A sound of pain and frustration cut through the still, chill air and Maddeson found himself running before he could stop himself. It took a moment for him to realise where the sound came from, where his body ran to without consulting his mind: a dark shape, half-in, half-out the water, a darker spread in the sea. He skittered to a stop at the water’s edge long enough to see where the shape was, then splashed into the surf.
He didn’t know what he was expecting. For it to be a beached seal, most likely. Only when he was up to his ankles in water did he realise it wasn’t a wild animal at all. It was a person, and it wasn’t entirely blood that marred the sea: the hazy starlight showed him the ragged shape of a net spread across the water, criss-crossing blackness over shadow, with the figure’s leg trapped in the middle. As Maddeson reached their side they began to pull themself more firmly up the beach; dark stains streaked the sand as the tide ebbed out.
“Wait,” Maddeson gasped, dropping to his knees in the water beside the leg. “Just let me—” He worked at the net, fighting with wet fingers to loosen some of the slippery knots and free the limb from the ropes that were cutting further into the flesh. The leg twitched at every accidental contact — and why wouldn’t it, as the ropes pulled free and fresh blood flowed into the sea? — but it was only a few moments longer before he’d untied enough to pull the netting down and over the bare foot and cast it away into the water.
When he turned back there was no-one there. Footsteps slapped over the sand, hesitating a short distance away. Maddeson felt the impression of a gaze on him, not heavy with judgement the way the villagers’ was, but suspicious nonetheless: he stared at the figure and the figure stared back, barely visible but with eyes that glittered in the low light, before it spun on one heel and sprinted away into the sea.
“Hey! Wait, please!” Maddeson called out, darting after them, but they were gone. Not even a splash to indicate their swimming away. He stared out across the water, but there was nothing. As the net drifted away nothing was left to indicate there had been another person on the beach at all. Just Maddeson, alone in the night.
Without thinking Maddeson retraced his steps, scanning over every inch of the sand until he found what he was looking for: black streaks seeping into the water and the sickly, back-of-the-throat tang of iron heavy in the air. The net was gone, true, but there was something else instead, something crumpled and heaped a short distance away. Crouching, Maddeson groped for it and his fingers grazed over something sodden and salty; he pulled it towards him, afraid and yet marvelling at its softness. A . . . skin?
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