's 2018 Horror Write-off:

Accurst by the Sea

Submitted by Joseph Hartman (email)

Lazarus did not know fear, until he saw the doomed man. He staggered down the lane of the small port town, drawing quiet, ragged breaths.

He asked no one for help, and received none. No one approached, no one dared to remain outside when he passed. The curse came off him like a stench that could neither be sensed nor ignored. Lazarus was pulled inside by Erima, the old Salinous next door, and clutched close as she peered through the cracks in the door.

"Accurst by the Sea, he is," She said with certainty, and spat. "He won't last the day. It's a miracle he's survived this long, the poor bastard."

Lazarus's merchant mother sometimes came home with storybooks from Nost, a neighboring kingdom. They described stories of daring heroes, feats of Alchemy, stories of curses, and how they are broken.

In Zevad, such stories are contraband.

In Zevad, it is common knowledge that curses cannot be broken.

"Come," Emira whispered to Lazarus, opening the door after the man passed. "It is something you must see. All must see it, at least once in their life."

Doors across town were opening. There was no sound but footsteps, but questioning voices of children, quickly hushed. It was tradition in Zevad. Do not stray close, but follow. Do not mourn, but stand vigil.

There must be witnesses.

The lane grew sloped. The sea-cursed man approached sea-level. He was dressed in papery rags that frayed with each step, peeling off flakes into the air. His body was dry, utterly dry. He did not sweat under the sun, for he had no sweat left to give. Dust and spiderwebs caked his scraggly beard.

Accurst could live for an astonishingly long time, considering the nature of their condition. This was not a mercy. Some said that the curses themselves emboldened their bodies somehow, if only to prolong their suffering.

The man walked towards the sea.

Lazarus's father had argued with his wife, and lectured him in secret afterwards.

"These books would have you believe that curses are a superstition," He said, feeding a flame with fairytales. "That they are fantasy, like fairy-tricks and magic-spells and all that rot. They are not. They are real, and they are deadly."

Emira squeezed Lazarus's hand. "Stay close," She whispered. "You must watch, until the end. When it appears, avert your eyes, but do not close them. Stay still. Be silent. And do not close your eyes."

Fear clutched his heart. He didn't know what she meant, didn't have the courage to raise his voice and ask. Tears budded in his eyes. He tried to stop them, but couldn't.

Instead, through bleary eyes, he watched the man step onto the border where soil met sand, and none followed past that point.

"A curse is not a disease. It is not Alchemy, not a product of salt or sulfur. A curse... is a rejection. A total, irrevocable rejection from nature. It is a punishment, for a crime against the world itself. It is not a game. It is a burden we all must bear."

"Stop crying. You will understand, in time."

The man stopped only at the edge of the smallest waves, and raised his head to the sky. He sighed into the salty breeze, a long, groaning sigh, as if letting his soul escape from his body.

And he stepped onto the water. Not into the water, but onto. He walked upon it as if were just as solid as the ground he left behind.

He left no ripple. Not a drop of water was disturbed or diverted from its path. He nearly stumbled on the frothy surface, suddenly moaning in pain, but kept his footing. It continued on beneath him as he walked further out. The current moved, as if ignoring him.

As if rejecting him.

Lazarus saw the man's legs reddening. Oozing blood, that lingered like oil on the water's surface. It was as if he was enduring a million tiny cuts. He moaned, cried out on the water, until he could bare it no longer. He fell to his hands and knees.

And the water swelled. It curled up to a slope beneath his bleeding fingers, and rose over him. A simple wave. It crashed down on him.

The man was utterly crushed. Destroyed in an instant, as if the world itself had folded onto him. There was a spray of blood that reached even the white sands of the beach, and then the blood finally began to mix with the seawater. The curse had died with him.

It would be years before Lazarus fully understood what he'd seen. A man cursed by the sea was forever rejected by water. He could not drink, for a stream of gently falling water would pierce through his body like a spear. He could not survive gentle rainfall, and fog would crush or suffocate him.

What seemed a miracle, the ability to walk on water, was merely a symptom of water becoming immovable, unstoppable.

There was a speck on the horizon. A black speck. It had not been there before.

"Avert your eyes, Lazarus."

It was just above the waterline. It was not a boat. Not the illusion of a boat floating above the sea.

It was getting bigger.

"Do not look. Avert your eyes. Now, child!"

Lazarus hung his head. Stared down at his feet, trembling inches from the sand.

It arrived. With a great wind following, it arrived. At impossible speeds, it had traveled across the ocean, and came to an abrupt halt.

There was not a cloud in the sky, and yet it darkened. It cast no shadow. Lazarus felt its presence pass him by. Then, it came back. Lingered, in front of him.

He could see its feet. Mottled, black and gold and steely grey. It was small, but felt vast. It crouched, and looked up at Lazarus, met his gaze.

He'd done what Emira asked, and averted his eyes. But his heart was pounding. Had he been too late? Now he could see its face. It had a face. It had a face, but no mask.

Lazarus hadn't expected it to wear a mask, of course. But the thought came to him nonetheless. Perhaps it should, he decided then.

It left him. It approached each member of the crowd in turn. Following their averted gazes, meeting them exactly with its maskless face.

And then, it spoke.

the debt is upheld

fortune be with you

It wandered out of view. Everyone remained where they were, as if it would suddenly return. The spell was not lifted in an instant, but slowly, as the boldest gathered their courage and quietly returned to their homes.

The most devout remained until sunset, holding their watering eyes open with their fingers, chanting inwardly.

Emira let go of Lazarus's hand, and returned home. Since then, she refused to speak of it. His eyes burned. They felt dry. His mouth was dry, and for a moment he feared.

For that moment, he knew fear. The burden they all must carry. The debt that, one day, must be repaid.

Nobody wanted to look at the beach. But he hazarded a glance, and saw that the sand was bleached white, clean and sparkling. The ocean lay beyond, devoid of blood.

Flat and clear as glass.