First Monday Free Fiction: The Beast from the Sea of Blood

The Beast from the Sea of Blood by Richard Blakemore and Cora BuhlertWelcome to the June 2022 edition of First Monday Free Fiction.

To recap, inspired by Kristine Kathryn Rusch who posts a free short story every week on her blog, I’ll post a free story on the first Monday of every month. At the end of the month, I’ll take the story down and post another.

June is the first month of summer, so here is The Beast from the Sea of Blood, a summery sword and sorcery story of a trip to the seaside, a crab boil on the beach… and a monster.

So accompany Thurvok, Meldom, Sharenna and Lysha as they face…

The Beast from the Sea of Blood

From the ocean called the Sea of Blood for its red waters the colour of freshly shed blood rose a small rocky island. Nothing and no one lived here except for a colony of noisy seagulls and some crabs, which scuttled across a narrow strip of sandy beach. This was the Desolate Isle, a place avoided by sailors far and wide, because it was believed to be cursed. At least, that’s what old Danvalk said. But then Danvalk would believe his own bed was cursed, should he happen to fall out of it in a drunken stupor.

Thurvok the sellsword, on the other hand, did not believe in curses. But nonetheless, the red waves, so very much like the fresh blood sprouting from an enemy’s cut throat, unnerved him. As a son of the Eastern steppes, he did not much care for the sea in general. Any body of water larger than a well, a puddle or bathing pond tended to make him nervous. But the Sea of Blood with its eerie gory colouring made him even more nervous. Water should simply not be that colour and only the cannibals of Grokh bathed in fresh blood.

Nonetheless, he was stuck here for the time being. For the Mermaid’s Scorn, a small fishing sloop that Thurvok and his friends had purchased from the one-legged sailor Danvalk, sole survivor of an ill-fated expedition to the lost city of Nhom’zonac, had run aground on the sands just off the Desolate Isle. Until the tide rolled in, she would not sail again. At least, that’s what Sharenna had said and she prided herself in her knowledge of the sea. Even though she had run the Mermaid’s Scorn aground, come to think of it.

Worse, the quest that had brought them here, a great pirate treasure supposedly hidden among the seagull nests, had proven to be a bust. Thurvok’s friend and companion Meldom — thief, cutpurse and occasional assassin — had gotten the story of the treasure from an old acquaintance, who’d claimed that he’d been right there, when it was hidden.

“Well, if the treasure really is so great, why doesn’t he get it himself then?” Thurvok had asked.

Meldom had no answer to that, probably because there was none.

Not that it mattered much. For as usual, Thurvok’s objections had been overridden. For Meldom had never heard a rumour of a treasure he did not want to go chasing after. His lover Lysha inevitably sided with him and besides, she was forever concerned about replenishing their dwindling funds. And the sorceress Sharenna, who would normally have been the voice of reason, liked feeling the sea wind in her hair a little too much. And so Thurvok was outvoted and the quartet set sail for the Desolate Isle. Only old Danvalk, whom the foursome occasionally took along on their quests to take advantage of his sailing skills, flat out refused to come.

“I’m not setting a foot, let alone two, on the Desolate Isle,” Danvalk had insisted, “That place is cursed. Cursed, I’m telling you, and beset by monsters and evil powers.”

Of course, Danvalk only had one foot left — as Meldom was about to point out, when a jab from Lysha silenced him. Nonetheless, the old sailor had a point. For there was something very off about the Sea of Blood and the lone rocky island that rose from its waters.

As soon as the quartet reached the blood-red waters, things started to go wrong. The wind became erratic, alternating between eerie calm and violent gusts. And then, when they reached the Desolate Isle, the Mermaid’s Scorn had run aground. Meldom and Sharenna were still arguing about whose fault that was.

But whoever was to blame, they were all stuck here until the tide rolled in, which should happen in approximately eight hours. And so Thurvok and Meldom had busied themselves scaling the slippery rocks to look for the legendary pirate treasure. They found lots of seagull nests and even more seagull shit. What they did not find, however, was even a hint of any treasure.

“All this bother and nothing to show for it,” Thurvok grunted as he and Meldom sat side by side on top of the highest rocks looking out across the tiny island and the bloody sea roiling all around as far as the eye could see.

“Maybe the seagulls ate the treasure,” Meldom mused, “After all, they seem to eat everything else.”

“And shit it out again,” Thurvok added, “No, if there was a treasure here buried in a pile of bird shit, we would have found it.” He sighed. “This whole expedition has been a waste of time.”

“Would you rather sit in The Rusty Nail in Neamene and drink yourself into a stupor?” Meldom countered.

“As a matter of fact, yes.”

Meldom shook his head. “Some adventurer you are.”

“Better a happy, well fed and drunk adventurer, then hungry, thirsty and shipwrecked.”

Meldom rolled his eyes. “Oh please, you make it sound as if we’ll be marooned here forever. It’s only eight hours…” He looked up at the sun, which had sunk further towards the west, and mentally calculated. “…more like five now. And we do have provisions, so it’s not as if we’ll die of hunger or thirst.”

“Yeah, stale bread and water,” Thurvok grunted, “As if we were prisoners languishing in a dungeon.”

“I wanted to take along some salted herrings for variety,” Meldom said, “But you said you’d rather die than eat another salted herring.”

“It’s not natural for a man to eat so much fish,” Thurvok said.

“That’s just because you’re from the Eastern steppes where fish are as rare as ice beasts, dragons and pots of gold. In the coastal cities, it’s perfectly normal to enjoy the bounty of the sea.”

Even an encounter with a dragon would be preferable to being marooned on this forsaken rock in a Sea of Blood, Thurvok thought, though he did not say so out loud.

Meldom, meanwhile, spotted an ivory gleam among the mounts of bird shit. He rolled up the sleeves of his shirt — black, like the rest of his attire — wrinkled his nose and reached into the pile of shit.

He held the object aloft. “Look at what I found.”

Thurvok looked and shrank back at once with such force that he almost toppled from the rock down to the beach below.

“By the crown of Kresgumm…” he exclaimed.

For the object in Meldom’s hand was not a jewel or a gold doubloon, but a skull. A grinning skull with bird shit sticking between its teeth and dripping out of its eye sockets.

“What’s your problem?” Meldom wanted to know, “This is good news. It means that someone has been here before.”

“Yes, and look what happened to him.” Thurvok scratched his chin in confusion, because he had no real way of knowing what gender the owner of the skull had been. “Her? Them?”

“It probably belonged to one of the pirates who buried the treasure,” Meldom mused.

“Or to another treasure hunter. Or just a hapless shipwrecked sailor.”

“Maybe…” Meldom waved the skull about to shoo away one of the ever-present seagulls. “…a bird ate him.”

“Whatever ate that poor soul…” Thurvok said darkly, “…was a lot bigger than a bird.”

He did his best to ignore the skull in Meldom’s hand and how it was staring at him with its hollow, bird shit dripping eyes.

So instead, he looked down at the beach, where Sharenna and Lysha were skipping across the sand and scrambling between the rocks by the sea. Occasionally, they bent down to pick up something from among the rocks and put it into bucket.

“What are the girls doing down there?” Thurvok wondered.

Meldom shrugged. “Gathering firewood maybe.”

“With a bucket?”

“Why not?”

As if to prove him right, Lysha walked past at just this moment with an armful of dry driftwood, which she began to build into a campfire. Sharenna followed, lugging the bucket.

“Come on down,” she called up at them, “Lysha and I have gathered crabs and mussels for a seafood boil.”

Thurvok wasn’t entirely sure what a seafood boil was, though crabs and mussels didn’t sound particularly appetising. And anyway, what was wrong with plain old meat? Though he figured that even crabs and mussels were better than stale bread and plain water.

Though he was lithely built, Meldom was perpetually hungry. And so the promise of food — even food as unenticing as boiled crabs and mussels — made him to stuff the skull into his bag and begin to scramble down the rock.

With a grunt, Thurvok followed. Though in the end, Thurvok reached the beach before Meldom, who’d been shat upon by a seagull halfway down.

On the beach, Lysha had gotten a good fire going, while Sharenna was bent over the bucket, adding some herbs and oil from her bag.

“You’re not trying to magick us, are you?”

Sharenna rolled her eyes. “Of course not. Herbs and oil are good for both magic and cooking. The only thing that differs is the recipe.”

Thurvok peered into the bucket. A crab peered back at him with black beady eyes and menacingly clicked its pincers.

“Crap, those things are still alive.”

“Of course,” Sharenna replied and took the bucket away to fill it up with water, the eerie blood red water of the sea, “If they were dead, we couldn’t eat them, because they’d have gone off already.”

“I’m not eating live crabs,” Thurvok grunted.

“Don’t worry.” Sharenna hung the bucket with the scrambling, clawing, living crabs over the fire. “By the time dinner’s ready, they won’t be. Even crabs can’t survive boiling water.”

At this moment, Meldom appeared, cursing and brushing at a stain of white-grey seagull shit, which now adorned his jerkin, black like the rest of his garb.

“I’ll never get this out of the fabric again,” he lamented and shook his fist at the seagulls circling overhead.

“Just let it dry and brush it off,” Sharenna said.

“That’ll still leave a stain,” Meldom replied.

“Yes, but you can wash it out with saltwater and vinegar,” Lysha said. When Meldom shot her a curious look, she added, “Oh please, I’m the daughter of a silk merchant. I know a thing or two about removing stains from fabric.”

***

The wind had picked up again and was blowing in cold from the sea, so cold that the four adventurers huddled around the campfire, which was blazing away merrily. The bucket had been hung over the fire and occasionally, Meldom or Sharenna reached out with a stick to shove a crab trying to escape the boiling inferno back into the pot.

Thurvok did not touch the bucket or the crabs. Those scuttling, skittering, clicking things with their beady black eyes freaked him out. There was something unnatural about them.

“So did you find anything?” Lysha wanted to know.

“No treasure, unfortunately,” Meldom said, though he seemed remarkably unbothered by the fact that this whole quest had been for naught. “But we found this.”

He opened his bag and pulled out the skull.

Lysha emitted a little squeak, much to Meldom’s amusement. Sharenna frowned.

“Where did you find that?”

“Up yonder among the seagull nests,” Thurvok replied.

“And the seagull shit,” Meldom added.

Sharenna still frowned. “Could you give that to me?”

“What do you want with that?” Thurvok wanted to know, “It’s all dirty and full of bird shit.”

Meldom’s grey eyes went wide, while his already pale complexion turned a shade paler. “You’re not going to reanimate it, are you?

“Why not?” Sharenna countered, “If there really is a treasure hidden here, the skull might know where it is.”

As a sorceress, Sharenna occasionally engaged in a spot of necromancy, though only in emergencies. And unpleasant as being stuck on an island in the middle of a blood red sea with not a single copper penny to show for it was, Thurvok was not entirely sure if it constituted an emergency.

“I thought you needed whole bodies to reanimate,” he pointed out.

“Oh, it works just as well with parts, though normally there isn’t much of a point to reanimating a severed limb or a headless body. After all, it’s not as if they can do much or tell you anything. A skull, on the other hand…”

“Try it!” Meldom all but shoved the skull at her.

“All right.” Sharenna accepted the skull, wrinkling her nose at the bird shit that was still clinging to the bone. She held the skull between her hands and her expression grew blank and distant, as she called up her magic.

Sharenna closed her eyes. Abruptly, the skull’s jaw dropped, as its mouth opened.

“Beware,” the skull said, its voice grating and hollow, like something from the depths of the underworld, “Beware the Beast from the Sea of Blood. Or it will take you, as it took me. Snapped me in half and left me lying on the beach, my bones to be picked clean by the gulls.”

The skull’s mouth closed. At the same instant, Sharenna opened her eyes and dropped the skull as if it were made of red hot iron. The skull rolled into the campfire and lay there, as the flames ignited the bird shit and licked out of the hollow eye socket.

Sharenna seemed troubled, so Thurvok quickly put his arm around her, pulling her close.

“Are you all right?”

Sharenna nodded weakly. “I just need a moment.”

Meldom reached out with a stick to pull the skull out of the fire and cursed, as the stick caught fire as well.

“Now that was ominous,” he announced, “And utterly unhelpful. Nothing about a treasure, just some blather about how the seagulls picked clean his — or her — bones. As if it wasn’t bloody obvious that that was what happened.”

“Don’t forget the beast,” Thurvok pointed out, “It also talked of a beast.”

“Yes, the beast from the sea of blood. And what exactly is that supposed to mean?”

“I for one am not keen to find out,” Thurvok said.

“I just wonder how that skull could talk at all,” Lysha wondered, “After all, it neither has a tongue nor vocal cords.” She cast a doubtful glance at the skull and the flames that enveloped it. “At least, I think it doesn’t.”

Meldom scowled. “No matter how the skull managed to talk, I still think he — she — could have been more precise. I mean, is this beast a sea serpent, a mermaid, an oversized fish, a creature like the monstrous guardian of the lost city of… well, you know what I mean?”

“Does it matter?” Thurvok countered, “It’s a beast and it killed this poor soul. Does it really matter what manner of creature it is?”

“As matter of fact, yes. If we knew what it is, we would have some idea how to fight it? But a beast could be anything, even those blasted seagulls. After all, their shit truly is beastly.” Meldom futilely began to rub at the stain on his jerkin again.

“It’s not a seagull,” Sharenna said suddenly, “But something much bigger and much more dangerous. I couldn’t see it, because he couldn’t, but I felt his fear and his desperation, as he tried to climb the rocks to save himself. But he wasn’t fast enough and so the best got him.”

“How do you know all that?” Thurvok asked.

The flickering firelight illuminated Sharenna’s face and suddenly she looked very witchy indeed. “Sometimes…” she began, “…when I reanimate a body, I get an impression of their final moments. This is what I got from him. And yes, it was a man. A sailor. I could see that very clearly.”

“Did you get anything about a treasure?” Meldom asked, single-minded as always.

Sharenna shook her head. “No, only his final moments. And they didn’t involve a treasure, just fear, terror and an unseen monster.”

“So what do we do now?” Lysha wanted to know, “About the monster, I mean?”

“I don’t think there is much we can do,” Sharenna replied, “Except wait for the tide to roll in, so we can take the Mermaid’s Scorn and get out of here. But until then…”

She peered into bucket and stirred it with a stick, pointedly ignoring the flaming skull at her feet.

“…dinner is ready.”

***

Sharenna emptied the bucket and all four of them cracked open the crabs and mussels to get at the soft flesh within. And even Thurvok, who was deeply suspicious of the sea and anything connected with it had to admit that the food was good.

Meldom waded over to the Mermaid’s Scorn and brought back a jug of rum, which they shared around the fire, while the sun slowly sank towards the western horizon.

“How much longer?” Thurvok asked, keeping a wary eye on his surroundings, just in case this beast the skull had mentioned decided to put in an appearance after all.

“Not long now,” Meldom promised, “The water is already coming back. Another hour or so and the Mermaid’s Scorn will sail again.”

Thurvok looked at the sun, which was already very close to the horizon, painting the Sea of Blood even redder.

“In an hour it will be almost dark,” he said, “Can we even make it back to Neamene in the dark?”

“Of course, we can,” Sharenna replied, “After all, the fisherman go out to sea by night. And if they can navigate in the dark, then so can we.”

Thurvok was about the point out that Sharenna’s and Meldom’s navigation skills were what had caused the Mermaid’s Scorn to run aground in the first place, but then he thought the better of it. He knew a lost argument, when he saw one.

And besides, his stomach was full, the rum was warming his chilly limbs and even his worries about the skull’s ominous pronouncements were slowly fading. In fact, Thurvok felt as comfortable as he had ever since they set out for the Desolate Isle. But as always, when life was going well, it could not last.

Meldom heard it first, a clicking, scuttling sound blowing in from the sea with the wind.

“Please not a storm, please not a storm,” he muttered to himself and turned towards the sound. “What in the name of the Seven Gods of Grayvault,” he exclaimed.

For from the Sea of Blood, halfway to the horizon and further out than the Mermaid’s Scorn, rose a rock where there hadn’t been one before.

“Maybe the tide uncovered it,” Thurvok suggested.

“When it recedes maybe,” Meldom countered. His hand reached for the sheathed dagger at his waist, “But the tide is rising.”

And then the rock ended all speculations, when it began to move, move inexorably towards the shore.

They all jumped to their feet, the fire and the rum forgotten. Thurvok drew his word. Meldom pushed Lysha behind him and drew his dagger. Sharenna stood between them, outwardly calm, but the slight glow around her hands showed that she was calling up her magic.

The thing grew ever bigger as it approached the island. By now, Thurvok could make out details. Eight scuttling legs. Two black beady eyes the size of a baby’s head. And two clicking pincers big enough to snap a man clean in half.

“This would be the beast then,” Sharenna said.

“Uhm, folks, I think it’s angry that we ate its brethren,” Lysha whispered and reached for the slingshot she used for defence.

Meldom sheathed his dagger, for it was clearly no good against a creature of this size, and drew his own slingshot.

And still the giant crab scuttled towards the beach, pincers clicking menacingly. Meldom and Lysha fired their slingshots and pelted it with pebbles and seashells, which did not even slow the thing down.

Thurvok rushed to meet the creature in the lapping water, his mighty sword raised high above his head. He swung his blade in a mighty blow that would have taken a man’s head clean off. But the blade glanced harmlessly off the creature’s shell, while the backlash knocked Thurvok off his feet and into the wet sand.

The beast was almost upon him now, but Thurvok managed to scramble to his feet just in time. He changed tactics and stabbed at the thing, again and again, hoping to find some weak spot. But the point of his sword could not pierce the monster’s sturdy shell and so he only succeeded in annoying the creature. The crab swung one of its pincers towards Thurvok, snapping madly, and only a quick roll to the side saved him from decapitation.

He got to his feet again and swung his sword, this time aiming low at the legs. But once more, it was to no avail. There was no way to stop this creature, no way to even slow it down. All four of them would end like the poor fellow whose skull Meldom had found among the rocks, snapped in half, their bones picked clean by seagulls.

“Get back,” Sharenna cried out, “Its armour is too strong. Your blade can’t hurt it.” She called up a fireball in her hands. “But my magic can.”

Once Thurvok had rolled clear, Sharenna hurled her fireball at the critter. It missed the massive armoured body and landed in the water at its feet instead, exploding in a hiss of steam.

“You missed,” Thurvok called out.

“No, I didn’t.” Sharenna hurled another fireball at the thing’s feet. It hit the water with a hiss and bathed the thing in steam. “I’m boiling the crab.”

After the third fireball, the crab screeched in pain, while the steam and the hot water slowly turned its shell a bright fiery red. But it took another five fireballs, until the thing finally collapsed into the shallow water, quite dead. Waves crashed onto the sand, drenching their shoes and the hems of their clothes.

Sharenna swayed and would have fallen, if Thurvok had not caught her by the waist. Using her magic always took a lot out of her and taking down the giant crab had required some mighty magic.

“Uhm, guys…” Lysha pointed at the horizon, where two more rocks, which had not been there before, had appeared, while the wind blew a scuttling, clicking sound towards the beach, a sound that was getting steadily louder.

“I’d suggest we’d better get back to the ship and away from here fast,” Meldom said, “Before more of those things show up.”

“Can the ship even sail again?” Thurvok wanted to know.

“It’ll have to, unless we want to be crab fodder.”

“And what if we can’t get free?” Lysha asked.

“Then Thurvok will have to get out and push.”

So they all raced for the Mermaid’s Scorn. Meldom and Lysha dashed ahead to unfurl the sails, though Meldom thought to grab the jug of rum first. Thurvok picked up Sharenna, who was still too weak to run, and carried her on board. He set her down against the stern railing and gripped the tiller, following Sharenna’s directions. For unlike Thurvok, Sharenna knew a little about the sea and sailing.

As the Mermaid’s Scorn sped away from the Desolate Isle, Thurvok looked back and saw two giant crabs launching themselves at their fallen comrade, while more of creatures rose from the sea. Seagulls circled overhead.

It was only when they were well away from the Desolate Isle and its monstrous inhabitants and had reached the area where the blood-red sea turned into regular blue-green again — or would, if night hadn’t fallen in the meantime, turning the water to ink — that they dared to relax.

Thurvok fastened the tiller with a rope and Meldom evenly divided the last of the rum between four cups.

“Well, we did not find the treasure, but that was certainly an adventure,” he said, “And it will make a grand tale to tell at The Rusty Nail or any other harbour bar in Neamene.”

“So more gullible folks will come here in search of treasure and night have their heads snapped off,” Thurvok grumbled.

“Well, that’s their choice, isn’t it? After all, it’s not as if we’re going to pretend that we found the treasure.”

“Maybe we should,” Lysha pointed out, “To discourage other adventures and make sure they won’t get eaten by the monster crabs.”

Meldom laughed. “That won’t work. Cause don’t you know that rumours of treasures found always draw more treasure seekers.”

“Well, you should know,” Thurvok said, “After all, there was never a rumour about a treasure that you did not follow up on. Even though all it ever got us was vengeful corpses, crazed cultists, tentacled monsters and now giant crabs.”

“And bird shit,” Meldom said, still rubbing at the stain on his jerkin, “Don’t forget the bird shit.”

“Oh, stop complaining,” Sharenna, who was largely recovered by now, said, “At least be grateful that it was a regular sized seagull and not a monster-sized one.”

Thurvok lifted his cup. “I’ll drink to that.”

***

That’s it for this month’s edition of First Monday Free Fiction. Check back next month, when a new free story will be posted.

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