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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
The bone-thing sat on the balcony rail, peeling paint off the hardwood with tiny skeletal fingers. Lou ate the paint eagerly, chewing the dried strips into flecks of red confetti with its needle-sharp teeth, the thin membrane over its narrow throat flexing every time it swallowed. Remnants of the paint dotted the small bone-things exposed ribs.
"Don't do that." Keith said it absently, as if scolding a child. Lou hissed and gouged his fingers against the wood, the sharp tips digging in, shoulders hunching as it crouched. Keith met the gaze of the bat-eared skull atop the delicate skeleton, stared into the emptiness of the Lou's empty eye-sockets.
He didn't have the energy to fight. "Okay," he said, "okay." He leant forward, scrubbing both hands across his face. "Christ."
It'd been eighteen hours since the small flat in Surfers, since Roark appeared through the thick of the Gloom with Harmony in his arms. Eighteen hours, or maybe more, it was hard to sure when the Gloom Tide ended. Keith had patched them up as best he could, applying pressure and bandages made from the bed sheets inside the small room. He'd dragged them out of there as soon as the Tide fell, bolted for Harmony's house in the Valley were the wards were secure and a fully stocked first-aid kit lived beneath the sink.
Neither of them bled anymore; both of them kept breathing despite the injuries and the pain. Keith could still feel their blood, streaks of it running up his wrists. He'd washed his hands multiple times, scrubbed them until the wash-off lost its pink hue. That didn't seem to matter. It'd been Harmony's blood, and Roark's. It didn't matter at all.
Eighteen hours since the Gloom Tide, and only Roark had woken up, weak and in pain and barely conscious, his half-awake mumble revolving around a single word: Valkyrie.
Lou hissed again, a wary sound that Keith tried to ignore. The bone-thing wasn't tame, it wasn't even his. He'd borrowed it for a time, used it to find Harmony, and now the damn thing didn't want to leave.
"Shut up." Keith didn't lift his hands away from his face. "We're safe as we're going to get."
"Thought I taught you better than that."
Keith jumped. Roark limped forward, one palm on the door jamb to steady himself, the other clamped down on the stitches running along his ribs, trying to hold his insides in. Roark hobbled across the deck and lowered himself into a wicker chair. Aging floorboards creaked beneath his weight. "There's no such thing as safe, kid. Just secure for the moment and good enough for right now."
He'd been an old man when they'd first worked together ten years ago, his face lean and weathered, the neatly-trimmed beard a stiff and unyielding grey. Watching him settle into the chair was the first time Keith ever noticed the age, noticed anything other that the steady thrum of confidence that remained part-and-parcel of Roark's approach to magic.
They'd been a good team, Danny Roark and Keith Murphy. The scourge of the Other and Sorcerers whose pacts crossed that intangible line that only Roark could see. Roark did the magic, Keith did the actually killing.
That'd ended down in Adelaide, when they'd started the end of the world.
It wasn't easy to meet the old sorcerer's gaze. Keith found himself upright, standing over by the balcony rail, one hand scratching Lou behind those bat-like ears. "Well?"
Roark coughed; a hollow, rattling sound. "Well what?"
"It's been nine months." Keith turned and crossed his arms. "What happened?"
"You were there," Roark said. "We fucked up and we ran, just like we'd always planned it."
"And then I thought I'd get a handle on things, find some way to wind it back." Roark coughed into his fist, wincing in pain. "Turned out I was wrong about that." He blinked twice, watching Keith's face, then the pale eyes turned towards the dark shadow of the hills that lined the Valley. He focused his attention on the ridge where silhouette gave way to blue-black sky, refusing to meet Keith's gaze. "It's bloody cold, mate. I though you didn't get that up in the tropics."
"Cairns is the tropics," Keith said. "We're further south."
"If you say so."
Keith nodded and lit a cigarette. "We got a warning from a seer," he said, inclined his head towards the bone-thing. "His seer, actually. Bloke named Mim. It basically came down to a single word."
Roark nodded. "Fimbulwinter."
Keith offered the cigarette and Roark accepted, drawing a long breathe against it. "Ran into a seer up in Darwin," he said. "Mortal, less reliable, but she saw much the same thing. End of the fucking world, all our fault. Told me to come down here, just in case you and I could stop to it."
A cold wind caressed the ancient farmhouse. Keith pulled his jacket a little lower, wormed both hands into the pockets. "You reckon we can do it?"
"If not us, kid" Roark said, "then there's no-one else." The grin he offered was ugly, lips pulling away from gums that'd grown very long in the tooth. It didn't last. Another coughing fit came over him, Roark's eyes screwing up as he fought the pain in his side. His breathing rasped in and out, but Roark swallowed. The grin was weaker this time, more bravado than confidence. "You reckon you're up for it?"
"Me and Harmony had a plan already," Keith said. "We made some allies. I cut some deals."
"You?" The grin dropped. "What the fuck were doing making deals?"
"Things that needed doing," Keith said. "I needed allies, I found them, otherwise I'd be dead right now."
Roark shook his head. "Shit, don't tell me."
"Yeah," Keith said, "'fraid so."
"What'd the bastard ask you for?"
Keith shrugged and turned away, placing both hands on the balcony rail. "Nothing I want to talk about," he said. "Nothing I would messed with, if you'd been around. Nine months is a long fucking time to lay low in this city, Roark." Keith forced himself to smile, despite the gnawing worry settling into his gut. "A couple of bad habits were bound to manifest themselves, without you around to keep me straightened out."
Lou placed a paw over Keith's hand, the delicate bones laid gently against the first two knuckles. Roark's laughter wheezed into the night. Keith joined him, letting the tension ease out as he chuckled.
"Okay then," Roark said. "Forget Sabbath and his crew. Tell me about Harmony."
"It's bad." Keith's knuckle ground against the balcony rail, resisting the urge to punch the wood instead. "She should probably be in a hospital, not lying in her room trying to make-up the blood she lost on the way to your safe-house. If I thought I could take her to an emergency room without the Valkryie coming to get in the minute the first Tide washed over, I'd have dumped your arse back in Surfers and done exactly that. Can you...you know?"
"Magic?" Roark leant back in the chair. "If I have too, but it's not my first choice. Just getting her away from the winged bitch in the Gloom took a lot out of me. Keeping Harmony alive..."
Keith nodded. "So we take out the Valkyrie and free up resources."
"It doesn't really work like that." Roark shook his head and flicked the cigarette butt into the darkness. "The Valkyrie are creatures of the old gods, kid. More other than the Other, yeah? The damn things hunt in packs."
"So we take out the lot of them."
"One just about killed me," Roark said. "I don't think taking on a whole flock is on the cards."
Keith didn't say a thing. Roark sighed and shifted in his chair, creases at the corner of his eyes pulling tight. "It's like that, then."
"More or less."
"Shit. We need something old, then" Roark said. "Not the kind of things Wotan dealt with, but older than the faerie and the demons you cut deals with."
Keith looked at the bone-thing in his arms, thought about the first time he'd met with Lou's owner. "I might be able to track us something."
"You're sure?" Roark rubbed an palms along his leg, absently scraping at the skin with his fingernail. "Identification wasn’t' really your thing."
"It had tentacles," Keith said.
Roark's eyes narrowed. "Well," he said, "I guess that's something."
It took three days for Roark's recovery to make visiting the alley possible. Harmony still hadn't woken up.
The alley ran between a fish-and-chip shop and a bottle-shop advertising discount vodka and slabs of VB. The narrow street was barely a hundred meters long, easily walked in a matter of seconds, but the presence of something Other seemed fused into the bitumen. Just standing at the entrance made Keith's skin crawl, his subconscious trying to get away from the lingering wrongness of the narrow stretch.
Roark faced the drab white brickwork on the bottle shop side, fingers searching the crevices as he whispered beneath his breath. Keith's hand stayed on the .45 tucked beneath his shirt, eyes scanning the mouth of the alleyway in case someone walked past and asked questions.
It wasn't terribly likely. The Gloom never quite left the alleyway behind, pools of shadow forming like water after rain, and its presence left a taint that encouraged people to stay away. It was the kind of alley where the junkies from the public hospital tried to sell off their methadone, or where kids who'd been drinking in the pub on the corner would stop and pass out before the late bus arrived to take them home.
Some of them probably woke up the next morning, hung over and embarrassed. Some simply disappeared, yanked into the Gloom by the Other with the tentacles that lurked on the far side of the shadows.
"Whatever's living here, it's strong." Roark stepped back from the wall gave an uneven whistle. "How in hell did you find this, kid?"
"A couple of locals worshipped it," Keith said. "I encouraged them to stop."
"It wasn't a two man job." Keith paced the mouth of the alley, eyeing the Seven-Eleven on the far side of the road. "They were kids, amateurs. I fucked up their ritual, it did the rest."
Roark edged a little further along the wall, placing his palm flat. "How many disappeared?"
"Three. No-one missed them," Keith said.
"Good." Roark pressed a hand against his ribs, testing the stitches. "Someone always misses the missing, kid. You should probably remember that."
Roark made a clicking nose in the back of his throat. His breathing still wheezed in and out, a low whistle accompanying every exhalation, but he moved a little easier after three days of rest. Keith suspected the sorcerer was using magic to keep himself upright, bypassing the pain using rituals, hypnosis, and pacts with minor Other that weren't considered dangerous. Roark never confirmed it, not in all the years they'd spent together, working side by side, but Keith didn't really blame him. When you're training a hit-man to kill other sorcerers, keeping him in the dark probably isn't a bad idea. And Roark was the kind of guy who always kept an ace up his sleeve.
Keith leant against the bricks and waited, letting the old man finish the job. It took the better part of an hour before Roark limped the length of the alleyway and nodded with satisfaction. "I can work with this," he said. "Your demon buddies won't like it, though. Neither will the fey."
"Old enough." Roark turned up the collar of his jacket against the cold. "It predates half the Other taking refuge in the city."
"You'd think it'd find a better place to hide."
"Doesn't need it." Roark sniffed, giving the alley a final glance. "No-one's stupid enough to mess with it, not unless they're stupid and desperate."
Keith let himself smile, falling back into the familiar routine. "Which are we?"
"Take your pick, kid, same as usual." Roark looked towards the sky, blinking into the ruddy sunlight. "We're going to need a local, someone who knows all the players. I'm going to need to know it's name, and I'm to need to know who I'll piss off when we convince it to leave the Alley. You know anyone who fits?
Keith's smile faded. "Harmony."
"Apart from her."
Keith closed his eyes, running through the list of allies. Sabbath was right out; deal or no deal, the demon wouldn't be happy about dealing with Roark. The rest were unknowns, contacted on her and reliant on her involvement. It left a limited pool of options, and Keith went with the closest.
"Don't know him." Roark hawked and spat on the pavement. "He any good?"
"He's an academic. New to the practice, but he's got plenty of theory." Keith rummaged through his pocket and unearthed a set of keys. "I'm guessing you'll like him."
The university was ten minutes drive from Southport city. The campus sprawled across a gentle slope, its mismatched architecture revealing its rapid development over the recent decades. When Keith had been a kid it was three cinderblock buildings hidden amid the Parkland's scrub, but its expansion had slowly engulfed more land and created a polyglot of styles that never quite meshed together.
Cottee's office sat on the top floor of one of the older buildings, its window looking out on a construction site that promised a new Dental School was coming soon. The unshaven academic slumped in front of new computer, its blue-and-white plastic gleaming in the afternoon sunlight.
He frowned, chewing on his top lip, while Keith made introductions and told him what Roark needed. When they were done, Cottee sighed. "You know. There are days I regret agreeing to teach you, Mister Murphy. "
Keith accepted that with a shrug. "There are days I regret learning. Doesn't really change things, though. Can you help?"
"Maybe." Cottee turns to his computer, fingers dancing over the keys. Roark looked at Keith, eyebrow raised. Keith just shrugged. Cottee talked to the computer screen as he worked. "I wrote a paper on the mythology of local indigents in the Southport region a few years back. Students kept talking about the shared experience of living there, the local colour that everyone seemed to know, and there was an undercurrent of—"
Cottee paused, looked up, and shrugged off the break in his concentration. "An undercurrent of strangeness, I guess, in the stories. They had names for these things: dreadlock mullet man and his dog with the human nose; the leather-clad grandmother who appeared on the 4:05 bus; the crazy guy at McDonalds buying cheeseburgers for a skeleton with the ears of a bat. The kind of stuff that screamed phenomena and Other, so I made a study of all the stories. It's how I first met Bruce and—"
Cottee's typing stopped. "Okay," he said, "I found something." He pressed two keys and the small printer on his desk started spitting out paper, neat lines of black lettering on the pristine while pages. "A couple of kids told me about the gang who hung in the Alley, doing all those things that teenage gangs are supposed to do. It wasn't the most imaginative bunch of stories: burning kittens in garbage cans, that sort of thing. Tales of teenage cruelty, real aspiring serial killer stuff."
"Or cultist," Roark said.
"That too." Cottee lifted a page of the printer and ran his finger down the text. "I didn't think much of it, then I started meeting the Other and getting some information out of them, the kind that makes you pretty sure that the stories of hooligan kids are a little more dangerous than first expected. It got a chapter in the thesis I was writing. The only name I got was..."
He frowned and handed the manuscript over, pointing at a name in the middle of the first paragraph.
"That looks like you sneezed on a keyboard," Keith said.
"I did, more or less," Cottee said. "No-one bothered to write the name out before I showed up, so I had to get the Other to spell it out phonetically. Most of them refused; they weren't happy about saying the name once, let alone repeating it and breaking it down into component parts."
"An idea what it is?"
Cottee and Keith turned, looking at Roark.
"It's a crocodile," the sorcerer repeated. "Or the closest thing the Other have to one. An old predator, from before human consciousness started shaping the Gloom, but the kind that adapted to the changes in its home without doing much in the way of evolving. There's very little difference between this thing and its forebears that existed millennia ago, except that it's still awake and the majority of the old gods are still sleeping in the deep Gloom where they can't really touch the earth."
Cottee shook his head. "Hold on, how does that work? I mean, he older Other, the real myths and legends stuff that can't pass for human, I didn't think they could survive without—"
"There's always things that go bump in the night," Roark said. "There's always things lurking in the closets and haunting nightmares. We're good at putting a name to the Other, giving forms to the things that frighten us, but it doesn't always work. This is a crocodile in the sewer, it's a boogieman in the closet, the things that live in the deep trenches of the ocean where we still think 'here be dragons.' The tentacles are a give-away, they always are. Anytime we're really scared of something, we strip away any semblance of a human form and give it tentacles instead."
Cottee exhaled, grinning to himself. "Makes sense. Rhizomic forms were never positive in human myth."
Roark frowned and stared at the smaller man. "Never needed a fancy name for it. Mostly I just took it as a reason to run, and a sure sign that anyone messing with it probably deserved to die." He shook his head. "Stupid things to mess with, but so are the Valkyries. And unlike the bird-women, the crocodile's adapted. It's found its niche and its king-shit predator, so odds are it isn't all that happy about the possibility of the Fimbulwinter and the rest of the old gods coming back."
Roark lifted a sheet of paper of Cottee's pile and studied it. "How confident are you that you transcribed the name right?"
Cottee shrugged. "Fifty-fifty."
"Reckon you could repeat it and teach me to say it right?"
Cottee spread his hands. "Define right. I heard the same name said six or seven different ways."
"How long did your research run?"
Cottee glanced at Keith. Keith shrugged.
"About a year, give or take" Cottee said. "People tended to come-and-go though."
"That'll do, then," Roark said. "Start with the pronunciations used by anyone who lasted the full year—we'll assume they had it right, since they weren't shot or eaten. Keith, you're going grocery shopping. I'm going to need some squid or octopus. Anything with tentacles, so long as it's relatively fresh and likely to work as a sympathetic focus. You've seen this things limbs before, so try and find something that matches.
"We'll summon our friend forth a little after midnight, assuming the Tides hold out."
Roark worked in the heart of the alley, tracing protective symbols around the border of a chalk circle. A torn package full of raw octopus sat nearby, open to the cool evening air. Keith and Cottee worked on the parameter, setting up minor wards to ensure they weren't disturbed when it came time to call the Other forth. Cottee worked his way along the narrow chain pulled across the mouth of alley, inking runes onto the steel links. Keith stood watch, one hand pressed against the .45 hidden beneath his jacket, torch held aloft with the other.
"This is crazy, right?" Cottee stood, letting go of the chain. "I mean, Harmony told me about Mister Roark a while back, but she never mentioned him being this..."
"Reckless," Roark said.
"He's a sorcerer," Keith said. "Dealing with the Other is part of the deal."
"Dealing, sure." Cottee nodded towards the heart of the alleyway. "He's not even sure he's got the pronunciation right, but he's still trying this. It seems kinda reckless."
Keith nodded. "Harmony's hurt. We were short options."
Cottee leant over the chain once more, finishing the final rune. "I think I preferred you, Mister Murphy, when you hated the idea of getting involved with the Other."
Keith watched the street, saying nothing. It was getting colder, their breathe turning white when they exhaled. The streetlights ticked softly, the low hum of cars audible in the distance. Keith checked his watch. "It's time."
"You're sure?" Cottee ducked under the chain and waited on the far side, the side with footpaths and yellow lights and metered parking spaces. The border marked out by the chain did more than prevent the traffic from turning into the alley now. Cottee blinked and looked around, as if double-checking he was outside the warded alley. "You sure you're staying in there?"
"Roark says it's a two-man job. Someone's gotta call it forth, someone's gotta negotiate, and he's not strong enough to do both."
"I could stay."
"He doesn't know you," Keith said. "I can handle it."
"I've seen you negotiate, Mister Murphy. It isn't your strong suite." Cottee grinned. "Try not to give away anything important in exchange for its help."
Roark's harsh, sibilant whisper brushed against the sides of the alley. Keith stood inside the protective circle, octopus tentacles coiled around his fingers, watching the narrow stretch of darkness that seemed unnaturally black even in the Midnight darkness of the alley. Hair stood up on the back of his neck, and Keith found himself shivering despite his jacket.
The darkness clotted, bleeding together into a shallow pool of Gloom, and a tentacle wormed free. It curled through the night air, reaching for the warded circle, and recoiled when it made contact. Keith jerked back despite the protection, bumping into the Roark. A second tentacle joined the first, then another. They pressed hard, unable to penetrate the wards, trying to break down. Keith ignored them and watched the shadows, caught sight of a shiny, dark, solitary eyes peering through depths of the Gloom.
The entity spoke, but Keith didn't hear it. Words just formed, unbidden, in his mind. Who?
"Irrelevant," Keith said. He forced the word out, struggling to make it louder than Roark's steady whisper.
WHO? The word formed again, appearing in his mind, accompanied by a pressure so great it dropped Keith to his knees. He curled his fingers around the scrap of octopus tentacle in his hands, locking the moist flesh in a tight grip. Roark's whispering sped up, and Keith felt a reassuring hand on his shoulder.
"My name isn't relevant." Keith forced the words through gritted teeth. He struggled too his feet, fighting against the weight pressing against the side of his skull. Shadows swam across the black eye peering through the Gloom then disappeared, like a film of water being blinked away when a swimmer emerged from the surf.
"We're here to deliver a message," Keith said. He took a deep breath, recited the words exactly as Roark gave them to him, embracing the formality of the request. "It's the time of the Fimbulwinter, the beginning of the end. Things that were old when you were born stir in the depths of the Gloom, and their Valkyries hunt for prey on your side of the shadowed veil. My master asks for your help in fighting them off, that he may stop the end-of-times before the Elder ones wake."
Tentacles undulated on the border of the shadow. The tentacle in Keith's hands twitched in sympathy, taking on a form of un-life in the Other's presence. Keith focused on his breathing, counting off the seconds while the Other contemplated.
It answered simply: Away.
The tentacles slipped back into the security of the shadow. Keith swore. They'd fucked it up, and there wasn't any way to help Harmony without cutting a deal with the Other. Roark's breathing grew hoarse, the whispered chant being ripped out of his throat. His fingers dug into Keith's shoulder, the grip full of urgency.
"Fuck formality." Keith drew the .45 fired two shots. They disappeared into the Gloom, disappearing with a ripple, but it got the Other's attention. Tentacles shot out, a swarm of them writhing in unison, and this time the wards did nothing to halt their progress. Tight coils looped over Keith's arm, pulling him forwards. He dug his heels into the bitumen and pulled back, fighting the Other's strength.
"Go on," Keith taunted, "tear me apart. It's fucking easy, right? Big, ugly, boogie man like you, all tentacles and eyeball?" One of the Other's tentacles wrapped around Keith's throat. Keith dug his fingers in, creating an opening so he could breathe. "You got maybe six months of this left, ugly. Nothing compared to how long you bastards live. After that, the end of the world. No more cultists. No more being the biggest bully on the block. Enjoy going back to the minor leagues, squido, 'cause you're done here."
The tentacles stopped, a dead weight around Keith's shoulders. The eye reappeared in the depths of the shadows. Roark's whisper stopped.
Keith held up the scrap of octopus tentacle clenched between his fingers. "You're not the scariest thing hiding the dark anymore," he said. "You want to rip me apart, feel free. It's faster than letting the Valkyrie do it, or waiting for the winter that never ends."
He dropped the octopus tentacle into the dirty and waited.
Slowly, cautiously, the Other released its grip. Keith stared at the dark eye, waiting. One final word formed inside his head before the Other left.
Keith fell back, knocked on his arse by the weight of the word. Roark wasn't much better off, the old man gasping for breathe as he leant against the far side of the Alley, outside the protection of the ward. The shadows receded, disappearing completely, and the oppressive weight of the Other's presence went with it.
Cottee collected them before the Gloom Tide, driving them back to Harmony's place in Keith's cramped hatchback. Keith didn't say anything when the young academic arrived. Roark smoked and stared out the window, focused on every shadow like he could use to peer into the Gloom and see how the fight progressed. The car's heater coughed and spluttered, fighting the early morning chill.
They were out past Burleigh before Cottee broke and asked how it went.
"You're staying at Harmony's for the next Gloom Tide," Keith said. "It's not going to safe in the shadow for a while."
"I figured I'd be doing that whether it worked or not," Cottee said. "It's a dangerous time to be alone, Mister Murphy."
"More dangerous now." Roark looked over, attention torn away from the window. "You did good, Keith. You did good."
Keith nodded and turned up the car's heater, trying to forget the Other's touch.
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011