Ieva didn’t take any nonsense from monsters. She’d met her first at the age of eight. The pathetic thing took up residence under her bed for a few months, trying to feed off her fear. It starved to death. Heeding her mother’s advice, she carried a rolling pin on her at all times – most problems could be dealt with by a sharp smack on the nose.
She’d moved to Palanga because of the stories. People went missing from the beach. They always had, for hundreds of years – thousands, for all anyone knew. It had happened often enough that it spoiled what could have been a bustling holiday resort. Although, the town did well enough from Mystery Tour visitors.
Ieva jogged past a group of them. They stayed well back, snapping pictures of the Baltic Sea from the viewing deck at the edge of the woods. A few pointed at her and called out. She grinned and waved, knowing the tour guide would be fuming. Mystery Tours weren’t insured to take people out onto the sand, and tourists always complained about the restrictions after seeing Ieva. She’d received some sternly worded letters about it. It wasn’t her intention to cause trouble, but it amused her nonetheless.
Rokis barked and bounded across the sand ahead of her. His joy was infectious. She’d been told no dogs allowed on the beach – funny, they seemed more concerned about that than the fact no people were meant to go there either – but since Rokis wasn’t strictly a dog, she saw no reason to comply. Ieva didn’t really know what he was. He appeared to be a cross between a Hungarian Puli and a bear, with teeth that could tear a man’s arm off. It surely had eyes somewhere beneath the mass of matted fur, but she’d yet to find them.
Three weeks, and still no sign of any beast from the deep. She’d tried mornings, evenings, late nights and… nothing. Not a single tentacle. It was wholly disappointing.
Both men and women were taken, though a few more men than women over the years – assuming they were taken and didn’t go voluntarily. Most victims had been blonde, so she’d bleached her hair just in case. They ranged from ages sixteen to thirty-four, and she fits somewhere in the middle. Some had been alone; others had been taken in pairs. One survivor insisted that his friend simply walked into the sea and disappeared, but he’d been drunk at the time and wasn’t the most reliable source. For a legend spanning the ages, she didn’t have much information to go by. She glanced at Rokis, thinking.
Ieva returned again the next night. This time she left Rokis inside, knocked out by a heavy dose of sedatives. It was a necessary evil – he’d tear walls down to get to her. She took the rolling pin from her backpack and held it in her hand, finding comfort in the familiar weight. This was no ordinary utensil. It was bigger and heavier, had never touched flour in its life, and held a secret inside. Scuffed and dented, it was a well-worn but well-loved companion.
A cool breeze plucked at her hair, and she filled her lungs with the salty air. No clouds covered the sky tonight, nothing obscured the full moon and stars. Ieva took a moment to gaze up at them. When she looked away, a glimmer in the sand caught her eye. A jolt in her stomach told her this was what she’d been waiting for.
Ieva crouched, waves lapping at her bare feet. Washed up from the sea, it resembled a piece of amber, about the size of her thumb. Something shiny was trapped inside. She felt a compulsion to touch it, to look closer at whatever was inside. Warnings screamed in her head, but she ignored them. After all, she wanted to find the monster.
Ieva held it right up to her eyes, squinting to see what was inside. A palace, a concoction of glass and iron and sharp spires. The longer she looked, the more detail became clear, until everything else disappeared. Fish swam in the air. No – not the air. The palace was underwater. Instead of rose gardens, groves of undulating seaweed, red, green, black and purple surrounded it.
Her vision blurred, and she shut her eyes, disorientated. When she opened them, the image in the amber had changed. An empty beach under a clear night sky. Palanga Beach.
Ieva sighed. She hadn’t packed for a holiday, and if she didn’t get back soon Rokis might destroy the rental home. She stood and took stock of her surroundings, glad she still held onto the rolling pin. She’d been transported to a bedroom. A wide four-poster bed took pride of place, emerald green curtains pushed back to reveal matching bedding. Ieva rubbed the soft material between her fingers, wondering where it came from. The walls were papered in pale mint, and even the lamps gave off a sickly green glow.
One wall was entirely made of glass, and she wasn’t surprised to see a shoal of fish flit past, then disappear into the forest of kelp. She studied the amber for a bit, on the off chance she could return the way she came – but of course, it wouldn’t be so easy. She pocketed the amber lump, then tested the door. Whoever had summoned her here hadn’t locked her in. Ieva popped her head out, seeing the green carpet and more green wallpaper. Looked like she’d have to get used to the color.
She retreated to the bed, happy to wait. No point in wandering about with no idea where to go. The monster could come to her.
She didn’t have to wait long. A quiet knock on the door made her sit up, and a middle-aged woman with pleasant features and a somewhat vapid smile entered, holding a tray of refreshments. The woman set the tray down and clasped her hands in front of her.
“I’m sure this must be quite a shock to you,” she said, her tone calming, soothing as if reassuring a frightened animal.
Ieva laughed. “Come on then, let’s see your true form. What are you? Not a Kraken, clearly. They couldn’t use a glamour if their life depended on it. A sub-species of a siren, perhaps? A Nereid?”
She stepped forward and whacked the woman across the face with the rolling pin. The woman’s nose crunched, and she staggered back with a muffled shout. Blood streamed over her mouth, dripping onto the hideous carpet.
“My nose! You bitch, you broke my nose!”
Ieva groaned. Not a monster, just a human. “Where is it? The thing, or things, keeping you here.” She tapped the pin against her palm. “I don’t have all night.
The woman glared, eyes watering, but wouldn’t speak. She fled the room, leaving a trail of blood spatters for Ieva to follow
Intentionally or not, the woman led her through the palace. Ieva didn’t stop to admire the view as she chased her along a glass tunnel. They emerged into a vast chamber. Its vaulted ceiling arched high above her head, supported by metal beams. Different shades of green and blue colored the crystal walls. She had to admit, she was impressed. Few beings had the ability, resources, or intelligence to create a place like this.
A small group of people gathered at the other end of the chamber, surrounding a throne of amber and mother-of-pearl. Men, women, children, one holding a newborn. Like the woman with the broken nose, they wore little more than loincloths of grey sealskin, ornamented with amber jewelry on their wrists, arms, and heads. The bleeding woman gestured towards Ieva, while an elderly woman held a handkerchief to her ruined nose.
But they were of small interest to Ieva. Her gaze was fixed on the shriveled creature perched on the amber throne. Its shape was vaguely that of a woman’s, but its eyes were inhuman, black pits of nothingness. Wrinkled skin hung from its body, naked and glistening. Only a few tufts of dark green hair remained on its head.
Pushing itself up with shaky arms, its skin folds slipped and slid over each other with every movement. When it spoke, its voice grated like nails on a chalkboard. “Inga?”
Ieva frowned. That was her grandmother’s name – dead for years now. “No. Not her. And what are you?”
“Not Inga? Pity.” The creature watched as a shark swam lazily past the window, seeming to forget Ieva for a moment. “But you’re a spawn of Giltinė. The stink of it is on you, diluted though it is.”
Irritated, Ieva bounced the rolling pin against her thigh. She wasn’t there to discuss her family history. “I have business with you. You’re the monster abducting people, aren’t you?”
“Me? A monster?” The thing made a sound that might’ve been a laugh. “You could say so. Are you here to kill me? To rescue these humans?”
“I’ll take them back if there’s a way.” Ieva shrugged and took a step towards the throne, but one of the men blocked her way.
“You want to protect that thing?”
“This is our home. She provides for us.”
“A compulsion? Of course.”
Without warning, Ieva brought the pin down on the man’s head. He dropped to the floor and another took his place, only to be felled by another swing of her arm. Some of the children ran screaming, while others clawed at her legs. She kicked them away with only the slightest twinge of guilt.
The creature sat and watched Ieva’s steady approach, inky eyes giving no clue to the thoughts in its head.
“You call me a monster, but how much blood is on your hands? You’re not even human.”
“I’m mostly human.
Behind her, adults and children sprawled on the stone floor, unconscious or nursing broken noses, bruised eyes and bumped heads. Ieva ignored their moans. Her mouth watered in anticipation. The monster in the chair didn’t try to flee; it laughed, harsh, rasping laughs. Twisting the handle, she pulled a concealed blade from the rolling pin. Even as the knife pierced its throat, the creature didn’t stop laughing. Not until Ieva had drained the last drop of its blood.
She wiped her mouth on her sleeve, well-satisfied with this harvest. And she’d done a good deed, ridding the Baltic coast of a monster. Mystery Tours might be disappointed, but never again would a family lose a loved one.
Ieva retrieved the amber, not surprised to see the image of the beach had disappeared. A crack ran through it, and it broke easily in her hand. Sighing, she realized she’d have to take the hard way home. The creature’s magic had died along with it – apart from the traces thrumming through her body, its blood mingling with her own. She wondered how long the palace would stay standing, and how long it would take her to get home.
Quiet sobs interrupted her thoughts. A woman rocked back and forth, a baby swaddled in her arms. The other adults – those who could stand – gathered the children and whispered reassurances. They all steered well clear of Ieva.
Pity, she couldn’t take them with her, but Ieva had no doubt she’d made the right choice. She stepped past without a backward glance, squashing any sense of guilt.
Ieva gasped as her lungs started working. She heaved up salt water, spitting it out on the damp sand. Purple seaweed stuck to her hair. Despite the warmth of the July sun, she was cold. Deathly cold. She’d only died once before, and it was just as unpleasant as she remembered. Two lives left now. Hopefully, she wouldn’t have to waste another one on drowning.
Her backpack was sadly missing. She’d have to ask her mother for another one of her special rolling pins, even if it meant a lecture.
A huge mass of muscle and hair crashed into her. Ieva laughed and spluttered as Rokis licked her face with enthusiasm.
“Guess we won’t be getting our deposit back after all?” She buried her face in his fur, then used his support to get to her feet. As they walked along the beach, she stared out to sea, unseeing.
“Time to go home.”