War and History Fiction posted October 30, 2023

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A storm hits as a fishermen hunts for his prey.

Mem and Family

by Rinshikai

The author has placed a warning on this post for violence.
The author has placed a warning on this post for language.

Nothing, no bones, no scales, not even the remains of a nest; I knew that tip was too good to be true. Crawling back into my little boat, I mark another location on my map. Looking out on the horizon, I can make out the jagged peaks of the eye of Mem. If one of their war galleys spots me, I'm screwed.
Far to the west, the sea begins to swallow the sun, and I can't spot my brother's ships. They shouldn't have drifted that far away. Gathering my dwindling supplies, I ready my bow. Notching a whistling arrow, I let it sing through the air, signaling I found nothing.
In response, I get the signal to bunker down. Why would my brother want me to bunker down? I look between the sea stacks, but I don't see anything. A cold air starts to blow, and the waves dance through the sea stacks. A storm is coming.
Again, I hear the horn warning me to bunker down. I hear you, brother. With my gear safely tucked below deck, I must get to shelter. The sea stacks give me nothing to anchor on to, and if a storm is coming, I don't want the waves to crush me.
Hoisting my sail, I slip through the narrow passages between the sea stacks that tower over me. If my ship were any bigger, I would be ripped to pieces. This whole area was once an island, now only the mountain at its core remians above the waves. My brother's warning echoes in the distance; now I know why. Just outside the sea stack's reach, a Zarek war galley sails towards me, escorted by a small fleet of sea striders.   
He sold us out. That bastard, if I make it out of here, I'll cut his throat and feed him to the sea. Lightning dances through the clouds, and a thunderous boom echoes across the ocean. Rudder in hand, I fight the waves, nearly going blind from saltwater. Through the haze, I can barely make out anything past the bow. It takes all my strength to maneuver between these monstrous stone towers that have destroyed many ships in their time.  
I wipe my face, desperate to stop the burning. When my vision returns, I have just a second to duck as my mast snaps from my ship. What did I hit? I turn my head, finding a war gallery mast tied between two sea stacks, nearly taking me with it. I reach below deck, grabbing my harpoon, bow, whatever arrows I can, and a fish leather sack. Foolishly, I thought I was safe, but the gut of my ship is ruptured by a wooden spike hidden in the waves.
I'm flung into the water,  thrown around like a rag doll, as I desperately try to keep my head above water. Once on the shore, I run further inland, ignoring the remains that litter the beach like stones. My brother had told me about this place, a haven for the true Zarek whenever they left the eye's safety.
I turn back to the sea and spot the sails of three skiffs decorated with the leviathan sigil racing toward my ship. I use the lush foliage as cover. Skiffs glide into the sand, and the hypocrisy of my pursuers glistens in the rain. They adorn their bodies with the scales of the sea serpents, fashioning weapons from their teeth and claws, using their skulls as helmets.
Hypocrites, they claim we steal from Mem, but they hoard everything they can get their hands on.
I may have a chance if I could get to one of those skiffs. But my hopes are cut short when another wave kisses the beachhead. The storm is worsening, and their war galley still lurks past the sea stacks.  
Something is off. It's not just the armored men on the skiffs. Draped in robes that hide their faces, several individuals are dragged along with them. When one refuses to get off the skiff, they're thrown to the ground and forced to join the others. Dangling from their necks, I spot red stones in the shape of tears.
A man in robes disembarks, eyeing the men. "I want this poacher found!" He points towards the inland, sending six men after me. He then turns to the others. On cue, lightning dances through the sky, followed by a thunderous boom. "Mem demands payment for this sacrilege." He looks at his captives, pulling one of their hoods down and revealing a young woman with chalk-white hair. Grabbing the red stone around her neck, he stares at it intently, comparing it to his blue one. "You have lost your way, child."
She refuses to look at him, but he takes her by the chin. A mask of vines and twigs hides her expression, quivering as she hugs the rags to the naked body.  
"Mem is a merciful goddess." Pulling her closer by the necklace. "Even people like you are not beyond redemption." Gesturing to his remaining men, they start to herd their captives away. I want to follow, but the glint of my pursuer's armor forces me to move.
I slip into the brush, using the heavy rain to muffle my steps. However, the thick mud leaves a trail; I'm dead if I don't find shelter soon. Desperate to disappear, I check further inland; the ground gets rocky. It won't leave tracks, but there's a minimal amount of cover; one false move, and I will likely be hit with an arrow or a spear.
"Find him!" my pursuers yell, the jingling of their scale armor rattling between the trees. Fuck, I have to risk it. Caking my body in mud, I race through the open, hugging the rock face that was once the top of the mountain. They break through the tree line, following my trail. Their leader punches a tree and divides his forces, sending three men back into the brush while the rest creep slowly across jagged rocks.
Dammit, I'm screwed; if I move a muscle, they'll spot me. Think? There has to be something I can do. My hand racing behind me, I grab the first loose thing and throw it into the bush. With them distracted, I break for it, wondering if I'm in the clear. Searching for any hint of a place to hide, I find a worn tarp dancing in the wind. Without hesitation, I crawl underneath it, finding an old cache. Though most of it is worthless, I can use a few salvageable things—some rope, a few whistling arrows, and a sea serpent knife.
"He's in there?" I can hear them outside. I hug the cave wall and fight the urge to wince as a spear blade glances across my arm. The tarp shoots up, and I thrust my harpoon into the first man I see. Warm blood oozes down the grip, and another man rushes me, trying to avenge his comrade. His spear snaps into the cave's wall, and he draws his knife.
His armor provides an overwhelming advantage, and I'm quickly littered with cuts. Behind him, the other man nocks an arrow, but I use his friend as a shield. My arm wrapped around his neck, with my blade in his ear, threatening to lodge it deeper. But something is off. Those eyes glow yellow in the darkness, and their exposed hands have a scaly rash.
"You're trapped, poacher. Surrender." He draws, aiming for my head. He'll have to either shoot or lower his bow. I'll have a chance if I can hold out longer than him.
A sharp pain races up my leg, forcing me to relinquish my hostage. An arrow wooshes past my ear, leaving me at the mercy of my pursuers. With my leg impaled with a knife, I can't outrun them, so I do the only thing I can. Raising my arms in defeat, they bind my hands, leading me out of the cave.
"What about his leg?" One of them said as I limp along.
"You feel sorry for this scum?" The other said.
"Of course not." The storm continues to rage, its torrent turning the ground into a muddy bog. He hands me a stick to use as a crutch. "I just want to sate Mem's wrath."
We slog through the muck, joining the three other men sent after me. One holds my harpoon, marveling at the craftsmanship, while the other two tend to their fallen comrade. Spotting us, the man points the tip of my weapon to my throat. "Where did you get this!" he said. Angry at my silence, he pushes the end under my chin. "Tell me!"
Smiling, I reach for my throat, showing a scar across my neck, laughing to myself when they see my tear of Mem hasn't turned red.
"Impossible." One of them pulls on my necklace. "How could Mem give her blessing to a poacher?
"It doesn't matter. Mem will judge him accordingly." Wisps of light break through the clouds, and a rainbow forms in the sky. "So it begins."
We continue our march to the other side of the island. The stench of blood and rotten fish fills the air like a heavy mist. We pass the tree line, arriving on a beach surrounded by a cove of jagged cliffs. The war galley I evaded is now nestled in the mouth,  blocking my only way out to sea. Underfoot, the bones of man and creature crunch under our footsteps, the noxious smell of decay threatening to turn my stomach.
I'm both disgusted and relieved at my situation. It means that the contact was correct; there were sea serpents here, and judging from the debris on the beach, it was a big one. Bobbing in the water, the clutter of ships drifts in the current, the waters a swampy mess filled with chum and bones. Amongst the carnage, skiffs form a circle, each with a single passenger, bound by the wrists to two posts.
The raging storm had diminished, now barely a drizzle as the clouds parted, the red light of dawn giving the sky monstrous eyes. Was I running all night? A horn is blown, and the holy man starts his prayers. "Mem, mother of all, we offer you these lost souls." The waters begin to roil, and something goes under the galley. Then, without warning, an enormous maw of teeth consumes one of the skiffs, snapping it in two.
Screams start to erupt from the other skiffs as the others fight to escape their bonds, hoping beyond hope that they can escape. But all they're doing is drawing the attention of the beast.
"Elder, we've brought the poacher as you asked." The man smiles at the carnage. "But it looks like Mem will be satisfied with the offering."
The old man turns around, revealing a pruned, wrinkly face. Though we all share the dark complexion of our Zarek ancestors, his white dreads mark him and his men as true Zarek. But it's as if he plucked those yellow eyes from a sea serpent. Like his men, he, too, has a scaly rash.
They throw me to my knees, and my wound burns, though I don't give them the satisfaction. The old man hobbles towards me and kneels, eyeing my tear of Mem.
"Where are the rest? I know there are more of you," he asks as he twists my necklace in his bony fingers. He pulls my scarf up and sees the jagged scar across my throat. Then, an eerie grin appears on his face. "Ah, your Mago's brother." He leans in. "If you tell me where he is, I will spare you; I'll even give you a skiff as a gesture of good faith."
I spit in his face, and one of the guards punches me. I would never betray my brother or the Flotilla. We're a family. We would never betray each other, even for Mem's blessing.
"Elder, why hasn't Mem forsaken him like the others?" one of the guards said.
"He is not a true Zarek," the old man said, his attention returning to the cove. "But Mem will judge him, just like the rest of us." He begins to twist his staff in the air, and tiny discs spin in its hollowed head that resembles a fish hook. The whistling sings across the waves, drawing the beast's ire in mid-meal.
The creature raises its mutilated head from the sea, staring our group down, a deep-throated gargle emanating from its throat. Its long tongue tastes the air around us, as its gills reverberate in the air. Falling to his knees, the Elder bows his head as a show of respect, and the man I had killed is offered to the creature, the wound from earlier still oozing.
"Daughter of Mem, we offer you this poacher for his transgressions. And we ask that you take our fallen to be embraced by the mother of all so that he may find peace again."
The stench of blood draws the creature to the fallen warrior. After a few more sniffs, it quickly consumes the man, armor, and all. Its neck muscles tighten as the lump quickly disappears to its stomach, yet the creature is unsatisfied with the offering. It stares at me hungrily, gargling hisses echoing in my ears. It lurches back, ready to swallow me whole. But I'm okay with it. My brother and the others are safe. That's more important than my life.
I close my eyes, ready to be embraced by this daughter of Mem. Yet, a familiar horn blasts past the cove. I open my eyes, and a great ball of fire falls from the sky, snapping the mast from the war galley. The horn roars in the distance as a black sailed ship hits the galley. The sounds of battle start as my brother's banner waves proudly in the wind as he and his men board.
I can't savor this moment for long. The old man takes me by the neck using the hook of his staff trying to throw me into the water. But I pull him in, dragging two of his men with him. We all sink into the murky depths, but the guard's armor acts like an anchor, and they fight to remove every piece they can.
I expected the sea serpent to come for us; we're an easy target. But it doesn't. It's as if it's preoccupied with something else. The old man tries to push me deeper into the cove, but even with my leg injury, I overpower him, snapping his staff and leaving the hook around my neck. I grab him by the throat and threaten to jab his now-broken staff into his eye. My gut tells me to kill him, but he's too valuable a hostage. So I take him along, dragging him to the surface.
Bobbing my head above the water, I gasp for air. Throwing the old man to the side as he lands with a grunt on a piece of a broken ship. Ripping the fish hook from around my neck, I contemplate what to do next.
My ears are full of seawater, and everything sounds muffled. Through my hazy vision, I see the ship that once blocked The Cove is now in tatters and burning. All around me, sounds of battle echo through the area. And above all that, the sea-serpent roars, punctured by harpoons pulling it closer to my brother's ship.
Now's my chance. I hobble towards the creature with the old man's broken staff in hand. The old man tries to stop me by grabbing my leg. I kick him away, and continue my painstaking march. I'm forced to take cover as one of the chains snaps, ripping the ballista from the bothers ship. Turning one of its restraints into a flail, the beast causes carnage and destruction with every swing of its great neck. In its fury, it manages to entangle itself in the debris, and every movement creates a wave, changing the battlefield as boats split and crash into each other. But that doesn't stop my brother's men from filling it with more harpoons. The serpent is exhausted and bleeding.  
With the ballista chain in hand, I pull its monstrous head to a broken mast, turning it into a giant spear. I look it in the eyes, piercing its head from its soft underbelly. With one last breath, its body twitches violently before going slack.  
"No!" The old man yells. Trying to stab me with my own harpoon. "You fool, do you realize what you've done?" He swings at me, knocking me to my feet. "You have desecrated this holy place, and now you must pay the price." He goes for my throat, but a shadow washes over my head, taking his head clean off.
Finding the source of the shadow, the sound of my brother's iron club hits the broken deck with a heavy thud. Hands firmly on the handle, my brother looks down at me with worry and mocking disappointment. Offering me his hand, he pulls me to my feet, Offering me my harpoon as a crutch. "Don't lose it again." He slugs my other arm over his shoulder.
It's hard to believe we're related. I tower over him muscle on muscle with my dark hair in short dreads touching my shoulders. On the other hand, my brother is round with a bald head, his beard all but gray now. Yet, he wields that heavy weapon like it was nothing, thanks to those tree trunks he has for arms. I sign that we should have taken him alive, but all he does is chuckle at the prospect.
"You think he would have come quietly, Minnow?"
I sign, question after question. Asking how many we lost, what we would do with any captives, and if we can harvest this beast before the scavengers try their luck. The grim reality rears its ugly face as I look around. This place is a graveyard with mangled remains of our men and the true Zarak. Broken ships and driftwood bob in the waves, welcoming anything that embraces it, bringing it down to Mem's murky embrace.
"For a man who can't speak, you certainly have much to say, Minnow." He smiles, scaling the tallest rock face so everyone can hear his long-winded speech. "Everyone! Mem has given us a bountiful gift; let's not let it go to waste." He takes my arm, thrusting it into the air. "This gift would not be possible without my baby bro here; as such, he will get the prime cut this day."
Cheers echo across the cove, and then, with its one good ballista, my brother's ship drags the beast away, opening the cove's putrid waters for all to see. The chain creaks as the beast is pulled, straining it with every heavy click until it's hugging the front of my brother's ship.
Like a swarm of locusts, the crew gets to work, peeling the large scales off the creature's massive body and piling them on the deck. The wet chopping continues as we climb the rope ladder onto the deck. Looking at the remains, I'm marveling at the size of this thing. Why would such a large offspring of Mem be on the surface? The large ones always stay in the deepest part of the sea. The fish wives gather at the beast's tail, each carrying vases meant for the creature's blood. The tail tip is removed with one clean cut, with vases filled in quick succession.
"Sit," my brother orders gesturing to a crate. Not arguing, I sit, letting my wounded leg rest. With a grin, my brother pulls out a bottle of rum and a rag. He pours the alcohol, setting my wound on fire. Then, he dresses my leg using a spare piece of cloth.  
Though he can irritate me, he's still my brother. He's always watched out for me since we were little, but his medical skills have mostly stayed the same all these years. You get a cut, alcohol, and a rag. You get sick, a shot of rum. Thankfully, his wife, Mirena, actually knows how to treat injuries.
My prayers answered, she comes to my rescue through the chaotic symphony of the harvesters. Matching my brother's hefty physique, she walks towards us, her white dreadlocks tied firmly in a head wrap. Her bright dress leaves her shoulders bare, held aloft by her waist bindings and ample bust. Dangling around her neck is a polished sea-serpent fang carved into Mem's human form, with a tear nestled in the goddess's hands.
"I can handle this. You should help with this beast." She pulls out a needle and thread. "You don't want the crew thinkin' you're getting soft." Pulling her into a passionate kiss, my brother reluctantly shoulders his club, taking a cleaver from the rack. Not one to be upstaged, he leaps from the deck, sliding along the creature's back. The blade of his cleaver leaving a large crimson opening oozing behind him.
Removing my brother's makeshift aid, Mirena works on stitching my wound. "Well, at least it's clean." The needle pierces my flesh, pulling my open wound back together. I bite my lip, wishing my brother would have left the booze. At least if I were drunk, it wouldn't hurt me so much. Once my wound is closed, she applies a clean rag, helping me to my feet.
We go to the ship's railing, watching the crew harvesting. Most of the scales are gone; they're getting into the meat. Cutting long strips, they lay it out for the sun to dry, adding salt to help the process. With a beast this size, it should last the Flotilla into the next year if we ration it properly. But I'm worried the rest of the Zarak will come looking for their lost galley.
I sign my concerns, but she's as calm as she's always been. "No need to fret, Niko. I don't think they care what happens to this lot." She points to the corpses in the ship graveyard. "Their zealots, even by Zarek standards." The soldier's complexion is disturbing compared to our fallen ones stripped of their armor. Their bodies look inhuman; the scale-like rash makes them look like they're changing into leviathans. Were they so desperate for Mem's favor that they'd willingly drink Leviathan's blood?
The old ones talk of fools wanting to live forever, frolicking with the daughters of Mem as demigods. Male leviathans are so rare that most assume they don't exist. I've never seen one, except for images found in the old runes. Yet some believe male leviathans can be created by drinking a leviathan's blood.
"You know your brother was worried sick when the storm hit." She leans on the railing, watching the sun's warm light breaking through the clouds. "Claimed he was going to swim through the sea and save you with only a knife."
I have to laugh. I'm touched but embarrassed. My brother can swim better than most but is no longer in his prime. He's not the man who climbed that pyramid in the Imperial arena—earning his freedom as one of the condemned.
A commotion interrupts my thoughts. With Mirena's help, we find the source. In the surf, there's a survivor desperately trying to get away from our men. I can't distinguish who it is, but it's not one of the fanatics. Throwing off his coat, my brother leaps into the water, putting those tree trunk arms to use. Catching his prey with one arm, he paddles back to the others.
Whoever my brother caught, They're not one of the zealots. They're too small. Even covered in the leviathan viscous, the dangling red stone and white hair give her away. It was the girl from before. I thought they were all eaten. How did she manage to survive?
"Let go of me!" she kicks and screams in my brother's arms. "Why, why did you save me," she says on the verge of tears. "I'm forsaken."
My brother drops her on the broken ship, allowing the crew to drench them with fresh seawater. Taking a swig from his booze, he eyes the girl, gesturing to the sea. "Then go." His words are cold and to the point. Yet he drapes her with his coat, kneeling next to her. "But that's not what you want, is it?"
Here we go again. Brother, you always have a way with words. You act like a dick while trying to help someone in your blunt way. Now, here comes the speech.
"Everyone!" The crew stops what they are doing. "Who decides when it's our time to die? Is it these zealots?"
"No!" The crew yells, brandishing their tools.
"Is it the mainlanders who imprisoned me for five years?"
Arms spread wide, my brother spins on one foot, looking at the crew with a big grin. "Only one being can tell us when our time has come." Stopping, he stares towards the sky. "Who is it?"
"Mem!" The crew answers.
"Yes." He kneels towards the girl, resting his hands on her shoulders." If you truly wish to die, I won't stop you." He tilts her chin so she looks at him. "But I think Mem wants you to live."
She frees herself from my brother's grip, his coat hiding all but her face. "You're not from The Eye, you can't understand." She holds her red tear out. "This means I'm forsaken. I'm lost, never to find peace in her embrace."
My brother chuckles, signaling for us to join him. With careful steps, we join my brother, Mirena, resting her head on his shoulder as he wraps his arm around her waist. She removes her headwrap, allowing her white dreads to dance in the wind.
"You're not the only one from The Eye." Mirena gestures to the crew members with white dreadlocks while others show red tears of their own. "We were like you once." She kneels, offering her hand. "When I ran away, my tear was as red as yours." She helps the girl to her feet. "But in time, it changed back."
"I wish I could tell you, but I just don't know." The two of them walk past us, the girl looking at me with those piercing eyes. Mirena's words worked. The fear and hopelessness has faded. "But if you're willing, we can figure it out. For now, let's get you cleaned up." They climb onto the ship, disappearing into the captain's cabin.
An elbow from my brother snaps me back to the present. "Come on." We join the crew, who are now in the prime meat. The cuts have that lovely white hue with most of the blood harvested. The thought of savoring the best cut makes my mouth water.
Taking a break, the crew sets up a few grills. The meat's intoxicating aroma fills the air as it sizzles, the fatty grease oozing on the coals. As everyone starts to eat, my brother brings me my prize—a boneless steak with just the right amount of fat.
He plops it on one of the grills, the aroma tantalizing me, but I have to bide my time. If it's not cooked right, I might as well eat something poisonous. The meat browns, leaving grill lines as it's flipped; every second that passes feels like an eternity, and my stomach lets out a growl, demanding to be satisfied.
I stab my prize, savoring the smell. I take a bite, burning my mouth. But the offer of rum helps. Instead of the metallic, salty taste I had grown accustomed to, I'm rewarded with something rich with a sweet aftertaste. Whatever this cut is, it's the best thing I've ever eaten.
But like all great things, it's gone too soon. My knife is clean, with only a few drops of juice lingering on the blade. I'm still hungry, but there's still work to be done. I stand, but the blunt end of a cleaver stops me.
"You're no good on that leg, Minnow." My brother sits next to me, shaking a bottle of rum. "Besides, I need help finishing this off." He takes a swig and then hands me the bottle.
Following his lead, I chug back what's left, fighting the need to cough. Seriously, how has he not gone blind from drinking this shit? Waving my hand in front of my face, my brother laughs at me. I sign if he was really going to save me with just a knife.
He pulls me into a headlock. "Of course, Minnow, just like I'd know, you'd do the same me or any one us. We're family, and thats what families do."

The setting of this story takes place in the same world as my book, Rise from the Fall.

This piece was intended for one of the contests. Sadly, I didn't make the deadline, but I thought I'd share it.

To those who take the time to review this. I ask that you provide one thing that you liked and disliked. If you find any errors or something that confuses you, don't hesitate to point it out. I can't improve otherwise.
Pays one point and 2 member cents.

Artwork by MoonWillow at FanArtReview.com

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