In a village by the sea, there lived a great many ordinary people. The sea was cold and grey most days, which was pleasant and refreshing in the summer but gloomy the rest of the year. The village was often enveloped in a dense fog that rolled in off that gloomy sea, making everything damp and salty no matter how far from the water it might be.
This village was neither poor nor prosperous and neither large nor small. It was more like a town than a village, but the residents preferred to call it a village and so village it was called.
Every year on the foggiest day of the year, the Wretched Sea-Beast Avarik came to shore in search of a meal. It had been this way for always (as far as anyone in the village knew, anyway). It was said that for as long as there had been a village by the sea, it had been plagued by the Beast and his insatiable appetite.
Once upon a time, the Beast came to shore completely at random. The Beast roamed through the fog, snatching up villagers whenever he pleased. The poor souls who were taken were never heard from again. Sometimes he would take one and sometimes he would take a dozen. The Beast gave no warning and respected no schedule.
This made everyone’s lives very difficult, and the villagers begged the Beast to leave them be. The Beast demanded the villagers sacrifice to him one fair and beloved maiden every year on the foggiest day. "Do this," the Beast said, "And I will spare all the rest. I will not stalk your streets by night, nor destroy your homes, nor feast on your flesh as best pleases me."
This seemed quite reasonable, and so the villagers agreed. Thus was born the Arrangement. From that day forth the villagers kept this Arrangement, and the Beast did as he had promised. Every year on the foggiest day, the village gave the Beast one fair and beloved maiden, and for the rest of the year they lived as any other village might.
To sacrifice one life for the sake of all the rest was tragic and difficult, but not unacceptable. In fact, as the village grew in size the loss of one measly maiden seemed even more acceptable. One maiden out of one hundred was truly dreadful; one maiden out of five thousand, on the other hand, was a far easier pill to swallow.
Andromeda Post was not a maiden, nor was he fair; he was a young man, ordinary of face. Certain Circumstances, however, were such that every person in the village believed that he was indeed a maiden - or, if they did not believe it, they acted as though they did, which amounted to much the same thing. This was a very frustrating state of affairs for young master Post, and he spent many years trying in vain to convince the villagers to cease their foolish charade.
A young girl, the villagers said, does not play in the dirt outside. He played in the dirt, then, to show that he was no girl-- but the villagers only scolded him for dirtying his face and behaving in an unladylike fashion.
A girl has long pretty hair, they said, and so young master Post cut off all of his hair with a kitchen knife in a most unflattering fashion. At this the villagers scolded him again, telling him that a girl ought not have such short unflattering hair.
Other such incidents abound, the details and number of which need not be recounted here. Suffice it to say that at the age of nineteen, Andromeda Post was quite weary of being scolded and convinced at last that his case could not be won. He once had hoped that as he grew older the villagers would simply accept the state of affairs as it was and leave him in peace to do with his hair and his dirt as he pleased, but in weariness he resigned this hope and did his best to do as he was told to. He attached himself to a new hope: that if he were to do everything he was told to do, then at least he could live unremarked-upon.
The villagers, however, remained unsatisfied. Even his resignation was not enough to cease their nitpicking and scolding! He was an ugly maiden, they told him, and really did not look much like a maiden at all. Every day it seemed there was some new detail of his manner to be criticized and declared unmaidenly.
When the foggiest day of his nineteenth year came and the air grew thick and smothering, Andromeda was not terribly surprised when he was dragged to the shore as the year’s sacrifice. To be restrained and carted out of one’s bed and fed to a Wretched Beast from the sea is not a pleasant experience, even if it is not unexpected.
As his father and his mother dragged him screaming through the village streets, he said many things. "Please don’t do this," was one, but it had no effect. He tried instead to reason with them then: "I am not a maiden nor am I beloved or fair!"
"We say you are a maiden and so you are," his father told him.
"We say you are beloved and so you are," his mother told him.
And that, it seemed, was that.
The beach was grey underfoot and overhead and all around. The sand, the sea, the sky, and the fog: all were damp and grey and unpleasant to look at. Andromeda Post stood at the edge of the water in his pajamas, shivering, flanked on all sides by villagers ready to prevent escape.
The Wretched Sea-Beast Avarik lived in a castle floating on the sea. Most days the castle was an unsightly blot on the horizon, but on the foggiest day it came close enough to see with some clarity. It was a hulking dark shape, jagged and strange and terribly large. It was made of driftwood and jagged black rock and dirty rope, a terrible amalgamation of slimy sea-trash.
On the foggiest day when the castle drifted close to shore, the Beast crossed a bridge of fog to claim his sacrifice. So it was again that year: as the sea splashed around Andromeda's ankles, a horrid lanky creature approached him on a bridge of fog.
As it approached, Andromeda bitterly wished that he was a maiden. If he were a maiden, then perhaps some hero would come to rescue him from the approaching monster. Heroes were known for that sort of thing.
He wondered if the Beast itself would leave him be; the creature wanted fair and beloved maidens, after all, and was not a villager. "What do Wretched Sea-Beasts care for Circumstances?" he thought, but he did not have any particular hope. Hoping had not done him much good in life thus far.
Andromeda supposed that it would be in the best interests of the village to convince the Beast that he was indeed a maiden anyway. If the Beast considered the Arrangement broken, he would be free to go on a rampage eating as many maidens and non-maidens as he so pleased. That wouldn't do. Andromeda rolled up his sleeves to display his slender wrists and brushed some dirt off of his pajamas.
The Beast stopped a few feet from shore, indistinct in the thick fog. It spoke, then, its voice a horrible gargling buzz. It sounded like a swarm of drowning bees forced to somehow mimic human speech. Andromeda flinched at the noise.
"The time has come," said the Beast. "Step onto my bridge. You are mine now, Andromeda Post."
The fog still looked to Andromeda more like a meteorological phenomenon than a bridge, but he supposed there was nothing he could do but obey. Andromeda stepped forward. The fog was soft under his feet, and held his weight like any solid surface might.
Behind him, he heard his mother and his father sobbing. This struck him as rather annoying: he felt that as they were the ones who decided to feed him to a monster and in so doing had forfeited their rights to weeping about the matter. That annoyance briefly overwhelmed his fear and hurt and grief enough that he took a few more steps toward the Beast just to get away from them.
The Beast was approximately human-shaped, though only approximately. It was over eight feet tall even slouched as horribly as it was, with four terribly long arms and two terribly long legs. It had four sunken all-white eyes, and more teeth in its wide gash of a mouth than Andromeda thought any mouth ought to have. Most notably, though, the Beast was full of holes. Its body was an unnerving lattice of pale greenish flesh. Its brittle fingers were webbed like a frog’s, and the webs too were full of holes.
Looking at the Beast's holes and teeth and such, Andromeda’s annoyance evaporated. He felt queasy and frightened once again. He blinked rapidly and tried to look only at the Beast's face and not the rest of it. It was a terrible face, but at least it was solid. Its face had only small holes scattered under its eyes, in such a pattern that Andromeda could pretend they were simply freckles.
The Beast regarded Andromeda in turn, and they stood over the sea staring at each other for a little while. Andromeda supposed that to a Wretched Sea-Beast he must look very strange himself. Perhaps the Beast was queasy and frightened at the relatively conservative number of holes in Andromeda's not at all green flesh.
"I see humans still think themselves quite clever," the Beast gargle-buzzed. It lifted one spindly finger and pointed at Andromeda’s face. "You are no maiden."
Andromeda was startled. A tangle of fear and confusion and tentative hope tangled in his throat. "Everyone says I am a maiden," he said, "And they say additionally that, if everyone says so, then that makes it so."
"Poppycock and balderdash," said the Beast irritably. It turned back to its castle, beckoning Andromeda to follow. "That’s not how things work in the slightest."
"Well, there are Certain Circumstances to consider," Andromeda said. He looked over his shoulder, but could no longer see even the vague shapes of the villagers on the shore. "I think they thought it would count. Please don’t kill everyone."
"Shush! What does a Wretched Sea-Beast care for Circumstances, certain or otherwise? A sacrifice is a sacrifice!" the Beast said. "Move along, unless you’d like to be dropped into the sea as the bridge fades underfoot."
Andromeda was already cold and he did not know how to swim. He thought that he would not at all like to be dropped into the sea, and so he moved along.
Inside the Beast’s castle, Andromeda found an interior starkly different from the one he had expected. It was bright and warm, not slimy and dark. Lit lanterns hung from the uneven driftwood ceiling and dozens of candles lined the walls, flickering in pools of wax on the shiny black floor. The walls were painted with enormous waves of color, abstract swirls curving from floor to ceiling in every direction. There were tables and stools and stands scattered across the foyer, each one bearing an object both strange and lovely.
The Beast turned to Andromeda and said, "This is my castle."
Andromeda felt rather unsure of how to proceed, so he asked, "Are you going to kill me now?"
"No," grumbled the Beast. "I feed not on flesh or life, but on loss. The village has sacrificed, and sacrifice is all that is required. Your life matters little to me. You may live or die however you please."
Although Andromeda's death no longer seemed an imminent and pressing concern, he was still afraid. Tears began to well up in his eyes, which made him feel very foolish. "Can I go home?" he asked.
The Beast shrugged its sharp perforated shoulders. "You could," it said. "I will warn you that your return will be met with hostility and violence. The villagers will surely tie weights to your feet and throw you into the sea. Then you will be dead and my meal will be spoiled and no one will be much better off. This has happened a few times in years past."
"I do not much care about spoiling your meal, but I would certainly not like to drown," Andromeda said.
"Well, then," said the Beast, as though that settled the matter. Without anything further, the Beast turned and walked away.
Andromeda Post was left alone in the castle.