Read this story, and more, in the upcoming collection Terminus.
He could not tell whether the salt on his tongue came from his fervent perspiration or the frigid sea spray. It filled his mouth, drying his cheeks and cracking his throat. He burned, ached for the relief of even a droplet of fresh water. Nonetheless, he persisted, pulling the length of frayed rope down, releasing the mainsail of his vessel. Raindrops spattered on his head like needles and soaked through his linen shirt and breeches, which stuck themselves against his sore flesh. It was enough to bring down a lesser man, but the image he created of her, etched forever between the sulci of his brain, drove him forward. She had ignited the fire in his chest, a furious blaze that charred his lungs and spilled ash throughout his capillaries, an inferno which the raging sea could not quench. The sail was free at last, and as the roaring winds blew into the rugged cloth and bore his ship forward, he knew victory was almost at hand. He let go of the ropes and, his hands chewed and blistered, grasped onto the splintering mast at the center of the deck. He squinted his eyes and fixed his firm gaze on the pallid horizon, and the vision of his prize filled his head once more. The island cannot be much further, he told himself. Soon, his bow would breach the craggy shores and she, the Ashskin, would be his.
The tips of her slender fingers could just barely stroke the surface of the rock, but it was otherwise out of her reach. The chain clasped around her ankle, pulled taut, would give no more. She attempted to extend her arm further, feeling the lithe muscles and sinew stretch, as if some invisible force was trying to yank it from her shoulder. Nevertheless, the stone danced at her touch but came no closer. In a huff, she retracted her limb, wiped the strands of limp, flaxen hair from in front of her eyes, and lied back on the slab. She had grown tired of the rain. It was miserable, at first, to be soaked through every layer of garment and integument, but now, it was merely an annoyance, albeit a major one. She returned her thoughts to the same question she had been asking herself since first arriving on her waterlogged island: why? Why was she cursed with beauty? It was not her fault that regents, fueled by lust, led their nations to war in order to win her hand in matrimony. She was not some fragile doll, to be placed on a shelf and admired from a distance, only played with in order to entertain her owner. She had told all that to the barnacled crone, that it was not her intent to bewitch men into a carnal rage. The hag simply raised a single, mottled finger and pressed it against her rose-petal lips. Hush, this is what is best for you, child. That was what sea-witch told her, and it had irked her ever since. She may be young, but she was not callow. Battles were fought and the lives of thousands were extinguished before her very eyes. She turned over and reached for the rock once more, her soft brow sharpened in animalistic anger, her stained glass eyes burning, her teeth like millstones grinding into each other. She grazed the flint with her fingers and, as if a primordial growth being uprooted, it slid into her palm.
The rolling, ebon clouds and leaden waves seemed to stretch on beyond the length of possibility. It had been days since he had seen any visual landmarks to break the monotony of his voyage. Or had it been weeks? Time became even more intangible to him, as the hours bled into one another, embracing like a newlywed couple consummating their love for the first time. He knew he was close, though. The legend often spoke of the eternal maelstrom that surrounded the Ashskin’s lithic prison, a meager atoll which held a woman of mythic beauty unparalleled in another mortal. He would succeed where others, obviously unworthy adventurers, had failed. His trials would soon be complete. He had conquered the great labyrinth, a warren with infinitely diverging pathways and unremarkable surfaces, which ground down the will of many heroes and turned them into shambling lunatics. He had slayed the revenant knight, whose torment and pain was tempered by his skills with a blade. He had acquired the decaying remnants of the star chart meant to guide one lucky soul to the island. Just one more task, he reminded himself. Just one final struggle and she would be his. He imagined her lying on the slick stone slab, her pale skin fading into the equally ivory clothing that just barely clung to her youthful curves. He bit his tongue, the sharp taste of his sanguine fluid mixing with the brine already between his lips.
Clang clang! She bashed the rock against the blackened chains, each strike resounding with a solid thud. With each pound, the links leapt into the air, as if performing a mating dance for the maiden. This only served to anger her further. Clang clang! Sparks exploded outward with each of her attempts to break her manacles, pricking her smooth legs and hands, marring her pale complexion, but the pain didn’t bother her. Between the fetter chaffing her ankle raw and being forced to rest upon a stone dais, she was used to physical discomfort. Clang clang! The ringing awakened something dormant within her, a memory long-forgotten by time and sunk under the rain. With each clang, she drifted closer and closer to that first ship, the one that the crone used to steal her away from home at her father’s behest and bring her here. Though the canoe only contained the two of them, it flowed down the colorless waters, propelled forward by the will of that barnacled fiend. She did not ever turn her eyes towards the girl, whose tears streamed down milky cheeks, whose cries were filled with confusion and fear. Clang clunk! A fracture running through one of the chain links split open, as if it had spread its legs, and slithered down the side of the dais, conforming to a lifeless metallic pile. Without a moment’s hesitation, she pushed herself off the raised black slab and began to sprint down the roughly-carved path leading to the shore, her feet clapping against the drenched steps. She did not hear it at first, the pounding in her ears muting out all else around her, but as it grew louder and louder, her scamper slowed down to a halt and it became all she could hear. It was the sound of some beast, growling a trilled, glottal roar that filled her bones with dread.
He readied the slender harpoon, its jagged edge rusted by sea spray and gore. In precise steps, he surveyed the waters, feverish intent in his eyes. The crests were too rough. It was impossible for him to detect movement beneath the surface. Just then, he heard another roar, this one as fierce and guttural as before, only louder. Whatever it was, it was getting closer. He spun in circles around the rain-slicked deck, his eyes nearly bursting out of his skull, open wide and now filled with the same fear and rage as before battle. The lactic acid began to build up in his arm, stinging his muscles, draining his energy. He merely readjusted the grip on his weapon’s rod, trying his best to ignore the building pain. He continued to scan the seemingly limitless sea, but there was nothing. Nothing but the endless, crashing waves and gloom overcast. As he concentrated on the image of the Ashskin, a streak of doubt flashed before her pearl face. Was he to fail here, to come so close to his goal only for his efforts to be forgotten on the pelagic floor? No. He had succeeded before, even when his chances at survival seemed dire. He must—he will reach that island! The unholy growls started once more, clamoring inside his skull. It was here. He had enough time to readjust his footing before a massive shadow rocketed out from the water’s surface. It coiled and writhed as it came into focus, its malachite scales glistening in the downpour, venom trickling down its forked fangs, its ruby eyes fixed upon him.
She left petite footprints in the sodden sand as she stepped onto the shore from the last black step. She had not been on the beach since that clammy hag brought her onto the island, but she hoped it would be more pleasant than her rostrum. It was not. The shoreline led out to the featureless, turbulent waters, broken only by the equally featureless veil of mist taunting her from the horizon. Her vision darted across the sand, looking for…yes! The kelp-eyed witch may have destroyed their canoe long ago, but the petrified bow still sat on the coast’s edge, the hull coated in a thick layer of sea foam. She may not know much about seacraft, or, rather, anything, but even she could tell that if she tried just to ride the timber skeleton, she would soon find herself among the fish. Scrutinizing her surroundings, the only thing she turned up among the weeds and sand were the same smooth rocks surrounding her carven bed. What other option did she have? Should she resign herself to never be the master of her own fate? Inhaling deeply, letting the salt coat her lungs and her resolve, she gathered the stones one by one and lined the bottom of the fragmented boat. When she was satisfied, she snapped off a plank and dragged the hull into the water. Half surprised and half hopeful as she saw the vessel promisingly bob up and down in the turbulent waters, she took a timid step inside and, pushing off the sand with her plank paddle, she soon found herself surrounded by the sea. It was almost fortuitous that the waters were choppy, as it helped to keep the rain out of the boat. How she wished the rains would cease.
The serpent reeled back, hissing a high pitched whistle reminiscent of steam rushing out of a kettle. Its clarion ring reverberated throughout his body. His bones seemed to vibrate in sync with the hiss, echoing inside him as though to paralyze his actions. What kept him moving, he did not know. He tugged at the lines and spun around the mainsail without having to even think about it, his instinct guiding him, all the while keeping his vision focused on the ophidian nightmare. The creature lurched its head. It was about to strike. As it rushed toward him, its jaws snapping shut as a hunter’s trap would, he jerked the rudder to opposite direction, shifting just out of the deadly strike. It regained its composure, shrieking its same unearthly scream before blitzing once more. The ship merely changed course yet again, dodging its attacks, swerving in a serpentine pattern in irreverence to the oncoming hellion. Once more, it gnashed at the vessel, this time snagging the very top of the sail with one of its barbed fangs. Its lashes were becoming more accurate. He knew he would not be able to avoid the beast forever. He closed his eyes imagined the Ashskin, her delicate, welcoming smile beckoning him to join with her, the windfall of his dreams. Opening his eyes just as quick, he spun the ship around once more to face the monstrosity. Whether it was divine assistance or some demon spurring him towards death, the winds seemed to shift, and at once, the sloop charged toward oblivion. Its crimson eyes flickered as the ship approached, salivating venom. Extending its head back once more, it struck. Still on impulse, he leapt backward, just barely avoiding its serrated teeth. As it rent the mast and deck, the vessel’s bowsprit impaled the basilisk’s soft underbelly. It roared, but this time, its cry echoed with frothing anguish, blood spilling into its throat. As soon the spar pierced its scales, the torrential downpour ceased. He had just enough time to gaze up at the creature’s silhouette, a black mass against the clearing heavens, before its skull crashed down upon the ship.
As if passing through a curtain, the waves fell asleep and the skies opened up. She held her hand before her face, light streaming from between her fingers. How long had it been since she last saw the sun? Her eyelids flitted rapidly, adjusting to the marvelous brightness. The spots in her eyes dissipated, and at last, she saw colors other than black and grey. The cerulean sky, the opalescent orb reflecting off turquoise waters, the thousands of muted shades of sea life just below the surface. The warmth on her skin permeated throughout her body, reigniting her smothered core. She was frightened, but also felt something different, something unfamiliar to her. Was this what hope felt like? Whatever it was, whatever was out there, she knew it had to be better than the resignation she left behind on that drenched cay in the middle of a long forgotten nowhere. On the edge of the horizon, where the sea met limitless possibilities, she saw the faintest hint of a blur, some shape that broke the tedium of the seascape. She squinted her eyes and crinkled her brow as it flew across the water, coming closer until she could recognize its shape: a ship! A massive galleon, flying the flag of some unknown nation. She instinctually began to raise her arms, but hesitated. She could not know if they would treat her like all the rest.
He awoke with a start, gasping for air, lying splayed in delicate sand, with gentle waves lapping at his heels. His vision blurred, he wiped a coarse hand across his face, brushing away the saltwater. Rising, the haze before his vision began to part and he could now see his surroundings. Splintered planks of resin-painted wood, all that remained of his humble ship, dotted the embankment. The shore he stood on extended a small distance before fading into charcoaled rock, which loomed above him like a mesa. His eyes followed a single winding path, carved into the stone, leading up the plateau. This must be it, he thought. This is the island, and at the top… Without hesitating, he sprinted up the trail, the rough-hewn stone digging into his feet, but he did not care, for at the top would be the sweetest panacea, the Ashskin. As he made his way up the spiraling passage, he considered what he would tell the object of his desire. Would he regale her with the exploits he underwent upon her behalf? Would he devote himself entirely to her sheer magnificence? His pace slowed as he suddenly remembered that his ship, his only method of transportation and escape, was obliterated. But it did not matter! He would be united with his goddess, and that was the important part. He gained speed and hurried to the top of the promontory, his heart bursting with infatuated joy. It took him a few moments to realize his opalescent dream was not there. There was no fair maiden clasped to the chain hanging broken from the onyx dais, no sign of his devotion. He stood there, frozen in confusion, dismay, disbelief, as dusky clouds gathered above and rain began to fall.