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TCOTCE: Prologue

Late Summer, South Eastern Coast of the Kingdom of Selwhin

Harian Eldiff rose that morning before the sun did, as was his custom. The bed beside him was empty, but when he stretched his hand through the sheets, he felt a lingering warmth that brought a smile to his weathered face.

The muffled sounds of his wife puttering around the kitchen reached his ears as the last vestiges of sleep fell away. Joints creaking, he pushed off the threadbare blankets and stood from the bed. An orange glow shone through the crack at the bottom of the door, and he dressed by its soft light.

His arthritic knuckles began to throb as he tied the drawstring of his linen shirt closed, and he knew from their aching that it would rain later, which meant today would be a long, painful day for him out on the open water.

A heavy sigh slipped from his lips as he shuffled out of the bedroom. Once, the rain hadn’t bothered him so. Once, he’d been young and fool hardy. Once, he’d laughed into the face of the autumn storm clouds, taunting the sea god Ocanic with his blasphemy. But that was long ago, during the reign of another king, in an age of peace and plenty.

His wife, Milisand, greeted him with a kiss, her dark eyes nearly disappearing into the folds of her wrinkles as she smiled.

“Breakfast will be ready in a moment, dear,” she said, patting him on the cheek before turning back to the hearth.

She had already brewed a strong pot of tea and set it on the small kitchen table. Harian gingerly lowered himself onto one of the chairs and poured himself a large cup, wishing there was sugar and cream to go with it, or maybe some opia to soothe his aching bones.

Soon, he told himself as he took his first sip of the bitter brew. In a week – two at most – the strongest of the autumn storms would sweep up the coast, driving the swarming shoals of fish ahead of them. It would be a time of plenty. A time for luxuries like sugar and cream and medicinal herbs. He might even have enough silver left over to buy that pretty locket he’d seen in the jeweler’s window and make a surprise gift of it to Milisand.

A soft knock sounded from the kitchen door, and before waiting for an answer, their two sons, Killarin and Ilander, slipped into the cottage. The kitchen felt crowded with them in it; both were as tall and broad shouldered as their father had once been, with olive skin burnished bronze by the summer sun and dark eyes that glittered in the candlelight. They greeted their mother with a kiss each, then let her shoo them over to the table and out of her way.

Harian poured them each a cup of tea. “It’s going to rain later,” he said.

Killarin’s gaze dropped to his father’s hands as he took a cup from his brother. “Why don’t you stay home today, Da? Give those joints a rest?”

Harian glared at his eldest. “And let you two fish brains tangle the lines?”

His sons shared a look before turning the conversation toward a safer topic. Harian let their words flow over him, frowning as he sipped his tea. His tone had been sharper than he had intended, filled with the knowledge that all too soon the pain would be too much, and he would be forced to take a day off. And then another.

Try as he might to tell himself that his sons were more than able to take over the family trade and care for him and his wife in their dotage, he just couldn’t come to terms with the dreaded thought of…retirement. What would he do to fill his days when he could no longer hoist a sail? Take up reading? Maybe get a dog or three and sic them on those flying rats more commonly referred to as seagulls? If that failed, he could always join the likes of old man Coffet down at the tavern most nights, and regale the young with tales of his ‘glory days’.

He shuddered at the thought.

“Brendar said Nana yesterday,” Ilander told Milisand, rousing Harian from his dark thoughts.

“Oh, did he?” his wife said, coming over to place a steaming bowl of porridge in the middle of the table. “He’s speaking so early.”

A proud smile spread over Ilander’s face. “That’s what I keep saying, but Arwina swears she was speaking at his age too.”

“Well, your wife is a very intelligent woman; I’ve no doubt that was the case. Perhaps he’ll be the next family scholar,” Milisand said, patting him on the shoulder before turning back to the hearth.

Harian smiled despite himself. His youngest grandson was a constant topic of conversation these days. As Ilander’s only child, it was all he wanted to talk about. Not a day went by that they weren’t regaled with a tale about a particularly disturbing nappy change or debated each other over whether an expression the infant made was a smile brought on by humor, or simply gas.

When all the food was laid, Milisand joined them, and they passed their morning meal in companionable conversation, their patriarch’s sharp words quickly forgotten. Harian’s family knew as well as he did the place that they came from, and they understood that nothing frightened him so much as the monotony of retirement. Ilander described more of his son’s latest developments, Milisand left them chuckling over a tale of an argument between the mayor and one of the local priestesses, and Killarin told them that his wife, a woman with an uncanny affinity for animals, had taken in another injured street cat to nurse back to health.

Too soon one of the neighboring roosters began to crow the dawning of the day. All four rose from the table and cleared their plates. Before the men left, Milisand handed each a mid-morning snack of olives, bread, and cheese, wrapped tightly in an oilcloth to keep out the pervasive moisture of the sea. They thanked her, said their goodbyes, and slipped out into the pre-dawn gloom.

A heavy fog was rolling in with the morning tide, marching up the coastline like an invading army. Tendrils of vapor slipped sinuously between the cottages as it shrouded the fishing village in mist. With nothing to break it up, it lay thickest on the main thoroughfare, blanketing the ground so that the men could barely make out their own feet beneath them. The night watch had lit the torches that lined the street, and the fog was so thick in places that the Eldiffs were forced to use their distant illumination to guide them toward the harbor.

“Smells like wood smoke,” Ilander said as they walked, his words muffled by the still, oppressive air.

Harian sniffed. “Aye,” was all he said, not liking the way the sound seemed to die on his lips.

It did smell like wood smoke. A lot of wood smoke. No doubt old man Coffet was already awake and burning the dead tree that had fallen over his fence two days before. Harian would likely come home to find Milisand waiting with a humorous tale about Coffet arguing with the mayor over his right to burn anything that happened to stumble onto his property, including meddling town officials.

Perhaps that was what he could do when he retired; help Coffet bother the mayor into an early grave.

Harian smiled to himself at the thought, but the expression was fleeting. Like his words, it felt out of place, sacrilegious even in this otherworldly realm of mist and darkness.

That thought nearly drew him up short. Harian was a man of little imagination, and prayed to no gods. Words like sacrilegious were as foreign to him as thoughts of fog being filled with unseen eyes. But that was exactly how he felt; as though they weren’t the only creatures on the road right now.

It was something he’d experienced only once before, when he was still a young lad, and as strange mist much like this one had crept up the coast and claimed the fishing village the next bay north of theirs. It had seemed a living, breathing, malicious thing, wrought with dark magic, and noxious to anyone who loitered too long within it. Here, in this small village, it had wreaked all manner of mischief. The milk had soured in the cows, crops in the fields had sprouted sickly fresh fruit, turning the bowels of those who ate it into liquid for a full sennight, and all across the village, people who had never spoken an ill word to their neighbors were suddenly shouting themselves hoarse. There was even a murder before the madness passed.

But that was nothing compared to what had happened to their neighbors. They simply…vanished. The king’s men had spent a month hunting up and down the coastline searching out the cause. In the end it was put out that a raid of pirates from the Ghost Isles had carried them all off.

A greater heap of horse shite Harian had never heard.

Could this be something similar? Some foul magic creeping up again to drag them out to sea? He glanced over his shoulder to see the mist swirling in their wake before slowly settling back to the ground. Just as mist always did.

See? Nothing odd or enchanted about it. It’s just fog, you old fool, he told himself. Jumping at shadows and seeing things where there ain’t nothing to be seen, carrying on like a startled peahen…

He continued to scold himself as he walked, but soon he hunched his shoulders and shoved his hands into his pockets, for his bluster did absolutely nothing to dispel that sense of being watched. Try as he might to tell himself it was only in his head, the feeling persisted all the way to the small harbor the town huddled around.

Further up the coast, the encroaching tide could be heard roaring against the Gray Cliffs, while here in the bay it rolled gently in, sighing softly as it lapped against the ancient stone sea wall. The harbor torches had been likewise lit, and they were larger and brighter than those in town. They succeeded in burning some of the fog away where those in the streets had failed. Harian breathed a sigh of relief to see the mist was thinner ahead than it was behind.

His discomfort faded as their boots echoed over the first few planks of the wharf, and he pulled his hands from his pockets and straightened, once more calling himself five kinds of fool. He faltered when he noticed his sons echoing his movements, as if they too had felt those strange eyes upon them.

“Morning, Harian. Boys,” called a disembodied voice. A heartbeat later, the familiar visage of Pater, one of Harian’s oldest friends, came shambling out of the gloom.

“Morning Pater,” Harian called back.

“Strange fog,” Pater remarked.

Harian looked to his sons. “What are you two standing around for?”

“Sorry, Da,” they said in chorus, then shook themselves and strode toward their boat, leaping onto it with the surefooted nimbleness only years at sea could forge.

Harian waited until they were well out of earshot before speaking. “Aye. Anything else strange about this morning?”

Pater was old enough to remember the dark miasma that had nearly turned their town mad when they were lads, and Harian knew his friend would understand his meaning.

Pater shook his shaggy gray head. “No. Just that feeling of being watched. Neelar and Benli already heaved off. If anything…untoward was afoot, they would have turned back around and warned us.”

“Still, best keep our eyes peeled today. Tell your boys to move quickly. It’s going to rain later.”

With that, he bid his friend farewell and moved to join his sons, anxious to be out on the open water. They worked in silence, each knowing their tasks so well that words weren’t needed to complete them. Just as the sun was beginning to brighten the eastern horizon, they heaved off, Ilander and Killarin manning the oars while their father stood on the prow of the small fishing vessel and called out instructions.

They passed through the mouth of the harbor without incident, his sons pulling strong as they headed into the bay and steered south toward their lobster traps.

As they rounded the mouth of the inlet, the southern coastline came into view. Off in the distance, a strange orange glow burned strong enough to be clearly visible even through the fog.

“What do you reckon that is?” Killarin called.

“Invess?” Ilander guessed. “Must have fog down there too.”

Killarin snorted. “And what? They lit every torch in the village to drive it away?”

“Quiet, both of you,” Harian snapped. “Still the oars.”

They obeyed immediately, hearing the urgency in their father’s tone. Though he was getting on in years, Harian’s eyes were still sharper than both his sons’.

He leapt from the prow with a swiftness that belied his age, and raced between his boys to snatch up the hurricane lantern that swayed in the middle of the boat. He doused the flame immediately and then crouched down between the larger men.

“That’s no torchlight. The city is burning,” he whispered. “Damn me, I should have listened to my gut. Turn us around quickly. Back to the harbor, boys. And don’t speak unless to call out anything unusual.”

Again, they obeyed, peering out at the surrounding sea with wary gazes as their elderly father hefted a harpoon in his hands and stalked back to the prow.

Killarin was the first to notice anything out of sorts, but he was so flabbergasted by what he saw that all rational thought fled his mind. It was a woman. A seemingly naked woman! His oar slowed as she rose from the water barely an arm length away from the boat. The sun was just breaking over the horizon, and it bathed her in a soft golden light that made her seem like she was lit from within.

She was nothing more than the most stunningly beautiful creature he had ever seen. Though her blonde hair was soaked through with water, the curl hadn’t yet abandoned it, and it fell around her in loose waves that clung to her delicately blushing skin and failed to cover her soft, mounded breasts.

Killarin licked his lips as he stared at the pinks of her nipples, only raising his eyes when he realized how rude he was being. The gaze he met stole the breath from his lungs. Where his eyes were coal black, hers were deep pools of sapphire shot through with azure. They were bluer than the coastal waters in mid-summer, bluer than anything he’d ever seen, and the longer he stared into them, the further he fell.

She half-lidded those impossible eyes and smiled seductively up at him, swimming closer still, easily keeping pace with their boat. He caught the flick of fins beneath the water and sucked in a breath as he realized she must be one of the mythical mer people the old men in his village told tales about.

She parted her full, luscious lips, and the voice that poured out of them was sensual enough to stir his manhood into full arousal. “Come with me, Killarin,” she crooned.

Her words called to him in a way that made it impossible to resist. They made him forget about his wife and children, forget about his father and brother in the boat beside him. Nothing else mattered.

A beatific smile split his face as he released his oar and reached out to her.

“No!” his father roared, hefting his harpoon as he readied himself to throw it.

But he was too late. Before he could let fly at the creature masquerading as a mer, that hideous nightmare rose up out of the water and snatched his eldest son clean out of the boat. Bubbles and blood boiled up from the depths a heartbeat later.

“Row. Row, gods damn you,” Harian shouted, dropping his harpoon to take up Killarin’s oar.

Beside him, his remaining son vomited noisily on himself even as he obeyed his father’s command.

“W-what was she?” he asked as he straightened.

Thank the gods she didn’t catch him too, Harian thought.

“A slick, I think,” he answered, his voice shaking. He had never really believed his father’s tales about the monsters who once hounded Selwhin’s coastlines, but from the quick glance he had caught of its true form as it dragged his eldest into the deep, there could be no mistaking that was what it was. “My Da used to say that where there’s one, there’s twenty. And for the love of the gods, don’t look into their eyes.”

As heartbroken as he was, he had no time to mourn his son, for around them, more heads broke the surface of the water to reveal bald, ink-stained creatures with scales where there should be skin. In Harian’s peripheral vision, he saw them as they were, but as he turned to count their number, each changed. When his eyes alighted on them, he saw women so beautiful they made him want to weep.

He never met their gazes, just kept shifting his focus from one to the next. As each faded from sight, so did their beauty, until once more they were dark stains of madness clawing at the edges of his vision.

He counted ten in total. They were doomed.

For the first time since he was a small lad, Harian prayed. He called on Ocanic first, then Ilief, the protector of men, Dinae, the patron of travelers, Morsipe, Jorum, and every other god in their long-dead pantheon.

None came to their aid.

As one, the slicks opened their mouths and began to sing, a low, mournful song filled with hunger and bloodlust.

“Don’t listen to them!” Harian warned, and then began singing his own song over their crooning. It was a bawdy tune that sailors favored in the local taverns, after they’d had a few too many pints.

Ilander quickly joined in, tears and snot streaming down his face as he sang.

Harian felt wetness on his own cheeks. For Killarin. For Ilander. For himself. For all the poor souls lost in Invess, and most of all, for all the poor souls soon to be lost in his own village.

Run, Milisand. RUN! he thought, praying that she might somehow hear and heed his warning.

The mouth of the harbor was close now, tauntingly so, but Harian knew they would never reach it. In the stories he’d heard growing up, slicks weren’t known for their mercy, only their sadism. All around him, they continued to sing, swimming ever closer. Soon they surrounded the boat on all sides, peering up at the men with orange, pupil-less eyes as they crowded together.

Ilander’s voice faltered as he sob-sang, pausing just long enough that a few of the slick’s words reached his ears. His oar slowed and then stilled, falling silent.

“Ilander, no!” Harian shouted, dropping his own oar to lean over and grab his son’s shoulder.

Too late he realized his folly. He tried to open his mouth and sing again, but with the slick’s song filling his ears, he found that he had forgotten the words of all others.

Webbed hands tipped with talons shot out from the water all along the boat, gripping the lines until the vessel shuddered to a standstill in the shallows.

“N-no,” Harian whispered, helpless to stop himself from turning toward the nearest slick, who no longer looked like a slick at all, but his own dearest Milisand in the full flush of youth. “You evil sprite,” he hissed at her.

Behind him, Ilander smiled, his head filled with all the pleasures the slick’s song promised him. The nearest one rose slowly out of the water, droplets clinging to her skin like dew on a blade of grass. Ilander’s gaze dropped from her crystalline eyes to her kissable lips and then came to a rest on her perfectly formed breasts.

Unable to help himself, he reached his hands forward and cupped them, his eyes closing in ecstasy as he plied their delicate flesh.

Above him, the woman’s mouth opened wider, her smile no longer sensual. The hinge at her jaw dislocated, and she parted her lips wider still. Impossibly wide. Wide enough to expose every row of backward pointing serrated teeth that filled her cavernous mouth. Wide enough to swallow him whole.

The sound of his son’s screaming cleared some of the magic from Harian’s mind, enough for him to lurch back from the creatures that surrounded him. He landed in the middle of the boat, in a pool of blood.

“You rutting bastards,” he seethed. “Ocanic take you all.”

Before the slicks realized what he was about, he drove himself onto his own harpoon, angling it so that the head slipped up beneath his ribs and pierced his heart. He died with a smile on his face, knowing that he’d managed to thwart these abominations even in some small way.

~*~


On the dock, Pater Naraf paused in his work, straightening to stare at the boat bobbing back into the harbor.

“Ban!” he shouted to his nearest son.

“Yeah, Da?” he said, joining him.

Damn these old eyes, Pater thought. Aloud, he said, “That Eldiff’s boat?”

“Tis, Da.”

Pater hobbled toward the edge of the dock to get a better look, his spine bent from years of hauling nets and lines. “Back so soon?” he called.

“Aye,” Harian shouted back, his voice sounding off because of the mist. “This gods-cursed fog is worse out on the water.”

Since when did a bit of fog keep Harian Eldiff from his lines? wondered Pater, scratching at his chin.

Just then the boat reached its usual slip, and the torchlight lit upon its contents. Dark, viscous pools gathered on the floorboards beneath the Eldiffs’ feet, like spilled lamp oil, or…blood.

Pater raised his gaze just in time to see Harian’s eyes catch the light and reflect orange.

Slicks.

“Run, Ban!” he shouted, pushing at his son with his feeble hands.

His warning came too late. By the time the sun cleared the horizon, the screams of the dying filled the harbor.


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Copyright © 2019 by Navessa Allen
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, including photocopying, recording, or other electronic or mechanical methods, without the prior written permission of the author, except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical reviews and certain other noncommercial uses permitted by copyright law.
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents either are the products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, businesses, companies, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.


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