Mythology and the modern world collide in Red Ben Garston's second action-packed adventure, from stellar new British talent James Bennett.
The North Sea
This is my fairy-tale ending.
It wasn’t much. As Red Ben Garston flew into the storm, the wind and the rain battering his snout, he couldn’t suppress a surge of resentment. It shouldn’t have been this way. According to the Lore, he should’ve been safe. He certainly shouldn’t be here, flying in the face of a February gale, his ears ringing with a hateful song, a silvery plucking of strings that he had long ago forgotten, the music calling, calling him on. As the melody, the signal, grew stronger – finally clear beyond doubt – he had thrust himself away from his tumbler of Jack in the Stavanger docks and, cursing, left Norway’s rain-swept coast with a leap and a leathery snap of wings. He’d dumped his clothes behind a shipping container on the cargo pier. A thick woollen jumper, jeans and boots reduced to a cloud of rags. Seven tons of red-scaled flesh speared up and over the sea, a shadow fleeting under the clouds.
An hour later, here he was, the rain ricocheting off his horns and flanks like bullets reminding him of the injustice. Winter storms loved this sea, had made it their battleground for many a year, a place to show off the worst of their calamities, but this, the weather, was something else. Unprecedented, the newsreaders said, since records began. Ben could’ve told them that a hundred-odd years wasn’t that long, considering. Everywhere, seagulls laughed, making sport of the churned-up fish. Thunder rumbled in the leaden bellies of the clouds. Oh, the tough red shell of his body could withstand whatever the storm threw at him, no worries about that. In recent months, he had endured lightning and worse. The muscles between his shoulder blades throbbed with draconic strength, the wind shrieking down his long plated neck to the arrowhead tip of his tail. His claws, each the size of a rhino’s tusk, hung under his belly, a sheaf of knives raking the squall. But inside his cavernous heart, bitterness beat like a drum.
And with it, the usual cynicism.
Same old story, sweetheart. This isn’t 1215.
Back then, in a time that no Remnant would seriously call the good old days, King John had pressed his seal to the Pact, binding Remnant and human alike. It was the oath under which they all lived, the secret compromise of centuries, the stipulations as familiar to Ben as his own changeable flesh. As long as the Remnants, the magical creatures and fabulous beasts who still endured in the world, agreed to withdraw from society, refraining from meddling in the future progress of civilisation, then the King and his subjects would do them no harm. This ongoing arrangement was known as the Lore, an arrangement that, in word and in deed, had far surpassed the reign of one puny king, not to mention the medieval age.
In the end, everyone had been tired of the stalemate, the endless war between the Remnants, the denizens of the Old Lands, and humanity with its push for advancement. And so the Pact came to pass. Only the chosen leaders of each Remnant tribe, be they dragon, troll, griffin, vampire, wizard or witch, had been allowed to remain wakeful and active in the world, albeit in secret, hidden in human form. The other creatures, the unchosen, had been lured and lulled into an enchanted slumber known as the Long Sleep. Naturally, the Remnant leaders had been reluctant to face a future that rendered them no more than myths, shadows of their former selves. Still, being forgotten was better than annihilation, better than extinction. Common sense – or whatever the Remnants liked to call it – had prevailed. That and the assurances of King John, who had placated them all with the temporary nature of the Pact, reminding them of the ancient prophecy, spoken ages ago by the Queen of the Fay upon her people’s departure from earth.
One shining day, when Remnants and humans learn to live in peace, and magic blossoms anew in the world, then shall the Fay return and commence a new golden age.
That hope smouldered in the hearts of all Remnants. When the long-vanished Fay returned as the legends promised, then the Pact would be fulfilled, the Lore annulled, the Sleep undone and—
And everyone would get their bloody happy ending, Ben thought, his fangs bared against more than the weather. Once upon a time, I actually believed that.
Once upon a time being eight hundred years ago. Now, the sea spread out below him, a surging wilderness, frothing canyons of grey. Heavy clouds enclosed the horizon and he shot onwards, squinting through the downpour, a thunderous mist swirling in his wake. Racing low over the waves, he kept his membranous wings taut and steady. Half blinded as he was by the spume and that shrill music rattling in his skull, his navigation skills also weren’t helped by the fact that he had no idea where he was going.
The source. You have to find the source of the song. It’s been days now . . .
The water below should have soothed him, eased the cramp in his juggernaut gut. The wind, a shrieking harpy, stole away any chance of primal comfort. Rain hissed off his bladed spine and through the gills under his wings. The storm screamed like a living thing. Sometimes, Ben knew that it was.
But for all this, only the song, the incessant strings, comprised the weight of his unease. It was the kiss of moonlight on an Arctic plain. The flutter of butterflies rising from a poppy field. At the same time, it was a razor blade slipped under a fingernail. Or like opening a door onto an unexpected hundred-foot drop.
He knew this music. This lullaby. And with an ache, an urge that he imagined all Remnants would share in his position, he wanted the damn thing silenced.
The sea went on forever, a foaming wasteland offering no clues. If he continued at this pace, he’d be flying over Yorkshire by dusk, and despite the length of his wanderings, he wasn’t yet ready to return to England, to face the emptiness of home.
Or the consequences of last year. Let’s be honest here.
This in mind, he greeted the sight of the oil rig below with a feeling akin to relief, a kind of eager dread. His ears prickled, his balls shrank, the intensifying melody informing him that he had located the source of his headache. His summoning.
There were several of these rigs dotted about the North Sea. With oil prices plummeting around the globe, many of the rigs had been decommissioned and stood, their rusting steel legs fixed to the seabed, like the skeletons of krakens rising from the waves. For all their technical ingenuity, the rigs had become titanic hotels for seagulls and terns, the drills silent and the pipes dry. The men in the Stavanger bars, many of them part of the laid-off workforce, had muttered and grumbled enough about it. The economic downturn. More than thirty oil fields shut. A market teetering on the brink of collapse. After the EKOR refinery explosion last year, Ben barely plucking Rose from the flames, he couldn’t tell the men that he was sorry.
It didn’t surprise him to find one of these wrecks out here, the derrick cables rattling in the wind, the cranes shuddering, the flare stack dead and the vast circle of the helipad rain-washed and empty. And the irony of the location wasn’t lost on him either. In the endless jungle of pipes, the latticed framework of stairs and walkways, Ben saw an echo of that dangerous showdown last summer, but he couldn’t make out any signs of life. The music, however, was scaling towards crescendo, the sound twisting his guts into knots. And this kind of music, of course, would require someone to play it.
It’s a harp. The harp. Or a piece of it . . .
As soon as he thought it, the strings fell still, their silvery intrusion lost to the air. Echoes rebounded through the machinery and gridwork, skittering into silence, swallowed by the wind. Ben experienced a second of blessed relief and then his instincts were shrilling in alarm again. His nose, this time. Catching a familiar scent.
“Come out, come out, wherever you are. You stink more than the fucking briny.”
He growled this as he made a pass, sweeping around the towering crown block in a broad half-circle, veering back towards the open space of the helipad. Whoever waited for him below – his flyby suggesting that there was more than one person present, possibly several – he knew it was unlikely that they’d understand him, decipher the wyrm tongue spitting from his mouth. All they would hear would be a roar through the storm, the primal bellow of a beast whose age had long since passed but who remained fearsome nevertheless, ready to kill if the bastards left him no choice. The harp would assure his summoner of his arrival; he merely announced his presence to remind them of this.
He had already made up his mind who he was dealing with, anyway; there were only three possible options, three representatives who would have access to the magic that summoned him. The Guild of the Broken Lance. The Whispering Chapter. Or the envoy extraordinary, Blaise Von Hart. Only the three official branches of the Curia Occultus, the ancient council that had drafted the Pact in the first place, possessed a fragment of the instrument that had put all the other Remnants to sleep. King John had chosen the roles of his conclave well. Military, ministerial and magical. The Guild had the administration, of course, overseeing the Lore for centuries. The Whispering Chapter had taken care of all matters moral and spiritual, appointed to pacify the nation’s fears about the magical creatures in its midst, which many saw as an abomination, as demons and devils, an affront on Creation. And then there was Von Hart, the last Fay representative of magic. Von Hart had retreated into shadow with the rest of the Remnants, there to live at the beck and call of the ancient council should the need ever arise. An ambassador. An envoy between the human world and that of the Remnants.
Scanning the oil rig, Ben wondered which of these organisations would pick such a godforsaken place to face him. The Guild? In disarray, if one believed the rumours. The Chapter? Dormant, underground for years. And as for Von Hart . . . Well, he was far from human, but Ben wouldn’t put it past him.
He was puzzling over the why of his summoning as he landed on the helipad, his wings flapping, dwarfing the surface. Claws splayed, he alighted on the concrete as gently as possible, the raised structure groaning slightly under his weight. Overhead, a crane loomed, its hook swinging in the gale. The space around him remained empty apart from the lashing rain. Whoever had called him here didn’t seem keen to make themselves known.
“Hello? Anybody home?”
The wind snatched his words away, carrying them off and away over the water. Peering up at the blocky buildings around him, he sensed no activity at all. The smell of humans lingered, however, stronger now, closer than before.
He had come here because of the music, because the nature of the harp had left him no choice but to attend. Whatever sense of duty he might or might not feel, the artefact had drawn him here against his will, the ancient magic a yoke around his neck, irresistible to all Remnant kind – for now, focused only on him. As the silence thickened around him, his haunches bulged, preparing to take flight again. Just like in London last year, he suspected he had blundered into a—
He heard the dart zip past his ear moments before the thing bit into his neck, piercing the softer flesh of his throat. Snarling, he reared back, his wings gusting billows across the helipad and rattling the walkways above. Hearing a cry, he swung his head in that direction, catching sight of the huddle of figures above, a blur of slick waterproofs, tiny faces washed out by the weather. All of the figures struggled to stay on their feet as the walkway shuddered and groaned, punched out of true by Ben’s shifting bulk. He caught the glint of metal, the raised guns, infrared beams sweeping through the haze. There were four or five people up there, he reckoned, each one crouching behind the railing and aiming down at the dragon in their midst.
An ambush. It’s a fucking ambush.
His attackers quickly recovered their footing, displaced air popping in his ears, another couple of darts thudding into his chest and flank. One bounced off his scales, clattering to the tarmac between his forelegs. Narrowing his eyes on the foot-long spike, he saw the fat silver barrel fixed to the end of it. Considering his bulk, the darts were little more than bee stings, but Ben bellowed all the same, lurching back on the helipad, his claws raking the shuddering surface. The feather on the end of the dart related the news and none of it was good.
Bladed neck winding towards the walkway, his fangs parted in a jet of flame. Dragon fire splashed against metal, two of his assailants jumping clear, landing in a tangle of limbs on the adjoining mezzanine, one retreating inside the station overlooking the helipad. In a fiery bluster, he saw the two remaining bastards on the walkway go up like Roman candles, their waterproofs shrivelling along with their skin, their screams cut short by the incredible heat. The resulting aroma, sweet and sour, only served to anger him further, a violation of his bestial appetite, long ago suppressed. He focused on the damaged structure, looking for weaknesses, preparing to claw the walkway to pieces. Even the railings were melting in the blast, liquid metal dripping from above, charred holes spreading in the latticework.
Ben sucked in, gathering his breath for another volley. The sacs in his lungs throbbed, the belching gas bitter in his throat. Whether he was facing agents of the Guild or the Chapter no longer concerned him. Tranquilliser darts or no, he wasn’t about to let the arseholes put him in chains. He had to get away from here, and fast. Tail lashing out, toppling barrels stacked on the edge of the helipad, he rounded on the gunmen on the steps, his claws unsheathed, ready to skewer them, turn them into human kebabs.
Through the drifting smoke, he saw another figure emerge from the stairway up to the helipad. At first, the rain shrouding the space between them made it hard to tell whether the newcomer was a man or a woman. His prickling instincts soon informed him that she was the latter, despite her height and stocky frame – seven feet tall, he judged, and half as broad – her jaw and shoulders set. She was dressed in faded military fatigues, but it was the cross shaved across her closely cropped skull that betrayed her as a True Name, a servant of the Whispering Chapter. The cross, a symbol of old slayer saints, related the woman’s rank in the order.
Ben’s eyes grew narrower as she came striding towards him, bold as you like. Her fatigues didn’t quite match the pedestrian look of the other agents, who traditionally favoured threadbare attire, if Ben remembered rightly, the stuff of thrift stores, clothes that the Salvation Army wouldn’t put in a jumble sale. How long had it been since he’d encountered a True Name? Two, three hundred years? These days, the Whispering Chapter was all but defunct. Or so he’d thought.
No. Scratch that. Hoped.
Something large, silver and round gleamed on the woman’s back, a shield of some kind, catching the early light. He watched her draw a sickle from her belt as she approached. A sickle? Might as well come at me with a toothpick. Ben snorted, flame fluttering inside his nostrils, but he was quick to realise that the helipad rippled with more than just the ensuing heat haze. He plucked at the dart in his throat, but he was already having trouble, his claws scrabbling on concrete, clumsy and slow. Whatever the agents had packed in the thing, the dope was doing its work, the toxins pumping into his veins. He shook his head, the drifting smoke clouding his vision, the oil rig around him blurring, swimming in and out.
Got to . . . get the hell out of here . . .
As he swayed back and forth, his tail thumped down on the platform. A wing unfolded, a tangled sail flapping along the ground, and he lost balance, staggering to the left. His shoulder crashed into the base of the crane, the girders screaming.
Grinning, confident of his intoxicated state, the assassin, the True Name, came striding towards him, her boots splashing through the puddles.
Mustering the last of his strength, Ben reared up, a serpent ready to strike. The assassin drew to a halt a few feet before him and the look on her face, an undaunted web of scars, gave Ben pause. His breath caught in his throat, choking back a barrage of flame. Planting her boots firmly apart, the woman raised her sickle and brought it down, slashing at something on the helipad before her.
Ben heard a rope whip across the platform, trailing a jumble of hissing metal pegs. In the rain and confusion, he hadn’t noticed the taut lines stretched across the concrete, the tightly woven steel mesh that he was standing on. In a matter of seconds, the snare leapt upward all around him, the connecting wires released from their fastenings and whistling up to the arm of the crane over his head. Ben found all seven tons of his red-scaled bulk wrenched up off the helipad in a snarl of claws, tail and wings. He roared, but only spirals of smoke emerged from his throat, his inner gases doused by the tranqs, his muscles too numb to respond. Above him, the sky wheeled, a blurred carousel of grey. Distantly he heard cheering and, he thought, an approaching judder, the chop chop of rotors through the air.
That was his last thought before everything went black.