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A Flotsam story
Peter M. Ball
Start at the beginning of the Flotsam series
The palm tree looked forlorn, the tips of the long fronds stretching past the boundary of the light and into the Gloom. Keith stood at the Casino doorway, watching the shadows roil against the border of the wards, the itchy nervousness of it crawling along the back of his neck. Two weeks they'd been like that, maybe, holed up in empty Casino motel, taking refuge with Sabbath and his demons, and it hadn't gotten any easier.
"Look on the bright side, mate. It could always be worse."
Keith blinked and looked down, meeting the weak grin Randal offered him. The tall, broad-shouldered demon was slumped against the casino's front door, back pressed against the glass. He cradled a shotgun in his lap, a pump-action whose length was inscribed with tethering runes. The weapon seemed natural in the demon's hands, as though the body Randal inhabited had been familiar with its use before the demon took up residence.
"Worse?" Keith said.
"Roark might not have thought to pull the fire alarm." Sabbath's lip curled a little more, exposing a sharp incisor. "This'd be a hell of a job if we were dodging the untethered in the halls."
Keith's gave that a weak smile, but it was short lived. A valkryie's scream cut through the darkness, distant and ugly. Randal tensed, and Keith tensed with him, unwilling to trust their sense of location when it came to sounds in the Gloom. Keith's eyes searched the ashen darkness, making out what landmarks he could.
"Yeah," he said. "I guess that'd be worse." He wished he could be sure about the passage of time, that he could trust something other than his own harried sleep cycle to mark the days. "We're going to run out of light."
"They come up with a plan yet?"
Randal shook his head.
Keith hawked and spat into the Gloom.
"Taking their fucking time, then."
"Sabbath, Mim, and your lot?" Randal's eyes gleamed in the dim light. "Mate, I'm surprised they haven't started a second apocalypse just trying to get their shit together."
Keith sat in the vast room that'd served as the casino nightclub, nursing his second glass of scotch. A handful of faeries sat beside the sloped windows, faces Keith recognised from Harmony's briefings. Allies, not friends, although quartering them in the demon's lair was stretching the relationship. The willowy Other nursed flat beers and glared, putting the accusations they couldn't voice into their mismatched eyes.
Keith pretended he didn't notice. He'd done a lot of that since the Fimbulwinter fell.
He was on his third glass when Cottee appeared, huffing and puffing after the four story climb up the stairwell. The academic had suffered with the decision to focus the casino's generators on keeping the lights running, the tethered illumination warding the Gloom away from the vast complex. Cottee dropped into the purple couch, elbows resting on his knees, fingers running through his beard.
"They've got bars downstairs," he said.
Keith drank. "This one's quieter."
"If you say so." Cottee glanced at the table full of Other. "Doesn't look like you're popular up here, though."
"I'm not really popular anywhere," Keith said. "I gave the order to move them here, to make them accept Sabbath's hospitality. People don't like owing him, least of all the Other. The prick's always been the big man on the strip, but if we actually get through this, with the amount of favours he'll have picked up providing refuge..."
"Fair enough." Cottee folded both hands together, chewing on his bottom lip. When Keith refused to fill the silence, Cottee cleared his throat and grinned. "So I've been thinking," he said, "and I think I've got a theory."
Keith responded with a wary smile. "You've been spending too much time with Roark."
Cottee's met Keith's smile with a straight face. "Possibly."
Keith shook his head. "Okay. You've got a theory."
A white-toothed smile broke through the thick beard. "I've been thinking, like I said, and I've got a theory about Atlantis."
"Mythical city, disappeared beneath the water," Cottee said. "Place where mermaids live."
"Nah," Keith said. "That's sewers."
"You're kidding, right?"
"Where do you think the urban myth about gators in the sewers comes from?"
Cottee looked appalled. "There are times when I really hate you people," he said. "I was much happier as a theories, you know that? I never wanted," he shook his head, "no, doesn't matter. Atlantis." He unlaced his fingers and drew an imaginary line in the air. "It's a weird fucking story to get lodged in the public consciousness. City disappearing beneath the waves, lots of treasure just sitting around waiting for someone to find it. Lots of people looking for it without success, no real evidence to support it ever existed."
"It's a myth," Keith said. "That's how myths work."
"Faeries are myths. Valkyries are myth. Even Sabbath and his crew are more myth than scripture."
"Using Sabbath as evidence of anything is rarely a good idea."
"This time around it has a point." Cottee drew another line, crossing over the first one. "We know that time works differently in the Gloom, right? Sometimes you come out of a tide and only a few seconds have passed, sometimes you come out and whole days have slipped by?"
"My records eight days and three hours," Keith said. "I was fourteen and my parents reported me missing."
"Right," Cottee said. "That sort of shit happens, right? Why can't it happen to a city?"
"You mean Atlantis is in the Gloom?"
"It's a mirror of the real world. It's the place where myths go to live and breath." Cottee drew a third line, parallel with the first. "What happens if a city gets pulled into the shadows, gets stuck there. What if it's caught somewhere so deep that it doesn't reappear once the Gloom tide is over, it's just carried away to, you know, somewhere else."
"Atlantis is lost in the gloom." Keith said it aloud, trying the idea on for size. He shrugged. It made sense.
"Totally explains how the city stays lodged in the public consciousness."
"Treasure would do that," Keith said. "So would mermaids, when you get right down to it."
"I suspect the reasons are attached later," Cottee said. "Once we realise it's important to keep it profile."
Keith held his glass up to the light, examining the rim. He nodded, satisfied, and drained it. "Okay," he said. "How does that help?"
Cottee looked surprised. "Help?"
"We're the ones stuck in the Gloom," Keith said. "And it's gearing up for the end of the world out there. I assumed you were thinking this shit so you could put together some kind of plan."
Cottee looked away, wiping his beard with the back of his hand. "Ah," he said. "I just, you know, thought it was interesting."
"Right," Keith said. "Interesting."
"In an...academic sense."
"And it's possible, you know..." Cottee glanced towards the sloped glass that made up the nightclub's ceiling. "That's what we're headed for, right? The Gold Coast slipping into the Gloom, a city of dreams of mystery."
"Cheerful," Keith said. "Perhaps we could aim for something a little more, you know, plan-ish."
"Yeah," Cottee said. "The others do the plan-ish stuff. They want to see you."
Keith turned and pressed his hand against the window pane. The shadows pooled around the points of contact, drawn to the warmth of his fingertips. Tendrils of Gloom scraped against the glass, trying to dig through. He should have been looking at the city: the curve of high-rise apartments that traced the shoreline; the rows of streetlights that delineated the highway tracing its path from Tweed to Southport. He should have been looking at people.
"Mister Murphy?" Cottee cleared his throat. "They're waiting."
"Do they actually have a plan this time?"
"I think so."
Keith frowned. "That's kind of tentative."
"I'm aware," Cottee said. "Trust me, Mister Murphy, I'm well aware."
The meeting room was small and cramped, painted in beige tones that the Gold Coast decorators preferred to think of as sand. Half-drunk cups of coffee covered the dark tabletop, weighing down pages of notes. There were three men seated around the table, the same men who'd been seated there since the Fimbulwinter began and the final Gloom tide rose. Keith had almost given up on the belief that they'd come up with a solution.
Cottee paused at the doorway and coughed. "I brought him."
No one looked up. Keith's eyes went from face to face, trying to read the features. Bruce Mim looked grim, his mouth pulled into a tight line. Sabbath scowled. Roark huddled in a dining chair, right hand clenched tight around a cup of black coffee. The sorcerer's face was pale and hollow, his heavy jacket bunched over his shoulders, white hair tangled through weeks of neglect. Keith had worked with the old sorcerer for a decade and never seen him this frayed. Roark looked like facsimile of the man who'd trained him, a poorly executed copy.
Keith sat, watching Roark's face. "Cottee mentioned you three had a plan."
Roark flinched, looking away. "We have the beginnings of a plan."
"I kinda assumed that'd qualify as good news, given the situation."
"We have some disagreements over the implementation, Keithy-boy. It's causing tension." Sabbath's grin remained a perpetual taunt. The demon was short and plump and goateed, a creature of the Gloom inhabiting the body of a computer programmer. He didn't own the casino on paper, but there wasn't any doubting that the entire building belonged to him. His demons had been working the place ever since it was first built, recruiting from the wasted and the lost who washed up against the pokies and the card tables. " I should explain now that I object to even telling you about this idea. I agreed to float it because....well, your friend Roark seems to think you'd be amenable to ironing out some of the kinks."
Keith snarled, fighting the urge to punch the table. "Could you be a little less vague?"
Sabbath opened his mouth, but Bruce Mim cut him off. "We need to kill a king."
The seer sat stiff-backed, sober for the first time in Keith's memory. The ancient Other's voice was cold and stern, his pet bone-thing cradled in one arm. "We kill a king," he said, eyes closed the entire time. "It's always been the way these situations are ended, apocalypse after apocalypse."
"We're short of kings around these parts," Keith said.
"It doesn't matter. We find the noblest, most important person we can and we sacrifice him in order to ensure Spring comes again." Mim opened his eyes and stared, intently, in Keith's direction. "It's not the title that matters, it's the way the individual fits into the scheme of things. Sacrifice someone important enough in a place of power and you can change the world."
Roark coughed, standing. "You and I are the obvious choices, kid" he said. "We started things, we're at the centre of it, and Cottee says Harmony positioned you for it."
"Like she was alone in that." Keith glanced at Cottee, who shrank beneath the look. "And it'll work?"
Mim and Roark exchanged glances. Sabbath simply sat there, grinning.
"It may," Roark said, "but there's problems. See—"
"I own your soul, Keithy-boy," Sabbath said. "A neat trade in a fair deal, but it gives me first dibs on the matter of your death. I don't plan on giving that up."
Keith let his breathe out slowly. "You sure about that?"
"Very sure." Sabbath gestured to Roark. "Your mentor's made all the arguments, Keithy-boy. I suggest holding off."
"Fine," Keith said. "So what's the next plan."
Roark blinked slowly, mulling the words over. "We sacrifice Harmony."
"No." Keith said the word simply, without anger, but there wasn't any give in it.
"Harmony's not waking up, Keith. She's a longshot, but—"
"No," Keith repeated. "Third option?"
"We go out into the Gloom and try to raise the soul of Michael Wotan." Bruce Mim stood, fingers idly scratching the skull of the bone-thing he carried. The small creature hissed in pleasure, vacant eye sockets turned towards Keith. "It'll be risky," Mim said, "probably suicidal, but he's at the centre of thing. If there's someone capable of playing corn-king, it could be him."
"Risky isn't exactly a problem these days," Keith said. "Who's going?"
Roark cleared his throat. "We haven't decided it’s the best plan yet."
"It's the only you've offered," Keith said. "Pick a team and tell me where. I'm getting tired of waiting for the end."
Keith shared a room on the third floor, the other bed occupied by the slumbering form of Harmony White. She'd been comatose for far too long, ever since the first attack by the Valkyrie, and her breathing grew increasingly ragged as the Fimbulwinter wore on. Her pale, bird-like face contorted as the Gloom pressed close, long dreadlocks hanging limp across the pillow.
"We got a plan," he whispered, sitting on his bed. "It's third best, and the reason the first-best isn't going to work is all on me, but at least we've got something." He reached underneath the bed and dragged out a suitcase, pulling free the arsenal from its hiding place. Pistols. A shotgun. A fully-automatic he rarely bothered carrying. A rifle broken down into its composite parts, ready to be reassembled and used. They'd all be prepared for this kind of war, weapons to use against the Other, but Keith wasn't sure how well they'd go against ghosts and the winged Valkyries who haunted the streets. He loaded the pistols carefully, setting them out in a row as he finished each clip.
Roark knocked on the door of the small room, letting himself in.
"Mim's wrong about Wotan's ghost." The old sorcerer lowered himself into the room's sole chair, kicking open the mini-bar as he settled. He removed a small bottle of scotch and opened it, taking a generous swig. "I'll give the demon one thing, he keeps these places well stocked."
"That mouthful probably cost you fifteen bucks," Keith said.
"If I was the one paying the bills, I guess I'd worry." Roark swigged again, draining the small bottle, and reached for a beer. "What in hell did you do to piss Sabbath off this much?"
"I left," Keith said. "I worked with you."
"Fella holds a grudge."
"That he does." Keith lifted the rifle and screwed the barrel into place. "Why's Mim wrong?"
"Cottee's been filling me in on the things that happened while I was elsewhere," Roark said. "Setting you up against the Demon, making you a hometown champion, the confrontations you had with Wotan's ghost and the offers to let him be reborn. He doesn't have the power to bring himself back, Kid, let alone stop this shit from happening. It all keeps coming back to you and me."
"And a little more me than you?"
"You're the one born here," Roark said. "I wasn't aware how rare that actually was."
"It's not. People born here just refuse to stay." Keith tested the rifle barrel, twisting it tight. "I ran, just like everyone else that started here. You just manipulated me into coming back."
Keith's hands froze on the gun. "Fucking hell, you figured we'd need to do this?"
"I figured there'd be a chance." Roark coughed into a fist and opened his beer. "Didn't figure on you giving away the juice we needed to make things work, though."
Keith frowned and went back to the gun. "I'm not going to apologise, Roark. I did what needed to be done."
"I'm not arguing," the sorcerer said. "I just wish you'd done something a little less inconvenient."
The Gloom clung to them, cool tendrils worming against the skin, trying to slow them down. It was the worst part of travelling dark, the whole team crouched as close to the bitumen, laying low while the darkness distorted and translocated the sound of Valkyrie wings. It wasn’t far from the Casino to Surfers, less than ten minutes drive, but the walk through the Gloom ensured it would feel like forever.
Keith stalked through the frozen cars and people, the detritus of everyday life caught and frozen by the rising tide. The others followed: Roark; Randall; a handful of Other from Bruce Mim's circle of friends. A whole damn hunting pack, one of three they'd sent out. It felt unnatural. Keith wondered, not for the first time, why they couldn't just send him and Roark to finish the job. He squinted into the Gloom, trying to make out the shadow of a skyline that was just a few degrees darker than the ashen sky. The grip on the 9mm in his hand tightened slightly.
Randal broke off from the pack, slinking forward. "The great outdoors," the demon said. "How I've fucking missed it, eh?"
Keith frowned. "Quietly."
"I'm being quiet, mate." The demon loped easily at Keith's side, feet whispering against the ash-dark ground. His voice hovered low, muted by the darkness. "Things out here have sharp ears at the best of times. I don't want to chance to the Valkyries any more than you do."
"What do you want, Randal?"
"Sunlight, a cold can of VB, and a game of poker against your friend Cottee."
"Horrible poker face." Randal grinned, showing off a row of sharp teeth. "Don't act like you haven't noticed."
"I'm trying to work here, Randy."
Randal took the lead, slipping between two cars. "I want to talk about Sabbath, mate. You should have killed him."
"Not really an option."
"I've heard your boss talk about the options." Randal paused by the bonnet, looking over one shoulder. He winked. "Sabbath's a good option, even if Roark isn't saying it out loud."
"Doesn't work," Keith said. "I made a deal."
"You can't kill him?"
"Me, Roark, or anyone working with me."
Randal nodded. "Pretty much everyone in the Casino right now."
"More or less. He can't kill me, I can't kill him, we hold each other hostage." Keith nodded towards the skyline. "That leaves us with the ghost."
"Pretty big gamble," Randal said.
"That's why we brought you along."
"Who says I'm working your side of the street?"
"Instinct," Keith said. "You're okay, for a demon."
Randal grinned. "That's almost an insult, you know that?"
They hid in the Surfers Paradise mall, watching the looming shadow of Q1 Residential. The Tower loomed over the city, 80 floors between the ground and the penthouse, the silhouette like a knife blade that dwarfed the stubby shadows around it. Roark crouched beside Keith, taking cover amid the untethered patrons of the café. Randal took point, the demon's red eyes better suited to peering through the Gloom.
"No sign of guards,"' he said. "You sure this is the place?"
Roark snorted. "Sure went out the window a year ago."
Keith squinted, pointing at the small squares of light along the tower. "Plenty of tethered light in there," he said. "That means sorcerers, at least. That's always a good sign."
"No guards," Randal repeated, unwilling to let up.
Roark lit a cigarette, the tiny glow of the cherry a welcome respite from the Gloom. "Who the hell they guarding against, Randal? They've got the end of the world on their side."
The demon opened his mouth, then thought better of it. The long, taloned fingers caressed the shotgun Randal nursed as he waited for the signal.
Roark waited, eyeing the shadows. He finished his cigarette before letting them move out.
Climbing the Q1 took time. They left the Other on the ground floor, watching the escape route, while Roark led Randal and Keith up the stairs. They moved slowly, quietly, ears straining for the sounds of things moving through the Gloom, the darkness distorting every footfall until it felt too loud or disturbingly silent. Keith watched the floors crawl by.
Five floors up, ten floors, twenty, thirty-five. Occasionally they paused, laying low as a seam of light appeared beneath a doorway, the portal looking in on a hallway where someone tethered the lights. Once they stopped long enough for Randal to take care of the problem, the demon slipping through the doorway to silence a potential guard.
Forty floors, fifty, sixty, seventy-five. Keith felt the nerves eating at him, the itchy rush of adrenaline seeping in beneath the exhaustion of the climb. There were no guarantees that they'd find Wotan's shade in there, or that they'd survive whatever had taken up residence in the city's highest point, but the months of waiting made that unimportant.
Eighty floors up. Roark found the door, lit a small candle, and waved Keith forward to pick the lock.
The Penthouse of the Q1 shone, brilliant and painful. The entire lounge room was built to catch light: pale floorboards; white-sand walls; wall-length mirrors; giant chrome light fixtures the size of beach balls affixed to the walls, burning everything beneath them into a pale white. Randal crept in first, shotgun held tight, covering the room with the weapon's sweep. Keith followed, crouched low, edging to a hiding spot behind the closest couch.
They waited, poised, counting off five seconds before waving Roark into the room. Keith's eyes still ached, struggling with the light. He glanced over one shoulder, met Randal's gaze, and pointed towards the first bedroom.
"Wait." Roark's whisper echoed in the well-lit room. The old sorcerer straightened, hands spread wide, faded tattoos visible at his wrists. He closed both eyes and mumbled, fingers searching the air. Keith felt a soft thrum spread through the room, the tell-tale mark of magic being used, and Randal visibly blanched at the touch of the sorcerer's magic. "That room," Roark said, pointing. "There's a ghost secured there, and..."
Keith thumbed the safety on his pistol. "And?"
"I'm not sure what else," Roark said, "but it's easier to let you see."
Keith took a position by the door, pistol held high. Randal kicked the door down.
It should have been a bedroom, but the removal of any furniture transformed the rooms purpose. A vast circle had been burnt into the hardwood floor, the marks deep and exacting, and the overhead lights shone down on the ghost captured within. Keith recognised the vacant eye-socket and beak-like nose, the features burnt into his head since the day they'd fucked up the Adelaide job.
Michael Wotan's shade looked tenuous, thinned out and weak after being trapped away from the Gloom. It pooled on the floor, the shadowed flesh pressed against the circle's limits.
Beyond the circle was a crevice, a sharp crack in the hardwood that looked down on a place that wasn't the floor below. Randal started swearing the moment he laid eyes on it. Keith just stood at the door, flesh curling away from the room's content, fighting the urge to run.
"Well," Roark said, "that isn't fucking good." The old sorcerer pushed past Keith and peered into the crevice, frowning. Wotan's ghost stirred a little, responding to the movement. "Keith, feed our friend in the circle."
Keith blinked. "Feed him?"
"He's trapped," Roark said, "and they're leaching whatever energy he's got left to keep this open. He's no good to us weak, not as a sacrifice, so feed him."
Keith nodded slowly, drawing a knife from its sheath in the small of his back. He pressed the blade against his thumb and drew forth a drop of blood, then pressed the wound against the circle. Slowly Wotan's head moved forward to suckle the fluid, growing solid as it fed. The ghost's good eyes burnt with a red light.
"Should have known it'd be you," it said, disgusted with Keith's presence. The eye rolled towards Roark, examining the sorcerer closely. "I take it you're the boy's master?"
The ghost nodded. "I've heard of you."
"Bully for you." Roark pulled a cigarette pack from his pocket and glared at the ghost. "Seems you're in a predicament, Wotan. I figured you to orchestrating Ragnarok after we killed you, not getting trapped like an amateur."
The ghost shuddered, turning its back on the rift. "Can you see them down there?"
Roark shrugged and lit his cigarette. Keith edged towards the crevice in the floor, fighting his own revulsion. It seemed to go a long way down, no sign of the Q1's architecture or structure visible, and there were things moving amid the Shadows at the base. "I can see something," he said.
"Giants," Roark said. "Dragons. Ancient Other, the kind who stay dormant and dream of things humanity is better of knowing nothing about it. It's one of Cottee's deep places, the shadows where Atlantis dwells."
"Not Atlantis," the ghost said.
"No," Roark said, "not this time."
"They're close to waking." The ghost's voice cracked as it rasped the words out. "And then..."
Keith nodded and backed away from the rift. "End of the Filmbulwinter, beginning of the apocalypse?"
"And so my purpose has been served," Wotan said. The ghost fixed its good eye on Keith. "You should have let me kill you. It would have been faster, and involved less pain."
"Noted." Keith turned away from the ghost, watching Roark's expression. "We sacrificing him or what?"
"Him, no," Roark said. "He's been too drained." The sorcerer cast another glance at the rift. "Pitty. We're unlikely to find a better place to do what needs doing. If we sacrifice here, we stand the best chance of quelling the Other at the base of that thing, lulling them back to sleep."
Keith grinned. "You still need someone to sacrifice."
The soft click of the pump-action echoed from Randal's position by the doorway. "Excuse me, gents," the demon said, "but I'd stop considering what you're considering."
"Sabbath isn't here," Roark said, "and we're right on top of the rift. Your boss claim may not make killing Keith as effective as it should be, but from here it might not matter."
"Sure, but Sabbath also pays me to look after his interests," Randal said, "and that means keeping Keith alive until the boss gets what he traded for."
Keith turned, lifting the .45 until it levelled at Sabbath's head. "You really care about that, mate, given the circumstances."
The ghost made urgent noises from its place within the circle, losing the ability to articulate as it burnt through the energy Keith's blood had given it. Keith met Randal's stare, both of them looking for give.
"What I care about doesn't matter much," Randal said, "but there's another problem."
"Yeah," Randal said. He lowered the shotgun and nodded towards the mirrored doors on the wardrobe, the reflection of the room filled with a cloudy veil of Gloom that grew thicker. "Someone trapped the ghost here, mate, and I don't think it was his side of things. Valkyries aren't that bright, you know?"
Keith swore and fired twice, shattering the mirrored glass of the first door.
He wasn't fast enough to shatter the second before Sabbath stepped through it, riding the Gloom tides between the Casino and the Q1 in a matter of seconds. The plump demon stumbled a few steps before catching his balance, grinning all the while. "Keithy-boy," he said, "you and Roark didn't really think you'd pull a fast one on me, did you? Not here, in my city?"
Keith pointed the .45 and tried to fire, but his finger didn't cooperate.
"Tsk," Sabbath said. "That wasn't particularly smart. Give the guns to Randal, if you don't mind? I'd rather not have any accidents while we discuss this."
Keith snarled, focusing his will on the gun in his hand and the traitorous finger that wouldn't curl, but the magic that sealed his deal with Sabbath remained strong. Randal stepped over and plucked the gun out of his hand. Roark took a step forward, ready to help, but Randal simply jammed the .45's hilt against the sorcerer's nose.
"It's an unfortunate deal we've made, Keith," Sabbath said. "It puts us at an unpleasant impasse, all things considered. The only way I can help you is to allow you out of the deal, and given the circumstances..." The pudgy demon shrugged, smile showing off sharp teeth. "Well, I've helped try to stop the end of the world, and it's not like you and Cottee obliged me to succeed in the paperwork."
"Maybe I figured self-preservation would do it," Keith said.
"Maybe." Sabbath turned and pulled open the blinds, looking at the roiling darkness of the Gloom. "Whether it's the end of the world or not, Keithy-boy, this city is going to be mine. I've been here a long time, and even in the Gloom I can make something of it."
"Still a small fish in a big pond, Sabbath." Roark's voice sounded ragged. There was blood streaming down his chin.
"Shut up, Roark," Sabbath said. "You're an annoyance, nothing more."
"Slightly more than that," Roark said.
Randal pointed the .45 and fired, blowing a small hole in Sabbath's ribs. Blood splattered against the floorboards and Sabbath screamed, the shrill hysteria his stolen body felt mixed with a demonic snarl of aggression. Randal fired the .45 three more times, then dropped the handgun in favour of the pump-action slung across his shoulder. The demon looked towards Roark. "As we agreed?"
"As we agreed," Roark said. "Keith, drag Sabbath into the circle before his body finishes dying. We don't want his spirit getting a change to bail."
Keith nodded mutely, working on autopilot. When Roark gave orders, Keith obeyed. It's the way it'd been for years.
"Danny," he said, one arm looped around Sabbath's bloody shoulder as he dragged the body across the room, "What's—"
"We needed a king to sacrifice," Roark said, "and there's only two creatures on the Gold Coast that stand a change of qualifying. Now shut up and give Randal your hand, kid."
Keith did as he was told. Randal collected a .45 and grinned, smile full of sharp teeth. "Listen mate," he said, "I'll apologise in advance for this, but your boss says it's the only way."
Keith didn't get a change to ask what was the only way. Randal put the first bullet into his palm, them pressed the bloodied wound against Sabbath's corpse. Keith screamed and kept screaming as the demon followed up with the second palm, and he watched Sabbath's lax face and the thinning features of Wotan's ghost as Roark started chanting.
He fainted, mercifully, halfway through, before the real pain began.
Keith woke three hours later, his palms tingling and itchy. He was alive and sprawled out beneath a palm tree, staring up at the fronds and the morning sky beyond them. He blinked and breathed in and out, trying to adjust to the daylight.
"Morning," Randal said. The big demon was perched on a nearby fence, watching the Surfers Paradise beach. He wore a cheap t-shirt, the kind that was picked up at the kiosks lining the end of the mall, making promises about the Gold Coast's perfection. "Roark's off getting us a car, now that crawling through the Gloom is out."
Keith sat up. His head ached and his chest ached and the fresh skin on palms was livid and pink. "You shot me," he said.
"A-huh," Randal said. "You and Sabbath, that was the deal. Roark got us into location, I did the bloodletting, you saved the world."
"You could have warned me."
"Nah," Randal said. "Not with Sabbath paying attention. The boss kind of trusted me, you know? Roark's plan kinda relied on that staying true.
"Gone where-ever the big bad things go to sleep."
"Roark drained his essence to close the rift."
Keith tried to stand, then regretted it. He slumped back against the grass. "I guess I should thank you."
"Nah mate," Randal said, "this was just business. Roark came to me with a deal, every bit as iron-clad as the one you signed with Sabbath. It wasn't a bad gig, so I took it. I'm King of the Casino, now. The inheritor of Sabbath's racket and power. You're alive, Roark's alive, the world is back to normal. All's well, eh?"
Keith blinked and stared up in the sky, the empty blue marred only by the burning sun. "All's well," he said.
"You don't look convinced," Randal said.
"I kind of figured I'd be dead," Keith said. "I mean, getting to this point, side-stepping the inevitable, I just figured..."
"Your boss didn't give you the bad news, then?"
Keith gave the demon a quizzical look.
"Resurrection's a part of the deal," Randal said. "Every time we kill a king to save the world, some version of the king comes back. Just... not the entire thing, you know? No-one goes through it unchanged."
"So what," Keith said, "I'm going to grow horns?"
"Nah, mate," Randal said, "but you're the corn-king of the Gold Coast now, hero of the bloody ages, eh?"
Keith blinked a few times, let that sink in. "Shit," he said. "Fucking bastard."
"Yeah," Randal said. "That's more or less the size of it. You're stuck here, mate. Now until the end of time." The demon took a deep breath and pointed at the pristine beach, the early morning joggers and swimmers and surfers waxing down their boards. "All in all, it could be worse, eh? It could be a whole lot fucking worse."
Story by Peter M. Ball, Copyright 2011
Image by Sally Ball, Copyright 2011