darkness roiled against the window, pressing against the limits of the wards.
A Valkyrie scream ripped through the house, close and sudden. Keith started, adrenaline surging as his flight-or-fight instincts warred for dominance. Harmony dug into the pillows, face screwed into a tight knot. Her lips moved, whispering formless words, fretting. Keith forced himself to breathe and took hold of her hand, pressing his forehead against the knuckles.
"It's okay," he said. "It's okay, really."
He couldn't convince himself, let alone the unconscious woman.
He didn't remember sleeping. It crept up on him, as it had for the last few weeks, while he curled up beside Harmony's bed.
He didn't remember sleeping, but he woke, startled by the silence. A small gas lantern cast a circle of light, the Gloom still pressed against its limits. Keith checked his watch on instinct, saw no signs of life in the frozen hands. He coughed and drew a .45, holding at the ready. His pulse raced, thumping in his ears, ready for a fight.
The silence gave him an unsettled feeling. Whatever war had been aged between Monty and the Valkyries, there were good odds that one side had won. Even Harmony seemed calmer, her face smoothed out into simple sleep, her bird-thin chest rising and falling in a regular rhythm.
Keith edged into the hall, gun held low and ready. Cottee was already there, scratching at his head and yawning, lantern in hand. The academic's heavy brows gave him a perpetually angry look, but the surprised O of his mouth undercut their severity.
"Who killed who?" he said.
"I wouldn't be putting my money on Monty, all things considered."
"That's not a particularly pleasant thought."
They found Roark out on the veranda, smoking a cigarette as he peered into the ink-like darkness, focused on the spot that should have been horizon. "The crocodile's dead," he said. "Valkyries killed it."
Keith stood next to him, gun still clenched in one hand. "How can you tell?"
"I can tell." Roark exhaled a stream of smoke, shaking his head. "Fuck. I was hoping to buy ourselves more time."
Cottee coughed twice, excusing himself. "I need coffee."
Keith lifted an eyebrow. "Now?"
"You're going to plot," Cottee said. "Or argue. Either way, its best I'm not here. Anyone else want something?"
Roark held up his hand. Keith just stood by the door, glaring at the shadows. "We going to be safe here?"
"Safe enough, so long as the wards hold."
"Cottee isn't sure they will, without Harmony."
"Fuck, kid." Roark sucked on his cigarette while he considered, face contorted with frustration. "There's no real answer that'll make you happy. She's as safe here as she is anywhere."
"That doesn't fill me with confidence," Keith said.
"You and I don't do confidence." Roark sucked, exhaled, gestured with the lit cigarette. Keith crossed the veranda and sat down beside the old man, the .45 held in a two-handed grip.
"Maybe it's time. I mean, Cottee—"
"Cottee's an idiot."
"Fine, but he's our idiot," Keith said. "Mine and Harmony. She brought him in to give me some knowledge, and he stuck around because he knew we needed help. I mean, shit, he got tethered to help out. He's been a full-fledged sorcerer for a handful of months, and he's helping because it's the right thing to do."
Roark turned, watching the academic through the glass doors between the kitchen and the balcony. "You got a point in there, kid?"
"My point is that I owe him," Keith said. "He's helped me cut deals. He's taught me what he needed to teach me. And he figured out what the Fimbulwinter actually was. Getting him killed out here doesn't seem like a good way of repaying that."
He took a deep breath, sliding the gun back into its holster. "You said there were dozens of Valkyries out there, an entire fucking flock. How many, reasonably, do you think Monty took out?"
"Less than half," Roark said. "If we're being charitable."
"Which means we're stuck in the middle of the valley, far away from the electricity grid and the lights, and any time now the remaining Valkyrie will figure out where we're hiding and swarm the house."
Roark finished his cigarette. "You want to go hide somewhere else."
Roark grinned, showing off his incisors. "This isn't it, kid. There's more daylight coming."
"Not much." Keith stared at the sorcerer, daring Roark to argue. "The end of the world is starting, one way or another, and we've got more than you and me to think about now."
Roark's smile tilted, then faded away. "You mean Harmony."
"Sure," Keith said, "and the rest."
"This'll get us both killed," Roark said.
Keith stood up. "I'm okay with that."
"I'm not so sure I am." Roark leant back in his chair, arms crossed, attention focused on darkness. "I've been alive a long time, Keith. I've been doing this for a real long time. It's necessary, in a way. The world needs someone like you and I, someone keeping the population of Other down."
Keith snorted. "Harmony made this joke, back when we first met," he said. "She told me you were a crusader, that there were always people who crusade against the darkness, fighting for the people who couldn't help themselves. She said once guys like you fell down, guys like me stepped up and took your place."
"That'd bring me comfort if you weren't likely to die right alongside me," Roark said.
"Or if I could kill the Other without the benefit of someone else's magic?"
"Tough." Keith crossed both arms. "There's going to be someone else, Danny. Harmony can train them, if she recovers, and Cottee'll be around to make sure they do what needs doing. If we're lucky they'll even hunt down Sabbath, getting us some payback for everything that's gone down. You and I are done, though. Ten years I've been doing this, god knows how long it's been your life, but the crusades almost over, mate. It's time to put it behind us and save the fucking world."
"That doesn't work on me," Roark said. "I taught you how to be reasonable, Keith. I taught you how to believe strongly enough to affect the Other around you."
"And it's appreciated," Keith said. "I owe you a lot, Danny, but I'm tired of this. I'm not trying to make you do this, I'm asking you to help. I followed your lead for ten years. Now I think it's time I made a few calls, don't you?"
Roark smoked, studying the darkness. Keith waited for an answer.
"Fine," Roark said. "We go to the casino." He flicked the cigarette butt over the balcony rail and turned, stalking back into the house. "But I still think you're wrong, kid. I still think this is going to hurt more than staying put."
Keith nodded slowly, fingers on the balcony rail. He thought about the sorcerer on Sabbath's security system, the scrawny kid losing at cards just to attract the demon's attention. There were people in town, sorcerers, opponents trying to ensure the Ragnarök happened.
It was easier, somehow, knowing there was a target.
"I'm good with that," he whispered, responding to Roark's final question. "It may be a mistake, but it's not like we have to live it for much longer if I'm wrong."
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011