The Lickspittle Leviathan

The 10th Illmoor Chronicles story sees apprentice magician Hieronymous Blush called to the island of Lickspittle to investigate a corpse.

Image Credit: 
Courtesy of David Grimstone / Used With Permission

Sunlight washed over the southern island of Lick, lending a terrible scene the sort of sharp contrast most of the observers could have done without.

It was like some sickening jigsaw of a man: all the pieces were there, they just didn’t quite fit together in the right way. This was mainly because the edges were wrinkly and, in several places, enthusiastically chewed.

Hieronymus Blush, journeyman magician and newly initiated outreach merchant for the southern islands, stepped between the two grizzled fisherman in order to get a better look at the corpse.

He’d seen a lot of tragic accidents in his five years as an apprentice at the Magician’s Proving Ground, but these mostly involved the victims disappearing without a trace. For some reason, the look of complete shock on the face of the corpse was particularly unsettling.

Nevertheless, Blush made a valiant attempt to pull himself together: something the poor native on the beach would never get another go at.

He focused on the sand, drawing a small circle distractedly with his big toe while pointing a thin finger at the body. ‘I don’t understand why he’s…complete?’

All eyes turned to Ryerson, the slightly senior of the two elderly fishermen.

‘He’s all there because sharks don’t like the taste of us,’ the old man muttered, suppressing a burp.

Blush boggled at him. ‘They don’t?’

‘No. Unfortunately, by the time they remember that, you’re already in five different pieces.’

‘Oh.’

Blush took several steps back and beckoned the tribal translator away from the scene. The young native wandered over, leaving the two fishermen to fill their pipes and argue over various aspects of the kill.

‘New bad,’ the translator growled. ‘Not old bad. New bad.’

Blush glanced toward the tree line, and shook his head. He could see the vague outline of human shapes moving through the undergrowth, and had no doubt that the rest of the tribe were keenly observing the scene.

‘I won’t lie to you,’ Blush said, when the tribal translator caught his eye. ‘This is a bloody mess, and I’m not just talking about him on the sand. That special underground fruit your lot produce is in seriously short supply, and the merchants are up in arms. We can’t wait another fortnight for the next batch.’

The native, who was possessed of far too much muscle for one so young, adjusted his loincloth and seemed to take a sudden and unnatural interest in the tip of his spear. Blush suspected, and not for the first time, that the translator was fearfully bright. He looked down at the curious fish anklet that adorned the boy’s left leg, and wondered if he could be bribed.

‘Do you understand what I’m saying? What’s bad for us is bad for you. Unless-‘

‘No bloodfruit.’

‘Are you deliberately trying to destroy this island’s only solid trade? I don’t think the chief would want-

‘NO BLOODFRUIT. PEOPLE SCARED. KILL NEW BAD.’

‘Can I speak to the chief? I know he doesn’t speak plain tongue, but I was told that the witch doctor is quite fluent-’

‘No. You speak ME. Me alone.’

‘Fine.’ Blush held back the torrent of abuse he wanted to hurl forth, but something about the half smile on the translator’s thick lips was giving him the creeps. ‘They told me the translator was an old man, so you must be quite new here, yes? Just passed the big test or something, have you?’

The translator stared back at him, unblinking. ‘You and men from your city kill New Bad…..if you can. Only then Bloodfruit.’

Blush opened and shut his mouth a few times before mooching over to the rejoin the fishermen.

‘Well?’ he snapped. ‘It’s a shark: I assume we can find the bastard and kill it easily enough?’

The younger of the pair, a sprightly octogenarian called Jed, knelt beside the head of the corpse and stared up at him myopically. ‘We’ll have a go,’ he said, ‘but there’s something amiss with this as far as shark attacks go. Can’t you see what’s strange here?’ He reached down, took hold of the head and pushed back a chewed fold of the upper lip. ‘It’s taken his teeth.’

* * * * *

The fish slicer Kumatra, fourth son of a third nephew on his mother’s side, sat on the rocks of Lickspittle Bay and performed the one task for which he held a great tribal responsibility. He sliced fish.

He sliced the fat ones.

He sliced the thin ones.

He sliced the ones that some of his more questionable cousins found strangely attractive.

Kumatra looked behind him at the generous pile of fish that constituted the morning’s third haul.

Odd.

It was half the size it had been just a few seconds before.

Kumatra flipped onto his feet, tightened his grip on the filleting knife and padded over to the big flat rock he used as a base for his net.

There were two big holes in the side of the twine mesh, and a lot of the fish were splashing into the water: even the attractive ones.

Kumatra muttered under his breath, and crouched to snatch back the edge of the net.

He was just hauling part of the mesh over the base of the rock when a sleek green shark leaped out of the water and bit him in half.

A spray of blood fountained into the air, and Kumatra’s legs remained standing for a few seconds while the rest of the fish flopped into the ocean.

The shark darted away.

* * * * *

The boat slowly circled the island, skulking through shallow waters as a series of inlet bays and ancient monuments drifted past.

Blush had never seen a giant statue in the shape of an octopus before, but the heathen tribes of the southern islands worshipped strange gods. There were rumours of underwater cities, subterranean caves dripping with the blood of human sacrifice and even the odd story about natives interbreeding with some of the more attractive fish.

I need to find this thing quickly, he reminded himself. Otherwise, I’ll be spending a night around the campfire with these filthy…Lickers.

‘I don’t think much of the equipment,’ he said aloud, folding his arms in a dissatisfied manner while attempting to avoid falling over the side of the boat. ‘I take it you two are usually on a budget?’

Jed ignored the question and continued to the heave at the rudder lever, but Ryerson immediately stomped over to where the magician was standing.

‘It’s a decent enough cog,’ he muttered. ‘Square-rigger, strong rudder: a proper whaling craft. None of that stripped down wood rot you get from Breakers’ Yard up in Dullitch.’

Blush heaved a sigh, and pointed towards the edge of the deck.

‘I’m not talking about the boat, Ryerson: I’m talking about that load of old junk you’ve brought along! You’re supposed to be expert shark hunters, for crying out loud.’

‘And?’

‘Well, it’s hardly an arsenal, is it?’ Blush gestured emphatically at the small and rather pathetic collection of weapons in the rolled out cloth bundle behind the elderly fisherman. There was a small lump-hammer, a hand axe, a kitchen knife and a small bottle of something that he fancied might have been brandy. ‘It’s a killer shark we’re dealing with; not a bunch of rowdy market traders.’

Ryerson took a drag on the misshapen pipe that drooped from his lips. ‘You need to understand that your best possible chance of taking down a predator in these islands is to engage the beast in close combat. All this running away scared and screaming nonsense just gives them a stronger sense of purpose. If they take the leg off a man and that man keeps on punching them in the face, often times they’ll give the whole thing up as a bad job. Way back when I was a boy, I knew a man that got attacked by a shark out beyond the eastern reef. That shark took a hold of him and sunk its teeth into his very soul, but he wasn’t having any of it. You know what he did? He ran right out of the water with the beast still clinging to his right leg, and he stamped it to death on the sand. What do you think of that?’

‘I think it’s a completely ridiculous story, and I think that you just made it up. I also think that there’s a good chance all three of us are going to die if you’re genuinely intending to go into hand to fin combat with a shark that just made a jigsaw out of a man who, judging by his component body parts, was the size of a bloody ogre.’

Ryerson spat a hefty wad of phlegm at the magician’s feet.

‘Well, if ‘un that’s the case then it’s a ver’ good job we have a magic user to watch over us….now isn’t it?’

Blush wrapped an arm around the mast before rolling up his opposing sleeve and displaying an open palm for the two fishermen to see. As he stared intently at the space in front his hand, a tiny glimmering ball of red light appeared within, swelling and swirling as it reached a higher level of intensity.

‘I am a journeyman on the path of Fire Magic,’ he commented. ‘The burning intensity of my particular school of conjuration is feared by many, many creatures from all over Illmoor.’ He leaned forward and gritted his teeth. ‘I’m afraid that fish are not among them.’

* * * * *

The Tribe was out in force for the mid-afternoon ritual. This was a particularly important event, as it was well documented that the mid-afternoon gods often went off the deep end if they were given less whaling hymnals than the sunrise bunch.

If anything, the latest ritual was looking likely to be more dramatic than usual. It wasn’t every day that the tribal witchdoctor, Bodiker, made a personal appearance on the sand.

Dressed in a full garb of feathers and boasting curious bark earrings and an angular fish mask, Bodiker was a sight to behold: preferably through a long range spyglass.

He danced, shimmied, sidestepped, convulsed and somersaulted in front of the tribe as they formed a sort of human snake on their journey to the water’s edge….

….but he didn’t quite make it to the water before an enormous ocean spray stopped him dead in his tracks.

The ocean swelled up and flumed a second time, exploding over the beach like an angry cobra darting for its prey.

This time, however, it spewed forth the rotted, half chewed and entirely toothless head of Kumatra, the fish slicer.

A series of frantic cries erupted from the conga-line as word spread among the tribe of this new horror that had been cast among them. Villagers ran in every direction as panic took hold of the natives’ collective consciousness, dripping the poison of fear into each and every mind.

Only Bodiker stood firm on the sea-hammered sands of Lick, his expression firm and his eyes devoid of all wonder.

The old witchdoctor looked out at the solitary, fast receding fin of the island’s savage predator and thought: I know who you are.

He glanced back at his retreating horde, and tried to figure out which member of the tribe was missing.

* * * * *

It was, beyond any shadow of a doubt, an elderly dog.

Blush decided that to call the thing a bloodhound would have made the presumption that it had some measure of blood in it: a fact put in doubt by the pale jowls, rheumy eyes and lack of effort it seemed to exude with every movement.

‘Are you sure this thing can track a shark?’ he prompted, as Ryerson led the exhausting looking hound from the depths of the boat’s ramshackle cabin. ‘Only, it looks like it might not last the night.’

‘Don’t you worry about Dash,’ shouted Jed from the back of the boat. ‘He can smell a blood trail a mile away….even in water.’

‘DASH?’

Ryerson glared at the magician as if daring him to challenge the validity of the dog’s name. ‘Yep.’

The senior fisherman unclasped the dog’s wiry chain and whistled between his teeth. It was a shrill, pitchy note: the sort that made your teeth hurt.

To Blush’s amazement, the dog immediately took a run up and vaulted over the side of the boat, hitting the water with a detonating splash.

Jed and Ryerson both dawdled to the starboard side of the boat and began to whoop and cheer in a most excited fashion while Blush worried about whether or not the craft would tip over if he crossed the deck to join them. After what seemed like a lifetime, however, he managed to crane his neck in order to get a good view of the dog that was now making a spirited effort to lead them in what had to be a completely random direction (as no disenchanted animal could possibly pick up any sort of trail at such speed). He started to wonder, once again, whether the two fisherman were possessed of a full ticket between them….or even half a ticket, come to that.

Jed quickly hobbled across the deck and took a firm grip on the rudder lever, swinging the wooden handle around and hauling on it with all his might.

The boat lurched and moved into a steep turn: they were now forging straight for a deserted reef a short distance from the main island.

‘The natives call it Notmuch Atoll,’ said Ryerson, squinting as he pointed a bony finger at the atoll. ‘It’s a haven for sharks. I got this out on Notmuch in my youth.’ He bunched one hand into a fist and knocked hard on his right leg: there was a hollow, wooden sound.

Blush just stared at him.

‘What?’ Ryerson demanded. ‘Don’t pity me, boy. Young Jed over there has two.’

‘You’re NOT serious.’

‘Deadly.’

‘You have three wooden legs between you? I’m so glad I went with the Fisherman’s Guild for this job: there’s absolutely no substitute for having confidence in the people you’re working with.’

‘He’s got something! He’s GOT SOMETHING!’ Jed was yelling and pointing ahead of the boat, where it seemed that Dash had paddled to the shore and trotted out of the water. ‘I’m telling you: he’s on the trail! We’re going in!’

The dog had exploded from the lapping waves and was now beginning to pick up the pace. It sprang over the sands with an excitement bordering on lunacy and was now crossing the curved atoll like a demented racehorse.

Blush tripped and fell in an effort to scramble to the front of the boat.

‘But he’s heading onto the atoll! It’s a lagoon island! For the love of all sanity, we’re supposed to be chasing a SHARK! What did it do, dive out of the ocean and run onto dry land?’

Ryerson reached down and snatched a handful of Blush’s hair, yanking his head to the right.

‘You mean like that, Mister Magician?’

Blush stared out at the atoll, and swallowed. He was looking at a sight he wouldn’t ever have believed was possible within the framework of the civilized world. He was looking at an image that would stay burned into his head until the day he boarded that mist-bound ship to Parts Unknown. He was looking….at a sleek green shark running across dry land on two incredible muscular human legs.

Blush opened and closed his mouth a few times, but no sound came out.

The shark was complete: the head, midsection, fins and tail were all present. In that respect, it was very much a shark…with the slight difference that this particular member of the species could enter a marathon with a better than average chance of getting onto the podium.

It was just….wrong.

The legs were obviously jutting from the undercarriage in some hideous mutation that simply had to be the result of the sort of interbreeding Blush didn’t even want to think about.

Surely, even as a native of Lick, you had to draw the line somewhere.

The thought persisted as the front of the boat thunked into the atoll’s rocky outcropping.

Ryerson hurried over to the weapons, took the hammer and the knife for himself and tossed the miniature axe to Jed. When neither of them made a move for the whiskey, Blush scrambled over on his hands and knees to grab the bottle himself.

Despite their age and the fact that three quarters of their running appendages were wooden, the two fishermen moved with surprising alacrity. Blush had to use a minor fire conjuration on his ankles in an attempt to put in the kind of effort that didn’t make him look pathetically unfit by comparison.

However, several factors quickly conspired to slow him down. Apart from the difficulty he’d always had wading through any body of water that went above the knee-line, and the fact that he was struggling to catch his breath, there was the moderately alarming scene now unfolding on the beach up ahead.

Dash had closed in on his prey, but the bloodhound had sensibly decided to slow to a soft pad as he drew near to the shark, which had – against everyone’s expectations – suddenly turned around and was standing its ground. On the two legs that more than ably supported its frame, the Lickspittle Leviathan looked like a giant, hovering wasp full of razor sharp teeth…and the dog had evidently reached such a great age by quickly handing all prey over to the experts.

The experts in question were now staggering, limping and hobbling towards the killer beast, waving their respective weapons in a manner that did nothing for Blush’s sense of confidence in them as highly trained whalers.

Jed reached the creature first, and took two mighty swings at it with the hand axe. The first one missed when the demonic, freakish thing hotfooted a speedy dodge, but the second one connected and stuck fast in its flank. Jed made a move to retrieve the axe, but the shark immediately went on the attack, kicking the old man swiftly between the legs and, when he doubled up, biting his head clean off. Blood volcanoed out of the opening in the newly ravaged neck and the rest of Jed’s body collapsed in a heap.

Blush skidded to a halt, cried out in horror and, ripping the cork from the whiskey bottle, took several big gulps before emptying the remaining contents over his hands. Then, amid much coughing and spluttering, he began to mutter under his breath: the magic caught, spurred on and increased by the alcohol as the flames began to spring from his pores.

The shark and Ryerson were circling each other, looking for an opening. Ryerson was reaching back with the hammer, but had the knife twitching and turning in front of him, his hands moving quickly to suggest that they were capable of a lot of damage in only one or two strikes. The shark on the other hand, was just slowly pacing along, grinning manically: it had no choice.

Ryerson struck out, ducking under the great-headed torso to plunge the knife deep into the beast’s underbelly. At the same time, he swung the hammer around and brought it into a rising trajectory, catching his prey with an uppercut that knocked it sideways.

Unfortunately, it was then that the old man made what turned out to be a cardinal mistake. He turned and ran.

The shark leaped after him, bowling him over and biting down hard on his wooden leg.

Ryerson screamed and clawed at the sand, trying to escape the prowling wrath of the mutant predator by kicking at it with his good foot….but even Blush could see that the next bite was going to be the last one.

Still mumbling cursed enchantments through trembling lips, Ryerson barely noticed as Dash, no stranger to danger and evidently a lot smarter than his owners, bulleted past in the opposite direction.

Ryerson had rolled onto his back and was frantically kicking and screaming, but the shark wasted no time, finishing him off by dropping onto its own ridiculous knees and biting him cleanly in two. It would have been the most horrific slaughter Blush had ever seen had he actually seen it….but the magician was halfway to another dimension, his eyes engorged with the magical fuel that now birthed a fireball the size of his chest.

The shark leaped onto its feet and bolted forward, running at the distant figure with a demonic intent so clear and purposeful that it almost created a scene of beauty to behold.

Blush shook himself from his reverie when the creature was still about fifty feet away from him. Then he simply released the ball of flame and watched it seer into the shark with an incredible explosion of heat and light.

The shark collapsed onto the sand and began to writhe around, one leg blazing merrily as it careered from side to side.

It was then that Blush noticed the familiar looking fish anklet on the burning leg.

Mother of all mercy, Blush thought. It’s the translator. This….thing….is the boy I was speaking to.

Blush felt a fleeting burst of pity for the terrible creature before it suddenly dawned on him firstly that the shark wasn’t going to die and secondly that he needed time to prepare another attack. He backed away from the wretched creature that was desperately trying to flip, kick and scrape its way back into the water. Then he turned and ran for the safety of the jungle.

* * * * *

The tribe were gathered around an ancient cooking pot when Blush arrived, puffing and panting, on the edge of the village. One by one, each of the villagers retreated inside their huts or hurried for the comparative protection of the main cave system. Only the tribal chief and Bodiker, the witch doctor, remained at the pot, both wearing the sort of sour, guilty expressions men always get when past wrongs return to plague the blissful ignorance of oblivious lives.

‘Right. Who is he….and don’t give me any more heathen guff or else I’ll report back to the merchant guilds and hiding the bloodfruit will be the least of your worries: you’ll end up with an army on your doorstep.’

Bodiker and the chief exchanged glances, and a few words in the tribal dialect.

‘Come on!’ Blush prompted, gesturing towards the witchdoctor. ‘I know you speak plain tongue. Who is he?’

Bodiker removed his headdress and dipped a hand into the pot, fishing around distractedly for some delicacy that apparently eluded him.

‘It’s a shapechanger,’ he said, his voice showing no signs of humour. ‘I know of only one other creature that hungered for human teeth for its transformative powers….and it was the parent of this one.’

‘But, listen – your translator….’

‘….is the beast. Yes. What we feared has come to pass.’

‘You KNOW?’

‘We can assume. I have lost two sons today, Mister Blush. You inspected the body of my oldest child this morning, and my other son went missing this afternoon while cutting fish for the tribe. This plague upon our people….is my own doing, and my own punishment.’

Blush straightened up, slightly mollified by the evidence of some apparent honesty. ‘I’m listening.’

Bodiker stepped away from the pot and fell onto his knees.

‘Several years ago, a man was shipwrecked here on Lick. He claimed to be a fugitive from the mainland. We tended his wounds and restored him to health: he became one of us. He had – how do you people say it – a talent….for the teeth?’

‘A dentist?’

‘As you would say it, yes….but it was soon revealed that he did, in fact, hunger for the very ivories he claimed able to treat. He was discovered, caught red handed and bloody mouthed. When we confronted him, he changed his shape in order to evade capture, revealing a variety of diabolical talents. He was a curse, an abomination. He was cruel, and broken, and he liked to inflict pain: the tribe suffered terrible anguish as a result of his stay here.’

Blush nodded, noticing for the first time that both the chief and his witchdoctor were fairly gummy.

‘So what happened?’

‘He was banished, and imprisoned in the sunken caves beneath the island, the world where only strange fish swim…but he committed an even greater crime while he was interned them. A forbidden pleasure: one of the great sacrificial sins. He took a lover…from below.’

‘To be honest, I’d prefer it if we could draw a discreet veil over that bit and take it as read. I’m assuming he was – what – executed?’

Bodiker bowed his head.

‘Yes: a necessity. He was sacrificed to the sea gods, along with his forbidden fruit…but the child they had between them was spared and brought into the tribe.’

‘You raised that lunatic’s son as one of your own?’

‘We felt we had no choice. The sacrifice provoked great anger among the gods, for we reaped neither fish nor bloodfruit in that terrible year. Besides, the boy was a perfect example of one of our own young, and showed no signs of his father’s taint. He must have been biding his time. Now this evil comes among us. This nightmare. This terror. This…’

‘…bastard son of a shark and a shapechanging dentist? Terrific news. Just tell me how to get into the caves. We need to end this. Now.’

* * * * *

Through the forest, into the undergrowth, beneath the giant vine tree, beyond the lowest tier of the tri-level cave system, behind the great stone rock, down the deepest slope of the longest, darkest and dankest tunnel lay a candlelit chamber containing a limpid pool of glimmering green water.

‘Seriously – how much further is this place? I thought you imprisoned people here all the time: surely their sentence is served by the time you get them to the front door?’

Bodiker grimaced at the magician, and motioned to the pool.

‘Swim below, and you shall find the sacrificial caves….and much good may it do you.’

Blush took a moment to stare balefully at the witchdoctor. Then he removed his robes and all but the most sacred of his undergarments, and dropped into the pool.

A vivid and boldly illuminated world of floating carcasses, severed heads, skeletal limbs and curiously misshapen fish turned slowly all around him as Blush swam through the emerald waters.

When one submerged tunnel bled quickly into another, he began to fear that his hastily gulped oxygen supply would give out before he could reach his destination, but a pool of light suddenly hovered above him and with two determined strokes he broke the surface of the water and clambered onto the rocks of a strikingly beautiful sunken grotto.

There were diametrically beautiful gems encrusted within the walls, two great stone altars wedged together in the centre….and an immediately recognizable tribesman standing at the grotto’s only other exit.

The translator half stepped, half staggered forward, sporting two great wounds in his stomach and shoulder.

‘You managed to change again then?’ Blush smiled, patting his hands quickly on the altar and raising them to conjure a spark of flame. ‘I suspect there were barely enough teeth in those two old timers for more than a few hours, though?’

The translator took another step, and flashed a mouthful of long, razor sharp teeth.

‘I don’t need a few hours to finish you off, wizard.’

Blush had begun to mutter with grim determination now: in such confined surroundings, he knew he had enough in the concentration tank to bring forth another dramatic burst of fire. Only, this time it had to be enough of a gout to get the job done.

‘Your father made a terrible mistake down here,’ Blush warned, beginning to mutter the start of an incantation. ‘You have suffered a cursed life as a result.’

‘I agree, wizard….but we all make mistakes.’

The translator lunged forward, grabbing hold of Blush and heaving him into the air. The magician made no attempt to struggle against the attack, but continued to mumble as the heat built between his open palms. The translator charged Blush bodily against the wall, and snatched a rock from an open crevice beside the magician’s head.

Raising it up with one arm, the tribesman was easily strong enough to hold Blush against the wall, pinioned helplessly as he aimed the rock directly between the magician’s eyes.

The burst of flame was exactly that: a jet of fire that spewed over the translators head, neck and shoulders, sending the young man staggering backwards with a blood curdling scream of pain. He hit the alter and somersaulted over it to crash land onto the rocks behind, burned horrifically and crawling with ponderous, painstaking effort to the grotto wall.

Blush picked up the rock that had been intended for his head and followed the shapechanger with it. Stalking him slowly and deliberately, he turned the wretched creature onto its back and lifted the rock high above his head.

‘We do all mistakes….but it falls to me to account for your father’s.’

The translator looked up at him through sorrowful, bloodshot eyes. ‘Then tell me, wizard, will you account for all of mine?’

Blush slowly turned to the darkened portal at the far end of the grotto, and discerned the patter of hundreds of tiny feet.

David Grimstone (David Lee Stone) from Ramsgate is a bestselling author of series fiction for Disney USA, Penguin USA and Hodder UK.

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